Perhaps the Templeton Foundation could hold a contest to pick a new term for persons who refuse to see the plainest facts before them.

I’d suggest, “the empirically challenged.”

These thoughts are spawned by the latest battle in the long-running war of a few fundamentalists against Templeton, a Pennsylvania foundation whose mission is to support science and “invest in the big questions.” The fundamentalists in question have a mission, too, or perhaps one should say they are missionaries of the “New Atheism.”

The plain fact from which they avert their eyes is the Templeton Foundation’s open-minded, good faith effort to “encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians.”

The latest evidence – overwhelming to any calm, rational observer – that Templeton is not some “nest of delusional religious apologists,” as science blogger P.Z. Myers put it, that is bent on corrupting unwary scientists and imposing theocracy, comes from The Nation, a proudly left-wing organ with no use for religion. It recently published a long investigation of Templeton that did have its raised-eyebrow moments, such as noting that the foundation has funded conservative think tanks and that its current head, Dr. Jack Templeton, son of founder Sir John Templeton, has used his personal funds to support conservative causes like privatizing Social Security and defending traditional marriage.

But author Nathan Schneider honestly reports that Dr. Templeton is scrupulous about separating his personal causes from the foundation (a fact Schneider corroborates with a prominent physicist and “self-described liberal”). Schneider also finds no evidence to disprove the claim by “nonreligious scientists who accept Templeton grants” that the money “comes without strings attached.” Schneider notes that a Templeton Book Forum at New York’s Harvard Club featured Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton. Similarly, the foundation’s trustees include David Myers, author of What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage.

By contrast, does anyone know of a family foundation whose head personally funds the same-sex marriage cause, yet has on its board the author of a book arguing the other side? (David Geffen, call your office.)

Schneider generously concludes: Templeton is “better positioned than most to foster a conservatism — and a culture generally – that holds the old habits of religions and business responsible to good evidence, while helping scientists better speak to people’s deepest concerns.”

Further corroborating evidence of Templeton’s good faith can be piled as high as the Tower of Babel. The prominent science journalist Chris Mooney, for example, is an atheist and author of The Republican [Party’s] War on Science. On his blog for Discover magazine, Mooney recently wrote not one but two posts on his experience as a Templeton Fellow in Cambridge, England. Although Mooney “feel[s] much as the New Atheists do” towards theology, he found the Fellowship’s lectures and discussions uniformly “serious and stimulating.” There were no “skewed perspectives,” not even any arguments “in favor of religion and Christianity,” though there were scientific talks that could be “quite corrosive to traditional religion” and a talk by Robin Le Poidevin, a philosopher who wrote Arguing for Atheism.

Indeed, Richard Dawkins himself, the globe’s leading New Atheist, once addressed this annual conference. But, Mooney observes, while Templeton happily invited Dawkins to speak again, he refused, as have other members of his fundamentalist sect. Mooney sees a problem: “You can’t both denounce the fellowship for being intellectually tilted and also boycott it, thereby refusing to help lend it more of the balance you claim it needs.”

Mooney concludes that “whatever issue one may have with this fellowship, it can’t really be about the betrayal of science. Rather, it seems to be about whether to engage in dialogue and debate with those who have religious beliefs but also accept cutting edge research–and indeed, may be scientists themselves.”

Exactly. The empirical evidence is clear: The Templeton Foundation is not afraid to have religion and science debated in the same room; in fact, Templeton strains its utmost to achieve the finest and fairest discussions possible, while a few noisy scientists, possessed of all the dispassion of Savonarola, insist on standing outside the room and heckling.

UPDATE:  P.Z. Myers, an atheist whose slur was quoted above and whose science blog, Pharyngula, is one of the world’s most popular, has replied to this post. His response is further evidence of the value of even imperfect dialogue, because it is marginally more rational and civil than his original rant. But the basic fact remains: The Templeton Foundation is not afraid to have a dialogue with persons who fundamentally disagree with them, while Myers, Richard Dawkins, and their ilk refuse to do so, to the embarrassment of many who share their theological and political positions. Perhaps further empirical studies can determine whether the New Atheists’ intolerance is motivated by fear, or a puritannical refusal to sully themselves by contact with the impure, or something else.