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

The great divide: Why activism needs tradition to work
America’s public ritual gone terribly wrong
Want to understand religion? You’ve gotta have a body.
The age of extreme opinions
  • amanimal

    Thanks Connor and Happy New Year! With the substance of your piece in mind I think I’ll start Jonathan Haidt’s ‘Righteous Mind’ today, and, even though I’ve not read it yet, recommend Robert Burton’s ‘On Being Certain’, the premise of which is:

    “Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” are sensations that feel like thoughts, but arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that function independently of reason.”

    ‘On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not’, Robert Burton, MD

    It’s Burton’s hope that in “… questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas – from opposing religious or scientific views to contrary opinions at the dinner table.”

    ‘The certainty epidemic’, R Burton(excerpt)

    Thanks again Connor, I’ll have to give Barbour’s writings a look. My condolences to Barbour’s family, friends, and colleagues.

  • Phil Hemsley

    I have heard it said that to properly understand the Old Testament, it needs to be viewed through the lens of Jesus and the New Testament. I wonder if we need to adopt a similar approach to the whole Bible now, that it needs to be viewed through the lens of scientific discovery. I have often thought that if God exists then there must be a position of truth that reconciles both scientific discovery and God; there must be a ‘big picture’ that embraces both fields.

    A few years ago I began trying to find what that understanding might be. The result was that I needed to go back to basics in many fields (and as amanimal says, being willing to consider alternative ideas) – starting with how we actually know anything, and then looking at what we know from science (and what it can never tell us), what we know from history about Christ and God, and so on. I have written the result up in a recently published book “The Big Picture – an honest examination of God, Science and Purpose”, and explore different ideas on my blog http://philhemsley.wordpress.com/

  • connorwood

    Thanks for reading and for the recommendations, Amanimal. Hope you enjoy Haidt!

  • R Vogel

    What happened to the comments on the Is Religion Anthroporphism post? There was some good stuff you and Amanimal responded to me that I wanted to revisit!

  • amanimal

    Here are those links again in case they don’t reappear with the other thread:

    ‘The mind’s best trick: how we experience conscious will’, Wegner 2003

    ‘Précis of The illusion of conscious will’, Wegner 2004

    ‘Wishful Thinking?’, David Wilson(American Scientist book review)

  • connorwood

    Hi R Vogel,

    I’ve learned from experience that sometimes the Disqus comments just disappear from a post for a while. This is frustrating, but they’re usually back within a day or two. I’m not sure what bug makes this happen, but it generally gets cleared up fairly quickly. Meanwhile, see Amanimal’s excellent list of links below!

  • Ken Alexander


    You write that a dramatically widening gap (as reported by Pew research) between Republicans and Democrats in regards to accepting biological evolution is “disturbing”. I’d say this finding is more or less disturbing relative to what its cause might be (which the data doesn’t seem to provide us any clue about). For example, some of the causes might be:
    1) Fewer people who accept evolution are self-identifying as Republicans
    2) More people who oppose evolution are self-identifying as Republicans
    3) More Republicans are being won over by the increasing sophisticated scientific arguments of Young Earth Creationists (unlikely I suspect)
    4) More Republicans are against evolution because more Democrats are for it
    From my own biased political perspective, I don’t find (1) disturbing at all! :)

  • http://www.carmelites.net/ James

    Don’t forget disgruntled Republicans leaving for the Democratic party and potentially vice versa. That could also play a part in the shifting percentages.

  • connorwood

    Ken, I think we see things differently. In my view, the widening science gap between political parties is an enormous problem regardless of its etiology. It may make you feel good to know that the tribe you dislike (Republicans) is purging itself of people you might agree with (pro-evolutionists), thereby making your tribe (presumably liberals) also purer, and making it easier to categorize all Republicans as ignorant enemies. Life is very easy when there are clear ingroup-outgroup distinctions like that. But in practical terms for the rest of us, the widening gap means that we are getting further and further from broad societal consensus on issues that really, REALLY matter. The increasingly likely result will be total inaction on ecological crises, global warming, and other challenges that require scientific literacy to address. So by gloating about the increasing gulf of comparison between yourself and the ignorant Republicans, you’re purchasing self-satisfaction at the probable price of societal catastrophe. Congratulations – I hope the price is worth it.

