Sir John’s Divine Gamble
The Lord is my banker; my credit is good.
He maketh me to lie down in the consciousness of omnipresent abundance;
He giveth me the key to His strongbox.
He restoreth my faith in His riches;
He guideth me in the paths of prosperity for His Name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk in the very shadow of debt, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me;
Thy silver and Thy gold, they secure me.
Thou preparest a way for me in the presence of the collector;
Thou fillest my wallet with plenty; my measure runneth over.
Surely goodness and plenty will follow me all the days of my life, And I shall do business in the name of the Lord forever.
-Charles Fillmore, 1915
Unity Village, Missouri, lies in the great grassy bosom of America. The air is moist, and the roots of the trees make waves in the green parks and lawns. Letters, faxes, email, and phone calls find their way to Unity Village from all over the world, containing pleas for health and prosperity, for redemption from sins, for power over bad habits, and for the banishment of anxiety and negative thoughts. In the center of the quiet campus of the Unity School of Christianity, under a high cupola where a light burns 24 hours a day, the small staff of the school’s prayer service, Silent Unity, makes sure that every request is prayed for and – unless anonymity is requested – acknowledged with a note. This ongoing prayer service is free, nonsectarian, more than 100 years old, and the subject of its first rigorous, multiyear, double-blind scientific test.
Belief in the ability of prayer to affect events has been a mainstay of religion forever, and has at times provoked scientific curiosity. Silent Unity is one of four prayer groups providing subjects for research on the effect of intercessory prayer on health, a study originally funded two and a half years ago. Supervised by Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School, the study may revolutionize science, since there is no known mechanism for prayer-induced healing. On the other hand, it is possible that the Benson study will reveal no correlation, which would dishearten the staff of the prayer ministry.
You might think that this objective investigation into religious faith is being funded by a provocative, antireligious debunker eager to show, once and for all, that the belief in prayer is, as Freud suggested, a product of our superstitious overvaluation of the magic of words. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Benson study is funded by Sir John Templeton, one of the most successful mutual fund managers in the history of the modern stock market, and a devoted Christian philanthropist. Templeton is a big fan of the Unity School’s service-oriented approach, and he would like to help the school succeed by giving it access to valid information about its performance. Dozens of similar studies have been supported by Templeton’s charitable foundation, which is devoted to exploring the measurable consequences of spiritual ideas.
Templeton has no fear that his effort to put religion on a more scientific basis might discourage the prayer staff at the Unity School or cause broader damage to faith. Quite the opposite: He believes that religions should adjust their doctrines to adapt to new discoveries. “He may appear as a very conservative gentleman,” says physicist Paul Davies, “but he is a tremendous radical.”
The philanthropist disagrees: “I wouldn’t call it radical; I would call it enthusiasm for progress.”
Templeton is certain that when we look closely at the rites and doctrines of the world’s religions, we will discover marvelous techniques for attaining human well-being. The world’s great faiths, says Sir John, teach their adherents to be generous, temperate, and optimistic, to remain calm in the face of trouble, and to have no fear of death. Templeton hopes that new research can prove the utilitarian value of spiritual knowledge and spark the development of pragmatic and perhaps even technological aids to enlightenment. With a serene rationalism that is more challenging to his fellow Presbyterians than to his scientific friends, Sir John is devoting his accumulated fortune to this profound 18th-century question: Can universal happiness be engineered?
Templeton’s father was a Tennessee businessman and his grandfather was a Confederate Army surgeon; Sir John has retained his courtly, border-state manners. But he has met with some frustration in the institutions of established religion, and he does not hesitate to level sharp criticism. “I served for 42 years on the board of trustees of the largest Presbyterian seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary,” he says. “And we had brilliant people, teachers and students both, but they did not come up with many new concepts. They weren’t invited to come up with new concepts. Anybody who had come up with a new concept would have been under suspicion for being out of step with the tradition or out of step with the teachings of the church.”
