Peter Higgs, of the Higgs-Boson, Doesn’t Like Richard Dawkins’ Style

Peter Higgs has been a prominent figure in the world of physics for decades, but since the confirmation of the existence of the particle he postulated in 1963, he has become a household name and is in hot demand for interviews for general audiences. He gave one such interview to the Spanish daily El Mundo (you can see relevant bits in English here).

Peter Higgs (via Wikipedia)

There is no real reason to ask a world-renowned scientist about religion, but Higgs was game. He gets this a lot, I’m sure, since the popular name of the Higgs-Boson particle is “the God particle.” The fact that Higgs himself did not give it this name, does not approve of it, and admits that the name itself was originally slated to be the “Goddamn particle” doesn’t seem to faze reporters one bit. This is the God particle guy, so questions about religion are automatically relevant!

Asked about the “God particle,” Higgs took the opportunity to stress — yet again — that he dislikes the name. According to Higgs, the name “causes confusion” and he is especially unhappy with attempts by evangelical Christians to use his science to support their religious claims. Unfortunately, Higgs then decided to go down the false-fairness road and drag Richard Dawkins into the same sack with the fundies:

I’m not against religious people, unless they behave like extremist fanatics. The problem with Dawkins is that he concentrates all his attacks against the fundamentalists, but obviously not all believers are that. In that sense, I think sometimes Dawkins himself is the one that ends up adopting a fundamentalist attitude in the opposite direction.

I’ll admit that seeing Higgs adopt this tired old attitude of “well you’re just as extremist as they are” is disheartening, but in the end it’s simply a reminder that most people, even most atheists, are not engaged enough in the debates we see every day to understand when an argument has been beaten into the ground. Once again, for the umpteenth time, the equivalence between activist atheists and fundamentalist theists is absurd. When the people at RichardDawkins.net or this blog start advocating for the criminalization of religion and governmental declarations of the non-existence of God, you may have a point. Dawkins can be brash, opinionated, and even rude — sometimes — but to say he is the same as the religious fundamentalists he opposes is to not understand him or them.

Peter Higgs is an atheist, but he believes that science and religion can coexist:

The growth of our understanding of the world through science weakens some of the motivation which makes people believers. But that’s not the same thing as saying they’re incompatible. It’s just that I think some of the traditional reasons for belief, going back thousands of years, are rather undermined. But that doesn’t end the whole thing.  Anybody who is a convinced but not a dogmatic believer can continue to hold his belief. It means you have to be rather more careful about the whole debate between science and religion than some people have been in the past.

Higgs’ position is actually an extremely common one. The fact is that though scientists certainly skew atheist, there are many religious ones (perhaps, most notably, Francis Collins), proving by their very existence that holding religious beliefs and a having scientific mindset is possible. Beyond that, for many scientists, acceptance of science is the top priority. Anything that would put that at risk, like the insinuation that religious faith and the scientific mindset are opposed to one another, must be confronted. If you move in the extremely educated circles that Higgs moves, the religious people you will meet will be likewise very educated, so it’s easy to imagine that religion isn’t really a problem, and that fundamentalist religions could be best combated through proper education in the realities of the Universe. After all, fundamentalism rarely survives high levels of education.

Higgs is what more activist atheists pejoratively label an “accommodationist,” an atheist who will condemn the more angry atheist approaches in favor of alliances with the moderately religious. Though maddening sometimes, people who reassure the religious that science and religion are compatible are absolutely necessary, even for those who desire to see all religion, even moderate versions, fade away. Greater acceptance of science weakens religion, a fact Creationists know too well. If people are drawn into acceptance of scientific realities in part through the promise that they won’t have to let go of their God, that is good news for all of us.

In the meantime, however, I hope Dr. Higgs learns to take a little more care in his terminology. After all, he knows all too well how bad labeling can lead to bad understanding.

About Claudia

I'm a lifelong atheist and a molecular biologist with a passion for science and a passionate opposition to its enemies.

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    I think people who think that atheists get too extreme don’t see what religious fanaticism is because they aren’t religious fanaticism. People calling for violence against gays happen in other countries, like Pakistan. No one gets assaulted in the US for being an atheist. No one gets denied a job for not espousing religious beliefs.

    Except of curse that they do.

  • JustinB

    “he [Dr. Higgs] knows all too well how bad labeling can lead to bad understanding.”

    Oh, good one. Right in the…well, something.

