CELEBRATED Scottish scientist Peter Higgs has made an outspoken attack on fellow academic heavyweight Richard Dawkins, branding him a “fundamentalist” and “embarrassing”.
Prof Higgs is widely expected to win a Nobel prize after experiments at Cern in Geneva this year proved his theory of a “God” particle which gives everything mass.
But the retired Edinburgh University physicist has now turned his sights on renowned biologist and outspoken atheist Prof Dawkins over the way he treats those who believe in God.
In an interview with a Spanish newspaper, Prof Higgs said: “What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are not fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself.”
Prof Higgs told the newspaper he agreed with Dawkins’ thoughts on some of the unfortunate consequences of religious belief. But he said he was unhappy with Dawkins’ approach to dealing with believers and agreed with those who found his approach “embarrassing”.
Higgs said he was not a religious believer but did not agree with the view that science and religion are mutually exclusive.
Prof Higgs said many scientists in his field were religious believers. “I don’t happen to be one myself,” he said, “but maybe that’s just more a matter of my family background than that there’s any fundamental difficulty about reconciling the two.”
He argued that he did not necessarily believe that science and religion were incompatible. “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.”
Dawkins did not respond to Higgs’s “fundamentalist” charge. The author of the best-selling book, The God Delusion, has been accused before of adopting a fundamentalist position.
He responded to the charge in 2007 by writing: “Passion for passion, an evangelical Christian and I may be evenly matched. But we are not equally fundamentalist. The true scientist … knows what would change his mind: evidence! The fundamentalist knows that nothing will.”
In November, Prof Dawkins travelled to the Western Isles to speak at the Hebrides Book Festival on the The God Delusion, prompting a hardline Christian group, the Lord’s Day Observance Society, to claim it was “offensive” to invite him to speak at the event. They called on people to boycott the talk.
Prof Dawkins also turned down an offer of a debate with the Free Church of Scotland, while claiming efforts to ban him from the event amounted to bigotry.
Prof Higgs achieved celebrity status this year after his 1963 theory of a particle which gives everything mass – dubbed the Higgs boson – appeared to have been proved by scientists working at the Cern particle accelerator.
Many scientists believe it is only a matter of time before he is awarded the Nobel prize, though he voiced relief at having not received the title this year: “I was relieved, simply because I’ve been so busy dealing with requests to do this and that, that I was glad not to have that on my schedule as well, so I have described it as a reprieve.”