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.

13 Responses to “Peter Higgs on Dawkins and atheist fundamentalism”

  1. Timothy Fletcher Baer Says:

    That’s powerful stuff. Christians often feel like they bear the brunt of attacks on their beliefs from Atheists. For instance, Facebook has a group called “Atheists and Rational Thinkers.” The whole idea being, as I’ve heard spouted many times before, that only Atheists are rational free-thinkers (Of course, who doesn’t call themselves a “free thinker?” It’s a phrase I’ve only ever heard someone use to describe themself). Speaking in generalizations, Atheists are no more rational and are just as prone to emotional outbursts as anyone else. Just like their religious counterparts they vilify and demean those who disagree with them. At the end of the day, our belief structures are more often used to belittle those who believe differently from us. Maybe it’s Christians poking fun at Wiccans. Or Unitarians declaring they’re not judgemental unlike everyone else. Or Atheists claiming to have a monopoly reason. People clamor to claim authority above everyone else no matter what belief structure they adhere to.

  2. Wes Hopper Says:

    I think many groups have a fundamentalist fringe, and atheists are no exception. I actually wrote a blog post about the behavior once, and came up with five characteristics of fundamentalist thinking and acting.

    First was a set of basic beliefs that were not open to questioning. Second was a strong intolerance for any other point of view. Third was an unwillingness to associate with “others” in non-judgmental relationships. Fourth, considering themselves members of an elite or privileged group – defenders of the Truth, sort of. Fifth, within any group or association, the fundamentalists are the loudest and most demanding, which leads observers to overestimate the size of their faction.

    The one problem that makes atheist fundamentalists so dogmatic is that they’re really convinced that they’re rational, and rationalism is one of the key principles of their belief system. But I think most of us would agree that it’s not a license to slice and dice others with whom you disagree. Fortunately the fundies are a small group within the greater humanist community.

  3. VladChituc Says:

    That’s exactly why I shy away from awkward and presumptuous labels like freethinker and rationalist, because I find them to be really clumsy and condescending.

  4. Christopher Blackwell Says:

    One aspect of fundamentalism is to attack anyone with a different idea or belief. Yes I have seen a few atheists that make a point to always attack any belief and that creates bad feelings. If it is wrong for the religionists to do it, it is just as wrong for the atheists to do it. To say I don’t believe and give your reasons is fine, nothing wrong with that but then to go on the attack is exactly the same as some of the worst religionists have done. One thing atheists claim is to act in a logical manner, unprovoked attack is not logical. Now when under attack one can act as bad as the person attacking, but otherwise when not under attack it makes the atheist look like the vicious one. If you are trying to show the other side is illogical and vicious, you can’t then act the same way.

  5. Timothy Fletcher Baer Says:

    And I think this is where Christianity might differ. When you said you can act just “as bad as the person attacking” I immediately withdrew from your thought process. Jesus says to not repay evil for evil but to bless those that curse you. While Christians have a hard time living that out, the sentiment is one that is not logical and is not reasonable. And, really, isn’t that what religion is about? It colors outside the lines of reason and logic. As someone who designs spreadsheets using Excel, I know what cold, calculated logic is and it isn’t humanity. People don’t behave logically nor reasonably. Our entire lives are subjected to the whims of a man’s fancy. Here we are, commenting on an Atlantic article online. Isn’t there something reasonably more productive we could be doing with our time? I could be working, or playing with my kids, or making love to my wife, or virtually anything else would be more sensible than this. Yet, here we are. The best of religion asks us to do the illogical. Muslims are required to give to the needy. Christians to forgive endlessly. Hindus have…um, a red dot on their foreheads (I’m uneducated about Hindus, can you tell?). Religion acknowledges that the world doesn’t operate in a calculated, logical pattern and asks us to engage it with the best of our abilities and, when that fails, to be better than it. To go beyond doing something that is reasonably good and do something unreasonably incredible.

  6. timberwraith Says:

    Sounds like a pretty workable definition of fundamentalism to me. I’m seeing the word “fundamentalist” being used more and more outside of it’s original religious context. I don’t think it’s that hard to see the connection. If someone is being dogmatic about their beliefs in a way that resembles the behavior of religious fundamentalists, it isn’t much of a stretch to see that person as a kind of fundamentalist as well.

  7. Bertram Cabot, Jr. Says:

    What would a fundamentalist atheist look like?
    Kind of like JT Eberhard, who called Chris Stedman a “dishonest little shit” over at the “Friendly” atheist blog, and who hates Christians with a passion.

  8. timberwraith Says:

    He is indeed pretty hateful. I visited his blog once and once only. I was surprised at the level of negative emotion over their.

  9. VladChituc Says:

    I’m no fan of JT, but I sincerely doubt that he hates Christians “with a passion.”

    Is there a reason you keep posting about this, Bertram? This is something like the fourth time someone mentioned JT’s comments about Chris, using “Friendly” in scare quotes.

    I’m honestly curious what you’re expecting or hoping to accomplish.

  10. Keith Says:

    I believe religious people and scientific people have a different definition of “compatibility between religion and science”.

    Religious people think compatibility means science won’t comment on their beliefs. Science people think compatibility means religion won’t make truth statements about the world.

    I would agree religion is compatible with science when religion does not claim supernatural agents physically manifest themselves in our world, but that idea is not acceptable to the vast majority of religious believers.

    Higgs says he can believe in God without believing in physical manifestation, and Dawkins should acknowledge that style of belief. That is a fair argument to make.

    The rebuttal is there are far, far (far!) more people that believe god routinely physically manifests in our world, and Dawkins is focused on that kind of belief, not the relatively rare belief that Higgs’ maintains.

  11. domgslis Says:

    You end this with:” I suspect that atheists aren’t as immune to the ills of social psychology as they’d like to think.” That’s putting it mildly. I speak as an Atheist who is not mad at religious communities. I grew up Universalist (now Unitarian Universalist) and I know the good religious communities can do. (Religious dogma? Another story.) Just be cause you stick up for Science and Reason doesn’t make you immune from human frailty. Atheists can be as vain, arrogant, bigoted, and self-righteous as any Fundamentalist. Listening to Richard Dawkins reminds me of an old saying: “Choose your enemies wisely, lest you become like them.”

  12. Marty Says:

    Many atheists are created in the milieu of a society where religious thinking permeates everything. I think that is why so many here are expressing the tenets of Gould’s NOMA. The fact is that religious fundamentalists do make claims about reality. The fact is that many religious fundamentalists at home and abroad are trying to impose “Truth” on others against their will. The danger that this brings to the world is greater than that of the Cold War because these people have a permission slip from the creator of the universe. For these reasons, fundamentalism is subject to at least the same strength of criticism a scientist should expect in review of a paper in a peer reviewed journal.

  13. VladChituc Says:

    Hi Marty,

    No one is denying that religion makes empirical claims. But that doesn’t then follow that, therefore, all religious claims are empirically testable. In fact, I point out specifically how no scientific findings one way or the other could show theistic evolution to be false.

    You wont find fans of totalitarian fundamentalism here, or many places I suspect. But I think it’s little more than reactionary and unjustified fear-mongering to suggest that it’s somehow a greater threat than the Cold War. I definitely don’t see any reason to take such a strong position seriously, let alone on such weak justification.

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