Ian Barbour: An Appreciative Note Now That He Has Died

Ian Barbour died on Christmas Eve, 90 years old. The eminent, perhaps the original, scholar of science and religion leaves a huge legacy behind, one which many of us are very thankful for. Anyone who takes science-and-religion seriously is familiar with his classic 1966 book, Issues in Science and Religion. He had a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago and did graduate work in theology at Yale. He was, by all accounts, also a very pleasant man.

Here is the announcement from Carleton College, where he taught. Connor Wood bids his farewell here, Thomas Jay Oord offers a tribute here and so does Karl Giberson here.
I familiarised myself with his Issues when I was in university. As I’ve thought about the whole science and religion thing over the years, and as I think back on that thinking, I have found that particular book especially helpful and influential in shaping my thinking.

What I appreciate about it particularly is how scientific it is.

Our culture is full of voices, often those invested in setting science and religion up against each other, claiming loudly how science and religion should relate to each other. According to these voices, shouting from pulpits on both sides of the divide, science and religion are perpetually at war. We must choose: Either science, or religion. Either the godless science of Richard Dawkins, or the pseudoscientific religion of Ken Ham. It’s a zero-sum game, an either/or, according to them both.

What’s ironic, perhaps especially in regards to those who claim the mantle of established scientific credibility, is that such an attitude is deeply unscientific. If you’ll allow me to be a bit Humean for a second, science concerns itself with the “is” and not the “ought”. And bold, sweeping pronouncements about the necessary ought of science/religion relations are quite simply unscientific.

Which Barbour’s typological approach in Issues isn’t. In the book he argues for a four-fold typology describing the relationship between science and religion. The models for engagement are: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue and Integration. I won’t go in to them in details. You should read the book if you want that detail. What I want to note is, again, just how scientific Barbour’s approach is. He isn’t announcing how science and religion ought to or should relate, but rather attempts to understand how they do relate. And the fact is that they relate in several different ways. There’s nothing wrong, as such, to throw your lot in with one particular kind of relation – say, independence, like Stephen Jay Gould did with his NOMA model -, but you’ve stopped being a scientist when you do so, and have proceeded to sit down in the philosophical armchair. Which is quite all right, of course. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. But it isn’t scientific.

Nor is it very clever. I think it’s the mark of a mature and subtle intellect to be able to acknowledge and articulate positions different and contrary to your own, humbly reserving judgement and noting whatever strengths and weaknesses might characterise that position. So many find that an insurmountable challenge. I’m grateful to Ian Barbour for helping me come closer to that ideal, an ideal he embodied in his work.


3 thoughts on “Ian Barbour: An Appreciative Note Now That He Has Died

  1. David Morris says:

    Hey Arni, I’m interested in the models of engagement. They sounds a little bit like Niebuhr’s models of Christ and/with/against culture. Anyway, I’m teaching on science and religion this semester, and this was a helpful reflection. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Ian Barbour connecting science and religion | Stepping Toes

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