Saturday, April 28, 2007

The cosmos - before the big bang

The Universe before ours

How did the universe begin? The question is as old as humanity. Sure, we know that something like the big bang happened, but the theory doesn't explain some of the most important bits: why it happened, what the conditions were at the time, and other imponderables.

Many cosmologists think our standard picture of how the universe came to be is woefully incomplete or even plain wrong, and they have been dreaming up a host of strange alternatives to explain how we got here. For the first time, they are trying to pin down the initial conditions of the big bang. In particular, they want to solve the long-standing mystery of how the universe could have begun in such a well-ordered state, as fundamental physics implies, when it seems utter chaos should have reigned.

Several models have emerged that propose intriguing answers to this question. One says the universe began as a dense sea of black holes. Another says the big bang was sparked by a collision between two membranes floating in higher-dimensional space. Yet another says our universe was originally ripped from a larger entity, and that in turn countless baby universes will be born from the wreckage of ours. Crucially, each scenario makes unique and testable predictions; observations coming online in the next few years should help us to decide which, if any, is correct.

Not that modelling the origin of the universe is anything new. The conventional approach is to take the laws of physics and extrapolate backwards from the present. From observations dating back to the 1920s, we can see that galaxies are moving farther and farther apart: the universe is expanding. By reversing that expansion, researchers concluded that 13.7 billion years ago the universe was in a very small, dense and hot state. The big bang theory, first proposed in 1927 by Georges LemaƮtre, was bolstered in 1964 by the discovery of the cosmic microwave background - the radiation filling the universe that is thought to be a relic of the big bang - and has ruled ever since.

In 1981, a major addition was made to the big bang picture. Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others proposed that the expansion of the early universe happened much faster than originally thought. This theory, called cosmic inflation, explained the surprising uniformity of the visible universe by saying that it grew exponentially from a patch that was extremely tiny to start with (New Scientist, 3 March, p 33). Though highly successful in this regard, inflation still doesn't explain the initial conditions of the universe.

Brick wall

That's because inflation would have taken place between 10-35 and 10-32 seconds after the big bang. Going back further in time, we hit a brick wall because the two pillars of modern physics - quantum field theory and general relativity - break down. Physicists don't have a complete recipe with which to concoct the behaviour of matter, energy and space-time under such extreme conditions, and it's hard to blame them.

To get around this, some are basing their ideas around an age-old tenet. The second law of thermodynamics dictates that the entropy of the universe - a measure of its disorder - increases with time. So the universe began in its most orderly state and has been getting messier ever since. The problem is, it would have been more likely to be chaotic and disordered, so what was this initial state? "It's tremendously important that any respectable model of the early universe explains why entropy is so low near the big bang," says Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Enter the first of the new models. The entropy question has led Thomas Banks of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Willy Fischler of the University of Texas at Austin to conclude that the universe in its earliest moments - when it was less than 10-35 seconds old - was a sea of black holes. They call this scenario "holographic cosmology".

The idea is based on the holographic principle, which was proposed in 1993 by Gerard't Hooft of Utrecht University in the Netherlands and developed by Leonard Susskind of Stanford University in California. Although it is unproven, many physicists think the holographic principle is right: all the information in a given volume of space can be represented by physical laws that exist on its surface. Entropy can be thought of as a measure of information content - the more disordered a system, the more information it takes to describe it. Cast in these terms, the holographic principle says the entropy in a given volume is limited by its surface area, and maximised in the case of a black hole.

Now imagine turning back the clock towards the big bang. Matter and energy get packed together more densely into each shrinking region of space until we reach the entropy density limit, which corresponds to filling up these regions with a sea of microscopic black holes.

According to Banks and Fischler, the universe began as this black hole "fluid" (see Diagram). From any vantage point, black holes would fill the entire space around, but how densely they fill it would fluctuate according to the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. A fluctuation towards lower density would mean that in that region the black hole event horizons would not fill every last bit of volume, but would have some ordinary space between them, free of black holes and filled with radiation.

This creates the conditions for our observable universe to come into existence. If the black holes in the region where ordinary space opens up are densely packed and moving fast, their collisions and mergers make them grow until they fill the space, pulling it back into the black hole fluid. But if the black holes are far enough apart and moving slowly, mergers won't happen fast enough. In such a region the ordinary space filled with hot radiation would quickly expand, pushing the black holes further apart.

About 10-35 seconds after the beginning of time, this bubble of ordinary space joins up with the conventional picture, in which inflation expands our universe to more than 1 kilometre across in a tiny fraction of a millisecond. Eventually, particles condense out of the radiation to produce the building blocks of stars, galaxies, planets and life.

So how do Banks and Fischler explain the low entropy of the early universe? Many bubbles of ordinary space could have emerged from the black hole fluid, but to avoid collapsing back into the fluid, they need to have low entropy ( That's because higher entropy corresponds to faster-moving black holes that are prone to colliding and merging. If our bubble of space had begun with higher entropy, it would not have survived. "There wouldn't have been a universe to live in," Banks says.

Other researchers are still debating the merits of holographic cosmology. "It's a very interesting speculation that is neither obviously true nor obviously false. Time will tell," says Susskind. After all, he says, "there is an enormous gulf separating the earliest origin from observational cosmology".

The model raises the controversial issue of whether time began at the big bang. "There's no necessity in the rules of quantum mechanics for time to extend out to the infinite past, or for that matter, the infinite future," Banks says. An origin of time has its own problems, though. "If there were no beginning, I would sleep better at night. I think it would be more elegant," says Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at MIT. A beginning of time raises the question of "why certain things come into existence and others don't".

In other words, this approach does not explain the origin of the big bang, says Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University. In 2002 he and Neil Turok of the University of Cambridge proposed a scenario in which the big bang is not the beginning of time, but just the start of another cosmological cycle (New Scientist, 16 March 2002, p 26). Their model, which has withstood some recent challenges, provides a different mechanism for the low entropy of the early universe.

Steinhardt and Turok's model is motivated by string theory, an approach to unifying relativity and quantum mechanics in which there are extra dimensions of space beyond the three we can see. In their model, our visible universe is a 3D sheet called a membrane, or brane, floating in four-dimensional space (see Diagram). Another 3D brane, with possibly very different physics, hovers nearby. The branes collide every so often, making ours heat up to an astronomical 1023 kelvin and expand, with some energy eventually condensing into matter. From our point of view, confined to our brane, it would look like a big bang - even though the universe was already there.

After the branes collide they separate and stretch out, causing the expansion of space within them to speed up. This corresponds to the accelerated expansion of the universe that researchers observe today and explain by invoking a repulsive force known as dark energy (New Scientist, 17 February, p 28). The branes will eventually slow down, stop and start hurtling towards one another again. Whenever the next collision occurs, new matter and radiation will be injected into our brane, as if a new big bang has gone off.

