Peter Higgs and Richard Dawkins hold different views of the public criticism of daft beliefs

The UK’s Guardian has an article that warrants some additional comment. The primary headline grabbing thrust is that the Higgs boson theorist says he agrees with those who find Dawkins’ approach to dealing with believers ’embarrassing’.

“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.”

He 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”.

I do not agree with Mr Higgs. He may indeed have been right about the existence of a force-carrying particle, but that does not instantly make him a subject matter expert on everything else. We now know that the Higgs boson had finally been found, not on the basis of pure belief, but because we have evidence that verifies it.

OK, there are a couple of key points to add here …

  • The arguments presented by Mr Dawkins are valid and logical and well grounded in reason, he does not dish out abuse, nor does he threaten people with an imaginary after-life in hell, nor does he attempt to manipulate using the psychological tricks deployed by religion. The core of his argument is the observation that the emperor has no clothes.
  • He is not attacking fundamentalists, nor does he indulge in ad hominins and deploy abuse as the religious often do, instead he is criticising bad ideas that often result in real harm if left unchallenged.

Mr Higgs and others might indeed find the arguments to be “embarrassing”, but that is an emotional response, and does not in any way invalidate any of the arguments. It appears to be simply saying that it is not polite to point out how daft some beliefs can be. If he truly does find it all rather  “embarrassing”, well that is fine, Mr Higgs need not comment if he opts not to. I note that Mr Higgs is not a believer himself, and that he also agrees that irrational beliefs have indeed resulted in dire consequences for some.

There is a charge that Mr Dawkins is strident, but that is not factually correct, he simply states with a degree of open honesty that the claims made by believers have no evidence. When asked, he chose not to respond to a request to comment directly on Higgs’s “fundamentalist” charge, I suspect because he has a great deal of respect for Mr Higgs, and perhaps felt that if Mr Higgs held a different opinion, then that is OK, and that he would save his criticism for the things that do real harm.

Now having said all that, I’m not sure I really understand why there is an article in the “science” section of the Guardian that is simply outlining the opinion of one scientist commenting on what another scientist said on a non-scientific topic, it feels to be much ado about nothing, and might perhaps be better placed in the religious section.

In the end people should be free to believe whatever daft nonsense they wish to believe in, and they should also be free to tell anybody and everybody if they wish to do so. What they don’t get to do is to impose any of it upon others. Additionally, they will face criticism if they promote it all in the public square. The only real embarrassment here is that lots of otherwise sensible people truly believe on the basis of no evidence at all that their imaginary friend is real, too many non-believers treat such claims with a reverence and a respect that it doesn’t deserve.

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