Well, I guess now that the “God particle” has been discovered — or very nearly confirmed by a majority of physicists — I need to decide what church to join. We atheists, after all, have been devoutly demanding evidence for the hypothesized intelligent designer holding the universe together, and now that scientists have observed the predicted Higgs boson that gives matter its mass — without which there could be no creation, no gravity, galaxies, stars, planets, waterfalls, pansies, panthers or Hallelujah Choruses — we must conclude that the theologians have been right all along.
Or maybe not.
Peter Higgs, the physicist who first deduced and proposed the existence of the theoretical field now known as the Higgs boson, does not believe in God. After Leon Lederman, another nonbelieving physicist, had jokingly referred to the mysterious boson as the “God particle,” Higgs was not happy: “I wish he hadn’t done it. I have to explain to people it was a joke. I’m an atheist.” The phrase became part of the title for Lederman’s 2006 book, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?
Other scientists agree with Higgs. Pauline Gagnon, a Canadian physicist working at the Large Hadron Collider, said: “I hate that ‘God particle’ term. The Higgs [boson] is not endowed with any religious meaning. It is ridiculous to call it that.”
I am certain Lederman did not have any spiritual motive. He was not trying to endow the particle with any “religious meaning.” He was using language in an ironic and humorous way. And most likely his publisher knew that the word “God” helps sell books. According to one story, Lederman first called it the “goddam particle,” but the editor didn’t think that would make a great title. (Although I would have bought such a book!)
When Einstein said that “God does not play dice with the universe,” he was clearly not talking about a supernatural being playing a game of craps. The word “God” has often been used (inadvisedly, in my opinion) as a convenient placeholder for “We don’t know.”
“God” is a synonym for “mystery.” When the cause of an event is unknown, some say “God did it.” Surprised by a natural disaster, some call it an “act of God.” Not having a sure answer, some say “God knows” — meaning, “Who knows?” God reflects uncertainty, not knowledge. Same with faith: we only rely on faith when the claim cannot stand on its own merits.
When the ancient Greek and Nordic civilizations heard thunder, they said, “Zeus is on the warpath” or “Thor is angry.” In other words, “Who knows?” Now that we understand something about the weather and electricity, we no longer need Zeus or Thor. We no longer need “God did it.” Thor is dead. God has one less place to hide.
However, our language still reflects those old patterns. The fact that I am writing this article on a Thursday, the day of Thor, does not mean the Norse gods really exist or that a thunderstorm is truly an “act of God.” When Lederman nicknamed the Higgs boson the “God particle,” he was playing with language, joking that “we don’t know what holds matter together, so God must be the explanation (wink, wink).”
While we atheists cannot pretend that the discovery of the Higgs boson proves there is no God, we can certainly say that such evidence, if confirmed, gives God one less place to hide. Believers will always find other hiding places, so this discovery will pose little threat to their faith. But now maybe they can join us — those with a sense of humor — in officially changing the name of the Higgs boson. From now on, let’s call it the “godless particle.”