Although at 86 Sir John still wears the dark blue suit of Wall Street and projects an easy conformity, he believes that in the field of religion too much conservatism is counterproductive: “Suppose you went to your priest and asked for help – he would refer you to the Bible,” he says in the measured tone of an experienced explainer. “But if you went the next day to your medical doctor, and he referred you to the book of Hippocrates, which was written at about the same time as the Bible, you would think that was old-fashioned.”
Most modern Christian theologians value science – including the Darwinian life sciences – as a method for illuminating the nature of the material world, but they do not look for scientifically accelerated progress in the effectiveness of faith. Sir John wishes they would look again. “I’m really convinced that our descendants a century or two from now will look back at us with the same pity that we have toward the people in the field of science two centuries ago,” he says. “If spiritual leaders would begin to use scientific research, experimental scientific research, there is no reason we couldn’t multiply spiritual information like we have multiplied scientific information.”
Few churches have responded to the suggestion that they reform their doctrines with the help of science. Sir John acknowledges that most religious denominations, and most religious individuals, would reject the notion that the essential doctrines of their faith could be improved or amended through research. He intends to meet this resistance head-on. In order to have solid evidence to back up the campaign, Sir John is committed to funding the relevant science himself. “We expect to spend about $40 million next year,” he says, “and that is probably more than has been spent on research into spiritual information in history.
“Three of my children are medical doctors,” he continues. “They know at least a hundred times as much about your body as my grandfather knew, but they don’t know much more about your soul than he did.” Sir John has a billion dollars, but it will not be easy for him to convince scientists to focus their attention on religious matters. This sum is minuscule in comparison with the combined budgets and endowments of the world’s major research institutes, and there is an additional handicap: Most scientists view religious claims as essentially unscientific.
The Templeton Foundation is acting simultaneously on several fronts, attempting to locate the places where a strategic infusion of support can have the most effect on the larger scientific community. Money flows to conferences on the relation between science and religion, and to professors in the history and sociology of science. Most important, the foundation makes direct grants to scientists whose research promises to buttress or undermine important religious claims about human destiny and the nature of the cosmos. The foundation is in the middle of a major fund-raising drive cochaired by, among others, Jimmy Carter and South African archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The scientific-review and grant-award process at the Templeton Foundation is run by Charles Harper, an Oxford-trained planetary scientist specializing in star and planet formation who has a degree in theology. Harper himself is an Evangelical Christian; the scientists who apply to the foundation for support, though, are not required to state their religious beliefs, or to have any. The only requirement is that they design research that addresses the great themes of spiritual life, such as ritual, prayer, charity, and faith. For instance, Christians are commanded by the Gospels to forgive, but can forgiveness be measured? Are there quantifiable benefits to be gained from turning the other cheek? Does renunciation of violence and revenge have genetic and neurochemical components that can be understood, and perhaps improved?
One of Templeton’s grantees, Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University neurobiologist and MacArthur award winner, is using the foundation’s money to study an unusual cultural mutation in a troop of baboons. Fifteen years ago Sapolsky observed a baboon troop in Kenya that suffered a demographic catastrophe. All the aggressive males of the troop made a dangerous crossing to a garbage dump near a tourist lodge, ate contaminated food, and died. Today, the troop is different: less ruthless and hierarchical, and, as confirmed by Sapolsky’s blood tests on the male baboons, much less stressed out. Since the die-off, the troop has been restocked with males, but the new males have somehow absorbed a kinder, gentler baboon culture. Sapolsky is trying to figure out how a sudden decrease in violence-related stress has been translated into an enduring social transformation.
Sapolsky’s baboon research was supported by a Guggenheim foundation for many years, and when that funding dried up the well-known neurobiologist – who describes himself as an “unbudgeable atheist” – turned to Templeton. Sir John was intrigued by the clues these more peaceable baboons might offer to their primate cousins, whose often violent and rivalrous nature has created so much suffering.
