Thursday, January 16, 2014

The legacy of Ian Barbour

Ian Barbour died this past Christmas Eve. He is arguably the person most responsible for the study and teaching of "science and religion" becoming significant in universities. His 1966 book Issues in Science and Religion laid the groundwork. It gave a comprehensive survey of the major issues and different perspectives on them. Barbour was better equipped to do this because he had both a Ph.D in physics and a B.Div. and then taught both physics and religion subjects at Carleton College, one of the leading 4-year undergraduate colleges in the USA.

Of particular note was Barbour's four-fold typology for relating science and religion:
  • Conflict 
  • Independence
  • Dialogue
  • Integration
Wikipedia mistakenly claims that Barbour "coined the term `critical realism'". The term and the associated philosophical perspective actually arose before Barbour was born! The 1920 book Essays in critical realism: a co-operative study of the theory of knowledge was co-authored by a group of prominent American philosophers. This history is nicely recounted in the wonderful book Barth and Rationality: Critical Realism in Theology by D. Paul La Montagne.

Over the years I have found many who are enamoured by Barbour and his contributions. I am not. He considered that the scientific issues [and particularly evolution] forced one to embrace process theology. It have never been able to understand his arguments. In his book Science and Religion: An Introduction, Alister McGrath gives a helpful summary of Barbour's views [pp. 208-9, first edition]
The key aspect of process theology which Barbour appropriates is the rejection of the classic doctrine of God's omnipotence: God is one agent among many, not the Sovereign Lord of all. ... process affirms "a God of persuasion rather than compulsion .. who influences the world without determining it". Process theology thus locates the origins of suffering and evil within the world to a radical limitation upon the power of God. God has set aside (or simply does not possess) the ability to coerce, really only the ability to persuade. Persuasion is seen as a means of exercising power in such a manner that the rights and freedom of others are respected.... process theology thus calls into question "the traditional expectation of an absolute victory over evil."....... 
Barbour argues that the evolutionary process is influenced by - but not directed by - God. This allows him to deal with the fact that the evolutionary process appears to have been long, complex and wasteful.....
To me this rejection of the sovereignty of God is just plain old heresy.

As McGrath points out Barbour himself acknowledges some inadequacy of process thought, particularly with the way it treats the inanimate world. Barbour claims "A vanishingly small novelty and self-determination in atoms is postulated only for the sake of metaphysical consistency and continuity." To me this just shows the silliness of aspects of process thought. I see no reason, either scientific or theological to entertain the idea that atoms have a "self" or "will".


  1. I'm not sure where McGrath was coming from in evaluating Barbour's position, but in chapter 11, "Process Thought," of his Religion and Science (1997), Barbour was merely relating the positions of other process theologians. In the conclusion of that chapter Barbour writes, "a final evaluation of its theological adequacy must await a comparison with some current theological alternatives in the final chapter." In that final chapter 12, "God and Nature," not only does he offer criticism of process theology, he also clearly states that "God alone is omniscient and everlasting, perfect in wisdom and love, and thus very different from all other participants," and thus resembles the God of classical ruler-kingdom model than the process leader-community one.