In the Guardian this morning there is a report of an interview given by Peter Higgs (of Higgs’ Boson fame) to a Spanish Newspaper, El Mundo. In it he takes Dawkins to task and calls him an embarrassment to science, saying (without apparent justification) that religion and science are compatible. Higgs seems to think that Dawkins’ strictures against religion and religious believers apply only to fundamentalist religion, and that Dawkins himself is something of a fundamentalist, and, as such, an embarrassment to science. Indeed, the title of the piece is “Peter Higgs criticises Richard Dawkins over anti-religious ‘fundamentalism’.” Though not a believer himself — a fact which he puts down to his upbringing — he thinks that lots of physicists are religious believers, and, he says, so long as you are a convinced but not a dogmatic believer, religion and science are perfectly compatible.
Let’s put what seems to be the heart of the matter here so that we can consider Higgs’ position more thoroughly. He puts it this way:
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.
Now, I’m not quite sure that I get the point of what he is saying. If, in fact, the traditional reasons for belief going back millennia are “rather undermined” by science, what does it mean to say that being a convinced but not dogmatic believer is still perfectly compatible with science? Higgs is coming to this discussion rather late in the day. This was frequently said about five years ago, but people seem to have come to the recognition, despite Higgs’ lateness on the scene, that (i) Dawkins is not a fundamentalist, since you have to have a prescribed text in order to be so, and (ii) there is no very clear distinction between what Higgs is calling “convinced” versus “dogmatic” believers. One would like to say, “You either believe or you don’t.” There aren’t any very convincing half-way measures when it comes to faith, and Higgs certainly hasn’t explained very clearly what he intends by drawing this distinction between conviction and dogma.
One of the points, which I have tried recently to stress, is that religious faith and religious doubt seem to fit together like hand and glove, and that, when they do, doubt is not real or genuine doubt at all. It’s the counterpart of faith, which makes it seem as though one is being reasonable, but the doubt itself is simply idling in the background. Every once in a while the believer takes his (or her) doubt out and dusts it off, as if to say: “See, I’m taking very seriously the kind of dialectic that is involved in any rational undertaking.” But the doubt is not seriously entertained as a genuine challenge to faith. It is used as a foil to belief, and, indeed, as a kind of strengthener of belief, because it leaves the believer with the illusion that they have dealt with the arguments against faith, and need not find those arguments either distracting or detracting.
I used periodically to study the book of Job with people in the parishes I served. It’s one of the most agonising problems of faith (or should be), that there is so much evil in the world. Indeed, everyone’s life goes badly at some point. There are always disappointments and tragedies, and of course everyone dies, so the believer is no farther away from such things than anyone else. The suggestion that faith adds a layer of padding between tragedy and life is simply wrong. It doesn’t. But what the believer can do is to entertain all the questions and objections that occur, say, to the atheist, about, for example, the apparent meaninglessness of life overall, but to do so in a context where the problems of faith are not permitted to get too close to the convictions. Most people seem to be unaware of this. Even believers don’t seem to understand that the repeated concern about the problem of pain and evil at the time of a tragedy is a way to insulate faith from real pain and real tragedy, so that, once the pain and tragedy have been dimmed by time, one can go on believing just the same, only this time, when we remember those who have gone before us, we remember that one special person who stands so tall in our imaginations that it is impossible not to think that they also stand tall in God’s presence, and are the object of his special love and care. Religious doubt is rather like the psychoanalytic “talking cure,” where concerns are brought up and promptly defused, so the believer can go on believing without any apparent confusion or hesitation.
Faith is a peculiar thing, which is probably why Higgs thinks that faith and science can be perfectly compatible, so long as it is not fundamentalist belief, by which he seems to mean very literal, unvarying attachment to certain statements of faith. One can be convinced but not dogmatic, he says, thinking thereby that he has noticed real differences amongst believers. And, in one sense, I suppose, he is quite right, but having left it so vague, he’s really trying to have his cake and eat it. In order to say something a bit more substantial, he’s going to have specify clearly the distinction that he thinks he is making, which people seldom even try to do. And there’s a good reason for that, for, in my experience, at least, while there is what might be called a graduated scale of believing, with the person at the bottom of the slope who is, say, like Don Cupitt, and understands religious believing in a way that has a very tenuous connexion (if any connexion at all) to the beliefs of people further up the slope. For such believers, to have faith is to live one’s life in the light of a story, a narrative, so that time is somehow sanctified — or, what amounts to the same thing, so that sanctity becomes more or less worldly. This kind of faith is obviously compatible with science, because it is poetic and purely figurative. Religious language used in this way does not have a referring function. It is as fictional as a novel, and yet it is used to pattern one’s life.