One potential problem with this "cyclic brane" model is that small differences in the distribution of matter and energy within our brane could get amplified during a collision, leading to a lumpy universe that looks nothing like ours. Steinhardt and Turok have argued, however, that dark energy becomes stronger as the branes approach one another, and that this overwhelms the small fluctuations, keeping the universe smooth.

The cyclic brane model might seem radically different from Banks and Fischler's black hole fluid scenario - what's more, it does not invoke conventional inflation - but remarkably they share some common ground. Black holes would be produced in copious amounts under the extreme conditions of a brane collision, Steinhardt says. "Maybe it's not so different from the state that Banks and Fischler have in mind," he says.

Stretch your brane

Yet its explanation of the low-entropy question is quite different. The second law of thermodynamics makes it hard for a given cosmological cycle to start with low entropy: you'd think entropy would have accumulated in previous cycles. The brane scenario solves this problem. The stretching of each brane means that matter, radiation and entropy all get enormously diluted before a collision. By the time of the "big bang" that follows, the entropy density - and therefore the total entropy that any observer can see - is very low. To get enough dilution, the universe must go at least a trillion years between collisions.

Though intriguing, the model has yet to gain widespread support. "It's quite specific, and it does try to be an alternative to inflation, which is absolutely a good thing to have," says Carroll, but he is still unconvinced. "It's not very clear to many people why this would be considered an improvement [on inflation]."

As for the beginning of time, there is no way to tell whether the cycling has been going on forever. "We don't know yet how to make that into a scientifically decidable question," Steinhardt says. The problem is that information about previous cycles tends to get scrambled. Even if the cycling had a beginning, there may be no way to detect it. Nevertheless Steinhardt remains optimistic. "We addressed a lot of the show-stopper problems that might have stopped people from thinking about cyclic models," he says. "That's really opened the door for people to come up with other imaginative ideas that take us back to the big bang and beyond."

One such model that has emerged says our universe began as a fragment of a mother universe shattered by dark energy, and that our universe will in turn give rise to countless others. Developed by Lauris Baum and Paul Frampton, both from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the scenario also manages to get around the problem of accumulating entropy, but in a different way (Physical Review Letters, vol 98, 071301).

Did we emerge from a black hole sea, bouncing brane or mother universe?

Their model starts with the assumption that the amount of dark energy in a given volume increases as the universe expands. This is plausible, as measurements to date of dark energy are imprecise. A slowly increasing density would lead the repulsive force to destroy galaxies, stars and even individual atoms, culminating in an irreversible disaster called the "big rip" in which the universe's expansion rate becomes infinite. So Baum and Frampton designed the model's dark energy to have an attractive force as well that starts out negligible but later grows quickly; the repulsive aspect dominates when the universe is young and small, which is still the case now.

According to their scenario, the universe is expanding faster and faster, diluting matter and radiation enormously. Eventually, each patch of the universe moves away from other regions faster than the speed of light. This does not violate the speed limit dictated by relativity, since the expansion of space itself is happening faster than light, rather than the motion of particles through that space. Since no particle or force can travel faster than light, each patch is cut off from the others and becomes an island universe.

Left just a bit longer, this process would lead to the end of the universe, but at the last instant, less than 10-27 seconds before a would-be big rip, the attractive aspect of the dark energy finally overtakes the repulsive part. This causes each island universe to contract, but eventually it gets so dense that its radiation reverses the contraction. We are left with innumerable expanding little universes - of which ours may have been one (see Diagram). At this point, the model joins up with the standard inflation scenario, and matter eventually clumps together to form the stars and galaxies we see around us.

What about the low-entropy question? As in the cyclic brane model, the fragmenting universe manages to avoid being hobbled by the accumulation of entropy from cycle to cycle. At the end of each cycle, the entropy that has been produced is divided among the huge number of new universes spawned from the fragmentation of the old one. As a result, the baby universes each begin with a clean slate.

Far in the future, the whole process will repeat itself, spawning countless new universes from the wreckage of ours. This suggests that the number of universes was smaller in the past. If we go back far enough, was there an original universe that started it all? In other words, would time still have a beginning? No, says Frampton. "I would say the number of universes is and always has been and always will be infinite," he says.

Others find the scenario fascinating but incomplete. "It's a kind of new idea," says Steinhardt. The model pushes entropy outside the borders of our early universe, he says. "But how do you get this turnaround? That remains to be explained." Some are more dubious of cyclic models in general. "I have not seen any theory that's convinced me that it really works forever into the past," says Tegmark.

Dark predictions

Any kind of conviction will require new experimental evidence. Fortunately, the two cyclic models make very different predictions that should allow researchers to choose between them. Dark energy appears in both, but its behaviour is different. In order for the fragmenting universe scenario to work, the dark energy first has to grow stronger - more and more dense - as the universe expands. Physicists denote different behaviours of dark energy using a parameter they call w, which describes how dark energy varies with time.

Dark energy that stays the same as the universe expands corresponds to a w of -1, and is sometimes called a cosmological constant. Dark energy that increases with time, as in the fragmenting universe, corresponds to a w with a more negative value, for example, -1.05. By contrast, in the cyclic brane model, dark energy results from the potential energy between the two branes, which depends on how far apart they are. As the branes move apart, as they would be now, dark energy's strength decreases. This corresponds to a w that is greater than -1, for example, -0.95.

Since dark energy affects the universe's expansion, researchers can look for changes in its strength by measuring the rate of expansion at different times in the universe's history. Astronomers do this by using supernova explosions; these allow them to measure the speed of receding galaxies at different points in time. Of course, this method can only tell us about dark energy after stars formed, but the cosmic microwave background can be used to chart its strength back to a much earlier time, 380,000 years after the big bang, when the universe first became transparent to light. Looking nearly 13.7 billion light-years away in any direction, we see the radiation emitted by the hot gas that filled the early universe. From this background radiation, astronomers can measure the recession speed of the gas, which tells us how fast the universe was expanding at the time.

Combining the two methods suggests that dark energy is constant or nearly constant, with w close to -1. That is where new measurements come in. The European Space Agency (ESA) Planck satellite, scheduled to launch in 2008, will measure the microwave background with the greatest precision to date, allowing w to be calculated to within about 1 per cent. If Planck shows w to be definitively on one side or the other of -1, then one of the two cyclic models would be ruled out. If it is very nearly -1, both would suffer. "Let's hope it's not too close," says Frampton.

Testing holographic cosmology and its sea of black holes is likely to be more difficult. One piece of evidence is potentially observable: black holes from the early universe, some of which should have survived to the present day. "That would be something to look for," Banks says.

