Creating a new science of the soul

Faith: With the backing of Sir John Templeton, researchers look for discoveries in abstract ideas using scientific methods.

Medicine & Science

March 31, 2003|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Can a small rodent known as the prairie vole, caring for her cub, tell us anything about the health benefits of parental love?

Did people with a deep sense of spirituality suffer less trauma from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, than others?

Can the feuding Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda ever reconcile after the brutal massacre of hundreds of thousands during the country's civil war?

Thanks to a millionaire investor turned religious philanthropist, researchers are pursuing answers to these questions and others involving abstract notions such as love, forgiveness and spiritual transformation.

To the dismay of some scientists, who question their premises and results, they are using the methods employed in medicine, chemistry and physics.

"Nobody that I've ever heard of denies the existence of love, and nobody denies that love is a spiritual subject," said Sir John Templeton, founder of the foundation carrying his name. "But there has been almost zero high quality science performed on the origins of love, the nature of love, the varieties of love, the benefits of love."

Templeton, still an energetic advocate at age 90, said his philanthropy is fueled by what he perceives as a lack of innovation and entrepreneurial outlook among the world's religions.

He witnessed that lack of dynamism during four decades as a trustee of Princeton Theological Seminary, where he couldn't recall seeing anything resembling a religious discovery. Religion, he said, tends to cling to tradition and dogma, and resists progress.

"If you had a problem and went to your priest, you would expect him to take out the Bible, 2,000 years old and give you good advice," he said. "But the next day you have a physical problem and you go to your medical doctor, and he takes out the book of Hippocrates to give you medical advice, you'd probably go to a new doctor."

Templeton was born in the hills of Tennessee, went off to college at Yale, studied at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and made his fortune investing millionaires' money in the stock market. A naturalized British citizen who lives in Nassau, the Bahamas, Templeton was knighted for his philanthropy in 1987.

Three decades ago, the lifelong Presbyterian decided to apply his entrepreneurial approach to investment in the other passion in his life: his faith in God. He created the $1 million Templeton Prize, an annual award for research in the spirtual realm that he mandated should always be worth more than the Nobel Prizes.

But that wasn't enough. In 1987 he founded the John Templeton Foundation, based in a suburb of Philadelphia, which annually awards $20 million to $30 million to fund spiritual research. Since 1992, when he sold his mutual fund empire for more than $900 million, he has devoted himself full time to his philanthropic endeavors.

The foundation finances conferences that bring together scientists and theologians, awards grants to medical schools to develop courses in spirituality and has bankrolled research into the healing effects of prayer.

One of its more intriguing grants was a $4 million endowment to establish the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, based at the Case Western Reserve University medical school in Cleveland.

Last year, the institute awarded its first round of 21 grants. Among the recipients is a University of Illinois neurobiologist who is examining the hormonal response of female prairie voles to their cubs.

C. Sue Carter intends to show that such interaction boosts levels of a hormone called oxytocin, which produces a neural and emotional state that promotes social bonding and reduces stress factors. The findings, she said, could suggest methods to prevent and treat illness in the brain and body.

Other researchers want to study the motivation of volunteers in faith-based organizations and the relationship between spirituality and post-traumatic stress syndrome after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Stephen G. Post, an ethicist and president of the Unlimited Love institute, said he hopes to encourage a more positive outlook in medical and other scientific research.

"Most of science is focused on human deficits, the disease model," he said. "If I had my way, maybe a third of [scientific research funding] would be on a positive paradigm, and two-thirds on a deficit or disease paradigm."

The Templeton Foundation also received attention for a $3 million seed grant in 1997 that helped to create A Campaign For Forgiveness Research, a nonprofit based in Richmond, Va.

Templeton funded about half of the group's 29 studies on the social and health benefits of letting go of grudges.

Several of the studies deal with forgiveness in families, particularly between parents and children, and among married couples who have experienced a betrayal, such as adultery.

Other studies look at forgiveness on a national or tribal level: A University of Massachusetts researcher is examining the possibility of forgiveness among groups of Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda.

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