  • connorwood

    Good point, James. I’m sure this is happening.

  • Ken Alexander


    From reading your posts on this blog I didn’t get the impression that we saw things all that differently, but perhaps we do, and I’d find it interesting to explore why…..

    First of all, as a “science guy”, I’d instinctively object to your quick
    dismissal of “etiology”. “Facts” (and particularly statistics) aren’t enough. Shouldn’t we want to explore (or at least theorize
    about) the causes of why particular “facts” appear to be true (even if they come to us second-hand through the lens of Pew research?)

    Secondly, (and I guess most importantly), if you believe that “the widening science gap between political parties is an enormous problem”, I would ask: “How do you specifically propose to solve this “enormous problem”? Am I wrong in supposing that your post is long on “concerns” and short on “solutions”? If so…. welcome to a very big club, to which I also belong.

    Finally, if you read any “gloating” into my previous post (and apparently you did) I hope that was a misreading, because I very
    rarely consciously “gloat” about anything (as I have little reason to..)

    Best regards, and thanks for your response,


  • R Vogel

    Thanks to you both

  • connorwood


    Thanks for your questions. First, let me say that I was feeling a little irritable yesterday, and I’m sorry if that came out in my reply.

    Second, I agree that etiology is an important concern in science. But HOW important depends on what your goals are. The Buddha told a famous story: a man is shot with an arrow. Does he ask what the name of the archer was, where his family is from, who made the arrow out of what sort of wood, and what bird the feathers were taken from? Or does he simply cry out for the arrow to be removed?

    My point is that the science gap between conservatives and liberals isn’t just an abstract question that’s fun to explore. It’s a very pressing, immediate, practical danger. If we don’t begin to see eye-to-eye on some of the basic science behind ecology and climate change (which are both nearly impossible to understand without knowledge of evolution), we’re screwed. Period. So I’m more interested in the practical ramifications than I am in the specific etiology of the problem, except inasmuch as knowing the etiology might help with a solution.

    …Which segues into your question about solutions. I think the best single thing we can do is to stop using science knowledge as a form of tribal badge. This is why I reacted as I did to your original post; you seemed happy that fewer evolutionists might identify as Republicans, presumably because you have a sense of tribal antagonism toward conservatives. I’m fine with competition between political ideologies, but I think using science awareness as an advertisement of your political tribe is a disaster. As long as liberals keep using evolution and global warming as litmus tests for tribal belonging, conservatives will increasingly reject those things, not because of the science behind them but because they (correctly) register them as totems of a tribe that is antagonistic toward them. Let science become politically neutral, stop using science literacy as a way of feeling superior to conservatives, and I believe a lot of the cultural resistance to science among conservatives will melt away.

  • Ken Alexander

    Apology happily accepted. I’ll admit I was a bit taken aback by your apparent suggestion that my mild joke about my own partisanship could be a contribution to “societal catastrophe” :)
    I did some poking around on the IBSCR website and saw that “political neutrality” is a core part of its mission statement, so perhaps I inadvertently pushed a “hot button” with my comment.
    I will say that I am waaaay less optimistic than you that increased “political neutrality” by scientists will lessen resistance to science. And I don’t think it’s ultimately “tribalism” that’s the culprit here, it’s economics.

    The Higgs Boson never becomes political. What becomes political are scientific findings that threaten economic interests (smoking-to-lung-cancer-link, carbon-emissions-to-climate-change link, e.g.). And those economic interests have the resources to stir up “tribalism” if they think it helps them.
    By the way, IBSCR looks like a group that’s doing good in the world. I paid my $45 and am now a proud member!

  • connorwood

    Great! Glad to hear you’ve signed up! I hope you enjoy the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior especially.

    I agree with you on the economic facets of the politicization of science. I do think, however, that liberals and progressives are actually playing directly into the hands of those economic interests by taking the bait and hoisting science knowledge aloft as an identity banner. It’s not only conservatives being used here, in other words!

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