Primordial black holes are also produced in the cyclic brane scenario, but they would be tiny and would be expected to evaporate a fraction of a second after their birth through a process called Hawking radiation.

The largest black holes from holographic cosmology, though less than 100 grams, might survive to the present day because of a strange property: they would possess a magnetic field with just one pole. All magnets observed to date come in north-south pairs, but physicists believe that "monopoles" - magnetic particles with only one pole - would have been produced in the early universe. The relic black holes would have sucked in large numbers of monopoles, which, crucially, could be as big as 1016 times the mass of a proton. Particles that large tend to resist being ejected as radiation, so some black holes would retain their contents and might still exist nearby, perhaps at the centre of our galaxy where the gravitational field is strong. Their small size, however, suggests they would be hard to spot; Banks and Fischler have not yet worked out whether it is likely that they can be found.

There may be another way to distinguish between the models. In the standard big bang picture, gravitational waves are generated during inflation from collisions of clumps of matter. Some of these waves might be observed, either by future gravitational wave detectors such as the ESA and NASA-sponsored Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, planned to launch in 2015, or by the imprint they would leave on the cosmic microwave background. In the colliding-brane model, however, inflation never happens, which means primordial gravitational waves would not be produced. Observing them would rule out that model, while leaving viable the black hole fluid and fragmenting universe scenarios.

The most likely outcome, however, is that none of the models will be proved correct any time soon. Indeed, the quest to understand the origin of the universe seems destined to continue until we can answer a deeper question: why is there anything at all instead of nothing?

From issue 2601 of New Scientist magazine, 28 April 2007, page 28-33

Spikes in space-time

There is another way to think about why our universe began in a highly ordered or "low entropy" state. In 2002, a group of physicists led by Leonard Susskind at Stanford University in California proposed that entities capable of observing the universe could arise via random thermal fluctuations, as opposed to the big bang, galaxy formation and evolution. This idea has been explored by others, including Don Page at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Some researchers argue that under certain conditions, self-aware entities in the form of disembodied spikes in space-time - "Boltzmann brains" - are more likely to emerge than complex life forms. Because they depend on fluctuations of particles, Boltzmann brains would be more common in regions of high entropy than low entropy. If the universe had started out in a state of high entropy, it would be more likely to be populated by Boltzmann brains than life forms like us, which suggests that the entropy of our early universe had to be low. As a low-entropy initial state is unlikely, though, this also implies that there are a huge number of other universes out there that are unsuitable for us.

reposted from: new scientist

  • 28 April 2007
  • by David Shiga
  • Magazine issue 2601

my: highlights / emphasis / key points / comments

Evolution for Everyone, by David Sloan Wilson

  • 07 April 2007
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Rowan Hooper

DO WE need another popular book on evolution? That 54 per cent of adults in the US believe we did not evolve from earlier species is reason enough, but David Sloan Wilson's book also has much to teach those of us who are already convinced. His aim is to show that evolution can transform our basic understanding of everyday life. We have no problem believing in the physical sciences, he says, because we are so used to them in our lives - when we drive cars or build bridges, for example. Evolution is different, yet without it we can't understand medicine, politics, economics, art and, yes, religion. With a clear passion for the subject, Wilson shows that understanding evolution is easy, even intuitive - it really is for everyone. If only everyone would read his book.

From issue 2598 of New Scientist magazine, 07 April 2007, page 52

Beyond Belief debate - Science v Religion

Chris Street blogged the Beyond Belief debates here and here.

A Free-for-All on Science and Religion

Published: November 21, 2006

Maybe the pivotal moment came when Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, warned that “the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief,” or when a Nobelist in chemistry, Sir Harold Kroto, called for the John Templeton Foundation to give its next $1.5 million prize for “progress in spiritual discoveries” to an atheist — Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose book “The God Delusion” is a national best-seller.

Or perhaps the turning point occurred at a more solemn moment, when Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects — testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.

Somewhere along the way, a forum this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., which might have been one more polite dialogue between science and religion, began to resemble the founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told.

Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., called, half in jest, for the establishment of an alternative church, with Dr. Tyson, whose powerful celebration of scientific discovery had the force and cadence of a good sermon, as its first minister.

She was not entirely kidding. “We should let the success of the religious formula guide us,” Dr. Porco said. “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.”

She displayed a picture taken by the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn and its glowing rings eclipsing the Sun, revealing in the shadow a barely noticeable speck called Earth.

There has been no shortage of conferences in recent years, commonly organized by the Templeton Foundation, seeking to smooth over the differences between science and religion and ending in a metaphysical draw. Sponsored instead by the Science Network, an educational organization based in California, and underwritten by a San Diego investor, Robert Zeps (who acknowledged his role as a kind of “anti-Templeton”), the La Jolla meeting, “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival,” rapidly escalated into an invigorating intellectual free-for-all. (Unedited video of the proceedings will be posted on the Web at

A presentation by Joan Roughgarden, a Stanford University biologist, on using biblical metaphor to ease her fellow Christians into accepting evolution (a mutation is “a mustard seed of DNA”) was dismissed by Dr. Dawkins as “bad poetry,” while his own take-no-prisoners approach (religious education is “brainwashing” and “child abuse”) was condemned by the anthropologist Melvin J. Konner, who said he had “not a flicker” of religious faith, as simplistic and uninformed.

After enduring two days of talks in which the Templeton Foundation came under the gun as smudging the line between science and faith, Charles L. Harper Jr., its senior vice president, lashed back, denouncing what he called “pop conflict books” like Dr. Dawkins’s “God Delusion,” as “commercialized ideological scientism” — promoting for profit the philosophy that science has a monopoly on truth.

That brought an angry rejoinder from Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, who said his own book, “Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine,” was written to counter “garbage research” financed by Templeton on, for example, the healing effects of prayer.

With atheists and agnostics outnumbering the faithful (a few believing scientists, like Francis S. Collins, author of “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” were invited but could not attend), one speaker after another called on their colleagues to be less timid in challenging teachings about nature based only on scripture and belief. “The core of science is not a mathematical model; it is intellectual honesty,” said Sam Harris, a doctoral student in neuroscience and the author of “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason” and “Letter to a Christian Nation.”

“Every religion is making claims about the way the world is,” he said. “These are claims about the divine origin of certain books, about the virgin birth of certain people, about the survival of the human personality after death. These claims purport to be about reality.”

By shying away from questioning people’s deeply felt beliefs, even the skeptics, Mr. Harris said, are providing safe harbor for ideas that are at best mistaken and at worst dangerous. “I don’t know how many more engineers and architects need to fly planes into our buildings before we realize that this is not merely a matter of lack of education or economic despair,” he said.

Dr. Weinberg, who famously wrote toward the end of his 1977 book on cosmology, “The First Three Minutes,” that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” went a step further: “Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.”

