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Peter Higgs brands Richard Dawkins 'almost a fundamentalist'

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#1 Ken Gilmore

Ken Gilmore


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Posted 28 December 2012 - 06:41 AM

While theoretical physicist Peter Higgs is an atheist, he is less than impressed with the way in which fellow unbeliever Richard Dawkins attacks religious belief. The Guardian notes:

Higgs has chosen to cap his remarkable 2012 with another bang by criticising the "fundamentalist" approach taken by Dawkins in dealing with religious believers.

"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". [1]

While Dawkins has yet to formally respond, fellow biologists and New Atheists Jerry Coyne and Paul Myers have responded in predictable manner. Coyne begins his post with the usual condescension:

Peter Higgs, the Man who Predicted the Boson, may be a crack physicist, but he’s a rank amateur when it comes to the issue of science and faith. [2]

The irony of Coyne, whose professional competency is not the history or philosophy of science, but evolutionary biology attacking a theoretical physicist for doing what Coyne repeatedly does on his website is shouting. Like Higgs, Coyne is also a rank amateur in these areas. One would hope for a more circumspect approach from Coyne, given that he is anything but an expert in this area. One does not get it:

And exactly what kind of “fundamentalism” is that? 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? Why is it “fundamentalist” to have a scientific, evidence-based attitude toward the claims of religion, but not to the claims of ancient goatherds?

Coyne is correct when he implies that anyone who makes an extraordinary claim as do theists needs to justify that assertion. However, in order to critically assess those claims, one does not simply read them out of their ancient Near Eastern context in a naive, literal manner - exactly the same way as fundamentalists do - and reject them because that reading cannot be sustained. More than a passing familiarity with the ANE cultural background of the Old Testament, archaeology, textual criticism and other technical disciplines relevant to properly understanding what the ancient writers were saying is needed. Nowhere does Coyne show that he is remotely up to that challenge.

This is particularly evident when he raises the 'ancient goatherd' trope. As a rule, whenever an atheist dismisses the Bible as the work of ancient goatherders (throw in bonus points if they are branded anachronistically as Bronze Age) you can be sure you're dealing with a real rank amateur. While some of the prophets whose work makes up the Old Testament may have been farmers (Amos for example), the Bible was definitely not the work of itinerant goat herders, who most likely would have been illiterate. James Crenshaw notes:

An agricultural economy such as that prevailing in Judah and Israel provided few inducements to formal education, despite the rhetoric in Deut. 6:9 encouraging the people to write the commandments on doorposts and gates. In fact, the demands of daily chores—tending sheep and goats, preparing land for cultivation, attending to olive groves and vineyards—discouraged formal schooling. In addition, the modest economic rewards available to trained scribes and the limited prospects of advancement did little to offset this situation. [3]

Writing a book with a history as complicated as that of the Hebrew Bible needed the skills of professionals, not goat herders, and only when we see an increasing level of urbanisation do we see the level of literacy required to codify the Bible. Joshua Berman observes that:

Though there are inscriptions of the alphabet (known as abecedaries) from as early as the twelfth century B.C.E., the epigraphic evidence points to a sharp rise in writing activity during the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. This coincides with the centralization of Judean society around Jerusalem, a growing government bureaucracy, and a more complex regional economy. The assorted correspondences, tax receipts, graffiti, and bullae attest to the widespread use of writing. Taken together, these finds reflect two levels of literacy. The simpler inscriptions of a word or a familiar phrase reflect so-called vulgar literacy, the capacity of many common folk to sign their names, read familiar words, and/or perform basic functions with letters. The longer texts we have should be seen as the products of trained scribes, who served the populace at large, in much the same way that today attorneys or accountants provide specialized services to people who need them. [4]

Throwaway lines about goatherders indicate that Coyne - like many of the New Atheists without a relevant background in the disciplines needed to comment meaningfully on this subject are simply out of their depth. Pointing out the vacuity of Coyne's claims of course do not prove that God exists, but that is not the point. Rather, by examining the Bible with the same naive literalist metric that fundamentalists use, they are failing to even begin to examine the theist's case.

One trait that fundamentalists exhibit is an intolerance of alternative ideas and approaches - pluralism is definitely a dirty word, and it is in this context that those who brand Dawkins as a fundamentalist are arguably onto something. The evolutionary biologist H. Allen Orr, co-author with Jerry Coyne of a major text on speciation is as fair as one can tell a non-believer, but like Higgs is less than taken with Dawkins' approach. In his review of The God Delusion, Orr notes:

As you may have noticed, Dawkins when discussing religion is, in effect, a blunt instrument, one that has a hard time distinguishing Unitarians from abortion clinic bombers. What may be less obvious is that, on questions of God, Dawkins cannot abide much dissent, especially from fellow scientists (and especially from fellow evolutionary biologists). Indeed Dawkins is fond of imputing ulterior motives to those “Neville Chamberlain School” scientists not willing to go as far as he in his war on religion: he suggests that they’re guilty of disingenuousness, playing politics, and lusting after the large prizes awarded by the Templeton Foundation to scientists sympathetic to religion. The only motive Dawkins doesn’t seem to take seriously is that some scientists genuinely disagree with him. [3]

Fundamentalism is also marked by a naive, literal reading of the Bible, and it is this flawed grasp of the book - and the religions based on it - that also justifies the invocation of the term 'fundamentalist' to descibe Dawkins. Orr continues:

The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow. Dawkins’s intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science popularizer,3 both of whom he cites repeatedly. This is a different group from thinkers like William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein—both of whom lived after Darwin, both of whom struggled with the question of belief, and both of whom had more to say about religion than Adams and Sagan. Dawkins spends much time on what can only be described as intellectual banalities: “Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question.” [5]

As mentioned earlier, Dawkins has yet to respond to Higgs' interview, but his sensitivity to being branded a fundamentalist atheist is well-known.

