Peter Higgs on the “fundamentalism” of Richard Dawkins

Originally published on SkepticInk.

Don't try this one: Professor Peter Higgs with a description of the Higgs model.Alok Jha, a science correspondent at The Guardian, has a column in which he reports that celebrated theoretical physicist Peter Higgs agrees with those who find Dawkins’ approach to criticising religion “embarrassing”. But in what should be embarrassing to a publication of The Guardian‘s reputation, Jha seems to simply swallow the fake controversy generated by the Daily Mail in the course of describing Higgs’ views.

Jha refers to the recent Al Jazeera interview with Dawkins, in which he’s (again) asked to clarify his remarks on the relative harms to children of sexual abuse versus the mental trauma of being led to believe in hell, eternal damnation and all that stuff. Well, Dawkins has posted the relevant extract from The God Delusion on his website, and anyone interested in the facts of the matter (rather than merely supporting their prejudices), can confirm that he uses an example to make the case that “it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical” abuse.

Now you might think even this insensitive or overstated. But it’s simply not true that he ever claimed that being taught about hell was always worse than all child abuse. As is often the case for all of us, he could have been clearer about what he meant and didn’t mean. At a time when the principle of charity seems forbidden to us, he probably should have been. But Jha demonstrates his prejudice in simply reporting the child abuse canard as fact in this column, and it’s thus little surprise to me that he doesn’t seem to bother to enquire as to whether Higgs backs his “fundamentalism” charge up with any evidence.

Higgs is quoted as saying:

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

In what way, and of what sort of kind? We aren’t told, but I imagine that this is simply an instance of the propaganda campaign against so-called new atheism having met with another success. The claim that Dawkins is strident, shrill and so forth has become axiomatic through simple repetition, with few people bothering to make the distinction between “being discomfited by robust challenge” on the one hand and “those strident new atheists” on the other.

I do sometimes find the direct and robust challenge, as favoured by Dawkins, to sometimes be less effective than other approaches. As I argued in my review of Chris Stedman’s Faitheist, my preference is for the more subtle approach. But this doesn’t mean that Dawkins is doing anything wrong in being more assertive with his criticism of religion – and it certainly doesn’t make him a fundamentalist for doing so.

What Higgs gets right in the quote above is that those of us who criticise religion should be careful not to confuse the typical believer with fundamentalists. As Dawkins’ own research shows, the typical believer is nothing like a fundamentalist – in fact, she isn’t even much of a believer. But, until these believers who are not fundamentalists actually raise their voices to start saying “not in my name” to the nutjobs like Fred Phelps, can we really blame a Dawkins or whomever for stepping in to say what needs to be said?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

3 replies on “Peter Higgs on the “fundamentalism” of Richard Dawkins”

those of us who criticise religion should be careful not to confuse the typical believer with fundamentalists

I’m not so sure. Dawkins simply adopts monotheism’s framing de jour: modern christian teachings fly in the face of modern scientific teachings. One is true. One is wrong. Pick a side.

The God Delusion sets the scene very deliberately. If the god you have in mind resembles the creator god of scripture, you are in fact mistaken about this world. Misled by religious teachings. And worse. You have been deluded by holymen about the nature of morality.

Abuse (verb) To use improperly, to bad effect, or for a bad purpose; misuse.

Christian teachers know not what they do. Typically believers forgive them, but we fundamentally cannot.

Of course we should pick a side, and encourage others to. I don’t see what bearing that has on the fact that a typical believer differs radically from a fundamentalist in terms of their various attitudes often including justice, equality, common sense, etc.

Comments are closed.