  • TooLazyToSignIn

    Nice article, but I want more. I want more about this phenomenon of scientists being religious. I have a sibling who has a PhD in a brain study field. I’m a step below in education and I have often been curious how we both subscribe ardently to science, facts, and evidence, but only one of us is an atheist. I still haven’t figured it out and I find it interesting. Hearing this about Higgs, I see now it’s more common than I thought. Although, my sibling is not simply accommodating as Higgs might be, but actually believing.

    • Pseudonym

      This is just a suggestion, but you could always talk to your sibling about it. They might have some useful thoughts.

      But I can at least talk about it personally.

      I think that they key to understanding it is that “religion”, or even “theism”, is far more heterogeneous than the media typically presents, and there’s a form of it for pretty much anyone. Generally speaking, the more educated you are, the more adapted and personal your religion becomes, but that’s not just true of religion.

      Many atheists have the impression that if it’s religion, it must have a claim to be the one true universal religion that all must follow. Needless to say, the more educated you are, the less likely you are to adopt a form of religion that believes this.

      • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

        Many atheists have the impression that if it’s religion, it must have a claim to be the one true universal religion that all must follow. Needless to say, the more educated you are, the less likely you are to adopt a form of religion that believes this.

        I’m confused why you think many atheists have that impression. We all know that there are liberal theists, and that there are faiths that don’t position themselves as the “one true faith.” But they all make supernatural claims, and it’s those supernatural claims which are being talked about here. It’s hard to understand why Lazy’s sibling, for example, would sincerely believe in those supernatural claims.

        I suppose that’s where childhood indoctrination comes in, since the vast majority of people are taught to believe in an invisible supernatural realm by the time they are toddlers. Young children are never presented with an alternate point of view, and they are taught to believe that certain deities exist long before they are old enough to understand (let alone critically analyze) the concept.

        • Pseudonym

          I’m confused why you think many atheists have that impression.

          From the comments here. Oh, I’m not suggesting that it’s “most” atheists. Just “many”.

          Nonetheless, you raise a good objection. I could have more accurately worded it as saying that “Many atheists seem to have the impression [...]“.

          BTW, not all religions “make supernatural claims”, either. Think atheistic forms of Buddhism as an obvious example.

          • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

            I’m honestly confused because I’ve never seen a comment here implying that all religions claim to be the “one true faith.” There are posts about liberal theists all the time. Anyone who knows even a smidge about, say, Jews or Unitarians knows that they don’t claim anything of the sort.

            Of course not all religions make supernatural claims, but we were talking about Lazy’s sibling, who, it was stated, is not an atheist and is “actually believing” in a deity. His or her religion obviously makes supernatural claims, and he or she believes those claims. A person doesn’t have to claim “one true faith” to believe in supernatural things.

            Lazy’s question, it seems, is why scientists like his/her sibling believe in supernatural things like the existence of deities. That question (the question of theism) has nothing to do with claims of the “one true faith” at all, so I’m not sure why you brought it up.

  • Jinx

    On a side note, I have always found it humorous that many Christians are so willing to accept Higg’s discovery simply because of its name: the God particle.

    I agree with the author of this article; most of the religious people that you will meet in the field of the sciences are not “fundamentalists.” Despite what you hear commonly from the Christian right (ironic, isn’t it?), Christian scientists have made very good contributions to our understanding of many scientific fields (including evolutionary biology).

    While the majority of scientists are skeptics, I see no problems with a religious scientist. As I have said on this site before, some of the greatest scientists of all time belonged to many religious faiths. While I cannot necessarily agree with their beliefs, I respect their works and discoveries.

  • Marco Conti

    As the article points out, having people think that they can continue to believe in both science and their religion is an asset, so that they remain perceptive to new scientific discoveries and they don’t immediately discount them as going against their dogma.

    And I am aware that many scientist, even some of the caliber of Stephen Jay Gould, try to be accommodating toward believer with the “Separate magisteria” (I think that’s the quotation, but I am not sure. Good enough for government work), But the reality is that what we know today with almost 100% certainty, completely discredits most religions and specifically discredits christianity in ways that I find impossible to reconcile.

    We know that the garden of Eden is a nice story but completely implausible. That makes the whole doctrine of the “original sin” false. If the original sin is false, then there was no need for a savior to be a god incarnate and “wash” us of this original sin. Which in turn makes the very premise of Christianity a sham.

    In a sense, I have more respect for people like Ken Ham because at least they have the intellectual honesty (I know, I know) to recognize that and choose to deny anything that contradicts his dogma. In a sense, they are the ones dealing with reality. At least the reality of their faith.

