Stephen Barr: Conflict Between Religion and Science or Religion and Materialism?

Augustine Pamplany CST

Stephen Barr is an American Physicist and author of several well-known books. He teaches at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware. Barr does research in Theoretical Particle Physics and cosmology.

Barr thinks the right coinage of terminologies is very important in science-religion dialogue. He does not see any conflict between science and religion. Rather what is termed as science-religion conflict is the conflict between religion and materialism. According to Barr, “What many take to be a conflict between religion and science is really something else. It is a conflict between religion and materialism. Materialism regards itself as scientific, and indeed is often called ‘scientific materialism,’ even by its opponents, but it has no legitimate claim to be part of science. It is, rather, a school of philosophy, one defined by the belief that nothing exists except matter, or, as Democritus put it, ‘atoms and the void.’’

His book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith deals significantly with quantum physics and its interdisciplinary implications. To the question, does quantum mechanics make it easier to believe in God?, Barr’s answer is straight forward: “No, not in any direct way. It doesn’t provide an argument for the existence of God. But it does so indirectly, by providing an argument against materialism, which is the main intellectual opponent of belief in God in today’s world.”

Barr upholds the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics that attributes a significant role to the observer in defining the observed in the experiment. He thinks that this version disposes off the determinism and materialism that was held for long in science. “My own opinion is that the traditional Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory still makes the most sense. In two respects, it seems quite congenial to the worldview of the biblical religions: It abolishes physical determinism, and it gives a special ontological status to the mind of the human observer.”

While respecting science and knowledge in every field, he is keen to emphasize the subjective discernment that is required in making meaning for oneself: “My own guiding principle is to trust the experts on anything purely technical, but to rely more on my own judgment as far as human realities go. I trust the architect on what keeps the building up, but not on what is beautiful. I trust the paediatrician, but not always the child psychologist. My own feeling was that if it took a degree to raise a child properly, the human race would have died out 100,000 years ago.”

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