Sir John M. Templeton, a Tennessee-born investor and philanthropist who amassed a fortune in global stocks and gave away hundreds of millions of dollars to foster understanding in what he called “spiritual realities,” died on Tuesday in Nassau, the Bahamas, where he had lived for decades. He was 95.
The [Templeton] foundation awards the Templeton Prize, one of the world’s richest, and sponsors conferences and studies reflecting the founder’s passionate interest in “progress in religion” and “research or discoveries” on the nebulous borders of science and religion.
In a career that spanned seven decades, Sir John dazzled Wall Street, organized some of the most successful mutual funds of his time, led investors into foreign markets, established charities that now give away $70 million a year, wrote books on finance and spirituality and promoted a search for answers to what he called the “Big Questions” — realms of science, faith, God and the purpose of humanity.
Along the way, he became one of the world’s richest men, gave up American citizenship, moved to the Bahamas, was knighted by the Queen of England and bestowed much of his fortune on spiritual thinkers and innovators: Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, the physicist Freeman Dyson, the philosopher Charles Taylor and a pantheon of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus.
Inevitably, the Templeton charities engendered controversy. Critics called his “spiritual realities” a contradiction in terms, reflecting a fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. To many, the very idea of “progress” in religion seemed strange, and giving grants for “discoveries” in the field invited accusations that science was being manipulated to promote religion.
But Sir John was unmoved. A Yale graduate, a Rhodes Scholar, an audacious investor, a Presbyterian who preached open-mindedness and eschewed literal interpretations of Scripture, Sir John — who began annual meetings with prayers, he said, to clear the minds of shareholders — made billions as a pioneer in his globally diversified Templeton funds, often taking the old advice, “buy low, sell high,” to extremes.
Sir John sold the Templeton family of funds — scores of them with $13 billion in assets — in 1992, and turned to philanthropies that had engaged him for decades. While he was an elder of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), he took a broad view of spirituality, espousing non-literal views of heaven and hell and a shared divinity between humanity and God.
Contending that almost nothing of God was actually “known” through Scriptures and theology, he founded the Templeton Prize in 1972 to foster “progress in religion” — an idea that included philosophy and exemplary conduct relating to love, gratitude, forgiveness and creativity. He called it an effort to redress the fact that no Nobel Prize was given for religion.
Its first recipient, in 1973, was Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who received $85,000 for her charities. In the 35 years since, the prize, given in London, has grown to $1.6 million. And the criterion for it has been refined in recent years to encompass “progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities.”
The Templeton Foundation, based in West Conshohocken, Pa., was established in 1987 to administer the prize and promote “projects to apply scientific methodology to the study of religious subjects,” with room for theoretical physics, evolutionary biology, cognitive science and researches into love, human purpose and the nature and origin of religious beliefs. Today, with a $1.5 billion endowment, it largely sustains the controversial modern movement to reconcile science and religion.
Foundation projects have included a multimillion-dollar study of forgiveness, and a two-year study to demonstrate the effect of prayer on 600 patients about to undergo surgery.
Many critics contend that reconciling science and religion is not possible, and that studies to that end are naïve, quixotic or motivated by a desire to put religious beliefs on an equal footing with scientific knowledge.
-- Robert D. McFadden, covering the death of a serious pain-in-the-ass to critical thinkers (and anyone else with common sense) for the New York Times.