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Faith and the search for the God particle

By SPP Reporter

Richard Holloway, the former head of Scotland’s Episcopal Church who lost his faith just five years after being ordained.
Richard Holloway, the former head of Scotland’s Episcopal Church who lost his faith just five years after being ordained.

Professor Peter Higgs, who has just been given the Edinburgh Award for services to the city, believes experiments being carried out at CERN will help explain the origins of the universe.

Scientists at CERN, the world’s largest participle physics laboratory, which is situated near Geneva on the Franco-Swiss border, have been conducting tests with the large hadron collider to verify an explanation for the origins of mass as a property of matter.

The so-called God particle, named after a theory Professor Higgs first propounded in 1964, will apparently solve the mystery of why objects around us have weight.

According to the Higgs boson theory, as it is also known, at the very beginnings of the universe – the big bang – the smallest building blocks in nature were weightless but became heavy a fraction of a second later when the fireball of the big bang cooled.

Mass, a term first coined by Isaac Newton in his 1687 tome Principia Mathematica, is a phenomenon few scientists ever queried until recent times.

Now Ian Sample, a science correspondent with the Guardian newspaper, has written a definitive work, Massive: The Hunt for the God Particle, which delves into the “invisible fields that pervade the cosmos” to explore Professor Higgs’s studies into a new energy field which “clings” and gives weight to subatomic particles without which life could not exist.

Sample’s book, as you might imagine, explores complex issues and has been described as “a page-turner”.

I was intrigued by the need for theoretical physicists to term the Higgs boson the God particle. I didn’t expect scientists hypothesising about the cosmic origins of the universe billions of years ago to label their explanations with such divine symbolism. Surely something of a contradiction given the disparity between scientific and biblical accounts for the beginnings of life on planet Earth?

Some commentators are now suggesting that Professor Higgs, whose great-grandfather was born in Caithness in 1805, will be nominated for a Nobel Prize.

NEITHER did I expect to see, reading in the weekend broadsheets, revelations that the former head of Scotland’s Episcopal Church had lost his faith just five years after being ordained.

Richard Holloway, whose memoir Leaving Alexandria has just been published, has been described as “the bishop who stopped believing in God”.

Yet he says “there may be no God in the universe, but let’s live as though there is”.

I own just one Holloway book. Published in 2001, Doubts and Loves argues that it is better to regard the Bible as “good poetry than as bad science”. It sets out to deconstruct Christian doctrines and to “craft from the Christian past a usable ethic for our own time”.

We might be forgiven for feeling confused.

With scientists on the one hand propounding the discovery of the God particle and a leading theologian, on the other, denying the existence of a divine creator, what are we to make of it all?

Let me say I admire Richard Holloway. He is a compassionate intellectual and I believe he is a force for good in the world. He is also someone who has stood up to the ongoing hypocrisy in the Anglican Communion. And, of course, he won’t be the first (or the last) individual who has wrestled with and given up on faith.

What is perhaps intriguing in his case is how he struggled for so long with the dichotomy of upholding an office of religious orthodoxy whilst harbouring so much personal uncertainty.

IN the 2008 film Doubt, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn, a progressive priest in New York’s Bronx district. One day he preaches a sermon on the nature of doubt, observing that, like faith, it can be a unifying force.

Referring to President Kennedy’s assassination the year before (the film is set in 1964), Father Flynn recognises that the nation’s tragedy had led to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Yet it had also created a shared bond amongst Americans and a spirit of “we’re all in this together”.

However, Father Flynn did not reckon on the machinations of Sister Aloysius Beauvier (a part played by a certain Meryl Streep; she who won an Oscar last week for her portrayal of our dearly beloved Iron Lady).

She queries why Father Flynn should preach such a sermon and presumes he must be losing his faith and, therefore, his integrity.

Sister Aloysius conspires to put Father Flynn under close scrutiny and wrongly concludes he has formed an inappropriate relationship with one of the altar boys.

The film has shades of a Salem witch hunt and Father Flynn’s problematic past – which has no relevance to the suspicions against him – is used by Sister Aloysius who threatens to expose his alleged wrongdoings if he will not resign his charge. He ultimately acquiesces to her demands.

Only at the end of the film, realising the error of her ways and in a fit of abject remorse, does Sister Aloysius break down in tears – by now too late – confessing: “I have doubts... I have such doubts.”

It seems some doubts can be healthy and beneficial – others more destructive.

So we might be bombarded this summer with revelations of a God particle, a new totalistic theory to explain science’s latest understandings about the universe we live in. Will we sleep any easier in our beds, I wonder?

Science and religion have never been easy bedfellows. Mostly they clash and offer competing explanations for the world around us.

The world’s religions are often accused of offering a sort of supernatural hocus-pocus that does not fit with scientific rationale.

Science, on the other hand, despite being constantly updated, provides explanations which appear too certain – at least for me.

It was the 17th-century philosopher Sir Francis Bacon who suggested: “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties”.

So I’ve ordered the Richard Holloway memoir Leaving Alexandria. He may have lost some of his faith along the way and harboured all sorts of doubts but he never lost his belief and hopes for humanity.

And perhaps Father Flynn was right – and we are all united in our doubts. That, truly, “we are all in this together”.

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