Oct 4, 2021


This speech was delivered to the Europaeum Conference 2021 in Toledo, Spain, honoring a cohort of Templeton World Charity Foundation-supported Scholars Programme.

By Andrew Serazin

Thank you to the organizers, the Europaeum, a network of 18 leading universities in Europe, the Fundación Ortega y Gasset, for putting together this agenda today, and thank you also for the beautiful city of Toledo for hosting this conference. I wish I could be there to engage in discussions in your stony streets and explore all of your glory and history with you.

The title of this conference, "Crisis as Opportunity," echoes one of my favorite quotes from Sir John Templeton, the founder of the Templeton World Charity Foundation, that he used to guide his investment decisions: "Trouble is Opportunity."

Sir John certainly applied this advice to great success in his own career through the Great Depression, through countless wars and economic cycles. He realized that sometimes the best moment for re-doubling our efforts is the point of what he called "maximum pessimism." 

I'd like to start my remarks today by discussing a bit about my perspective of the nature of pessimism currently. What is the nature of the current crisis, the substance of our current symptoms? 

Unlike many of the topics covered in this conference, whether that's geopolitics, climate action, work, artificial intelligence, democracy, governance, I would like to point out perhaps the deeper trouble that has been reinforced and exposed by the pandemic. This is not a crisis of the body or even of the body politic, but rather it is a crisis of the spirit. 

To me and many other observers, the unique feature of this past eighteen months, the destabilizing, horrifying recent past is that it has nudged so many of us into a period of protracted and prolonged introspection and reassessment. 

Superficially, at home, especially in those long, pre-vaccine days, we discovered the wonders of sourdough starter bread and urban gardening or even the deep tracks of our favorite adolescent band, but beneath that surface, I think something more significant has been going on. 

We’ve reconsidered our view about work—rates of leaving jobs or applying for new jobs are at all-time highs. We’ve been reacquainted with the sometimes arbitrary nature of losing loved ones and friends of all ages, and surveys have shown that close social relationships that act as buffers to external shocks and traumatic experiences are under strain.  

And it is with these data in mind that we have now, unlike in any other way in recent memory, a terrible awareness of the chanciness of human life, of the precarious nature of humanity’s existence in this risky universe.  

So, in response, it has become necessary to recalibrate, to inventory what we value, to look at who and what we surround ourselves with, and why. We ask, what makes life worth living? What should I live for, and why? What should I believe in, and why should I believe it? What makes us truly alive? In short, how can we flourish? 

At the Templeton World Charity Foundation where I am president, we think about these essential questions about life, with implications for life. Although not everyone asks them explicitly, the choices we make provide an implicit and resounding answer to them. 

The paradox of the state of current affairs is that despite their importance, these questions at the heart of human flourishing are woefully neglected. 

The world’s best minds—whether they're scientists, scholars, entrepreneurs, policymakers, or politicians — are simply not focused on them. They would rather work on the minutiae of biologics manufacturing. The efficiency of food delivery. Corporate tax rates. Targeting of athleisure wear brands and the targeting of sea-temperature rise increases. 

The mission and the strategy of the Templeton World Charity Foundation is to address this gap in research, pursuit, and practice—to seek and support the world’s best minds in the pursuit of human flourishing.

We are a global philanthropy proudly based in the small island nation of The Bahamas. We have over 200 projects in more than 50 countries. 

Over the next five years we have committed $60 million to support innovations that enable human flourishing.

In terms of research, this means investing in projects such as 

  • Wisdom and moral skill, and the development of virtue in how we navigate pervasive interactions with machine learning and artificial intelligence.

  • Research on collective behavior as a means to understand how groups become polarized, the hallmarks of this polarization, and means to reverse it.

  • Studies of how we can build unifying common identities and narratives of hope across geographic and cultural boundaries.

  • Studies of the drivers of altruism and self-sacrifice, as well as the social and biological factors which inhibit such behavior. 

