Farewell to Ian Barbour

Connor Wood

Myths models paradigmsThe last waning days of 2013 have left us with two urgently important news items for anyone who cares about religion and science. The first is a disturbing recent announcement from the Pew Research Center that, when it comes to accepting biological evolution, the gap between Democrats and Republicans has widened dramatically in recent years. The second is the recent death at age 90 of Ian Barbour – the physicist and religious studies scholar celebrated for having launched the modern religion-science dialog. With Barbour’s passing, a valuable voice of reason, accountability, and humility has left us in an era of increasing misunderstanding across religious and secular lines.

I don’t want to make the current cultural polarization worse by pointing at it. I think it’s completely possible for us to transcend the boring and unenlightened partisanship that characterizes many conversations about religion and culture these days. But, until then, there is a bear-sized gulf between the way religious people and secular people see the world. And unfortunately, both groups, being comprised of humans, are prone to comparing themselves against others in order to feel superior – one of humankind’s least admirable, but most pervasive, traits.* This means that secular folks are often guilty of putting down religious believers in a caddish bid to advertise their own intellectual and cultural superiority. And religious folks, far from piously turning the other cheek, can often be found advertising their own moral and spiritual superiority by exaggerating the ways that they differ from secular nonbelievers.

So we’re all guilty of nourishing an unhealthy culture in which our moral, scientific, and religious opinions are often reflective of the communities we want to belong to more than they are of reasoning and weighing of evidence. As Kurt Vonnegut put it in his novel Breakfast of Champions:

Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.

This simple dynamic explains much of why belief in evolution is declining among Republicans (from 54% in 2009 to 43% today, only four years later) while it’s increasing among Democrats (from 64% to 67% in the same period). The evidence for evolution is beyond overwhelming, so the problem isn’t that the scientific case hasn’t been made. The problem is that our culture is becoming increasingly polarized along James Hunter’s “orthodox” and “progressive” lines, and more and more people are signing up wholesale for the cluster of beliefs they associate with their preferred worldview – and against the groups they don’t want to belong to.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Ian Barbour, who died at age 90 on December 20th, held a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago (where he studied under Enrico Fermi, namesake of the Fermi lab and the fermion) as well as a divinity degree from Yale. He was better-equipped than most people could ever hope to be for understanding the complex relationship between religion and science, and his contributions showed that it was possible to overcome the herd mentality and to think deeply and critically about both religious and scientific issues. Unlike many voices who are currently calling for absolutist rejections of religious traditions or of scientific authority, he made real progress in overcoming an entrenched divide.

Barbour was well known for espousing “critical realism,” an attitude toward scientific theories and models that accepts their weaknesses and dependence on interpretation, but which insists that they can actually reflect real things about the world. He contrasted his critical realism especially with “instrumentalism,” the claim that scientific models never tell us anything true about the world, but only help us practically to make predictions and interpretations.

Barbour’s careful distinction between what might be useful from what might be true, and the acknowledgment that a sharp line between the two was never clear, also informed his religious investigations. Arguing that religious claims were primarily for the purpose of interpreting and understanding particular types of experiences rather than explaining the physical world, Barbour nevertheless insisted that religious beliefs were actually capable of being affected by the weight of evidence. Religious beliefs might not be directly falsifiable, according to Barbour, but people “should and do modify or abandon their beliefs in the light of their experience.”**

Instead of summarizing (poorly) Barbour’s entire body of work, let me instead stop here and explain why Barbour mattered, and why his work is so important today. Having famously articulated four models of the religion-science relationship – ranging from “conflict” (sadly, the most popular model in today’s internet culture) to “systematic integration” – Barbour himself propounded a “theology of nature” in which our religious commitments and beliefs would be influenced and shaped by the natural sciences, and our reverence for nature would encourage us to become more ecologically responsible. His insistence that this-worldly concerns, especially ecological ones, really matter in a religious sense is something we could all benefit from. His willingness to engage a faith tradition responsibly, rigorously, and with an open heart is something all believers should aspire to, and all nonbelievers should respect.

There’s plenty to argue with in Barbour’s writings. He wrote from a Christian perspective, and although he rejected exclusivist readings of Christian doctrines (that is, he believed that religious truth could be found in other traditions), his system can be offputting or difficult to penetrate for Hindus, Muslims, or the nonreligious. His philosophy of science has many critics, particularly among instrumentalists and among strict realists. But few have ever matched the depth of knowledge he brought to the subject of religion and science, from his doctoral work in physics to his deep reading of the Christian theological tradition and world religious literature.

In an era when more and more of us are racing to line up shoulder-to-shoulder against the “bad guys,” whether those bad guys are the godless liberals or the religious nuts, Barbour’s careful investigations and calm evaluations are a rich oasis in a desert of partisanship and ideological tribalism. His lifetime of work shows that we don’t have to reject evolution to prove that we’re good Christians or Muslims, and we don’t have to snub religious belief and the richness of spiritual symbols to earn our chops as intellectuals. We can actually evaluate ideas on their own merits, not just their social allure.


* And one that drives a substantial chunk of the world economy, as the sociologist Thorstein Veblen outlined in his classic The Theory of the Leisure Class. We humans put a lot energy into showing everybody how unlike less-desirable groups we are, from the poor to the Communists to the culturally unfashionable.

** Myths, Models, and Paradigms, 1974, p. 131

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