NEW YORK — When he was 10 years old, John Barrow received a chemistry set from some relatives. He soon found it more fun to mix dangerous chemicals than go to church with his family.
But his early introduction to science helped to sharpen his curiosity and ultimately led him to wonder how the universe began. His interest in cosmology, the study of the universe, stuck with him through college and beyond, when he started writing books, magazine articles, and even a play. He also became a pioneer of the "anthropic principle," which in his own words relates to "how you understand why there is a link between the universe in its vastness and life here on earth."
Wednesday, Mr. Barrow's research into the relationship of humans to the universe, as well as his strong Christian faith, helped him win one of the world's renowned honors: the $1.4 million Templeton Prize for "progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities."
The prize is given annually by Sir John Templeton, a renowned stock-market guru and founder of Templeton mutual funds. Past winners have included Mother Teresa and the Rev. Billy Graham. In recent years, the award has increasingly gone to scientists who reconcile their research with religion.
Barrow's interest in the "place of humanity in the universe," has prompted him to become a prolific author of more than 400 articles, popular books, and a play on the nature of infinity that won wide acclaim in Italy.
One reason for his many writings, he explains, is his desire to make science accessible to lay people, many of whom have religious beliefs and support scientific research. In 1999, Barrow launched a public education program at Cambridge University in Britain. Called the Millennium Mathematics Project, it aims to spark interest in math among schoolchildren, teachers, and the general public. Last month, the project won a prize from Britain's Queen Elizabeth.
In an interview at a New York hotel, Barrow says in his refined British accent that he still attends church weekly, with his wife in Cambridge, England.
But he appears uncomfortable speaking about his own religious beliefs, preferring to discuss the relation between scientific and religious theories. Barrow says the two fields do not contradict as long as each is kept in its own sphere. "[The Bible] is not attempting to explain the [science] of the origin of the earth," he says, "any more than we would use a physics textbook to try to tell people how they should act. That was not the purpose of the Bible, or scriptures in other traditions, and there is a long history of disasters following this type of literal interpretation of the textual materials."
Despite what he sees as the separate spheres of religion and science, Barrow sees an overlap between them. "There are important intersections between the sort of questions people in theology ask about the universe, and people in science ask about the universe," he says.
Barrow not only sees shared questions in religion and science, but also the possibility of shared beliefs. "The place that physicists and astronomers are most interested, as it were, in looking for the hand of God is at the level of the laws of nature - you know, things that you don't see, the overall rationality of the universe," he says.
The mere mention of God in discussions of science can spark fierce opposition in the scientific community. Columbia University astronomy professor Arlin Crotts wants religion put out of discussions about the creation of the universe, a view shared by many of his colleagues.
"We are finding out a lot without worrying about religious questions," Professor Crotts says, "and that's just such a charged topic that it's almost worth not bringing it up. It's probably good to just look at the results coming out of your instruments than worrying too much about things that are contaminated with a lot of preconceived notions."
In the United States, the role of religion in science has become a source of heated controversy on school boards and in courtrooms. Last December, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that a school district had violated the constitutional principle of church-state separation by instructing students on "intelligent design."
Barrow says these religion-and-science controversies are unnecessary and that the key to calming the storm in the US is better education.
"Fortunately we don't have this problem in Britain and Europe," Mr. Barrow says. Because Americans aren't taught about religion in school, he says, "it's possible for rather harebrained and untutored ideas about the interpretation of the Bible and the Christian tradition to arise unchecked."
Just as he thinks scientists should learn about religion in school, Barrow wants religious seminaries to include instruction in the sciences. "Serious religious education should embrace what's going on in science. It should raise important questions about the attraction between science and religion," he says.
Barrow agrees with the theological view of an abstract and all-encompassing God, a belief that he says never conflicts with his scientific research. "I certainly don't believe that there is some fundamental difference or conflict between a theistic perspective on the world and the practice of science and what science discovers about the world."
Barrow says scientific discoveries do not threaten religion because God does not fill in the gaps of unanswered scientific questions. Instead, he says, widely accepted theological views see God as having an all-encompassing and sustaining role in the broader theoretical questions of the universe. "I don't go along with this idea that God somehow sort of tinkers and arranges things here and there," he says.
Barrow is not sure how he will use his prize money, but says there are "good causes that I have in mind that would benefit from an anonymous contribution."