With a rough consensus that the grand stories of evolution by natural selection and the blossoming of the universe from the Big Bang are losing out in the intellectual marketplace, most of the discussion came down to strategy. How can science fight back without appearing to be just one more ideology?

“There are six billion people in the world,” said Francisco J. Ayala, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Roman Catholic priest. “If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like believing in the fairy godmother.”

“People need to find meaning and purpose in life,” he said. “I don’t think we want to take that away from them.”

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University known for his staunch opposition to teaching creationism, found himself in the unfamiliar role of playing the moderate. “I think we need to respect people’s philosophical notions unless those notions are wrong,” he said.

“The Earth isn’t 6,000 years old,” he said. “The Kennewick man was not a Umatilla Indian.” But whether there really is some kind of supernatural being — Dr. Krauss said he was a nonbeliever — is a question unanswerable by theology, philosophy or even science. “Science does not make it impossible to believe in God,” Dr. Krauss insisted. “We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.”

That was just the kind of accommodating attitude that drove Dr. Dawkins up the wall. “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion,” he said. “Children are systematically taught that there is a higher kind of knowledge which comes from faith, which comes from revelation, which comes from scripture, which comes from tradition, and that it is the equal if not the superior of knowledge that comes from real evidence.”

By the third day, the arguments had become so heated that Dr. Konner was reminded of “a den of vipers.”

“With a few notable exceptions,” he said, “the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?”

His response to Mr. Harris and Dr. Dawkins was scathing. “I think that you and Richard are remarkably apt mirror images of the extremists on the other side,” he said, “and that you generate more fear and hatred of science.”

Dr. Tyson put it more gently. “Persuasion isn’t always ‘Here are the facts — you’re an idiot or you are not,’ ” he said. “I worry that your methods” — he turned toward Dr. Dawkins — “how articulately barbed you can be, end up simply being ineffective, when you have much more power of influence.”

Chastened for a millisecond, Dr. Dawkins replied, “I gratefully accept the rebuke.”

In the end it was Dr. Tyson’s celebration of discovery that stole the show. Scientists may scoff at people who fall back on explanations involving an intelligent designer, he said, but history shows that “the most brilliant people who ever walked this earth were doing the same thing.” When Isaac Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” failed to account for the stability of the solar system — why the planets tugging at one another’s orbits have not collapsed into the Sun — Newton proposed that propping up the mathematical mobile was “an intelligent and powerful being.”

It was left to Pierre Simon Laplace, a century later, to take the next step. Hautily telling Napoleon that he had no need for the God hypothesis, Laplace extended Newton’s mathematics and opened the way to a purely physical theory.

“What concerns me now is that even if you’re as brilliant as Newton, you reach a point where you start basking in the majesty of God and then your discovery stops — it just stops,” Dr. Tyson said. “You’re no good anymore for advancing that frontier, waiting for somebody else to come behind you who doesn’t have God on the brain and who says: ‘That’s a really cool problem. I want to solve it.’ ”

“Science is a philosophy of discovery; intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance,” he said. “Something fundamental is going on in people’s minds when they confront things they don’t understand.”

He told of a time, more than a millennium ago, when Baghdad reigned as the intellectual center of the world, a history fossilized in the night sky. The names of the constellations are Greek and Roman, Dr. Tyson said, but two-thirds of the stars have Arabic names. The words “algebra” and “algorithm” are Arabic.

But sometime around 1100, a dark age descended. Mathematics became seen as the work of the devil, as Dr. Tyson put it. “Revelation replaced investigation,” he said, and the intellectual foundation collapsed.

He did not have to say so, but the implication was that maybe a century, maybe a millennium from now, the names of new planets, stars and galaxies might be Chinese. Or there may be no one to name them at all.

Before he left to fly back home to Austin, Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.

“She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she’s getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once,” he lamented. “When she’s gone, we may miss her.”

Dr. Dawkins wasn’t buying it. “I won't miss her at all,” he said. “Not a scrap. Not a smidgen.”

reposted from: new york times
my: highlights / emphasis / key points / comments

******** Selected Comments from NYT up to comment 25 *******

  • 2.

    Religion creates more borders & boundaries than bridges. Communities are defined as much by who is not included as who is included - they are defined by their collective identity against the ‘other’. Until religious dogma is replaced by reality, peace and human dignity (without recourse to myths and self-inclusive communities) will never exist.

    — Posted by Ryan Frace

  • 4.

    Every means for promoting the scientific approach to knowledge should be used, from soft sell to evangelicalization. However, emphasis should be on applying scientific method to question religious claims. Let the experimental pudding be the proof. Once we have sufficient acceptance of science, evangelical style indoctrination will be irrelevant.

    — Posted by Jack Blalock

  • 7.

    I believe we must speak up - much in the vein encouraged by Sam Harris and others. I would begin by reviewing the fact that our standard of living has been achieved through science and technology while religion is threatening to destroy us. Comment on how many times religion has attempted to disprove science only to be found wrong. Ask which “god” is really in control when various religions cannot agree.

    — Posted by Dr. Kenneth Stueben

  • 10.

    The fundamental nature of science is a skeptical outlook on the world, to view evidence, and explanations with a jaundiced eye, then to demand layer upon layer of evidence, from all sides of the problem, consistent with the hypothesis, and never give up the possibility that there is another explanation *consistent with the evidence* that explains it all and permits predictions. This tool alone differentiates real science from any of the other facile substitutes that are being promulgated by various charlatans as “science”. However, this also excludes using “evangelical” (i.e. “big lie”) approaches which are essentially a totalitarian form of philosophy (”my way or the highway”). This is the same problem that liberal democracies have in the face of any fanatically held belief. The usefulness of real science, providing answers that lead to new knowledge, and not just to comforting beliefs, is its great strength

    — Posted by Dr. William F. Colmers

  • Evangelizing Science

    WASP views science and religion as opposing forces with irreconcilable views of reality.

    Science and religion: complementary methods of studying competing spheres of experience or opposing forces with irreconcilable views of reality? Regardless of your position on this question, I suspect you will agree that science has been marginalized under the Bush administration. If you are still not convinced of this, do yourself a favor and read Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science.

    In this post, I'd like to draw your attention to a recent article in the New York Times by George Johnson, "A Free-for-All on Science and Religion." The article discusses the manner in which science should respond to religion, and you will see that there is anything but unanimous agreement here. In fact, this article reflects some fairly heated disagreement among atheist scientists.

    Acknowledging some oversimplification, let me label one side of the argument as cautious realism. According to this position, our goals should be realistic. According to Francisco J. Ayala, “If we think that we are going to persuade them [theists] to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like believing in the fairy godmother.” Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect a world without religion anytime soon or to expect that science will provide people with the meaning they currently find in religion. Perhaps our efforts should be both cautious and respectful. As Lawrence M. Krauss suggests, maybe science does not necessarily render theism impossible. “We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.”