Direct efforts to transform social life among Homo sapiens are also attracting Templeton’s interest. For instance, Jeffrey Sonis, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan, is conducting a three-year study of the psychology of victims of human rights violations who testified during the hearings held by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The head of the hearings, Archbishop Tutu, has made the religious dimensions of the truth commission explicit: He describes the new South Africa as a miracle that owes its existence to a process of forgiveness and reconciliation that benefits everybody. Sonis – and Templeton – would like to know whether this claim is true. “There have been about 15 truth commissions in different countries,” says Sonis, “but not a shred of scientific research to find out what happens to the victims.” Sonis will be comparing the psychological states of victims who appeared before the commission and those who did not. As part of the study, he will attempt to apply the Enright Forgiveness Index, used to measure the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of individuals toward their offenders, to the victims in South Africa. “What does forgiveness do for them?” Sonis asks. “Does it make things worse by stirring up old memories? Does it encourage hope?”
Not everything Templeton is curious about has received the imprimatur of mainstream scientists and scientific institutions. Of all his convictions, the philanthropist’s strong belief that the power of prayer is demonstrable offers the greatest potential for embarrassment. Such investigations have been dogged by failure. Larry Dossey, in his best-selling book on prayer and medicine, Healing Words, reviews this discouraging history back to 1872, when Sir Francis Galton pointed out that neither clergy, supposed to be the prayingest of people, nor royalty, supposed to be among the most prayed-for, lived longer or more healthful lives than their nonpraying, non-prayed-for compatriots. Nor do prayers for male offspring in India or China, where such prayers are common, seem to affect male-female birth ratios.
One of the best-known prayer studies, whose results were published in the Southern Medical Journal in 1988, was carried out by Randolph Byrd in a coronary-care unit at San Francisco General Hospital. Three hundred ninety-three patients were randomly assigned by a computer to two groups: one that was prayed for and one that was not. Over the course of 10 months, home-prayer groups of believing Christians prayed daily for “a rapid recovery and for prevention of complications and death.” Each patient was prayed for by five to seven Christians. Byrd’s study drew widespread notice because it appeared to produce positive results, with the patients who were prayed for showing less need for antibiotics and proving less vulnerable to certain cardiac problems.
However, in the decade since Byrd’s report was published, its conclusions have been undermined by criticisms both of its design and of its statistical analysis, and few scientists have been tempted to retrace Byrd’s steps. Recently, the Templeton Foundation succeeded in recruiting Benson, head of the Harvard-affiliated Mind-Body Medical Institute, to try again. Benson is not anxious to share the details of his research before publication, but he has said that the prayer study is a multiyear project involving hundreds of cardiac patients at many medical centers. Harper says the study should be complete by late 1999. Silent Unity’s prayer teams are participating in the study, presumably praying for distant patients who have no knowledge that prayers for them are being said.
Ironically, this sort of research threatens to despiritualize religion, transforming divine answers to prayers into merely the physiological consequences of beneficial mental states. Harper, at the Templeton Foundation, believes that it should be possible to pinpoint the parts of the brain that are active during worship, and to help figure out how to enhance the activity of these religious organs. “You can basically look at somebody like Mother Teresa,” says Harper, “and make testable hypotheses about how a religious conviction develops into a habit of mind and then becomes programmed into very specific circuits in the brain.” These studies can lead to better spiritual technologies, including, perhaps, neurochemical aids. After all, anybody who prays regularly knows that it is easier some days than others. Why shouldn’t Eli Lilly and Merck compete to produce drugs that stimulate religious concentration?
