Reconciling science and religion

Published August 3, 2017

Are science and religion compatible? Or are they locked in an implacable conflict? In his new book, a professor of particle physics, who is also a Christian, argues that religion is perfectly reconcilable with science. The Believing Scientist: Essays on Science and Religion by Stephen M. Barr is not always an easy read for those without a science background. References to such concepts as “probabilities in quantum mechanics,” “wave particle duality,” photoelectric effect,” “quanta” and “gauge symmetries in electromagnetism” can be difficult to follow. But it’s worth the effort. The person of faith can take heart from the fact that his faith is completely compatible with what modern science tells us about physics, chemistry and biology.

Barr dismisses the narrowly literalist readings of Scriptures (like those cited to support the notion of a 6,000-year-old universe) that sometimes give religion a bad name. He also skewers the dogmatic atheism that masquerades as objective scientific argument against religion. Whether the target is ideologically driven assumptions or the misinterpretation of scientific principles, Barr’s scientific detective work seeks to unravel big issues: “Where the ancient pagan went wrong is in seeing the supernatural everywhere in the world around him. Where the modern materialist goes wrong is in failing to see that which goes beyond physical nature in himself.” To those who contend that man in nothing but “a pack of neurons,” Barr counters with the aspects of the human mind—“such as consciousness, free will, and the very existence of a unitary self”—that cannot be accounted for by materialism. Distinguishing between primary and secondary causality, Barr sees nothing in evolution to contradict the workings of divine providence. The doctrine of providence tells us that that everything unfolds according to a divine plan: “It does not tell us the mix of law and chance, or of necessity and contingency, that God chose to use in his plan.”

By definition, nature works according to physical laws; overt divine intervention into nature can therefore only be a rare (miraculous) exception to the way the physical world around us works. But that tells us nothing about the intention and will behind those physical laws. What Barr finds more instructive, by way of circumstantial evidence, is the astonishing “beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony” that science keeps on discovering in the natural world. And a plethora of “anthropic coincidences” (in the way the laws of physics, chemistry and biology work) undergird the existence of life as we know it. Change any of innumerable variables and we would not exist: “If certain parameters of particle physics were even slightly different…either stars would never have formed or biochemistry would not be possible.” Proof positive of divine design? No, but it is assuredly compatible with it. Likewise, the postulated “Big Bang” may be consistent with religion’s message that the universe had a beginning; but Barr argues that the truth of the latter does not depend upon the ultimate validity of the former.

Barr shows how scientific materialism (the claim that everything can be reduced to the behaviour of particles), physicalism and reductionism—all of them legitimate principles in science—are often ideologically misapplied to deny the existence of what lies outside the natural world. And, for its part, scientific determinism has been circumscribed by science itself, courtesy of quantum mechanics, a physical system that yields probabilities, rather than definite outcomes produced by implacable physical forces.

Because Barr’s book is a collection of writings (essays and reviews of other books), there is some overlap and repetition of points and illustrations—like his useful analogy of a play: Is what happens within the play the result of its characters’ actions (horizontal causality) or because the playwright wrote the play that way (vertical causality)? Barr says both are true at the same time, without limiting our free will. He’s at his most engaging in his witty moments: puncturing the scientific fallacy that all human behaviour can be understood physically, Barr slyly comments that the author under his scrutiny “may know more than his brain, but according to [his] own theory, it is his brain that wrote the book…I wonder how [his brain] wrote so knowledgeably about all the things [he] knows and his brain does not.” On the same point, Barr adds wryly that, “We should listen to great scientific minds because they are great scientific minds. However, when they begin to tell us that they really have no minds at all, we are entitled to ignore them.”

Copyright © 2017 by John Arkelian.





  • John Arkelian

    John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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