    I will label the other side of the debate aggressive secularism for lack of a better phrase. This is the position of Dawkins and Harris, and I'll assume that you are generally familiar with it. According to Dawkins, “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion.” The idea here is that science should be hostile to religion and that respect for religious belief simply perpetuates ignorance and the many maladaptive effects of religion.

    While I generally find myself in closer agreement with the aggressive secularist camp, I do worry that their methods may do more to increase hostility to science and lead to an even more thorough embrace of religion. Why? Because their attacks are unlikely to reach anyone who is susceptible to influence. They will remain popular among atheists, continue to be demonized by theists, and be largely misunderstood by the rest.

    reposted from: atheist revolution
    my: highlights / emphasis / key points / comments

    Pharyngula on Lessons From the Women's Movement

    21st April 2007: Matthew Parris extols atheist activism on the same day as PZ Myers at Pharyngula.

    Pharyngula on Lessons From the Women's Movement

    Sunday, April 22, 2007

    PZ Myers over at Pharyngula has a great post on the subject of atheists being criticized as too outspoken. His post explores some of the parallels between women's suffrage in America and the "new atheism." He makes a compelling case and includes many inspiring quotes from prominent feminist pioneers.

    PZ says, "When I look at the history of feminism, I see a ferocity and a record of sacrifice that puts us tame godless people to shame. Maybe we need to get more outraged and outrageous." He's right. We can learn a great deal from these early feminists. They were accused of nearly everything that is currently being hurled at us, but they did not back down, did not water down their approach, and certainly offered no apologies. Their perseverance in the face of injustice remains a source of inspiration. Let it be a lesson to us now.

    reposted from: athiest revolution
    my: highlights / emphasis / key points / comments

    Friday, April 27, 2007

    Shout your doubt out loud, my fellow unbelievers by Matthew Parris

    WASP Summary:
    • Religion is wrong
    • Miracles do not occur - ever
    • On religious belief: "You don't believe - thats fine. Now shut up!" Non believers should NOT shut up - because - some believers are doing real harm to our world
    • Non believers should be passionate atheists. If they are not passionate the Church will once again gain the upper hand and be happy to persecute, imprison or behead non-believers and fight crusades against other religions.
    • re: the evangelical movement in America & UK, Religious Right in Israel, fundamentalist Islam; what drives them, the tiger in their tanks, is an absolute, unshakeable belief in an ever-present divinity, with plans for nations that He communicates to the leaders, or would-be leaders, of nations. They are the very devil, these people, they could wreck our world, and their central belief in God’s plan has to be confronted. Confronted with passion. Confronted because, and on the ground that, it is not true.
    • Disbelief can be passionate. Sometimes it should be. Agnosticism can be passionate. A sense that we lack certitude, lack evidence, lack the external command of any luminous guiding truth, may not always lead to lassitude, complaisance or a modest silence. Sometimes it should provoke a great shout: “Stop. You don’t know that. You have no right.”
    • We who do not believe must be ready with our paintbrushes, our chisels and our cans of aerosol spray.
    • Disbelief can be more than an absence of belief. It can be a redeeming, saving force.
    April 21, 2007

    Christianity was part of my upbringing and education. Because I am fascinated by moral philosophy, enjoy reading the Bible and, as Private Parris in the Boys’ Brigade (BB), detested military drill, nautical knots, whiting-up my sash and polishing my brass belt-buckle, I have acquired a reasonable grounding in the other skill you could shine at in the BB: religious knowledge. I think religion, like politics, is tremendously important.

    The trouble is, I’m sure religion is wrong. This drives me as a columnist into a curious dilemma. My subject is of interest mostly to those of my readers who are liable to be offended by me. One is left writing for a minority audience predisposed to take umbrage at what one says. Those who don’t care for religion don’t care to read about it.

    The dilemma was brought home by readers’ responses to a column I wrote on Maundy Thursday, inveighing against claims that a French nun has recently been cured of Parkinson’s disease through invoking the name of the late John Paul II, and that this alleged miracle could lead to the possible canonisation of the late Pope. I have been deluged with letters, almost all from Christians, and overwhelmingly critical of the column.

    Three strands of opinion in particular emerge from this fascinating pile of letters. The first insists that miracles do occur, that saints may be invoked and that the successful invocation of putative saints may be grounds for canonisation. Such assertions have been made by a number of Anglican correspondents. I should remind them that their own Church had something to say on this more than 400 years ago. Article 22 of the Thirty-Nine Articles states: “The Romish doctrine concerning . . . invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded on no warranty of Scripture.” I rest my case.

    The second strand is more tentative. “Why rule out the possibility?” sums up the thought, variously expressed to me. Things do occur for which there is no available explanation in Nature; in such cases is it not perfectly rational to accept that the divine explanation is at least a contender for the truth?

    For the answer to this, I need only go back two-and-a-half centuries, to the greatest philosopher our islands ever produced: the Scot David Hume. Hume took a cool view of “the usual propensity of mankind towards the marvellous”.

    A miracle, began Hume (On Miracles, pt I), “may be accurately defined, [as] a transgression of a law of Nature by a particular volition of the Deity”.

    But “there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves.” Forced to choose between doubting the evidence, and believing in a divine suspension of the laws of Nature, only someone already convinced that divine intervention occurs could opt for the miraculous as an explanation. Miracles cannot therefore be evidence of a divinity: belief in a divinity must be the evidence for miracles.

    In consequence, Hume concludes (hinting at atheism with such sly elegance that no Edinburgh pharisee could pin it on him): “The Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.”

    But stop. Why should Hume, or Richard Dawkins, or lesser polemicists such as me, bang on about this? For heaven’s sake, wail many of my correspondents (and this is the third strand in my pile of letters), what are you getting so het up about? You don’t believe. Fine. Well why not shut up, then? Tell us about things you do believe in. Surely it is those who believe who should be proclaiming. How can one be a passionate non-believer, they ask, hinting that, like Saul, I may be battling against my own inner faith.

    Proselytisers for atheism such as Richard Dawkins will be as familiar as am I with the lament. I heard it most memorably from a Conservative Chief Whip (urging me to pipe down about homosexuality) who remarked to me that he had never believed in God, but felt absolutely no imperative to jump to his feet in church and broadcast this fact to his astonished constituents.

    How do we reply? An ad hominem response would be to remark that when the Church had the upper hand it was happy to persecute, imprison or behead non-believers and fight crusades against other religions. Now it has lost its boss status it simply asks us to keep our opinions to ourselves (but still wants laws to criminalise us for mocking its pretensions).