    To us Christianity is obviously based on a myth and the doctrine of the Original Sin is false. To them admitting that gives them no justifiable reason to continue believing. But if we put them against this fact, how many would choose to let go of their religion?

    Is it maybe that scientists like Higgs realize that funding for their science has to come from the religious as well as the non religious and that the former are many more than the latter?

    Or it could be that he just doesn’t give a crap one way or another as long as he gets to chase his particles.
    If that’s the case, I am OK with it. Not everyone has to be an activist. Some, like Higgs, do our work for us by just unraveling the mysteries of the universe and I am confident that their work will eventually make every religion look silly. It’ll take a while longer but it will happen.

    • Concerned Citizen

      First, that “the Eden story” is implausible doesn’t make it necessarily false, you should learn some logic. Second, many christian interpret it as a myth, though not as uneducated secularists understand ‘myth’, i.e. as amusing lies which pose as history, but as meaningful stories which speak—through analogy and allegory—about reality.

      • Quintin van Zuijlen

        Uhm, the Genesis account is thoroughly debunked by various lines of evidence. Like our genetic diversity, small enough to be accounted for by a bottleneck of about ten thousand individuals some seventy thousand years ago, far too great for two people no more than ten thousand years ago.

        If, however, you say that it’s just a story with no truth behind it, then it’s just that, a story. If you say it’s a metaphor, it must still refer to something real, yet no agreement can be reached on where original sin originates in reality if allegorically it originates with the first man and woman being deceived into eating an apple.

      • Marco Conti

        Yes, I am aware that many Christians do not believe in a literal Eden. Many others do. They also believe in a literal flood we have no evidence for, along with an arc that would have sunk the moment it touched the water.

        So what? It still makes the idea of “original Sin” completely baseless and preposterous. At what point did god decide to have this chat with humans? How was this original sin visited upon us? What did these humans do, while gathering berries and trying to stay away from animals trying to eat them, to deserve to be stained for millennia by this terrible sin? And why did God/Jesus/His Son picked a somewhat unremarkable middle eastern tribe to come and wash this sin from humanity’s soul?

        What? The Chinese were not affected by this sin? Or not worthy? What about the inhabitants of the Americas? Why did they have to wait 1500 years to get their soul cleaned?

        I am sure with your command of logic and your superior education this should not be hard to explain. Those that preceded you in trying to make sense of this, failed to be convincing mostly because they tried to employ the old trick of claiming that we cannot possibly understand God’s plan, given that his ways are inscrutable to us.

        If the original sin doctrine is not false, it must mean it is true. I can’t wait to learn how it all worked.

        • Pseudonym

          So what? It still makes the idea of “original Sin” completely baseless and preposterous.

          Just like the fact that the Tower of Babel story isn’t historically accurate makes the idea of different languages baseless and preposterous, no doubt.

          “The original sin doctrine” doesn’t refer to a single thing. The modern Roman Catholic version has never been universally held by Christians (only the Roman school of theology believed anything close to it at the time of Constantine), and it’s changed a lot over time. Even the version developed by Paul of Tarsus is quite a bit different from what Jesus is reported as having taught.

          At its core, original sin is a simple observation: Humans have a tendency to avoid doing what they’re supposed to do, and to do what they’re supposed not to do. Every civilization has noticed this, and lots of them developed etiological myths to help understand it.

          • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

            But “sin” (original or not) is itself a flawed concept. It doesn’t mean doing something you’re not supposed to do. It very specifically means an offense against a deity, and if no deities exist, then surely “sin” does not exist either.
            Personally, I find the whole notion of “sin” abhorrent. At best, it’s a useless word with supernatural connotations which has no place in a secular society. At worst, it’s used to stigmatize a wide array of harmless activities, such as homosexuality and masturbation. The latter, unfortunately, more accurately describes how it’s used in 21st-century America.

            • Pseudonym

              It very specifically means an offense against a deity [...]

              I don’t think that’s accurate at all. In particular, the early Christians (including those who wrote the New Testament) did not understand it as such.

              The Greek word used in the New Testament that we translate “sin” was a term from Greek legal thinking. I looked up a few examples of its use from before the New Testament. Here’s one of the prosecution speeches of Antiphon of Rhamnus (Third Tetralogy, 4 3.4). I’m using whichever translation is in the Perseus Project database.

              “Again, while the victim suffered the ill-effect of the mischance, it is
              the striker who suffered the mischance itself; for the one met his
              death as the result of the other’s act, so that it was not through his
              own mistake, but through the mistake of the man who struck him, that he was killed; whereas the other did more than he meant to do, and he had only himself to blame for the mischance whereby he killed a man whom he did not mean to slay.”

