For Ian Barbour, the deadly possibilities of the Atomic Age raised questions that science couldn’t answer — a perplexing situation for a young physicist after World War II.
He responded to the challenge in an unusual way: After completing his doctorate in physics he enrolled in divinity school and forged a career devoted to bridging the chasm between science and religion.
Barbour, whose work opened a new academic field and brought him the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion died at a hospital in Minneapolis on Christmas Eve, five days after a stroke, said his son, John Barbour. He was 90.
A professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., for more than three decades, Barbour wrote 16 books, including “Issues in Science and Religion,” a 1966 volume that helped spark the ongoing debate between scientists and theologians on issues such as the origins of the universe, evolution and the ethical implications of technology.
He “gave birth almost single-handedly to the contemporary dialogue between science and religion,” said Robert John Russell, the founder-director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, a nonprofit teaching and research institute affiliated with UC Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. “He made a convincing and lasting case that science and religion are more alike and analogous than unlike and conflictive.”
In the 1950s, when Barbour began to promote discourse between the two fields, scientists had little tolerance for religion, and theologians had little interest in science. His was a lonely voice for rapprochement.
“I always felt we needed to move beyond the hostility,” Barbour told The Times in 1999. “Scientists say they believe in evolution, not God. Religious scholars say they believe in God, but not evolution. Well, I say we don’t have to choose a side. We can meet somewhere in the middle.”
He received the Templeton Prize in 1999 for a lifetime of work that judges said helped expand the field of theology. He gave most of the $1.24-million award to the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences.
His views about the commonalities between religion and science were criticized by such prominent scientists as Stephen Jay Gould. But Barbour’s advocacy made inroads at such leading organizations as the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, which in the mid-1990s launched a program to improve communication between religious and scientific communities on matters such as environmental stewardship and life beyond Earth.
“Scientists particularly have appreciated the humble and insightful ways he has considered how we imagine and model the unknowns in each realm,” said Jennifer Wiseman, director of the association’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.
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