    On the back foot at last, it discovers (first) a brotherhood between all its sects. Then as the situation deteriorates Christianity discovers within itself a respect first for Judaism (suddenly we are all “Judaeo-Christians”), then women with a Christian vocation, then for divorcees, and finally finds a common purpose with religions such as Islam, too (the “faith” community). Needs must.

    And as the Devil (or falling church attendance) drives, these “members of the faith community” cease enforcing their moral imperatives upon a secular world and retreat into whimpering about their “freedom of conscience” to carry on persecuting the minority groups upon whose sinfulness they can still find a consensus. Freedom of conscience, my eye! If only there were an afterlife: Martin Luther would have loved Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s protests. They don’t like it up ’em.

    As mainstream Christian church attendances fall farther still I predict that the Church of England, and finally the Roman Catholics, will be driven to conclude that they cannot even afford to make enemies of homosexuals, unmarried couples and family planners, and start welcoming them in too. I expect they’ll call it the “love community”. In truth it’s the “can’t afford to be choosy” community.

    But there I go again. Getting passionate, fighting dirty. But we have a better argument than “you’d do the same to us if you could” — though they would, and until about half a century ago they did.

    It is that they will again, unless we non-believers are watchful, and energetic and — yes — passionate. I hate ending up in scraps with nice Anglicans and thoughtful Catholics because the Church of England and intelligent Catholicism are not the problem. They are the best kind of Christians, but the best lack all conviction. It is the worst who are full of passionate intensity. Look at the evangelical movement in America, and to some extent, now, here. Look at the Religious Right in Israel. Look at fundamentalist Islam. What they share, what drives them, the tiger in their tanks, is an absolute, unshakeable belief in an ever-present divinity, with plans for nations that He communicates to the leaders, or would-be leaders, of nations. They are the very devil, these people, they could wreck our world, and their central belief in God’s plan has to be confronted. Confronted with passion. Confronted because, and on the ground that, it is not true.

    Disbelief can be passionate. Sometimes it should be. Agnosticism can be passionate. A sense that we lack certitude, lack evidence, lack the external command of any luminous guiding truth, may not always lead to lassitude, complaisance or a modest silence. Sometimes it should provoke a great shout: “Stop. You don’t know that. You have no right.”

    I hit you, earlier on, with a burst of the admirable David Hume. But he was not always right. “Opposing one species of superstition to another,” he wrote, “set them a-quarrelling; while we ourselves, during their fury and contention, happily make our escape into the calm, though obscure, regions of philosophy.” No, David. Listen instead to Nietzsche. “This eternal indictment of Christianity,” he said, “I will write on walls, wherever there are walls.”

    We who do not believe must be ready with our paintbrushes, our chisels and our cans of aerosol spray. Disbelief can be more than an absence of belief. It can be a redeeming, saving force.

    reposted from: timesonline via
    my: highlights / emphasis / key points / comments

    Comments at timesonline

    The most important reason for opposing the believers in fairy stories is because they make judgments based on their fairy stories - for example, that women are not equal to men, that homosexuality is 'evil' , that divorce should not be allowed, that 'infidels' should be killed, that the world began in 4004BC - that are plainly wrong, and that harm other people and society at large. The fairy story followers need to be shown that they do not have a monopoly on morality, and that not believing their fairy stories is not just another "faith" position no better than theirs, but soudndly based rationalism..

    Terry Collmann, London, England

    Matthew, I think you have lost the plot here. The only thing we must be passionate about is that where others proclaim certainty in the absence of evidence, they must be challenged. But that's a double-edged sword because, just as we can demand proof if someone asserts we should believe in God, so must we require it when others assert there is no such entity. We only used to have religious zealouts and now we have atheist ones: a plague on both their houses, I say! Truth eludes people who have their minds made up. Such people have stopped questioning because, so far as they are concerned, they already know the answers. Is it not both more rational just to say that´, while you don't believe, you are open to being convinced either way if someone can present you with compelling evidence?

    S Foster, Doncaster, UK

    Terrific article Matthew. You're the only reason to buy the Times these days. Why does anyone imagine that the Church would not still be torturing its enemies if it felt it could get away with it? The Church never reformed from within. Only after suffering the repeated hammer blows of secular modernity does the Church move, painstakingly slowly, in the hope that no one will spot that the original divine revelation was perhaps not so perfect in all its parts after all.

    Any chance of a book Matthew? To go alongside Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens

    This article summarises my views precisely. I have noticed that the C of E now appears to regard "militant secularists" as their true enemy, rather than, for example, Islamic extremists. I believe that the actions of the Islamic extremists have stirred the non-religious into action, and this has led to the reaction from the C of E. For too long the religious have dictated to others. It is now time for them to recognise that most of the population of the UK simply do not believe in their fantastic stories, for which there is absolutely no evidence, nor do the religious have a monopoly on morality, as they would like to assert.

    Cathy , Bristol, UK

    A brilliant article which mirrors my own experience, especially the part about the BB. He rightly questions the idea of a "master plan" on the macro scale. When my beloved wife of 30 years died nine years ago Christian friends tried to console me that it was part of God's grand stategy which would be revealed at some point in the future. How dared they!
    When you have religion inextricably linked with politics, as here in Northern Ireland, the combination is explosive, literally in many cases. Surely our experience of fundamentalist faith combined with intolerant politics should have killed outright any expansion of faith schools in the rest of the UK.
    However I will never know whether my standards, such as they are, are intrinsic to me or are a product of having been been born into a Christian family.

    seamus mcneill, belfast,

    Congratulations on your Shout Aloud Your Doubts article (particularly in a major National newspaper). It`s probably what the vaste majority of people in this country think. Why should`nt we have a rational debate about this "last" taboo subject. On the same day, the article in the Faith section of your paper by Rabbi Dr. Johnathan Romain seems to bear out that even the Faiths are beginning to doubt the validity of books (including the Bible) which were once regarded absolutely and literally as Gods word.

    Malcolm Shaw, Sturminster Newton, England

    Thank you Matthew. Again and again when theists are backed into a wall with the irrationality of their arguments they will respond with some type of 'its my belief; I have the right to hold it; leave me alone'. Well yes, we would if you left us alone. But as the examples already given show many of our social policies are influenced or shaped by these fairy tales (e.g. discrimination, assisted dying, stem cells, the middle east, etc). This being the case it is our moral duty to expose the fallacies or lack of evidence behind the various justifications for theism (such as the claims of miracles.) Matthew, please keep shouting out the truth!

