Higgs’ Caution and Dawkins’ Unfalsifiable Fundamentalism

Graham Veale 

British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs has cautioned scientists that Richard Dawkins brand of atheism amounts to “anti-religious Fundamentalism”. To be fair to Dawkins, social scientists and historians might find this claim a little implausible. Historically, “fundamentalism” can describe several groups; Protestant Fundamentalism refers to

a movement that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries within American Protestantism reacting against “modernist” theology and biblical criticism as well as changes in the nation’s cultural and social scene. Taking its name from The Fundamentals (1910-1915), a twelve-volume set of essays designed to combat Liberal theology, the movement grew by leaps and bounds after World War I.

Between the two World Wars, many fundamentalists retreated into a subculture which promoted “traditional” Protestant morality, separated from broader Protestant denominations, and became deeply suspicious of the secular academy. The movement evolved further after World War Two. Fundamentalists not only refused to have fellowship with Roman Catholics, Liberals and Ecumenicals; they also withdrew from evangelicals who did have fellowship with those groups.

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So much for the history lesson. Of course, Dawkins has little interest in how academics use the term “fundamentalist”. He understands that the wider public understands fundamentalism as an unthinking and rigid adherence to any set of ideas. He knows that the charge of fundamentalism could do his cause serious harm.

So, Dawkins is being forced to argue that he is not a fundamentalist; to do so, he needs a definition of fundamentalism that captures the popular understanding. He stipulates that fundamentalism means  unfalsifiable faith – very roughly,your belief is unfalsifiable if  no amount of evidence can show it is false.  Now, Dawkins might be a bit “passionate”, but he insists that he is an open-minded fellow, who follows the evidence wherever it takes him.

… 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.

Actually, even Christian fundamentalists will insist that their faith is not unfalsifiable in principle – show them Jesus body in its tomb, and they will abandon Christianity. Furthermore, Dawkins atheism seems unfalsifiable…

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