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).
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.