    W Clifford, Cambridge, UK

    Well argued, MP. The miraculous is magical. Rational people don't believe in magic.

    alan, cologne,

    Many people have no idea how Paul Daniels does his magic tricks. Does this not make them miracles? For the Catholic Church to claim the last Pope cured a woman's Parkinson's simply open them up to the ridicule they deserve. If he cured hers why not cure everyone's? And now, for my next miracle......

    john smith, manchester, uk

    Yesterday a miracle occurred in the plain light of day in the heart of the Vatican itself. They announced that Limbo was a lie! At a stroke, countless thousands of souls of newborn, unbaptised babies were evicted from the uncomfortable twilight of Limbo and (presumably) assumed into Heaven after waiting patiently a considerable length of time.
    The miracle is that the Church of Rome achieved regime change in the next world and eliminated the sovereign state of Limbo after more than a thousand years of uneventful existence. It is a unique and unnatural event that this church declares itself to have been mistaken for a thousand years. Surely this qualifies as a miracle?

    Jim Payne, Oliva, Spain

    It takes far more "faith" to be an atheist than a theist. Atheists say they don't believe in miracles, yet they're prepared to believe in the biggest fairy tale of all: that the universe, without a Creator, just randomly appeared from nothing. If that's not a "miracle" then what is?

    Hugh Battye, Xining,

    read both your previous column and this one and agree whole heartedly with you. Those of us who are not believers do need to make our voices heard, other wise the religious, now frequently called faith groups, seem to take for granted they can speak for us.
    We still have bishops in the Lords for example, who have an influence entirely disproportonate to their following.
    We atheists must be growing visibly and vocally more numerous as now it seems the religious feel the need to group together and imply we should keep our opinions to ourselves.
    The one thing I don't agree with totally is that the nice religious people are not the problem. They may be nice and well meaning but actually they believe in and support the absurdities that the religious extremists use as their justification.
    Keep arguing Matthew.

    Lesley Bruce, London,

    Matthew, you have successfully summed up exactly the point I have been trying to articulate to others but found so hard. I think I'm going to learn this article word for word! Keep it up!

    Freddie Bellhouse, London, UK

    Matthew, I want to congratulate you an an absolutely excellent article. It is of course easy to show up the absurdity of th eposition of the theists, but it is nonetheless important to go on doing so regularly and firmly. They are absolutely persistent in peddling their nonsensical and dangerous arguments, and these must be combatted at every turn. At a time when we have a Prime Minister who is believed to carry a bible with him at all times and a likely successor who is also a son of the manse, the power of theists and the role of religion in society has to be challenged. Two hands working are worth more than a thousand clasped in prayer, but too many of our leaders ignore this obvious truth.

    Of course, when you don't believe, the church has no control and no money....

    Now, we can't have that can we.....

    F.S. Summers, London.

    Please keep shouting Matthew. I'll keep shouting with you.

    We need a world based on independant thought and rational, not about some 2000 year old bronze aged fable.

    The catholic church's decision to abolish limbo recently (to furthur their own cause of course), oh, and to help little babies into heaven shows just how utterly ridiculous they are.

    How do people really belive this absolute rubbish!

    Like Hume, Robert Ingersoll knew the truth. Go here for some wonderful one liners and quotes.

    F.S. Summers, London.,

    Why should we bow to the 'beliefs' of others when they won't bow to reason, or our beliefs? I am sick and tired of for belief reasons.. and we just accept it, or are expected to.

    The sooner we all live in a secular country the better, but the chances of that are slim.

    And why do we have faith schools? Should children not be given the time to make up their own minds?

    Ian hadingham, Lowestoft, Suffolk

    The religious bandwagon, having been given a mighty push by the Muslims in recent years, has been promptly boarded by the faithful of all 'communities' not wishing to be left stranded at the roadside. They are now greatly surprised and discomforted to find that the road ahead is rocky and, moreover, that the 'right of way' signs - securely in position for centuries past - have been removed. Worse still, wicked secularists, long corralled in the hills, have broken loose and are descending to give battle. Much panic, surprise and indignation ensues aboard the bandwagon; someone has seriously tampered with the script.

    As one of the tamperers, expect much abuse and vituperation to be flung your way, Matthew! You won't be disappointed. But many of us, who eagerly seek you out on Saturdays, will be should you fail to continue nailing your very courageous and intelligent colours to the mast.

    Ian Smith, Dersingham, Norfolk

    Often, people's so-called faith (faith being the biggest cop-out in history), their sister/brotherhood with a religion makes them forget that first and foremost, they should be a sister or brother of humanity. religion gives people a false sense of security- you are a product of your own choices- u are where u are because of you. dont let religion take that from you.Religion is a mechanism for pouncing on the vulnerable and creating divides in society which are not needed (nationalism has created enough on its own already thanks). Religion is dangerous and should not be promoted. Secularism and social responsibility of a non-exclusive nature must prevail.

    KN, London, uk

    Once again I agree wholeheartedly with Matthew. Belief should be a private matter but such is human nature that it can never be so. Those who believe also believe that they are morally superior to the rest. More than once have I been pitied by a believer for lacking their absolute certainty though I have not asked for it. But even this would not be a problem if they did not feel able to disapprove so vocally of other people's life choices due to their reading of their silly books and traditions. How are others' bedroom activities anyone else's business? Oh yes, because God disapproves apparently.
    Religion, though increasingly marginalised, still plays a huge part in our culture. A politician would be mocked and criticised if he consulted an astrologer during a major crisis but if he prays this is seen as entirely laudable or even desirable. How is this different to the terrorist who bombs in the name of his god?

    Paul Owen, Birmingham, UK

    The more I learn about religion, the more I am grateful for the life of Charles Darwin. Thank you, Mr. Darwin, for showing us the truth and the light and the way out from the hideous and pathetic rantings of those too scared to accept their own mortality.

    Jenny Coombes Leigh, Dallas, TX, US

    Ill shout with pleasure, there is NO GOD, it isn't plausible given the evidence. There is only life as you make it, what's the problem with that.. Believing in a god is obviously a lie and needs to stop, its not a case of absolute proof at all, it's a case of being sensible with the information you have, belief and absolute proof (under the circumstances), don't come into it. We are not tolerant of other extreme belief systems, fascism, etc, why should religion be treated any differently? Just take a good look at how violent the universe is, how violent and bloody our own planet is, then ask how can there be a god? If there is he/she/it is a very bloodthirsty and immoral character is all I can say.

    Stephen Thomas, Moscow, Russia

    Bravo Matthew Parris, you are quite right. It's time atheists stood up and shouted whenever a religious belief is imposed on us as a an accepted fact. And lots of us are interested in the subject of religion and, far from being offended, appreciate a discussion by someone not hopelessly biased in favour of a deity. We all have the right to enjoy the wonderful heritage from our religious past, and to be moved by the language of the Bible or the music of Bach - but some of us have grown up beyond the need to believe in fantasises, however reassuring they may be.

