Is Modern Science Compatible with Christianity?

A Review of Stephen M. Barr’s book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.

Professor Stephen M. Barr has written an accessible yet scientifically in-depth book that shows how science, over the last one hundred years, has made several discoveries which strengthen the arguments for the existence of God. His book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith was published by the University of Notre Dame press in 2003. All citations below are taken from his book.

Barr explained that over the last few centuries there has been a brooding conflict between religion and materialism. He defined materialism as the philosophical view that nothing exists except matter (p. 1). Materialism is distinct from science in that materialism is a certain philosophy, position, or outlook whereas science is a method of gaining knowledge. It can be difficult for some to distinguish between science and materialism because many scientists have strongly promoted the idea that materialism is the correct conclusion of science.

Looking back over the scientific discoveries up through the nineteenth century, one can understand why many scientists might have been led to believe materialism was correct. Religious beliefs, specifically ones that claimed that there was more to the universe than just matter, seemed to be altogether defeated by these scientific discoveries, at least in the minds of many scientists and philosophers.

Barr was motivated to write this book because he believed the scientific situation has radically changed over the last hundred years. He argued that there has been a huge plot twist; whereas up through the nineteenth century all the scientific evidence seemed to point to materialism, now in the last hundred years evidence has come in that seems to instead support what religious people have always believed, that there is more to the universe than mere matter. Our scientific understanding of the world today did not turn out like the materialists of the past thought it would. In his book Barr explained what these discoveries are and their implications.

Barr admits that he wrote his book from the position of someone who believes in a traditional religion, namely Christianity. He has also worked in the field of modern physics for many decades (p. 2). He earned his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University in 1979 and since then has done high level research in theoretical particle physics and cosmology. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and is currently Professor of Theoretical Particle Physics at the Bartol Research Institute at the University of Delaware.

Barr explained that the main question he tried to answer is “whether the actual discoveries of science have undercut the central claims of religion, specifically the great monotheistic religions of the Bible, Judaism and Christianity, or whether those discoveries have actually, in certain important respects, damaged the credibility of materialism” (p. 3). The thesis he argued for is “that on the critical points recent discoveries have begun to confound the materialist’s expectations and confirm those of the believer in God” (p. 29).

Barr’s Arguments: Plot Twists

To support his thesis, Barr presented five scientific discoveries made in the last hundred years which provide evidence that there’s more to the universe than just matter. He referred to these five scientific discoveries as five “plot twists” because they all differed from what materialistic scientists had expected to find.

The first plot twist, covered in chapters four through eight, concerns the big bang. This discovery confirmed that the universe had a beginning and hence supports the classic Cosmological Argument for God’s existence. The second plot twist, covered in chapters nine through thirteen, has to do with finding design in the form of symmetry at more and more foundational levels of physics; this supports the Teleological Argument for God’s existence. The third plot twist, covered in chapters fourteen through eighteen, is the notion of Anthropic Principles, i.e., indications that the universe seems fine-tuned for life to exist and develop; this also supports the Teleological Argument.

The fourth plot twist, covered in chapters twenty-two through twenty-three, is Gödel’s Theorem; it provides a mathematical argument that the human mind is more than a machine. Not only does this theorem provide evidence that human beings are more than just their material parts, it also, indirectly, supports the Moral Argument for God’s existence. Lastly, the fifth plot twist, covered in chapters nineteen through twenty-one and twenty-four through twenty-six, came about from the development of quantum theory. This theory opens up the door for the possibility of free will and a role for the human intellect as an immaterial observer, both of which had been previously dismissed by more deterministic scientific materialism. These results of quantum theory also have implications for the Moral Argument.

Plot Twist #1: The Big Bang Confirmed the Universe Had a Beginning

At the end of the 1800s most scientists agreed that the evidence pointed to the universe having existed for all eternity past. Materialists viewed this favorably because they recognized that something eternal was self sustaining; i.e., it did not need a cause which explained its existence. But in the 1900s there were several discoveries that provided evidence the universe did, in fact, have a beginning. Edwin Hubble observed that everything was shifted to the red end of the light spectrum, evidence that everything in the universe was moving away from everything else. Albert Einstein’s general relativity calculations led to the universe having a beginning, but to avoid such a conclusion he inserted as fudge factor, his cosmological constant, such that the equation would result in an eternal universe. Later, he admitted this was the biggest blunder of his life. Two scientists at Bell Labs detected afterglow radiation confirming the big bang, which pointed to the universe having a beginning.

Many scientists at first resisted this conclusion because they realized the metaphysical implications. Materialists understood that everything that has a beginning has a cause; that is why they took the idea of an eternal universe as evidence for their position. Now, it’s generally accepted that all space, time, and matter began at the big bang.

