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Templeton winner coaxed science and religion to talk

Exploring the mysteries of nuclear physics did not prevent Ian Barbour from pondering the mysteries of God.

Though quarks and electrons captured his imagination early in his career, theology and ethics soon became just as important to him. And like many others, Dr. Barbour wondered how science and religion related, or if they could be reconciled at all. His determination to find an answer launched a new era in the interdisciplinary study of science and religion.

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After 50 years as a distinguished physicist and theologian, Barbour received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion for his efforts to develop a dialogue between science and religion, and for his forceful advocating of ethics in technology. The $1.24 million prize was announced yesterday at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York.

"If there were a hall of fame for intellectuals, Ian Barbour would already have his plaque on the wall," says Ted Peters of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif. "He has established the field, and he continues to keep the field healthy and intellectually honest."

When Barbour began his work in the 1950s, he realized there were not many scientists who knew much about theology, and there were even fewer theologians who knew much about science. But it seemed to him that both these disciplines could not ignore each other.

"The applications of science raised questions which science itself couldn't answer," Barbour says. "Starting with the A-bomb, and then to other issues - environmental issues, genetic engineering, for example - raised more ethical and human concerns that a strict scientific method could not provide an answer to." At the same time, however, science was raising important challenges to religion, and theologians were not paying attention. "Evolution is the most important idea in all of science, and theologians were not seeing the implications of evolution on ideas of human nature, creation, or God's relation to the world."

In drawing upon the wisdom of both scientific and religious communities, Barbour has explored the religious implications of theories of the "big bang" and ways in which traditional concepts of God and of human nature can be reformulated in light of evolutionary theory.

"Theologians just were not in dialogue with scientists, and that was what I wanted to encourage, and that's why I wrote my first book," he says.

If the spheres of science and religion did not intersect when Barbour began his work, his training brought him the best each had to offer. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1949, a time of "greats," as he says, studying with such luminaries as Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller, the designers of the first atomic chain reaction.

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Barbour later studied theology at Yale. This was another time of "greats," he says, and he studied with theologians such as Richard Niebuhr and Roland Bainton. After receiving his master of divinity degree in 1956, he went to Carleton College in Minnesota to teach both physics and religion and has remained there ever since.

Teaching these two disciplines simultaneously led to the groundbreaking book "Issues in Science and Religion" (Prentice-Hall, 1965), in which he defined a new, interdisciplinary field that integrated the two disciplines. Barbour's Templeton nomination said that "Issues" "literally created the current field of science and religion." This and his later book, "Religion in an Age of Science," continue to be the most widely used texts in the field.

It is easy, given his central importance to the discipline of science and religion, to overlook his work in technology and ethics, says Dr. Peters, a theologian working on the human genome project. Barbour's book "Ethics in an Age of Technology" received the 1993 book award of the American Academy of Religion. Here he applies Christian ethics to such areas as cloning and genetic engineering.

Barbour says he plans to give $1 million of his prize to the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. Previous winners include Mother Theresa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Billy Graham.

Asked if he considered himself first a scientist or a theologian, Barbour replies, "I hope I'm a human being first. And one struggling to make sense of these different areas."

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