An Interview with Stephen M. Barr

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


Stephen M. Barr is a Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Delaware. He received his Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics from Princeton University in 1978. Princeton awarded him the Charlotte Elizabeth Proctor Fellowship "for distinguished research". He went on to research at the University of Pennsylvania as a post-doctoral fellow, the University of Washington as a Research Assistant Professor, and Brookhaven National Laboratory as an Associate Scientist, before joining the faculty of the University of Delaware in 1987. He was elected Director of the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware in 2011. His physics research centers mainly on “grand unified theories” and the cosmology of the early universe. He has written 170 research papers and was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 2011 “for original contributions to grand unification, CP violation, and baryogenesis.” Prof. Barr has written extensively and lectured widely on the relation of science and religion. Many of his articles and reviews have appeared in First Things, on whose Advisory Council he has served, and many other national publications, including The Public Interest, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Commonweal, Public Discourse, and The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2003), A Student’s Guide to Natural Science (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006), Science and Religion: The myth of conflict (Catholic Truth Society, 2011), and The Believing Scientist: essays on science and religion (Eerdmans, 2016). He received the Benemerenti Medal from Pope Benedict XVI. He was elected to the Academy of Catholic Theology in 2010. Prof. Barr is the founding president of the Society of Catholic Scientists, an international organization that started in the summer of 2016 and has grown to over 1,100 members in 44 countries. (www.catholicscientists.org). He and his wife Kathleen have five grown children and live in Newark, Delaware.


Dr. Knight: It seems that you are moved by a great desire to help other people see the harmony of faith and science. Can you say how you were called to undertake this work?


Dr. Barr: In my case, the call did not come suddenly and dramatically. Sometimes a call comes through the circumstances God puts us in. If you see someone drowning and you are the closest person who can swim, that is God calling you to jump into the water. That is how it was with me and what I am doing. I was troubled by the fact that so many people seem to lose their faith and fall away from the Church because they think there is a conflict between science and belief in God. I felt that I could help such people as a scientist who has reflected upon these questions for many years.


Dr. Knight: Your work in physics and cosmology has addressed many of the mysteries of the physical universe, how does this connect to your faith life?


Dr. Barr: Science and faith have some common roots. Very basic to both is a sense of wonder. Also, a belief that the world makes sense, that the deepest questions have answers, and that these answers will turn out to answer worth having. Of course, the questions that science can answer are not as important as those our faith answers. It is far more important to know God than to know the workings of nature. Nevertheless, the world is God’s creation, and as such is very beautiful and worth studying. The great scientist Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion four centuries ago, said, “I thank you Lord God our Creator, that you have allowed me to see the beauty in your work of Creation.” This was the attitude of almost all the great scientists for centuries. While I have not made great discoveries like Kepler, I feel privileged to work in a very fundamental field of science where I can see some of the deepest inner harmonies of nature. The contemplation of such things is a form of prayer.


Dr. Knight: How has your education led you to be so involved in the sciences?


Dr. Barr: It wasn’t my formal education that did that. I was always interested in mathematics and science since I was very small. Even in second grade, I was called the “absent-minded professor.” While my older brothers were out playing touch football, I was curled up with books of mathematical puzzles.


Dr. Knight: The University of Delaware is not a Catholic University did this present any conflicts for you?


Dr. Barr: Not at all. I had a crucifix on my office wall. That was a silent witness, and some students were led to discuss religion with me --- students who were Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, atheist, and so on. (I almost exclusively taught classes for graduate students.) I made it a practice not to discuss these matters with students who were currently in my class or who would be later on since I did not want to create a situation where someone might suspect that their religious views (or anti-religious views) might influence my opinion of them. But after students were no longer in my classes, I had many good conversations with them. I have also given two very well-attended public lectures on science and faith at my university and many such talks on the campuses of about sixty other colleges and universities both public and private. I am now retiring from active duty as a professor to devote my full time to leading the Society of Catholic Scientists and to writing and speaking on faith and science.


Dr. Knight: Do societal changes affect our faith life?


Dr. Barr: I think they do in many ways. Some of these changes are good and some bad. But none of these changes stop us from praying, from loving God and neighbor, and from being faithful Catholics. They can present difficult challenges. But I think one reason we were put in this world is to face challenges. We may not always be up to them, but we are told not to despair. Christ said, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” And St. Teresa of Calcutta said that we are not called to be successful, but faithful.


Dr. Knight: What influences do you see manifest that keep people away from Christ and His Church?


Dr. Barr: The one that chiefly I focus on is called “scientific atheism” or “scientific materialism.” Many claims that science implies that nothing exists except matter and the laws of physics that govern it. God and the soul are therefore fictions, they say. Science, of course, implies no such thing. That is just philosophical “spin” that some have put on the discoveries of science. It goes along with the false notion that science and religion have always been at war. Any competent historian of science will tell you that this is a complete myth.


Dr. Knight: How can we help people to stay connected to Christ and His Church in the face of these influences?


Dr. Barr: Many things are starting to be done. In 2016, some colleagues and I started the Society of Catholic Scientists. It has quickly grown to 1,100 members in 44 countries and is continuing to grow strongly. We exist to create fellowship among Catholics scientists and science students, and increasingly we will be engaging in public education on science and faith. The first-ever textbook on science and faith for Catholic students, written by Christopher T. Baglow, was published in 2009, and a new and even better edition is about to come out. The McGrath Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame has been running summer programs on faith and science for Catholic high school teachers. Various Catholic groups, such as the Thomistic Institute, the Lumen Christi Institute, and the Collegium Institute, sponsor campus talks on science and faith. Fr. Robert Spitzer’s Magis Institute and Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire Institute are creating materials on the subject. The US bishops are becoming very interested in all of this. I would encourage those of your readers who are Catholic scientists, or science students at the graduate or undergrad level to join the Society of Catholic Scientists. I think they will find it rewarding, and their dues will help us grow and spread the word. This is a concrete way they can participate in the New Evangelization.


Dr. Knight: How do you work on evangelization in a very secular society?


Dr. Barr: With patience, charity, and intelligence. And, of course, prayer. And those who want to be involved in the intellectual side of evangelization should first prepare themselves by the study.


Dr. Knight: What are the most difficult responsibilities you have had in your work? What are some of the most pleasant responsibilities?


Dr. Barr: I find the administration and organizing the most difficult, and writing and lecturing the most enjoyable.


Dr. Knight: What mantra do you have that you would like people who come into contact with you to remember?


Dr. Barr: Perhaps this: The conflict is not between religion and science but between religion and ‘scientific materialism’. Or maybe this: Science proceeds by a winding road, but that road leads in the end to the truth, and therefore closer to God.”

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