Has Richard Dawkins found a worthy opponent at last?

‘Iron Pete’ Higgs of God particle fame has accused Richard Dawkins of adopting a ‘fundamentalist’ approach when dealing with believers


Montgomery needed his Rommel, Wellington his Napoleon, Jeremy Clarkson his Piers Morgan. In a similar spirit, I suspect Richard Dawkins has always longed for an opponent worthy of him.

In his programmes about atheism, he often finds himself having to argue with a creationist from Ohio or Kentucky, one who thinks that hair should be cut around a pudding bowl and cavemen shared the earth with dinosaurs.

He has faced intellectuals as well, it is true, but none who has been his equal. I once saw him debating atheism with the former Bishop of Oxford. Dawkins clearly appreciated the prelate’s obvious decency, but it was like watching a heavyweight sparring with a bantam. The bishop spent most of his time on the canvas with small birds circling his mitre.

Well, all that has changed, because the theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, who predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, or “God particle”, has entered the ring. “Iron Pete” Higgs is not only nimble on his feet, but has a tasty left hook. Not since the Thrilla in Manila has there been a more eagerly awaited bout.

Higgs has accused Dawkins of adopting a “fundamentalist” approach when dealing with believers. He argues that belief and science can co-exist and that a lot of scientists in his field are people of faith. “I don’t happen to be one myself, but maybe that’s just more a matter of my family background than that there’s any fundamental difficulty about reconciling the two.” This is a low blow, because one of Dawkins’ favourite tricks is to exchange the word atheist for scientist, as if it is impossible for a scientist to be religious, as in his line: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”

But I’m sure Dick “Lights Out” Dawkins will come out fighting. And what often seems to disarm his opponents is the gentleness of his voice, the equivalent of rope-a-dope. As they get louder, he gets quieter; and as they lean in closer to hear what he has to say, he lands one.

In the face of Higgs’s challenge, Dawkins has so far remained sitting on his stool, refusing even to put in his gumshield. As a public service, then, and because – rather presumptuously – I think I know his writing well enough, I shall answer for him. Atheists can’t be fundamentalists, because they are open to any hypothesis, provided that it can be substantiated by evidence. And atheism is not a religion. It doesn’t want followers.

As you may have gathered, I am something of a Dawkins fan. This is because if there is one book that changed my life more than any other, it is his Unweaving the Rainbow. Until I read it, in 1998, I was a lukewarm Anglican, drifting in a fog of vague belief. After it, I saw the world anew and appreciated it more. He raised my consciousness.

One of the things I like about him is that, for all his fighting talk, he has a soft spot for the Church of England. As he once told me, “it’s like village cricket”. It makes me suspect that being an Anglican atheist is like being a Jewish atheist; it’s more to do with race than religion. The C of E is part of your identity if you are English. Speaking metaphorically on    Dawkins’s behalf, I think it’s in your DNA.

My colleague Jenny McCartney, who is more open-minded than me about the possibility of our consciousness surviving death, showed me a letter she was sent by a reader the other day. It included a photocopy of a letter written by Dawkins in 1992. She took it as supporting the case for such open-mindedness, whereas I see it as being consistent with what Dawkins has always said: that he is happy to change his mind, so long as he is presented with evidence.

“Actually,” he writes, “my mind isn’t clammed shut against spiritualism or other supernormal phenomena. I strongly applaud your statement that, if such phenomena were demonstrated to exist, they would not be supernatural but natural… I am all for people making a proper search for evidence for supernormal phenomena. All that I was trying to demonstrate… was that much of the alleged evidence that people think is convincing is not really convincing at all.”

To believers and atheists alike, a happy new year.