Sketches on Atheism

You are here. This is not a dream

JTFIn 1987 the mutual fund billionaire, Sir John Templeton, made US$1.1 billion available to finance what was, and still is for all intentional purposes, a search to locate and confirm the existence of god. In the twenty-five years since the funds were released and grants began to be awarded (including the annual £1,100,000 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, renamed in 2001 the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities) this effort and its kitty of now US$2.5 billion has returned precisely zero positive results… and for very good reason. Presenting the case for something that doesn’t exist is a relatively easy trick; storytellers have been inventing and directing impossibly fantastic creatures since time immemorial. Demonstrating something that doesn’t exist is outrageously more difficult; a problematic swim through an unaccommodating ocean filled with a million and one dream-wrecking snapping turtles that are not easily navigated by even the most skilful of tale-spinners. Proving something that doesn’t exist is, however, manifestly impossible, and this unshakable truism has wreaked havoc with even the most reckless (and well-funded) of Christian apologists determined to find something (anything) with which to validate their entirely unjustified belief in an exclusively undetectable being.

BooksNow far from me to lampoon sincere (privately funded) inquiry, and despite well-deserved criticism concerning the Templeton Foundations more underhanded motives to covertly tie real science to unfounded religious folly, Sir John’s core vision was at the very least honourable. “Big Questions” (one of the foundations catchphrases) should never be shied away from and no one should ever be censured for searching for answers no matter how large, small or ludicrous the query. To chastise privately funded work would be out of order, and if researchers and institutions like Oxford and the Mayo Clinic accept the foundations money then they accept it knowing what they’re participating in: an attempt to legitimise superstition and keep it treading water long after it should have been allowed to drown. As Dr. Sean Carroll of Cal Tech noted, “the entire purpose of the Templeton Foundation is to blur the line between straightforward science and explicitly religious activity, making it seem like the two enterprises are part of one big undertaking.” They’re not, but in the spirit of good science, spending millions over ten years to conclude beyond a shadow of a doubt that intercessory prayer has absolutely no effect whatsoever on patients undergoing heart surgery is worthwhile to the point of perhaps signing off on that superstitious chapter in human development. Instead of wasting funds on a new chapel hospital’s may now confidently re-direct that money to more worthwhile (tangible) things which directly address wellbeing like rehabilitation wings, dialysis machines, or even new gardens where patients and their families can lose themselves… if not only for a few hours.

Deep Space Climate Observatory, DSCOVR

Deep Space Climate Observatory, DSCOVR

Gardens, not prayer, work at improving the human condition, and if by “spirituality” we mean reverence to something larger (and yet perhaps more fragile) than ourselves then there is without question a certain spirituality in any designed landscape. In many ways a single non-designed natural green acre in fact realises Templeton’s larger ambitions better than a thousand theological essays which try to “read the mind of God,” as claimed by the 2008 Templeton Prize winner, the Polish priest and cosmologist, Michael Heller. Reading the mind of god was, no doubt, what Templeton thought his money would buy, but after hundreds of millions of dollars spent chasing phantoms wrapped in lies Sir John died (in 2008) further from his god than he could ever have perhaps imagined. He did not find his spiritual reality, but he could have, and all it would have taken was this magnificent piece of handcrafted technological wonder: the Deep Space Climate Observatory, DSCOVR. First proposed in 1998 under the name Triana the DSCOVR was slotted for launch by NASA in 2003 but was mothballed by a Bush administration determined not to let the bird fly. Had it flown the DSCOVR would have been the first earth observation satellite placed at Lagrangian point L1; SOHO-L1-langrange-point1-400x220a gravity-neutral spot 1.6 million kilometres above earth, a thousand times higher than any existing climate satellite, four-times further out than the moon where it would gaze back on our world, seeing not just hemispheres or the gorgeous curved lip of the globe as viewed from the ISS, but the earth as a whole. From this astonishing vantage, a sight unseen since the last manned missions to the moon, it would not only measure the planets changing albedo (an audit impossible with low earth orbit satellites but essential to resolve the planets total energy budget) but also transmit back to the surface a continuous live video feed of the sunlit face of our home world accessible to all households, classrooms and office cubicles for free.