However, once we start up the gradient leading from this kind of storied faith, we begin to enter the realm of realistic types of belief, perhaps a bit tenuous at first, but at least open enough that it can include a vague sense that there is a transcendent realm, if not of being, at least of experience, and this shades off further up the gradient towards beliefs that, in fact, there is, in some undefined and perhaps undefinable realm, an order of being that is expressed symbolically through story in this world, so that we can be put in touch, at one remove, with this storied realm of being. And then gradually, almost imperceptibly, as we move higher and higher along the gradient, we come to much more metaphysical convictions about the existence of real beings or of a real being who has reached out into the realm of human life and has made himself (it’s almost always male) known in word and deed, usually to someone who lived long enough ago that it no longer seems foolish to think that this person did actually receive an undoubted revelation from this being, and so on. That’s a very rough sketch, but if you went through a Christian congregation where the terms of membership are not spelled out clearly and are not parroted back by all who belong to the fellowship, you would find people at practically every possible location on the gradient.
My own problem with this, as I have said often enough that it must now sound like broken record, repeating over and over the same phrase or phrases, is that it’s always the most conservative interpretation of faith that is considered normative for that particular group, because the most conservative position is the one held by the person that everyone tries their best not to offend, lest they leave. And this is where my own problem lay. I could no longer forbear, but needed to be honest about where I stood on the gradient, and, as a consequence, I know, offended some of those old faithful believers who were located further up the gradient towards the “real belief” end of the scale, who thought of Jesus as truly the divine Logos made man, who died for our sake, and through whom, by faith, we could experience everlasting life, not only as a quality of this life, but as a real continuation of this life in the after life.
So, in one sense, yes, Peter Higgs is no doubt correct. There is a kind of minimal “faith” with which science is not in competition, because it makes no ontological commitments of a definite sort. But there is scarcely a religious group anywhere which is composed solely of people who think like that. Many of the rest will think of faith in much more literal terms. Indeed, it seems clear that liberal Christianity is itself at risk, and it is more difficult now to be a Christian without specific metaphysical beliefs than it used to be in the heyday of liberal Christianity in the 60s, 70s, and 80s of the last century. By the early nineties this kind of relaxed form of belief was already becoming less common and less able to bind people to community. It was, in fact, a route out of the church, rather than an up to date version of faith which (as it was indeed hoped) would maintain people’s loyalty to the church, despite their inability to accept a full-bodied form of faith. Now, I think, though I have had no close acquaintance with the church for seven years, this kind of loose relationship with the church’s dogmatic commitments is becoming less common and less compelling to the general run of believers, who came to recognise it (as in fact it was) a form of general humanism with a religious flavour.
The real problem with this kind of religion lies, however, somewhat deeper. Since the church (to confine myself to Christianity, though this applies much more generally to other religions as well, I believe) is bound to shift to the right, because it will inevitably favour those whose faith is more determinate and more obviously tied to tradition, the church will generally tend to favour small ‘c’ conservative stands on many social issues. The one that concerns me most, though clearly not exclusively, has to do with assisted dying. Despite the fact that the churches relaxed many of their doctrinal positions over the last fifty years, they did not relent to any great degree concerning things like assisted dying and abortion. As a consequence, their doctrinal stand regarding moral issues has remained fairly constant, even through the massive changes in the understanding of faith that took place during the sixties (and the immediately following decades) of the twentieth century seemed to point in quite a different direction.
So, the churches have emerged from those decades with their moral commitments more or less intact, and therein lies a serious problem; for despite the fact that the churches have maintained a fairly clear moral consistency during this period, social and moral values have systematically shifted over the same period. This is clear from the fact that, despite the increasingly conservative nature of faith, even in what used to be liberal Protestantism, majorities of people, even in the churches, favour moral changes that were underwritten by the more liberal faith that held sway over the last four decades of the twentieth century. This is particularly noticeable with respect to support for gay marriage. Despite the official church’s strenuous opposition to the legalisation of gay marriage by the pope, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the senior clerics in the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, the majority of ordinary people support gay marriage, just as they also support abortion and assisted dying.
This is something that Peter Higgs doesn’t seem to recognise. Faith, to him, is simply a form of harmless believing. Sometimes it is stupid and fundamentalist, but amongst many of the people he knows it is more a matter of culture than it is of firm belief. That kind of religion, he suggests, is perfectly compatible with science, because it makes no intrusive metaphysical commitments. And, in that sense, religion is certainly not incompatible with science. It’s just a social custom, even a form of cultural nostalgia. But religion always has its zealous fringe, a number which varies with the degree to which more “fundamentalist” believers have influence at the centres of power of whichever particular church is in question. Indeed, since this kind of push-me-pull-you tendency is characteristic of larger religious institutions, many Christians now belong to non-institutional local groups, which are responsible only to themselves for their beliefs and practices, so that they can practice (in the various ways in which this is understood) a more or less “pure” form of their religion. The social effects of this tendency are very evident especially in places like the United States, where this kind of non-denominational church has become a common feature of the religious landscape, and lends support to many very conservative social doctrines which define moral and godly behaviour in increasingly narrow and intolerant ways. Wherever this tendency exists, more humane social policies as well as genuine education — as opposed to forms of religious indoctrination — are at risk. It is what I think amounts to an egregious failure to recognise this growing trend that lies behind Peter Higgs’ rather intemperate condemnation of Richard Dawkins and his concerns about the future of civil society, scientific education and even, it may be, liberal democratic values.