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Photo of Peter Higgs at CERN in 2008

Posted: 18 January 2013

Are the strident attacks of biologist Richard Dawkins on religious belief signs of fundamentalism? In an interview given to Spanish newspaper El Mundo at the end of 2012, Professor Peter Higgs seemed to think so.

‘What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists, said Higgs. But there are many believers who are not just fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a kind of fundamentalist himself.’

Peter Higgs is the theoretical physicist who in 1964 predicted the existence of an elementary particle, the Higgs boson, which was also called the ‘God particle’. It’s not a name Higgs likes. ‘First, because I am not a believer. But even if I were, I would not like it because it encourages people to confuse physics with theology.’

A particle which many scientists think is the Higgs boson was discovered by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in July 2012.

Higgs acknowledged that the growth of scientific understanding has had a big impact on religious faith, but he does not think science destroys religion. He said he knows many scientists and colleagues who are believers.

‘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.’

Commenting on whether he was a religious believer himself, Higgs said, ‘I don’t happen to be one myself, but maybe that’s just more a matter of my family background than that there’s any fundamental difficulty about reconciling the two.’

Richard Dawkins declined to comment on Peter Higgs’ interview, but a posting on the Richard Dawkins website characterised Higgs as ‘a crack physicist, but a rank amateur when it comes to the issue of science and faith.’

The post concluded: ‘Can you really equate blind adherence to ancient, man-made texts with doubt that those texts prove anything about a divine being? Why is it “fundamentalist” to ask for evidence, and decry those who adhere to dogma in the face of evidence?’

Photo of Peter Higgs: CERN

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Photos at the top of this column by:
Taro Taylor and Jon Sullivan