EarthThe DSCOVR needs to fly, and there’s a chance it will. The project was reanimated by the Obama administration and a tentative 2015 launch date on board one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets has been named. Something as important as the DSCOVR should never, however, be touched by politics and if the goal of the Templeton Foundation is to understand the human condition by establishing the foundations of reality (spiritual or not) then no other project better fits this objective. The DSCOVR needs to fly to perform the climate science the Bush administration didn’t want it to perform, but even more importantly it needs to fly so our species can for the first time in our clumsy (still juvenile) 6,600 generation-long history get an actual permanent sense of locality burnt into our consciousness. This will not be some clever animation or reproduction of 41 year old Apollo stock footage, rather a real time view of the rotating earth framed against the vastness of space; a sight which Apollo 8 astronaut, Bill Anders, described as “[seeing the earth] like a Christmas tree ornament lit up in space, fragile-looking.”

Anders was one of the first humans to experience what is now called the “Overview Effect;” a paradigmatic shift in consciousness which is, at its simplest, the sudden and transformative recognition that we live on a planet. “The sheer beauty of it just brought tears to my eyes. If people can see Earth from up here, see it without those borders, see it without any differences in race or religion, they would have a completely different perspective. Because when you see it from that angle, you cannot think of your home or your country. All you can see is one Earth.”

Granted, no matter how good a camera and its lenses it is no substitute for a set of eyes hardwired to a brain, but for just 1% of the their total cash reserve the Templeton Foundation could have made the DSCOVR, and all that it represents, a reality in 2003. Gifting humanity even a partial, technologically-assisted  Overview Effect might not be the scientifically-confirmed (god-endowed) spiritual realism Sir John Templeton had hoped for but there is surely nothing more singularly important to our species than being shown precisely where we are in the universe; for without knowing where we are (without seeing it in real time) it is impossible to even begin to know who we are, and knowing who we are tells us where we want to go, and knowing where we want to go ultimately determines the value we, as a species, place on things.


That, Sir John, is where the Big Answers reside.

And so the question facing the Templeton Foundation and their billions of research dollars is this: what is more truthful and ultimately more powerful; A child spending thirty minutes knowingly praying to nothing for no result, or that same child spending thirty minutes gazing awestruck at the earth rotating slowly 1.6 million kilometres away, knowing that they and everything they love and hold dear is down on that blue-white marbled planet at that very moment?

“Suddenly, you get a feeling you’ve never had before, that you’re an inhabitant of Earth” (Cosmonaut Oleg Makarov)

87 thoughts on “You are here. This is not a dream

    • Jack Templeton, John’s son. He took over in 1995. There’s some really, really good articles about the foundations sneaky attempts to link religion to science by essentially “buying” the illusion. Even The American Association for the Advancement of Science accepted $1 million to create “The AAAS Dialogue on Science and Religion” which physicist, Robert Park of the University of Maryland described as designed only to give “the illusion that science and religion are finding common ground.”


  1. I loved your discussion of the Templeton Prize. However, I’m always slightly uneasy for things being criticised for not being something else. Personally, I think the Templeton money could have been put to better use, but the man made his choice and there it is. No doubt funding space travel so we could actually see the earth from space for ourselves would be an even more life affirming outcome than anything DSCOVR will give us, but it’s not what he chose. Personally, I’m quite happy that someone is scientifically investigating such things as whether prayer works or not. Though it could have been done a lot cheaper!


    • Oh, I agree with you. Privately funded research, his choice, no question there. I actually think it was honourable, although sneakily trying to give the illusion that science and religion are best-bed-buddies is wrong. People should search things out… the more strange and fantastic the better. My point was ultimately that for just 1% of the TF’s funds something actually brilliant and tangible could have been achieved. Classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees.


      • Yes, couldn’t agree more. It’s like that woman who left a poetry magazine $100 million. It actually left them with a problem – it was too much money and they had no idea how to handle it. These sorts of over-funded legacies just breed problems.


      • I have just read your lovely ”In your face, asshole”” comment to chicagoja and his mind numbing obtuse answer. I was laughing so much I nearly fell off my chair.
        “What scientists have told me….” er..exactly which scientists were these I wonder?
        WTF. Which primeval pool of slime do these nitwits crawl out of?
        His beliefs are not based on ideology? LMFAO.
        Sorry, you can delete this as its off topic and might distract from such a great post. ‘
        I, like Tildeb, am banned there also,
        He is better than PeW


      • No doubt, he’s an expert at picking a line through reality and just shutting everything out. Prove him dead-wrong on one point and he sidesteps by dismissing it as not important. Funny guy. I just told Tildeb that there’s nothing you can do with that type of wilful ignorance except perhaps enjoy watching the mental gymnastics… for free, mind you! 🙂


    • Ha! John Templeton actually insisted the Templeton Prize always award more money than the Nobel Prize. He was certainly determined to “persuade” real scientists to essentially waste their time.


