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Leading Scholar of Science and Religion Passes Away


Leading Scholar of Science and Religion Passes Away

Karl Giberson

Ian Barbour, who almost single-handedly founded the scholarly study of science and religion, died over Christmas. He was 90 years old, and for the last half-century he towered over the developing field of science and religion.

Prior to Barbour's work the interaction of science and religion was dominated by the notion that the two fields were constantly at war, have always been at war, and cannot interact in any way other than war. This "warfare metaphor," as it is called today, was born in the 19th century, largely through the work of Andrew Dickson White, the first president of Cornell University. White, heading America's first major secular university, was an outspoken champion of secularism and a harsh and often unreasonable critic of religion. His lively, wide-ranging and articulate book A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology Within Christendom laid out the historical evidence that Christian theology has forever been the enemy of science. White's widely read polemic, dismissed by most scholars today as pseudoscholarly propaganda, created the near-universal belief that science and religion can only quarrel.

Barbour entered this conversation as a lone, although uniquely qualified, voice in the 1950s. The conversation he started established to the satisfaction of most scholars in the field that White's simplistic warfare metaphor was bogus, which was no mean accomplishment. Barbour had a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, earned under the great Enrico Fermi. He also did graduate work in theology and ethics at Yale Divinity School. He taught both religion and physics at Carleton College in Minnesota over the course of a long career that produced over a dozen major books and countless articles.

Barbour's CV is extraordinary. His 1966 classic Issues in Science & Religion, which I read as an undergraduate, created the vocabulary and categories for the science-and-religion dialogue. He gave two sets of Gifford lectures, published under the titles "Religion in an Age of Science" and "Ethics in an Age of Technology." His modest volume When Science Meets Religion, published in 2000, is a classic text in the field, summarizing a lifetime of hard thinking about important questions. I have used it many times in my classes. Barbour's books have been used in over 7,500 science-and-religion courses around the world, and countless courses in other fields. I first read Barbour in my undergraduate epistemology class, when we were assigned his bookMyths, Models, and Paradigms. His deep understanding of both science and theology allowed him to find parallels in the ways that systems of thought were constructed.

In 1999 Barbour was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which was long overdue. He donated much of the seven-figure award to the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, CA, where it supports the study of science and religion by a new generation of young scholars.

Barbour was a delightful, effervescent personality, perpetually scurrying from one engagement to the next as if to remind us all that there was important work to be done. I last saw him a decade ago in Nassau, where we were "swimming with dolphins" after a major science-and-religion meeting. He was 80 years old and still looking for adventure.

Few scholars have shaped their field like Ian Barbour. Nothing, in fact, indicates a serious engagement with science and religion like familiarity with Barbour's ubiquitous scheme of making connections between the two fields.

Let me illustrate this with an anecdote. Shortly before Thanksgiving I was in Tyler, Texas, speaking at the 50th-anniversary celebration of the opening of the quite remarkable science center at Tyler Junior College. After my remarks a student asked me whether I think evolution and Christian theology are in conflict, independent of each other, in dialogue, or capable of being integrated into a shared worldview. The question was familiar and has been posed to me many times in almost the same way, in England, in Spain, in Italy, in Boston, and now in Tyler, Texas. I asked the student, "Have you been reading Barbour?" She nodded, knowing that she was on solid ground.

The question was vintage Barbour, who, in multiple writings, but perhaps most helpfully in When Science Meets Religion, laid out what we call the complexity thesis for the interaction of science and religion. To be sure, there can be conflict, as Dickson White argued in the 19th century, and as Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and Ken Ham argue today. But much of science is, in fact, completely independent of religion. Try writing a thesis paper on the connection between the periodic table and the doctrine of the Trinity. But science and religion can also be in dialogue. I have had many stimulating conversations about whether the religious concept of sin can be equated with the selfish nature that evolution has programmed into us. And there is also the possibility of integrating ideas from science and ideas from religion, as many have proposed in reflecting on the way our universe seems designed for life.

Barbour laid out this simple four-fold topology as a way to get past the simplistic formula of warfare. And now we are all using it. He did acknowledge that, like the warfare metaphor it was replacing, it was too simple to be the final answer:

Although my four-fold typology cannot account for all ways to talk about the relation between science and religion, I believe it remains very valuable as a first-cut. It is a pedagogical tool to begin to look at the science-and-religion landscape.

My friend Ian wrote both my undergraduate textbooks and those from which I teach today; he created the field in which I work, swam with me among the dolphins, and inspired me and thousands of students and scholars to think responsibly about the interaction of science and religion. He died on Christmas Eve, after suffering a stroke at his home in Northfield, MN, four days earlier. He was a man of deep faith, great erudition, and profound humility. He will be profoundly missed.

Originally published on The Huffington Post on January 2, 2014.