No, please, do not mistake passion, which can change its mind, for fundamentalism, which never will. Passion for passion, an evangelical Christian and I may be evenly matched. But we are not equally fundamentalist. The true scientist, however passionately he may "believe", in evolution for example, knows exactly what would change his mind: evidence! The fundamentalist knows that nothing will. [6]

Dawkins, needless to say, evades the reason why he and other New Atheists have been described as fundamentalists - intolerance of dissenting views and a naive, uninformed attack on Christianity which shares with its fundamentalist instantiation a literal, shallow understanding of its source text - and instead harps on about 'evidence', ignoring the fact that his intellectually declasse attacks on religion (as evidened by Orr and others) show that he is unwilling to engage in the sort of debate where the relevant evidence is examined.

Dawkins appears to be aware of this major deficiency in his anti-theist tirade, but unsurprisingly, his attempted rebuttal simply demonstrates why serious theologians regard Dawkins as a ham-fisted amateur:

If, as one self-consciously intellectual critic wished, I had expounded the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus, Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope (as he vainly hoped I would), my book would have been more than a surprise bestseller, it would have been a miracle. I would happily have forgone bestsellerdom had there been the slightest hope of Duns Scotus illuminating my central question: does God exist? But I need engage only those few theologians who at least acknowledge the question, rather than blithely assuming God as a premise. For the rest, I cannot better the "Courtier's Reply" on P. Z. Myers's splendid Pharyngula website, where he takes me to task for outing the Emperor's nudity while ignoring learned tomes on ruffled pantaloons and silken underwear. Most Christians happily disavow Baal and the Flying Spaghetti Monster without reference to monographs of Baalian exegesis or Pastafarian theology.

Equating Christianity with the invented satirical religion of Pastafarianism may make for a good thowaway line at an atheist convention, but in reality, it simply is more evidenec for Orr's observation that Dawkins never really faces his subject head-on. The glib reference to Paul Myer's tiresom 'Courtier's Reply', which is fast becoming an atheist trope every bit as tiresome as 'Bronze-Age goat herder' again confirms that Dawkins' intellectual universe is populated with sources that are decidedly second-rate amateurs.

Myers' response to Higgs was - like Coyne's - long on invective and short on appreciation for what Higgs was saying:

You know, whenever I see people babbling ignorantly like this, I have this urge to strap them down Clockwork Orange style and force them to watch an hour of James Dobson or Tony Perkins or Ken Ham or Bryan Fischer, and then ask them, “Do you still think Dawkins is a fundamentalist?” The only way you can make this ridiculous comparison is by cultivating a near-total ignorance of what fundamentalists are actually like. But then I have to confess that forcing someone to correct their folly and putting them to the question is exactly what a fundamentalist would do, so I can’t.[7]

Ignoring the usual gratuitous insult about ignorant babbling, what comes out again is the same wilful refusal to appreciate what Higgs and other critics of Dawkins are meaning when they use the term 'fundamentalist'. When Dawkins criticises other atheists for taking a more conciliatory approach to religion, makes pig-ignorant remarks about theology, and conflates the most ignorant evangelical instantiation of Christianity with the entire history of Christianity, theists whose knowledge of their subject far eclipses that of Dawkins, Myers, Coyne and other critics of Christianity are more than entitled to brand this form of atheism as fundamentalist in its shrill, intolerant, ignorance.


1. Jha, A "Peter Higgs criticises Richard Dawkins over anti-religious 'fundamentalism'" The Guardian, Wednesday 26 December 2012 http://www.guardian....-fundamentalism

2. Coyne J "Peter Higgs, the Boson Man, takes out after Richard Dawkins for the usual reasons" Why Evolution is True 27th Dec 2012 http://whyevolutioni...-usual-reasons/

3. Crenshaw, James L. Education in Ancient Israel: Across the Deadening Silence. New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Yale University Press, 1998. p 38

4. Berman, Joshua A (2008). Created Equal:How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (p. 118). Oxford University Press.

5. Orr H.A. "A Mission to Convert" New York Review of Books, January 11, 2007

6. http://old.richardda...-fundamentalist

7. Myers P.Z. "No one should be embarrassed to speak the truth" Pharyngula Dec 27th 2012 http://freethoughtbl...peak-the-truth/

Edited by Ken Gilmore, 28 December 2012 - 06:44 AM.

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei

#2 Evangelion



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Posted 28 December 2012 - 06:55 AM

Once again the New Atheists demonstrate their intellectual paucity and dishonesty. Great stuff from Higgs.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.


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