A Higgs Boson Walks Into a Bar…

Thanks to Steve Knight for alerting me to this joke, which has become one of my instant favorites. After all, it combines two things I dig: nerd humor and theology (also nerdy).

Yeah, yeah, you may be groaning, but you’re smiling while doing it. Admit it.

There’s plenty of chatter lately about the so-called “God Particle,” recently discovered , with some in the scientific field actually calling it the “goddamn particle,” because (at least as I understand it) the discovery opens up the possibility of something without detectable mass actually giving mass to other particles.

Kind of like: In the beginning there was nothing, and then…

Sound familiar?

Back to the Higgs boson for a second. Based on my very limited scientific understanding, I believe the gist of the discovery is of an energy field, and not an actual massive particle, per se. This field, called the Higgs field, has been theorized to exist for almost fifty years, but was only finally detected using the Large Hadron Collider and a butt-load of really big computers that weren’t available back then. The “boson” part of the name is for a particular excitation in the Higgs energy field that, given the proper conditions, seems to be able to give mass to these other particles we knew existed, but which we haven’t known where they might have come from before.

Enter the Science vs. Religion cage match. Church leaders assert that all matter was created by God, to which scientists say “nonsense.” So with the Higgs boson discovery, some in the sciences are effectively saying, “Here is your ‘God.’ You wanted something from nothing; here it is.”

What is likely to follow is a pattern we’ve seen for centuries. Some religious leaders will try to use various theological or philosophical gymnastics to tear down the scientific findings, arguing some tragic flaw in their work. Others will see this new discovery as an inevitable truism that cannot be ignored, and so, if their belief structure is to stand the test of time, it must adapt to accommodate this new knowledge.

Then scientists accuse the Church of blind opportunism and the Church fires back that their sole mission seems to be the death of God, rather than the birth of new knowledge.

For me, it seems that we’re confusing the purpose of the two distinct fields. While science primarily is focused on answering the universal question of “how?” philosophy and religion delve into the question of “why?” But human nature and our hubristic inclinations being what they are, we seem forever intent on overstepping the limits of our respective disciplines in an effort to offer a single panacea that will end the conversation in favor of our own side, once and for all.

My greatest consolation in all of this isn’t that we’re any closer to ending the dialogue between science and faith. As I said, they’re asking two very different questions. But I do find hope in the increasing popularity of postmodern thought, in which such binary, either/or dichotomies as the “church vs. science” mindset seem increasingly irrelevant.

As such lines blur, the boundaries between apparently discreet fields become more permeable, allowing those in the fields of science to think more imaginatively or even philosophically about their work. Einstein was a great proponent of this way of approaching science. He famously said “if I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.” For him, creative imagination was not the bane of science, but rather was critical to his process of discovery. On the other hand, such permeability between the fields requires religious leaders to let go of some of their fears and desire to maintain permanent, rigid ideas of what lies at the heart of God and humanity.

I’m personally exhilarated by the new discovery, and I welcome the opportunity to enrich both my understanding of “how” and “why” in the process. Now, if I could only find a picture of Jesus holding the Higgs boson, blessing it and saying “This is my body…”


About Christian Piatt

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Christian Piatt (www.christianpiatt.com)
Author, Musician, Antagonist. God Nerd. Find Christian on:

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  1. If the Higgs has been found, there isn’t consensus, it won’t explain how the universe was formed. Those who claim it undermines religion don’t know much more than the media headlines proclaiming it ‘the God particle.’ Supposedly, it was, as you wrote, to be called the goddamn particle. But the reason was the difficulty in finding it. Publishers refused to call it goddamn, shortened it to God, and now we have the God particle.

    I’m not a scientist, just interested in it. As I understand it, even if mass is explained, we still won’t know where the Higgs came from and its existence might lead to even more hypothetical forces and particles.

    For more with links, I’ve written about it here and here.

  2. I second the thanks. I once attended the worship night of a rather, well, intense type of campus ministry group, intent to go in with an open mind and take out of it what I could and discard the rest. I did OK right up until the worship leader started telling his audience specifically NOT to pay attention to science that refutes the Bible, to completely ignore it as lies and believe instead in the literal word of Scripture…it was beyond what I was prepared to handle, and I left at intermission, seething mad.

    Unfortunately that memory has had a lasting effect on how I perceive religion and science. With the exception of Buddhism – I have a high regard for how Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama himself, view and interact with science – I’ve avoided conversations or situations where the two meet. So while I’ve kept vaguely appraised of the Higgs-Boson news, enough to gather about as much as you have gathered, I’ve also steered clear of comments sections and editorial commentary on it. Because when I think of it, I groan.

    Your article, though, did give me an alternative perspective on how such a conversation could go – with the right crowd, who by and large are not going to be the comment squad on mainstream news websites, I will likely have to actively seek out some stoners…I mean, some people who are willing to talk about it rationally and open-mindedly without injecting personal biases and venom. But I’m sure they have to exist.

  3. The “how” and the “why” of it all. Two different questions. I’m with you on that. Rather than competing, science and faith provide compliment to each other – or they could – to the extent that they make room for one another. Thanks for this post, Christian.

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