As everybody knows, well-known biologist Richard Dawkins moonlights as a polemicist against religion. Yet recently a leading physicist described Mr. Dawkins as a “fundamentalist.” The physicist is Peter Higgs (as in Higgs Boson particle). Higgs is expected to win the Nobel prize after this summer’s discovery in Geneva supported his theory about how particles attain their mass.
Although Higgs says he is not a religious believer himself, he chalks it up to his secular upbringing. Science and religion are not incompatible, Higgs asserts, but religion needs to rethink some of its arguments in the light of contemporary science.
Recently I also had the opportunity to ask Harvard astrophysicist Owen Gingerich about the religious implications—if any—of the Higgs Boson, which has been called “The God Particle.” He was kind enough to write up the following insights exclusively for our White Horse Inn readers.
The recent discovery of evidence for the elusive and short-lived Higgs boson stirred up a great deal of short-lived press coverage. My friends knew somehow that it was Very Important, without knowing quite why, nor why it was referred to as “the God particle.” Were there deep religious connotations in this discovery?
The discovery was long ago predicted (if everything was all right with the so-called “standard model” of nuclear particles), and thus long awaited. Already two decades ago Leon Lederman, sometime director of the Fermi Lab and Nobel laureate in physics, was frustrated by the difficulty of finding the particle, and he wanted to vent his frustration by titling his forthcoming book on the elusive boson The goddamned particle. This American idiom expressed his feeling perfectly and without religious connotations, but his publisher vetoed the idea, settling simply for The God Particle. Thus, unwittingly, the pot was stirred unnecessarily for religious connections.
A similar situation has repeated over and over in seeking for the larger context of scientific findings. A particularly interesting case occurred following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Outcries that the book was antireligious brought a thoughtful response from the American botanist Asa Gray, who was a staunch Presbyterian but a serious supporter of Darwin’s evolutionary views. Gray ended his review by arguing that whereas a reader could use Darwin’s theory in support of an atheistic view of Nature, one could use any scientific theory in that way. Darwin, Gray wrote: “merely takes up a particular, proximate cause, or set of such causes, from which, it is argued, the present diversity of species has or may have contingently resulted. The author does not say necessarily resulted.”
Thus it is that cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, already known for his outspoken atheistic stance, captures the opportunity to call the Higgs boson “The Godless Particle.” It is no surprise to learn that his prior views find a confirming place for the particle in his philosophy. Likewise readers of my book, God’s Universe, will not be astonished to discover that I consider the Higg’s boson simply to be one of countless numbers God’s particles that make up the material universe. There are discoveries awaiting to be made that will surely give rise to thoughtful discussions with far more interesting philosophical issues than the discovery of evidence for the Higg’s particle. To name just one, the on-going Kepler mission, which continuously monitors approximately 150,000 stars for the brief dimming that results when a planet passes in front of one of them, has already found a couple thousand so-called exoplanets. Some of these will surely be earthlike, in the sense of being rocky bodies in just the right temperature range for liquid water and therefore possible environments for life. If we eventually find many of them, but with no evidence for life, this may support an argument for the rarity of life in the universe. On the other hand, if hints of primitive life are found, it will verify that the universe is designed to be congenial for life. Of course Lawrence Krauss will argue that the formation of life is automatic and therefore no big deal.
As we never tire of saying around here, God works through means. The Reformers emphasized that God’s glory isn’t lessened by the layers of creaturely means he uses to get something done. On the contrary, it shows just how involved God is at every level, in every event, even to bring good out of evil. Just as the Triune God works in saving grace through the ordinary means of preaching, baptism and the Supper, his common grace is evident in the layers of natural processes that his wisdom, goodness and love direct. In nature and in grace, everything holds together in Christ (Col 1:17). He is eternal Son who became flesh for us and for our salvation. Even in this game-changing event, his miraculous conception was complemented by a natural gestation and birth, like that of any other baby.
In God’s economy, extraordinary means—miracles—play nicely alongside ordinary means. Sometimes God works directly and immediately, but most of the time he works through secondary causes. Even in Genesis 1 and 2, along with the direct fiat that creates “from nothing” (ex nihilo)—”‘Let there be x.’ And there was x.”—are interlaced descriptions of a more ordinary procedure: “‘Let the earth bring forth x.’ And the earth brought forth x.” This is not a recent theory to accommodate contemporary science; it’s one of many long-standing contributions of our older theologians to contemporary conversations. This distinction has always been helpful in better days, when science and faith were on friendlier terms.
The science-religion conversation is complex, far more so than religious and anti-religious fundamentalists imagine. Yet it may be that our greatest weakness in this discussion is not traditional arguments from the past, but the fact that we have largely forgotten what they were.