  2. I don’t know, if you replace the word prayer with ‘dream’ then who are we to gainsay such a practise if that ‘dream’ is to see a view of the beautiful Earth from space? Neither are really that different, except for the point of focus.
    However, I too find the notion of funding a search for God utterly preposterous. Did you watch the Derren Brown show about faith-healers? The John Templeton Foundation kind of smacks of the same does it not?
    I also happen to agree that if spirituality is to be found in anything then it’ll be in those experiences that lift the heart and make you smile, nothing more life affirming than that.
    Marvellously written piece by the way, I would say I’m your biggest fan, but that just isn’t true 😉


    • Don’t get me wrong; I think people should research such things with private money. In fact, I think its vital. Far more to be said for an organisation that actually gets dirty finding out they’re wrong than some dick televangelist spouting nonsense. A criticism I have with the TF is their ulterior motives. Plus, the TF isn’t exactly honest. The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) had to be leaked. When the researchers submitted their findings (which actually showed a negative result… prayer made things worse in people who knew they were being prayed for) the TF obviously didn’t want that made public so they shut it up. Fortunately the results were emailed out so the TF was essentially forced to put it up on public display… for a fee! Bastards.

      Yes, “spirituality” can and should be found in anything. The religious have hijacked the word and it’s now past time we humanists reclaimed it.


      • That is what strikes me about Christianity in particular, and possibly what was the contributing instrument of my disbelief, was the sheer propensity for conning people out of their money for very little return.
        Hang on, you are asking me to engage with you in a physical and material manner, based on a hypothetical whim of spirituality that has no physical or fiscal return whatsoever? Hmmm. And then you tell me that prayer is powerful even though I’m still poor and your rich? Prayer is powerful indeed, especially when it lines the coffers of the persons telling you to pray!

        However, you can’t help feeling that the investors of STEP had actually been involved in a wager to see if they would manage to prove anything or not. Secretly they must have all been aware that the researchers were going to come up empty handed on this one. So it makes you wonder why they invested at all, what was in it for them?
        Call me a cynic. People never invest money without expecting some kind of return, and I really doubt that proving that prayer works would have been so much of a motivator. I bet they all felt really stupid when the results were leaked though.

        You are of course right, we humanists should reclaim the term spirituality, in fact we ought to change it to something that encompasses the mental/emotional faculties with the physical, and stop disassociating them full stop. What would that word be?
        Ooh, I know… being completely HUMAN.


  3. John, as always, absolutely marvellous article! However, in keeping with the title of your article, the earth is only 153 million kilometres from the sun, so if L1 was 160 million km away, that would make the satellite, or L1 on the other side of the sun, and would most surely upset physicists everywhere. If L1 is 4 times the distance from the moon, it should be about 640,000 km away, which is 160,000 km away if my astronomical memory is correct. That minor typo aside, this is, as usual, a great read that has expanded my small mind just a little bit more.


  4. Of what possible use is an Earth image in the search for the unearthly? Wait, maybe they’ll get a shot of Heaven! Think about it, photos of Heaven and the Sasquatch and Elvis . . . The Temp Found should do this.


  5. Of course God exists~!

    a. It’s in the Bible, so it’s the bible truth; it’s literally gospel. (Sheesh~!)

    b. The universe is all around us—God made it. (What more proof could anyone possibly want?) Think about it—the pyramids prove there were builders, no? The Boulder Dam? New York? The universe?

    c. The Pope says so—and he’s nice. He wouldn’t fib. Not in his job description.

    d. And now, you atheist swine … just YOU prove (go on!) that God doesn’t exist~!

    There. Gotcha. That didn’t take long (and where do I go to claim my billion?)


  6. If nobody could come up with a proof or evidence despite such a financial incentive, that means strong evidence against the existence of god. All those people claiming to know could not claim any of this money. From that view, this foundation achieved something.


    • 25 years of outstanding success in proving nothing, and really not turning over any new soil. The 2008 winner of the Templeton Prize simply regurgitated the Kalam Cosmological Argument.


