Science hero attacks top atheist campaigner
In a clash of scientific heavyweights, the discoverer of the so-called ‘God particle’ has taken on the author of ‘The God Delusion’. And what’s their battle about? God himself.
Peter Higgs is science’s man of the moment. Though he invented the theory that made him famous almost fifty years ago, it was only last year, in the most ambitious and expensive experiment ever launched, that his ideas were proved correct. In April, researchers at Cern in Switzerland discovered the Higgs boson, the particle that gives all others mass.
Last week the British government awarded Higgs the prestigious title ‘Companion of Honour’, placing him alongside living legends such as Stephen Hawking and David Hockney. But just as he accepted his place in the British establishment, Higgs launched an attack on another of the country’s most celebrated scientists: Richard Dawkins.
Originally a ground-breaking evolutionary biologist, Dawkins has become the most famous of the so-called ‘New Atheists’, who travel the world preaching their passionate belief that there is no God, and that only scientific inquiry should determine our beliefs about the world.
Higgs is not himself religious. But in an interview with a Spanish newspaper, he expressed more sympathy for believers than for strident atheists like Dawkins: ‘What Dawkins does too often’, he said, ‘is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists. Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself.’
‘Fundamentalism’, invented a century ago as a defence of traditional Christianity, is the belief that your core convictions are absolutely and undeniably true. It has since been applied to all kinds of ideologies, from Islam to Marxism and even environmentalism.
And recently their critics have used the word to brand Dawkins and a group of committed atheists that also includes philosopher Anthony Grayling, turning their own language of attack on religious belief against them. In a reply to Dawkins’ controversial book The God Delusion, two Christian academics penned The Dawkins Delusion, a tirade against a man who they believe ‘refuses to let his ideas be examined or challenged’.
‘How dare you call me a fundamentalist?’ demands Dawkins. None of his beliefs are sacred or inflexible, he says: a mere shred of credible evidence to suggest the existence of God and he would ‘abandon his opinion overnight’. Scientific beliefs, he argues, are based on challengeable evidence – and that makes them more valid than those of any follower of religion.
But even those who agree with Dawkins’ atheism – including Higgs – often object to his methods and his tone. His beliefs might not be written in tablets of stone, they say, but he is just as fanatical and certain of their truth as any priest or imam. Real reason, they say, accepts subtlety, doubt and compromise – qualities the ‘New Atheists’ are without.
- Is atheism more rational than belief in a religion?
- Is ‘evidence’ relevant to beliefs about God?
- Make a list of your main beliefs about the world, then think about what (if anything) would lead you to abandon them.
- Hold a class on the question: ‘Does God exist?’ Say what you think, but make sure you stay respectful.
Some People Say...
“I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.’ Richard Dawkins”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Nobody knows whether God exists, so why bother talking about it?
- Plenty do claim to ‘know’ that God exists, and some that he (or she) doesn’t – it depends on what you accept as a source of authority for your so-called knowledge. But even if you accept that nobody can be sure, it is still a hugely important question.
- Because your beliefs about God affect how you feel about other things in the universe. That could be big, abstract questions about issues like the way we ought to live or what we should value, or beliefs about more specific issues. Many Christians, for instance, believe that all life is sacred – and that can lead them to feel that abortion is morally wrong. Even if you think that God is irrelevant to your life, your beliefs probably have more of an impact on you than you imagine.
- Most ambitious and expensive experiment
- The Large Hadron Collider is a giant particle accelerator which fires weightless particles called protons at each other at close to the speed of light. It is 27 km in circumference and was built with the help of over 10,000 scientists.
- Higgs boson
- Scientists believe that atoms are surrounded by a ‘Higgs field’, which creates a drag on most particles and gives them mass. This is so fundamental that the Higgs has been popularly labelled the ‘God particle’ – though many scientists object to the term.
- Companion of Honour
- Membership of the Order of the Companions of Honour is a highly prestigious title awarded to citizens of Britain and the Commonwealth who have contributed ‘services of national importance’. The motto of the order, inscribed on a medal for every recipient, is: ‘In action faithful and honour clear’.
- Evolutionary biologist
- The theory of evolution, invented by Charles Darwin in 1859, states that all organisms develop by natural selection, becoming gradually adapted to their environment. Organisms with suitable characteristics survive and others die off. Dawkins famously argued that the gene is the fundamental unit of evolution, and it was his study of evolution which (just like Darwin) led him to atheism.
- ‘Atheists’ actively believe that there is no God. ‘Agnostics’ believe that it is impossible to know either way.