Catholic physicist asserts harmony between faith, science

| April 12, 2019 | 0 Comments

Stephen Barr has a theory. 

It’s not uncharted territory for Barr, an expert in theoretical particle physics at the University of Delaware who has been recognized by the American Physical Society for “original contributions to grand unified theories.” It’s his forte.

Physicist Stephen Barr delivers the lecture “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith” at the University of Minnesota April 4. He is the founder of the Society of Catholic Scientists, an international lay organization that now has more than 1,000 members.

Physicist Stephen Barr delivers the lecture “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith” at the University of Minnesota April 4. He is the founder of the Society of Catholic Scientists, an international lay organization that now has more than 1,000 members. DAVID BERG PHOTOGRAPHY | COURTESY ANSELM HOUSE

But this particular theory is less an account of some scientific question than it is an insight into the dialogue between religion and science.

“A philosopher or a theologian can say there’s no conflict between science and religion,” Barr told The Catholic Spirit during his April 4 visit to the University of Minnesota to deliver a lecture on the topic. “But people aren’t going to believe it until they hear a scientist say there’s no conflict between science and religion.”

Barr, 65, is putting his theory into practice. A Catholic, he plans to step down from his tenured university position to promote an international lay organization he founded three years ago that is devoted to the interplay of science and religion. And he’s going on speaking tours, including his delivery at the university’s St. Paul Student Center Theater of the sixth annual V. Elving Anderson Lecture in Science and Religion, hosted by Anselm House, a Christian study center serving the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.

In a speech titled “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith,” Barr described what he called the harmony between Christian theology and the findings of physics and cosmology on a variety of topics, including the universe’s created status and its temporal beginning in time.

Barr drew connections between the book of Genesis and Einstein’s theory of relativity, and between the works of 13th-century theologian St. Bonaventure and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. He used creative analogies, arguing at one point that equating the universe’s temporal beginning with its ultimate cause would be just as faulty as saying that the opening lines of a novel explain its origin.

“If someone asked you, ‘Why is there the novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities?’ it’d be silly to answer, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’” he quipped.

In addition to illustrating connections between the claims of faith and science, Barr made more general points about that relationship. He noted that physics can’t explain “why there’s an actual universe to describe.” And he argued that natural and supernatural explanations for the same phenomenon, such as creation and evolution, don’t need to be viewed as in conflict.

More than 300 people attended the lecture. Several attendees noted Barr’s humility when addressing the wonders of the universe and the ability to find answers through science.

“It was impactful to hear someone so well accomplished in the sciences be so devout in his faith,” said John Hill Price, 26, a doctoral candidate in plant genetics at the U of M.

During his visit to the Twin Cities, Barr also participated in a faculty roundtable, spoke to Anselm’s student fellows and led a workshop with campus ministers.

“Because of his caliber as a scientist and his active involvement in the faith and science dialogue, he’s been on our radar for a long time,” said Andrew Hansen, Anselm House’s programs director.

Barr’s ability to speak authoritatively but also accessibly as a scientist and a Christian made him a compelling choice to deliver the Anderson Lecture, he said.

Barr told The Catholic Spirit that although he’s always had an interest in theology and philosophy, he didn’t begin his career seeking to become an authority on the relationship between science and religion. His formal education, which included earning a doctorate from Princeton University, focused on physics. His engagement with philosophy and theology was on what he called “a need-to-know basis.”

“It was always in response to a question that particularly gripped me at the time,” he said. “I’d just do a lot of reading and thinking about things on my own.”

Barr’s public engagement on the topic began in 1995 after reading “Shadows of the Mind,” a work by British mathematician Sir Roger Penrose. Barr thought the book had something important to say to theologians, so he wrote a review and submitted it to First Things, an American journal on religion and public life, not expecting it to be published. Not only was his review published, but First Things sent him additional books to review.

Reviews led to articles of his own, and in 2006 he published his first book exploring the relationship between science and Christianity under the same title as his speech in St. Paul: “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.”

In 2016, he founded the Society of Catholic Scientists, an international lay organization that now has more than 1,000 members. 

The society’s aim is fostering fellowship among Catholic scientists who might feel “a sense of isolation” in their field, Barr said. In turn, a robust group of Catholic scientists practicing both their faith and their profession can make a compelling case to the wider world that the truths of religion and science can be held in harmony, he said.

“We want to be a witness to the world,” Barr said. “If we have a lot of scientists, that will change people’s perspectives.”

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