Plot Twist #2: Scientists Discovered Design at Deeper and Deeper Levels

For the sake of argument, Barr assumed that natural selection is a sufficient explanation for the biological development of life on this planet, though he personally believes this is still an open scientific question (p. 109). He argued that, even if evolution is true, this does not allow us to escape from the implications of the design argument for God. He wrote:

Paley finds a “watch,” and asks how such a thing could have come to be there by chance. Dawkins finds an immense automated factory that blindly constructs watches, and feels that he has completely answered Paley’s point. But that is absurd. How can a factory that makes watches be less in need of explanation than the watches themselves? Paley, if still alive, would be entitled to ask Dawkins how his Blind Watchmaker came to be there (p. 111).

Order never arises from chaos; the order that we see unfolding only does so because there is order, in the form of symmetry, already there underneath the surface at a deeper level. The order we see is the direct result of underlying symmetry that is built into the basic laws of nature. Barr points out that the deeper scientists have delved, even down to the quantum level, the more order has been uncovered. The further back we go, we find that there is not less order and design to explain but actually more.

Plot Twist #3: Anthropic Principles as Evidence for Cosmic Design

In the last few decades scientists have begun to take note of certain coincidences about our physical universe. As those who design spaceships meant to sustain humans lives can attest, life can only exist if numerous factors are set to precise specifications. Similarly, our universe seems to have been finely tuned for intelligent life to develop and thrive. Because the laws of physics are set just so, this has led some to believe that we were built into the universe from the beginning. Barr gave eleven examples of such finely tuned constants in chapter fifteen. For example, scientists have:

…discovered that indeed carbon does have an energy level at 7.66 MeV. What if this energy level of carbon had been at a slightly different energy? What if it had been 7.5 MeV or 7.9 MeV instead? In that case the three-alpha process would not have been resonantly enhanced, very little carbon would have been synthesized in stars, the building up of the elements would have been stymied, and there would be very little ordinary matter in the universe except hydrogen and helium (p. 123).

Barr used these examples of physical constants as evidence to argue that our universe must have been designed for life.

Plot Twist #4: Godel’s Theorem Showed the Human Mind Was More Than a Machine

Up through the end of the 1800s, science seemed to be at odds with what religious believers had always thought about the immateriality of the human mind, free will, and intelligence. Early scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton viewed the universe as a vast machine but did not think of man as part of that machine. Mankind, at least at the level of intellect and choice, was not mechanically determined, not governed by set laws of cause and effect. Human beings were different; they stood outside the machine and hence could make real moral choices. But throughout the 1800s more and more people began to view man as being part of the machine, as being determined by the laws of nature just like everything else. Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution were interpreted by many to show that mankind came from the natural workings of the machine-like universe, and, hence, humans were merely material machines themselves.

A plot twist came about in 1931, however, from the mathematical logician Kurt Gödel. His theorem showed that understanding cannot simply be reduced to mere computation. His argument has been restated and strongly defended most recently by mathematician and physicist Roger Penrose: “What lies behind Gödel’s Theorem, then, and the argument that Lucas and Penrose base on it, is the ability of the mind to go beyond a given specified set of rules and procedures to an insight into those rules” (p. 222). This is something that a mere computation device with a set amount of rules and procedures cannot do. No one has refuted this argument yet, but it has not changed the minds of many scientists who continue to hold onto materialism (p. 214).

Plot Twist #5: Quantum Mechanics Opened a Door for Free Will and Immaterial Intelligence

Another discovery, this time in the area of physics, also gave credence to the notion that the human mind is more than just its material parts. Discoveries in the area of quantum theory strengthened the case against a materialistic view of human beings. At the quantum level scientists have discovered that things do not work deterministically like Newtonian physics had predicted. Instead, we can only calculate relative probabilities of possible future outcomes. Since every physical process is ultimately governed by the principles of quantum mechanics, this has caused scientists to pull back from the physical determinism which seemed to leave no room for human free will. While this does not prove free will per se, it does open up the possibility for free will; because various outcomes are possible, this provides room for the ability to make choices.

Quantum theory also bolstered Gödel’s Theorem in that it showed the importance of the observer. The observer himself cannot be totally described by the mathematics of quantum mechanics. Some have interpreted this to mean that there is at least something about the observer that is non-physical. The observer is beyond the ability of quantum mechanics to explain; since he cannot be considered part of the physical system that is being described, he must be on a different level.

Weaknesses of Barr’s Approach

First, the structure of the book was a bit confusing. Barr divided up the book into five sections, which he called parts, but the five parts did not line up with the five plot twists. The twenty-six chapters were similarly confusing; from their titles it was difficult to tell which chapters discussed which plot twist. The fifth plot twist, quantum theory, was covered partly before the fourth, Gödel’s Theorem, and partly after. It would have simplified things for the reader if Barr would have organized his five parts around the five plot twists that he introduced at the beginning.