              Actually, this is a fascinating speech, in which Antiphon was trying to unpack what constituted “justice” in the case of a death that was an accidental outcome of a fight. This particular dilemma is still with us today. In this case, Antiphon uses the word to refer to an error committed in the heat of the moment which had tragic consequences, and is exploring, both from the point of view of the prosecution and the defence, how much guilt that confers. The more things change…

              But I digress. This is Cassandra speaking in the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus, about the history of murder in the house of the Atreidae:

              “Tell me on your oath how well I know
              these old stories of this family’s crimes.”

              Anyway, based on how the word was used, it seems that “offense against a deity” is not the specific message that the New Testament authors, and Paul of Tarsus in particular, was trying to get across.

              • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

                You can use it metaphorically, but that’s not how it’s primarily used in 21st-century America.

                That’s why I think words like “sin” and “soul” should be avoided, if at all possible, because the supernatural connotations are overwhelming.

    • Librepensadora

      The phrase I have seen credited to Gould is “non-overlapping magisteria,” which gives the memorable acronym NOMA, but surely “separate” is a synonym for “non-overlapping.” Your response is thoughtful and correct.

    • Pseudonym

      In a sense, I have more respect for people like Ken Ham because at least they have the intellectual honesty (I know, I know) to recognize that
      and choose to deny anything that contradicts his dogma. In a sense, they
      are the ones dealing with reality. At least the reality of their faith.

      I have to say, I’ve never understood this.

      Ken Ham is not a charlatan, I’ll grant you that; he really does believe the nonsense he spouts. That makes him more honest than a Ted Haggard or a Bob Jones.

      However, I’ve never understood why some people think that fundamentalism is more honest or authentic than mainstream or liberal religion. Ken Ham is doing everything in his power to deny reality. John Shelby Spong is looking reality straight in the eye.

    • Kspark

      >>It will happen.

      Just hope. Why is there not any broad-minded thinking. The Bible is not the ultimate authority, but that does not mean that “religion” per se is false. The definition of “Religion” is not what always most people think it is. It is far more subtle.

  • Pluto Animus

    ” Though maddening sometimes, people who reassure the religious that
    science and religion are compatible are absolutely necessary, even for
    those who desire to see all religion, even moderate versions, fade away.”

    Any data to support this?

    • Pseudonym

      I don’t have any specifically, but there’s plenty of research that abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work, and that “just say no”-style campaigns about illegal drugs doesn’t work. So there’s some precedents.

      The bottom line is that the claim that science is fundamentally incompatible with every single religion on the planet is false on the face of it; the existence of religious scientists is proof of this.

      Some religions are incompatible with science. That’s not the same as all religions. And you might believe that it’s better not to be religious, but again, that’s a different claim.

      If you claim that science and religion are incompatible, then that claim is grounded in neither reason nor evidence. That certainly can’t help the cause of reason and evidence, and it certainly can’t help the cause of science.

      • Kevin S.

        “The bottom line is that the claim that science is fundamentally incompatible with every single religion on the planet is false on the face of it; the existence of religious scientists is proof of this.”

        Actually, it’s not. People are very good at rationalizing things, including holding contradictory beliefs. Therefore, the fact that people can hold two beliefs simultaneously doesn’t mean the two beliefs aren’t incompatible to someone who examines them logically.

  • Librepensadora

    I get tired of the “let’s all be friends” attitude among some atheists. Is there a similar cooperative attitude on the part of believers? I doubt that any of these advances in human rights in the USA would have happened without the proponents being confrontational with their opponents? votes for women, labor unions, civil rights for Black Americans, racially integrated schools, legal abortions.

    • atomicpunk2

      Dr Martin Luther King Jr was a Christian Pastor.
      Susan B Anthony was Agnostic.

      Abe Lincoln said:
      “That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but I have never
      denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with
      intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of
      Christians in particular…. I do not think I could myself be brought
      to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, or
      scoffer at, religion.”

  • Sue Blue

    Well, just because Higgs doesn’t like Dawkins’ style doesn’t mean Dawkins’ position or arguments are invalid. And I don’t think disagreements on presentation, style or the amount of passion with which a person speaks indicates any deep schism among atheists – just differing personalities. I have to say there are some atheists that rub me the wrong way, but that isn’t an indictment of atheism.
    Although…I also have to say I find myself on Dawkins’ side in this. I don’t think its possible to be too vigilant, outspoken, and persistent in debunking the claims of religion.

