Celebrating the Ideas of Templeton Prize Winner Ian Barbour, 1923-2013

Ian Barbour
Ian Barbour

Ian G. Barbour, one of the founding figures in the academic discipline that studies the relationship between science and religion and winner of the Templeton Prize in 1999, died December 24, 2013, at the age of 90. “[He] probably did more for the creation of the field than anyone else,” remarked 2010 Templeton Prize winner Francisco J. Ayala in an obituary published in the New York Times. Peter Hess, Director of Outreach to Religious Communities at the National Center for Science Education, called him “a towering figure, one of the truly great interdisciplinary thinkers of the 20th century.”

Barbour’s best known contribution to the field is a four-fold typology of the relationship between science and religion. The first model assumes that the two are in conflict and arguably underpins much of the popular discourse today, though Barbour dismissed it as a product of dogmatism on both sides. The second model is that of independence, namely that science and religion can be taken as operating in separate domains of knowledge and understanding. While attractive because the notion recognizes the distinctiveness of religion in human life, Barbour argued that there is more going on between the two than any simple separation allows.

The third model is one of dialogue. For example, science and religion might converse at the level of the assumptions they share, and both might hold that the universe is rational and intelligible, awesome and wonderful. Such reflection might lead to the fourth and final model, one of integration. Here, the expectation is that scientific and theological inquiry will profoundly inform one another.

Barbour speculated on possibilities in this mode in the speech he made when accepting the Templeton Prize. “The communication of information is an important concept in many fields of science, from DNA to computer networks. One proposal is that God’s action in the world can be thought of as the communication of information,” he suggested. That being said, the details of any integration of science and religion will never be simple. Rather, Barbour encouraged the two disciplines to humbly consider that the third and fourth models might prove more satisfying and fruitful than the first two.

[sz-youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQ3Xr201yrs” caption=”Conversation with Ian Barbour, June 2012″ /]

Throughout a long life, his thoughts did not stand still. When he spoke at “Reflections of Templeton Laureates” in June 2012, which gathered together former Gifford lecturers and Templeton Prize winners in the realms of theology, science, and philosophy, he explained how his work had continued to be informed by ongoing developments in both fields. In particular, he had become more keenly aware that the practices of religious people need to inform the debate, just as much as the concepts deployed by scientists and theologians.

Developments in science are creating new opportunities for dialogue as well, he continued. The science of emergence, in which natural processes may be influenced and shaped by both top-down and bottom-up mechanisms, raises many issues for the ways in which causation is understood. Considering the role of the environment and even directionality may become more acceptable in scientific work, which will be significant because theology is inclined to describe a cosmos with purpose.

Among the many academic posts he held, he founded the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, an affiliate of the Union Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. His key ideas are explored in a number of seminal books for the field including Issues in Science and Religion (1966), Myths, Models and Paradigms (1974), and Religion in An Age of Science (1990). “Through his writing, his teaching, and his participation in conferences—he was a gentle but commanding presence at the Foundation’s very first Humble Approach Initiative symposium at Queens’ College, Cambridge, in 1998—Ian inspired two generations of scholars who were not content to attribute unexplained phenomena to divine agency nor to rule out divine action in the world,” observes Mary Ann Meyers, senior fellow at the Foundation. “Many will surely join me in saying Pax Aeterna, my friend.”