Second, Barr failed to explain how some Christian groups are partly to blame for materialists thinking that accepting a religious proposition by faith puts such “proposition beyond the reach of reason, beyond discussion, beyond evidence, beyond curiosity or investigation” (p. 11). It is true that many materialists unfortunately view faith this way, and it is refreshing to see that Barr made a strong case that faith is not such a blind leap in the dark. He explained that “before accepting religious dogmas we must have some sufficient rational grounds for believing that there is in fact a God, and that he has indeed revealed himself to man, and that this revelation truly is to be found where it is claimed to be found” (p. 12). Unfortunately, many Christian groups in the 1800s and 1900s did embrace an irrational, non-evidential view of faith, partly as an attempt to protect their Christian beliefs from scientific investigation and possible refutation. This blind-faith type of Christianity is partly to blame for confirming, if not creating, the stereotype many materialists have of religious people holding to some form of blind faith.

Third, Barr takes too strong a stance on human beings being able to know things with absolute certainty (pp. 200-204). He tries to make the argument that, since we can have absolute certainty in our knowledge, then therefore materialism must not be true. This modernist position is not necessary to the main evidences that support his argument, the five plot twists, and it may draw unnecessary criticism from postmodernists and critical realists.

Lastly, Barr does not spend much time discussing how materialists have interpreted these five new scientific discoveries. His book would benefit from more interaction with atheists who continue to hold onto materialism in spite of these discoveries. Then he could critique their best arguments for holding onto materialism in light of these discoveries.

Strengths of Barr’s Approach

In Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, Barr implicitly assumes a robust natural theology, i.e., that God reveals Himself through general revelation in the material world He created. I find this to be a strength because I believe this is what Paul meant when he wrote “that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20). Unfortunately, this type of natural theology is not very popular today. Many Christian groups, albeit for different reasons, do not see natural theology as very useful. I find this unfortunate because neglecting God’s general revelation of Himself in nature robs people of an opportunity to strengthen their faith. Many times while reading Barr’s book, I personally felt as though I was having devotions and often broke out in private worship, being overwhelmed by what He has created and how it all points back to Him.

Second, Barr treated his opponents with love and respect according to 1 Peter 3:15. He was fair to those with whom he disagreed, he did not use ad hominem arguments, and he acknowledged when those he disagreed with made a valid point. For example, he wrote:

It would seem, then, that the atheist is making an absurd argument when he says that the laws of nature have some kind of ultimate status that would permit one to dispense with a lawgiver or designer. However, there is really more to the atheist’s point of view than would appear from this chair analogy. The atheist has a point to make which is worthy of serious consideration (p. 77).

Third, Barr is always clear to point out that he is not presenting conclusive proof that God does, in fact, exist. People often misunderstand Christians to be saying this when they make such arguments from natural theology, but Barr repeatedly wrote that “this book is not about rigorous proofs. It is not a question of whose view, the theist’s or the materialist’s, can be rigorously proven from the scientific facts, but rather whose view is rendered more credible by the scientific facts” (p. 144).

Lastly, this book is all the more powerful in that it was written by a well credentialed scientist, an expert in the specific fields that were addressed. There are many similar books by Christian apologists but which lack the technical expertise and in-depth understanding. Instead of having to worry about a Christian apologist perhaps misunderstanding or mistranslating the science as they receive it from the experts, here you have a well-established scientist explaining these arguments directly and yet in a way that a lay person can understand.


Barr wrote in such a way that is technical enough to satisfy the expert and yet does not leave a person bewildered and confused by unnecessary detail. He never belittled the lay reader by making him feel that, because he’s not a scientist, he could not understand the real implications of the arguments. Often, when he was about to cover more technical material, he informed the lay reader and explained that he could skip the next few pages without losing the basic form of the argument. For the more advanced readers, Barr included more detail in three appendices: A. God, Time, and Creation; B. Attempts to Explain the Beginning Scientifically; and C. Gödel’s Theorem. He also included seventeen pages of footnotes which point the reader to more technical works.

The next step for Barr would be to dialogue with materialists who push back against his conclusions. It would be informative to see how materialists have responded to these five plot twists, to see how they have interpreted them so that they fit with their materialistic beliefs. I would suggest that Barr next publish a book with a similarly credentialed materialistic scientist where they both have the opportunity to critique one another’s argument point by point.

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith presents detailed evidence against materialism and for the existence of God. There are many books that do a similar task, but Barr’s is most valuable because it was written not by a pastor or Christian apologist but by a scientist, a recognized expert in many of the fields discussed in the book. This doesn’t necessarily make him more objective or less biased, but it does mean that he fully understands the intricate scientific details that he is discussing.

Convincing Proof