  • ctcss

    “Greater acceptance of science weakens religion”

    No,it typically weakens shallower religious viewpoints, or religious views that are undergirded by a materialistic outlook. Anyone who looks at religion in a deeper, less superficial way, or who does not consider materialism as the basis for a pathway towards the spiritual would not be at all bothered by science.

    Personally, I think science is great, but science (dealing as it does only with matter) says nothing whatsoever to me about God or my relationship with God.

    • Kevin S.

      It sounds like the “spiritual world,” to you, is a place of invisible dragons who leave no empirical evidence of their existence but are nevertheless simply assumed to exist.

      And BTW, science does deal with energy too.

  • C Peterson

    I think the important take-away here is that Higgs seems well acquainted with Dawkins and his “style”.

    I’d wager that a good many of Dawkins’s critics base their views on little more than sound bites.

    • Pseudonym

      To be fair, Dawkins seems more than willing to provide said sound bites at pretty much any opportunity.

  • smrnda

    The way people tend to resolve religious faith and science is to make their religious beliefs as vague and fuzzy as possible, since then the ‘religious beliefs’ aren’t clear, concise statements that one can confirm or dismiss. I’m surprised people can sustain this when science is a discipline that requires agreement about what terms mean and precision in definition.

  • DougI

    Higgs is probably one of those types that thinks if we just ignore the religious that they’ll go away. I’ve encountered a lot of those types who are upset with Atheists like Dawkins rocking the boat. Sorry bub, but the fundies aren’t going to give you a break because you bow your head and submit. All Dawkins does is fight religious extremism with words, they fight against secularism with guns, bombs and other violent means. Higgs is on the wrong side of history on this issue.

    • Pseudonym

      Higgs is probably one of those types that thinks if we just ignore the religious that they’ll go away.

      I have no idea where you got that from.

      I know plenty of scientists who are not antitheists. Most scientists are probably not antitheists. As Claudia rightly pointed out in the write-up, if you hang around scientists most of the time, then pretty much everyone you know is either not religious, or has a religion that is science-friendly and benign.

      People in positions like that of Higgs know that religion can be done in a way that is harmless, or even potentially beneficial to some, because they see it all the time in their peers. Higgs presumably doesn’t care if you’re an atheist or you choose a science-friendly religion. Either one would be fine with him.

      What Dawkins fights is not a straw man; there really are people like that. But it’s not all of religion and, in particular, it’s not the kind of religion held by scientists.

      • DougI

        Higgs is criticizing Dawkins as a fundamentalist for stating his opinion, which would, in turn, lead me to believe that he advocates a posture of not stating an opinion on religion as to not appear “fundamentalist”.

        • Pseudonym

          …and you know what some people call beliefs which are contrary to the evidence, right?

          Having said that, given the wide variety that is “religion”, any opinion on “religion” is very likely to be wrong, regardless of what that opinion is. The attitude that the world can be divided into “them” (who are bad) and “us” (who are good) is commonly associated with fundamentalists of all kinds.

  • Keulan

    You can’t be a fundamentalist atheist. That’s an oxymoron. And Higg’s remarks on Dawkins makes me think of this.

  • Cat’s Staff

    Peter Higgs… look at this. They don’t hate us because we are offensive and abrasive. They hate us because we exist. We don’t fight fire with fire, we stand up for our rights, and make sure people know what our opinions are about things.

  • will roma

    Higgs is right, there is very little difference between “god hates fags” and “bringing up your child catholic, is worse than sexually abusing your child”

    “There is no real reason to ask a world-renowned scientist about religion, but Higgs was game.”

    You do know that you are posting this on a site that has a link to “Ask Richard” right next to the title, dont you?

    • Drakk

      You do know that the Richard who contributes to this site isn’t Richard Dawkins. Right?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mralistaircunningham Alistair Cunningham

    I base my views on ‘soundbites’ like of him, Harris and Hitchens saying that ‘moderate religion’ is to blame for fundamentalism. Does it not therefore follow that it would not be in Dawkinsworld?

  • atomicpunk2

    “I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds.” — Albert Einstein

    “God existed before there were human beings on Earth, He holds the entire world, believers and non-believers, in His omnipotent hand for eternity.” — Max Planck (Founder of Quantum Mechanics)

    “I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. I study the Bible daily.”– Issac Newton

  • Ehcstein

    In 2006 Madelein Bunting wrote a great article on Dawkins that I think Higgs would totally agree with now:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2006/jan/07/raceandreligion.comment


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