  7. “A child spending thirty minutes knowingly praying to nothing for no result”

    I spent thirty minutes down on the floor
    The good lord for to please
    I prayed for knowledge and insight
    And would he cure all amputees

    I implored him with sincerity
    To rid the world of disease
    And knew he would do as I asked
    ‘Cause I’m one of his devotees

    Each and every request I made
    He could fulfill in a breeze
    But nary a word I heard from him
    Prayer only gave me skinned up knees


  8. Why do you suppose the Bush administration prevented the DSCOVR launch? Was it just to save money (they did spend a lot in one particular other project and I do not mean the hurricane catastrophy aid), or were they affraid it would provide new information about the causes of climate change?


  9. This was easily my favorite piece of writing from you.

    “Gardens, not prayer, work at improving the human condition, and if by “spirituality” we mean reverence to something larger (and yet perhaps more fragile) than ourselves then there is without question a certain spirituality in any designed landscape.”

    Fantastic. If the Templeton Foundation actually funded something like DSCOVR, I’d be truly shocked and filled with hope. For if an organization like that could look past itself, even for a moment, we would have tangible proof that humanity has a chance to right the ship.


    • Cheers, my learned friend.

      Unfortunately they won’t fund something like it… far too practical, far too real for them. The further i researched into them the more disallusioned i became. I told someone above, the 2008 prize winner won for rehashing the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I mean, seriously…


      • First, why have you forsaken me? I have to type my information in to comment on your blog.

        Second, people are constantly rehashing the Kalam Cosmological. WLC is a proponent of that version, if I’m not mistaken. Perhaps he will be the next Templeton winner… if he’s not already. 😉


  10. Pingback: The Overview Effect: Insights From Astronauts | boldcorsicanflame's Blog

  11. Very informative, John.

    I had completely forgotten about the DSCOVR project. Too bad a decade’s worth of valuable scientific research was stymied by a group of incompetent religious boobs while private money chased/chases mythological explanations to modern problems. What a sad state of affairs.


    • Cheers, Ken. Interesting theory, but a little far fetched. I don’t think the Roman Empire was all that bothered by the Jews. Their numbers were tiny and most were Hellenized and posed no problems. As far as I know (which isn’t that much) for the first part of the 1st century Roman soldiers were only found around Caesarea Maratima where the Roman procurator lived. The soldiers in and around greater Palestine were provincial auxiliary forces. If the Romans were really bothered by the Jews (and thought them a threat) they’d have legions based there. Instead their 9 legions in the east were mostly in (modern) northern Syria and Turkey. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how Atwill’s ideas are received.


    • Oh, don’t get me wrong… I think there’s something to his theory. I just don’t see it as being to subdue the Jews. They just weren’t that important or threatening. They produced nothing, traded nothing that we’re aware of, had no natural resources to speak of, and certainly weren’t considered great statesmen or thinkers. Where the truth lurks might be more in Constantine seeing the political worth of promoting a “turn the other cheek” “Pay Cesar” savior for the eastern empire as a whole. I was reading yesterday that Rome had about 50,000 gods on its books by the close of the 2nd century. We could therefore just be looking at the first business consolidation exercise 🙂


  12. The proof for Sir John Templeton will be if he arrives at the pearly gates. However, he might have a better chance of getting through if he had dedicated his trust to doing “god’s work” than in attempting to prove god’s existence to others.


    • In all honesty, Quack, your Tuesday morning and Friday evening “theories” are generally awful, but your Monday, Wednesday and especially Sunday “theories” (particularly those had around 3.15pm on prime number dates) are worthy of species-wide praise.

      Make a submission. Let’s see where this ride goes.


      • Professor, you just displayed your ignorance. ALL my “theories” are awful! Hahaha.

        But I will definitely look into this. With the right amount of “inspiration” I can come up with something grand, no doubt. Just have to make sure it’s on a prime number day….


  13. I have seen your avatar here and there, don’t know how I have missed this blog for as long as I have. I’ll have you followed in a moment.

    Nice post. Tis a shame the Templeton $ is being gobbled up by every halfwit with a half thought, on how to make science and religion make nice, instead of actually accomplishing something substantial in this world. Damn shame.

    …darnit, I don’t like the follow with e-mail notification thing, but I have figured out how to add a blog to the reader manually. So no biggie.


    • Welcome!

      Learning what doesn’t work is as good as discovering what does, but yeah, a few pennies into projects that would actually produce something positive (like DSCVR) would be nice. A balanced approach… they could even found the Buddhist then to measure the Yin and Yang 🙂


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