The scope of possible scientific research into spirituality and happiness is outlined in a book published by the Templeton Foundation called Worldwide Laws of Life: 200 Eternal Spiritual Principles. Compiled by Sir John himself, this compendium of religious and ethical maxims ranges from “The unexamined life is not worth living” to “Crime doesn’t pay.” There is no attempt to enforce consistency. Nietzsche shares the volume with Henry Ford; Johnny Mercer’s “Accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative” sits happily next to the Asian proverb “All sunshine makes a desert.” The point is to catalog the human history of uplifting sentiment, which can be applied pragmatically while awaiting definitive results.
Harper points out that this sort of popular philosophy is at least quasi-religious in its assertions about human nature and destiny, and at least potentially scientific, because its claims about cognition, health, behavior, and quantifiable economic outcomes can be rigorously tested. “Say you just graduated from college in sales,” says Harper. “You look down the table and there’s this other guy who is really optimistic and upbeat and has great rapport with the customer, and he’s selling a heck of a lot of shoes. You are still reading Stendahl novels, and you are not selling so many shoes. So you stick in a cassette tape while you are commuting, and you stick these maxims in your mind, and, lo and behold, it helps!
“If you talk to successful business leaders, you find that a lot of what comes out of their mouths are these pithy little aphorisms. It gives them an incredible edge. This is the challenge we are bringing to science – what is the mechanism behind it?”
Businessmen have long used comforting maxims as a guide to success. Flaubert compiled a dictionary of commonplaces that his contemporaries recited to keep themselves in tune with prosperous society, and Harper cites Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac as an important milestone on the route to homiletic salvation. But the best example – or at least the one closest to hand – is Sir John himself, who credits his charisma and good nature to a spiritual regimen of prayer, charity, and positive thinking.
It is pleasing, in an amateur-historical sort of way, to discover that behind the religious and scientific optimism of the Templeton Foundation is the same irresistible force that shook up the French court in the days of the Enlightenment and that made Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia bustle: the unflagging, energetic self-confidence of bankers and merchants, who find in their prosperity a reflection of cosmic benevolence.
Culturally, Sir John’s upbringing was auspicious, and his biography is perfect enough to appear almost an allegory of American pluck. His mother, Vella Handly Templeton, was a mainstay of the Cumberland, Tennessee, Presbyterian church, a leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and an enthusiastic reader of literature from the Unity School of Christianity, whose cofounder, Charles Fillmore, penned the prosperity-seeking adaptation of the 23rd Psalm that begins, “The Lord is my banker.” Fillmore preached a flexible doctrine centered on silent thanksgiving and affirmation, and his church was a small tributary of the powerful, anti-fundamentalist, success-oriented mainstream of modern American Christianity.
The Depression eliminated his family’s ability to pay college tuition, so Sir John earned his way through Yale by collecting scholarships, doing administrative work for the university, and beating his classmates in poker. Focused and cheerful despite his lack of funds, the impecunious Tennesseean rose to the top of his class, and went from there to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. He read law at Balliol College, then known as Red Balliol in honor of its socialist students and scholars, but remained uncontaminated by criticisms of capitalism. In 1936, with a fellow Oxford Christian named James Inksetter, Templeton toured 35 countries in seven months, including a six-day stop at the Olympics in Berlin and an adventurous tour of the Middle East, then under British control. In Palestine the young men visited places mentioned in the New Testament in connection with the disciples whose names they shared; and Templeton paid close attention to the practical conditions of life in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, gathering knowledge that would soon serve him well as an investor.
While Europe continued toward cataclysm, Templeton returned to America and found work as an investment counselor. He also began investing on his own account. He knew the coming war would cause industry to expand, so when Germany invaded Poland he borrowed $10,000 and invested $100 in every one of the stocks on the US market selling for under $1. Within a year, as the war spread, he had paid back his loan and was reaping a significant profit. By 1940, Templeton had his own investment firm, with its headquarters in Manhattan and its research department in cheap office space near his home in Englewood, New Jersey.
