A User-Friendly Barbour

Ian G. Barbour, When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? 
New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000. xiv + 205pp. $16.00 (paper). 

Among those working in the burgeoning field of religion and science, no one is better known or more respected than Ian Barbour, winner of the 1999 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Since the publication of Issues in Science and Religion over thirty-five years ago, Barbour has been busy mapping the boundaries of these putatively disparate domains. Persuaded that the two need not be mortal enemies, he has in subsequent books conscientiously documented the methodological and epistemological parallels of science and religion, and painstakingly explored their possible metaphysical congruence. Out of a lifetime of such reflection comes a slender volume, When Science Meets Religion. 

So what does Barbour give us that is new in his newest book? For readers of his earlier work, especially his 1997 Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, perhaps not much. Taking center stage in this latest book is the well-known Barbourian typology of conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration, a typology Barbour has successfully employed to survey and organize attitudes and positions theology and the natural sciences assume towards each other. Summarizing and continuing the discussions of Religion and Science, Barbour inquires into the relation between God and contemporary cosmology, quantum physics, evolution, genetics, and neuroscience. While there is not much wholly new in When Science Meets Religion, Barbour clearly succeeds in paring down the encyclopedic presentations of the earlier work by more fully organizing the various positions canvassed into his four-fold typology. The result is a user-friendly volume that should bring the basics of the current science/religion discussion to a much larger audience. 

In the introductory chapter Barbour presents his typology and compares it briefly to those of Haught, Peters, and Drees. The next chapter gives familiar examples of each: conflict is exemplified by scientific materialism and Biblical literalism; independence by two-language approaches, neo-orthodoxy, and advocates of primary causality; dialogue by those pursuing limit-questions or "methodological and conceptual parallels"; and independence by practitioners of natural theology, theology of nature, and systematic synthesis. Gone is the confusing subcategory of "nature-centered spirituality" Barbour employed in Religion and Science. 

With these preliminaries addressed, Barbour launches into discussions of astronomy and creation, quantum physics, evolution, genetics and neuroscience, and the nature of divine action. While he departs from Religion and Science by eliminating his treatment of the historical science/religion relationship and the comparison of scientific and religious epistemology and conceptuality, he follows the natural science topics of that earlier work, adding material on neuroscience and the mind/ body problem. Throughout the book he adroitly situates contemporary positions in astronomy, physics, and biology within his typology. Readers can easily follow Barbour's arguments against the conflict thesis, his grudging receipt of insights provided by practitioners of the independence thesis, and his own openness towards, and cautious acceptance of, positions advocated by proponents of dialogue and integration. 

In the last chapter, "God and Nature," we get to the really interesting questions. Given that the independence thesis is false, and that science and religion do not simply conflict, how can talk of God's action in the world be squared with a universe that seems only to possess natural causal relations? How is divine action conceivable in a physically causally-closed universe? 

After considering Gregersen's view of God as continually creating through self-organizing processes, and Polkinghorne's attempt to imagine God acting in chaos by extrapolating chaos theory to the limit of zero energy input, Barbour speaks approvingly of the kenotic theology of Murphy and Ellis and its critique of the monarchical model of God. Rejecting divine interventionism as theologically and scientifically inadequate, Barbour discusses the "bottom-up" approach of God as the determiner of quantum indeterminacies, the "top-down" approach of God as the determiner of the boundary conditions of systems that yet conform to bottom-up determination, and, not surprisingly, the God of Whitehead's process theology. 

Unfortunately, like Religion and Science this book does not really undertake an extended evaluation of these or related options. While Barbour concludes that "all models are limited and partial, and none [can] give a complete or adequate picture of reality," it does not follow that all are plausible. One might ask if Barbour could not use the very criteria he develops in Religion and Science to evaluate these models. While some are more or less fertile, comprehensive, and in agreement with the data -- though Barbour admits that "the world is diverse, and differing aspects of it may be better represented by one model than another" -- they are not, in my opinion, equally coherent. While Barbour displays his theologian's heart by pointing to the failure of the monarchical model to agree with Biblical images of God, he does not always demonstrate the philosopher's judgment when it comes to the difficult task of testing the options under consideration. From the fact that Gregersen, Polkinghorne, Clayton, and Murphy present models of divine action, we should not conclude that these models are all believable. Similarly, Whitehead's claim that God can "influence the world without determining it" by valuing potentialities and "reflecting back to the world a specific and relevant goal," remains unimpressive in the absence of a credible account of precisely how this is possible. (I realize that Whiteheadians believe they have given an account.) Barbour's great strength is his ability to describe the various positions in the literature and to synthesize them into his typology, but he leaves the job of evaluation to others. 

Those teachers who have used Religion and Science in their classes, and have endured the predictable student comments about its reading like an encyclopedia, might try this new book. It is sleek, user-friendly and extremely clear, while retaining much of the meat of its predecessor. General readers who are exploring the area of religion and science for the first time may do no better than read this little book by the grand master of the field.


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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2001, Vol. 51,  No 1.