  • This, and more research, you can find at our website,

But we know that research is not enough. We are also interested in building an evidence base that connects the science of internal values, habits of mind and heart to actions that can accelerate specific indicators of social progress and prosperity. 

Let me give you a few examples: 

  • Intellectual Humility and Vaccine Hesitancy. Recent work from Senger and Hunh found that intellectual humility—that is an openness to revising one's own viewpoint and lack of overconfidence—was correlated with positive attitudes towards vaccination against COVID-19. A link was made between intellectual humility and vaccine hesitancy. Thus, it is possible that people who practice a higher degree of intellectual humility understand that their knowledge of vaccines may be limited and do not treat new information as threatening to their worldview.

  • Gratitude and Climate Action. Gratitude is a natural response to benevolence, whether that benefactor is a loved one, a stranger, God, or a continent. When grateful, we affirm that we have received an unbidden good we've received it. We recognize that this good comes from outside us. Gratitude is a way of being that is grounded in an invitation to see life as a gift. When it comes to the environment, we see that world provides sufficiency and surplus. We remember that we are bound to the planet that surrounds and sustains us. 

A recent study by DeSteno and colleagues shows in carefully controlled experiment that interventions that promote gratitude, as opposed to merely promoting positive thinking, led to more sustainable behaviors, especially in situations of depleting resources.

  • Forgiveness and Mental Health. For over 20 years, the Templeton Philanthropies have been supporting research on forgiveness. More than 50 studies conducted around the world have found that forgiveness interventions significantly improve mental health outcomes such as depression, anger, hostility, and stress. In comparison to other behavioral or even pharmacological interventions for anxiety, forgiveness is very powerful. 

According to one leading researcher, the effects of forgiveness to promote heart health may be as large as those for beta-blockers, a common medicine for lowering blood pressure.

Right now, we have started a Five-Year Campaign to reach hundreds of millions of people around the world with research-backed tools to support their decision to forgive. You can go to to learn more. 

Beyond research and interventions, we support institutions like the Europaeum to normalize, strengthen and invigorate these common values at the heart of human flourishing.

I couldn’t agree more with the Why Statement issued by the Europaeum:

“It is the Rule of Law and the set of institutions, ideas, and values handed down to us from the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. These ideas that replaced superstition with science, dogma with reason, fate with free will, and authority on high with the moral choice of the individual. All of these aspects of living have enormous value, but go largely unnoticed.”

I'd like to remind the Europaeum and those of you that support it that you that you are not alone. 

Other examples of work that we support include that of the international advocacy organization The Elders —  founded on the values of Nelson Mandela — organizations like the Oxford Character Project, the Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, The Global Leadership Challenge housed at the St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland, the Virtuous Leadership Diploma endorsed by seven universities in Rome, the Inner Development Goals of the Ekskäret Foundation in Sweden, as well as a new project with the OECD’s education directorate.

All of these are examples of living out these fundamental values in the world. 

I’ll leave you with a note of hope. 

Much has been written about the historical parallels between the global coronavirus pandemic and other events like The Permian Extinction 252 million years ago where 97% of the world's species went extinct. Or the Black Death in the 1400s, or World War II. These catastrophes were far more severe than the current pandemic, yet each led to a transformation that fundamentally altered life thereafter.

Writing after World War II, Herbert Butterfield, the great historian, reminded us that “it would seem that one of the clearest and most concrete facts of history is that men (and women) of spiritual resources may not only redeem catastrophe, but turn it into a grand creative moment.” And we're in such a moment right now. A moment where we're both anxious and bored, we're both fat and undernourished, we're wading in information, yet lacking in wisdom, and we command seemingly magical technologies and yet are commanded by them. 

But it is through the work of those like you, here at the Europaeum—which is a vessel of the values of the Enlightenment and even older values of reason, pluralism, faith, gratitude, forgiveness, and humility—that we can make and we will make a renewal of the human spirit. Thank you.