Templeton’s investment philosophy was to look for what he calls “the point of maximum pessimism” and accommodate anxious, panicky sellers by buying their stocks. At the other end of the market, he aided excited and acquisitive buyers by selling them the stocks they craved. “Buy low and sell high” is not an unusual theory, but Templeton was unusually successful with it. The Templeton Growth Fund, which he started in 1954, had an average annual return of 14.3 percent as of February 1999. An investor named Leroy Paslay put $65,500 into the fund at its inception. By 1996, Paslay’s shares were worth $37 million.
Human beings are suggestible, which is probably why so many of us can recite the axioms of market success yet fail in the implementation. One of the fundaments of Templeton’s career as an investor is a refusal to be bullied by public emotion. Paslay has described Sir John as unique in his ability to ignore enthusiastic trends. “He is the kind of guy who looks at something in an absolutely cold atmosphere and never got excited about anything,” Paslay once told the Palm Beach Post. “I never saw a man like that.”
What others might describe as cold-bloodedness, Templeton calls humility and faith. He opened every meeting of his investment company with a prayer, and he eschews greed. He was never interested in the kind of “momentum investing” that speculates on the madness of crowds and rides market highs to the highest height. He regularly sold stocks before the price peak. His goal was to find value in places that are generally scorned. Ten years after his first visit to Japan, when the country’s industries were ruined by war, Templeton found Japanese companies to invest in. When he opened his own firm, he was the only American investment counselor specializing in investing outside the United States. He always understood his investment strategies as a reflection of his spiritual confidence and flexibility: A calm optimism gave him courage when he went against the crowd, whether that crowd was greedily buying or fearfully selling.
Not needing the approval of others to buoy his spirits, Templeton was able to look far afield for values. “The other boys at Yale came from wealthy families, and none of them were investing outside the United States,” he remembers. “And I thought, ‘That is very egotistical. Why be so shortsighted or nearsighted as to focus only on America? Shouldn’t you be more open-minded?'”
“I have no quarrel with what I learned in the Presbyterian Church,” says Sir John, knighted in 1987. “But why shouldn’t I try to learn more?”
Templeton renounced his US citizenship and became a British subject in 1968 when he moved to the Bahamas. In 1992 he sold his mutual fund company, with assets of $22 billion, to Franklin Resources, a larger mutual fund group in San Mateo, California. By then Templeton had already been wealthy a long time and had had years of practice giving money away. In the mid-’80s, after discussing the proposal with Margaret Thatcher, he founded Templeton College, the first college at Oxford to offer graduate degrees in business. He was on the fund-raising committee to restore Westminster Abbey, and his name is spelled out on a pane of the new west window, below the queen’s coat of arms.
But Templeton, who was knighted in 1987, has devoted the main portion of his philanthropy to his interfaith, or, as he prefers, “open-minded” campaign for religious progress. To advertise the great importance of diverse religious traditions, he created the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and to stress that spiritual accomplishments are worth more than secular ones, he makes sure the cash value of the prize is always higher than that of the Nobel. The first prize was awarded to Mother Teresa, in 1973 – six years before she was recognized by the Nobel committee – and other recipients have included Baba Amte, a Hindu scholar and philanthropist; Lord Jakobovits, Britain’s chief rabbi; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; and Billy Graham. This year’s $1.2 million prize was awarded to Ian Barbour, a theologian and nuclear physicist. Templeton’s idea is that religious truth is not the exclusive property of any one tradition.
“I have no quarrel with what I learned in the Presbyterian Church,” he says. “I am still an enthusiastic Christian. But why shouldn’t I try to learn more? Why shouldn’t I go to Hindu services? Why shouldn’t I go to Muslim services? If you are not egotistical, you will welcome the opportunity to learn more.” With the same tone of irrefutable common sense that he must have brought to the clients of his investment-counseling company, Sir John suggests that a patient, highly diversified approach to religious truth will produce the best results over the long term.
