Peter Higgs on Dawkins and atheist fundamentalism

Peter Higgs on Dawkins and atheist fundamentalism December 27, 2012

Theoretical physicist and atheist Peter Higgs has gotten a lot of attention recently for the July 4th announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Boson. But he’s receiving some attention now for comments he made about Richard Dawkins. The Guardian reports:

“What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists,” Higgs said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.”

First, I want to note that I agree with a lot of what Higgs says, but I’ve always found the idea of fundamentalist atheism to be clumsy. I don’t know what fundamentalist atheism would even look like, but I think there are definitely fair comparisons to make. Groupthink, dogmatism, and intolerance are often products of our social psychology, and atheists as an organized group are not immune from a lot of that ugliness. So while I disagree with the common notion that atheists can be fundamentalists, I think there is some legitimate criticisms these charges aim at, albeit in a rather hamfisted kind of way.

That said, there is a lot in Higg’s comments that I really liked, such as the idea that science and religion are compatible:

“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 I think you have to be rather more careful about the whole debate between science and religion than some people have been in the past.”

I honestly find this perspective to be so refreshing. It’s so common for scientists, particularly physicists, to make the same mistake that the logical positivists made in the early 20th Century and suggest that only things that can be known can be known through science, and that everything else, like philosophy or religion, is irrelevant or nonsense. Physicists like Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking have recently made comments to the same effect and I’m happy to see a physicist think carefully and modestly about their field.

I also think it’s interesting to draw parallels between what Higgs is saying and what Chris has said. The Guardian writes:

[Higgs] agreed with some of Dawkins’ thoughts on the unfortunate consequences that have resulted from religious belief, but he was unhappy with the evolutionary biologist’s approach to dealing with believers and said he agreed with those who found Dawkins’ approach “embarrassing”.

Chris wrote in his Salon excerpt, which drew a lot of controversy online, that he “believe[s] that many New Atheist critiques of religion are correct and have helped many people find liberation from oppressive beliefs,” but goes on to say:

I believe that this so-called New Atheism — the kind that singles out the religious lives of others as its No. 1 target — is toxic, misdirected, and wasteful.

I’d be surprised if Higgs comments receive a similar amount of pushback as Chris’s did. I’m not expecting to see posts written at length to charge Higgs with backstabbing atheists, or comments suggesting he’s throwing atheists under the bus, or reviews charging that he doesn’t care much about what’s true because he’s not actively evangelizing his nonreligion or talking about reason a lot.

I’m curious to see how Higg’s comments are received, and it’s interesting to think about how Chris’s comments might have been received differently if he had been a scientist rather than an interfaith activist. I see a lot of conflict and tension in the atheist community, particularly online, and I think much of it stems from group divisions that are set up to be unnecessarily and harmfully combative. I suspect that atheists aren’t as immune to the ills of social psychology as they’d like to think.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

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