On the other hand, devoting millions of dollars to scientific research into the effectiveness of spiritual remedies runs the risk of producing results. If science determines prayer is an effective technique for happiness and worldly success, then the next question is, What kind of prayer? Mild prayers or passionate ones? Ritual prayers or spontaneous ones? Catholic prayers or Jewish ones? Should one really eliminate the negative? Or does all sunshine make a desert?
“We hope that there will be nothing that conflicts with anybody’s religion or faith,” answers Sir John in the neutral tone of an expert poker player. “We would never say a person’s religion is not effective. We say, ‘Would you be interested in something more effective?’ We always put things in an optimistic, progressive perspective. ‘Do you want to make your prayers more effective? Not that they are not effective, but do you want to help them become more effective?'”
This pitch has appeal. Challenged to succeed in a competitive economy, we’re hungry for any methods that promise assistance. Sir John credits his good life to his obedience to universal laws, and to that font of goodness, the free market, from which all people can learn to draw sustenance.
Most of the great evangelists of practical Christianity, from Ben Franklin to Norman Vincent Peale, have identified prosperity as an outward sign of grace. “Effective” religion teaches us how to do well in life and relieves us of the taint of preterition.
“We would never say a person’s religion is not effective,” says Sir John. “We say, ‘Would you be interested in something more effective?'”
“It is a sin to be poor,” Charles Fillmore said without flinching.
More recently, George Gilder said of Sir John: “Contemplating his work and wealth is like entering a cathedral.”
Although Sir John is a Christian, this approach to religion makes little use of the story of the crucifixion, or of that aspect of Christianity that exalts a suffering and downhearted Son of God. The Templeton approach is designed to spur interest in the development of better methods of acquiring earthly salvation.
This research direction parallels mainstream medical efforts to identify the sources of the calm, productive temperament psychiatrists call hyperthymic. In his 1993 book Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer discusses the advantages possessed by hyperthymics in a capitalist economy and the problem this creates for our ideas of fairness. “That there are limits to human malleability is disturbing to our political tenets,” Kramer points out. “All men are created equal – at least in our political and moral ideal – but they are created biologically heterogeneous, in temperament, and in predisposition to a variety of specific traits that relate to temperament.” One goal of Sir John’s research is to turn up spiritual-scientific techniques that will make Prozac’s suppression of serotonin re-uptake seem primitive.
Capitalist hyperthymia could hardly have a better spokesman. Sir John retains into his ninth decade the personal traits that have made him a success: an elevated mood, resilience and social ease, mental agility, discipline, and unshakable faith. He is not prone to anxiety. As the market has been driven upward by manic optimism, he has been coolly selling his stocks. For a billionaire, his lifestyle is modest. He never flies first class, he drives his own car, and he lives year-round in a two-story home in the Nassau resort of Lyford Cay, with views over an emerald fairway and a sparkling beach. He seldom watches TV – except for Christian broadcasting – and he has no time for trivial consumerism. His associates and friends speak of him as having a kind of halo. “You are awed,” George Gilder has said, “by his radiance of goodness and faith. Contemplating his work and wealth is like entering a cathedral.”
The foundation’s Harper sees the development of scientifically enhanced religion as a new sort of victory for capitalism – not a purely economic triumph this time, but an ethical one: “The lesson of history is clear. The battle over the free market has been won. But I don’t think people feel capitalism is also the morally right way to do things.”
People of a literary bent leave behind autobiographies for the edification of posterity: “I have shown myself as I was,” said Rousseau in confiding the details of his triumphs and humiliations. But Sir John has little of that subjective vulnerability that makes the Rousseaus and even the Franklins of the world sympathetic – and old-fashioned. His dream of a rational religion may date from the 18th century, but his sensibility is futuristic. The great investor’s autobiography will be less personal than Rousseau’s; it will take the form of research papers published in peer-reviewed journals that study the optimistic religiosity that has shaped his inner life. In the hope that we all may someday benefit, he has donated his soul to science.
Wired, Issue 7.06, June, 1999