    Lesley Archibald, Bridport, Dorset

    The best that can be said for religions of all hues is they are sacred placebos. Sacred to those who hold them so, but the supposed benefits are a placebo.

    If you doubt this, then imagine a member of your family desperately ill. Would you take them to a room filled with the leaders of all world's religions, where they could offer prayers and intercede via their religious rituals on behalf of the ill person, or would you take them to your nearest Accident and Emergency Dept in your local hospital, to be treated with the best available science and technology we've discovered?

    Ian Robinson, London, UK

    But it doesn't answer why you exist or what the purpose of your life is,' says Rob Ely in the earliest comment. He misses the point. There is no purpose. That is a teleological argument. We just are. It is an impersonal universe that has arisen (or perhaps always was) through natural phenomena in a causal chain, with, admittedly, some things we cannot explain and some of those that we never will. We have to live with that. I have no problem with that. But these gaps do not presuppose a cause, or a purpose. There is no purpose, other than that which is interpolated into the scheme of things by our human minds.

    Andrew Armitage, Hebron, Whitland, West Wales, UK

    n theoretical physics, string theory proposes that there exist ten dimensions (not four) but that most of these extra dimensions are too small to be discerned with today’s scientific equipment.

    Of course, should anyone propose one of those dimensions might be spiritual, there would be screams of denial from the scientific atheists. For them, only science has the authority to postulate about the unknown. This arrogance, which is very western, cannot tolerate the existence of other belief forms, and denies, in the absence of incontrovertible proof to the contrary, all other cultural interpretations of the universe. Bigoted is the only word I can think of to describe this crudity of thinking.

    Fundamentalism is as dangerous in science as it is in religion. The only truly scientific position is an agnostic one. It is also the most humane and the most encompassing.

    Nick Ferriman, Bangkok, Thailand

    Oh no, Matthew let us remain the silent minority rejoicing in the knowledge that we are right. People invented religion because they couldn't understand the mystery of the universe. We are much smarter we do not jump to conclusions we wait for the scientists to do all the hard work and bring us closer and closer to the ultimate truth. If they have got all their sums wrong and are heading for a blind alley then so what we just suspend our belief until someone can proof to us one way or the other. Let us laugh at people who submit and devote their entire life to their 'one and only God' because we know Christianity and Muslin are the two major faiths in the world with many billions of followers. By definition their religions are irreconcilable. Isn't it hilarious to know that they can be wrong but not right at the same time. Any way, if there is a God we do not wish to be a piece in the game of chess He plays when only He alone can set the rules. Long live freedom of non religion!

    Wing, Poole, UK

    Some of the comments left here lead me to the sad conclusion that some people really can't tell when their lives are based on religious belief, and are thus offended when atheists question their beliefs. It's not personal, folks, it's university-level philosophy to question ALL assumptions. If you start with an assumption that a particular religion (e.g. Christianity) faith, then build a long, involved argument on that basis, what use is that to one who does not share that assumption? You just fell at the first hurdle.

    As a few others have noted: personal beliefs are not the problem, but when those beliefs leak in to the real world, we have a problem. Jihadi terrorism, laws against "blasphemy", or Science education being degraded because it leads to Darwinism; this is why I appreciate Parris' nods to Hume, a prominent Enlightenment thinker. The events of the last few years explain why atheists need to speak out: if the "fundies" have their way, 1000 years of social progress is lost.

    brian thomson, Dublin, Ireland

    Religion is a bitter disease of self denial, opression of minorities and of free thought. Every human must find their own thoughts on this world, not simply give up and follow any cult.

    Free thought!

    f phillips, dundee

    John Bessant is entirely incorrect in his assertion that the Universe was created by a giant inflatable plastic giraffe, 134.236 million miles tall, covered in pink and green spots, whose name is Brian Farquhar.

    It was in fact created by a giant inflatable plastic giraffe, 124.236 million miles tall, covered in pink and blue spots, whose name is Keith Cholmondeley.

    If Mr Bessant takes exception to my explanation, I ask only that he disprove it. If he cannot, he must convert.

    James Williams, Oxford, UK

    Matthew, yet again an excellent article. I have a proposition for you. How about running for parliament again, but this time on an independent secular ticket. I'd be more than willing to contribute to campaign funds, as would many thousands more. There is an enormous number of people in this country who are totally fed up with the priviledged status given to religion, but the leaderships of the main political parties refuse to tackel the problem, sometimes because of their own delusions, and sometimes because they are afraid of tackling the subject. You, as someone with nothing to lose (i.e. you've already retired from politics) could lead the way, and prove to them that the public is ready for this.

    Note to religious types: Please don't deliberately misconstrue the meaning of secularism. Its aim isn't to "do away with" religion, simply to "do away with" its special treatment, and create a level playing field for all religions and none.

    Mark Allen, Nottingham,

    Brilliant article but not surprised at the outcry of the religious who predictably mouth off the same tired, inane arguments. Refreshing to hear a voice of rationality in a world of superstition.

    Jonathan, Johannesburg, South Africa

    Absolutely with you Matthew. The Enemy is at the Gate.

    Judy Hungerford, norton St Philip,

    Good post Matthew, great stuff!
    Wish you'd have been at the I2 debate: 'we'd be better off without religion'. Dawkins was a speaker. The opposition was obliterated.

    Philipa, Middle, England

    Parris is right. Religion legitimates self-deception. Self-deception about weapons of mass destruction.... you know where that has got us.

    R Mackintosh, Milton Keynes, UK

    Well done Matthew - very good article.

    It makes the very valid point that those who doubt these fairy tales must always be careful that the more militant believers in religion (whether evangelical Christian or radical Islam) do not gain (or regain) the ability to persecute others whose lifestyle or beliefs do not conform to their own fantasy view of the universe.

    Non believera cannot do this by remaining silent or by allowing believers any special privileges.

    Laurence, Derby, UK

    Rob Ely, Madison, WI, USA wrote:

    "But it doesn't answer why you exist or what the purpose of your life is. The atheist believes those questions can't be answered. We believe they can."

    Not quite Rob, You have to split the two questions, the 1st being why are we here, this to atheists is not a theological question but a scientific question (and I would refer you to any of the writings of Darwin, Dawkins and other scientists for the answer, to save me making this 4 pages of A4) and the 2nd part of the question "what the purpose of your life is" is not a relevant question to an atheist, we just exist, and when we die; we don't exist any more. As atheists we do not find any of this uncomforting or worrying. But to think we find our lives worthless is incorrect, I love my life and all the things I do with it, I get no reward from being moral, in this life or any other, I just like having a secular moral stance.

    Simon Booton-Mander, Hook Norton, Oxon, UK

    Hear, hear and (why not?) hear again. The only disagreement I have is that it's not only religious people who read articles such as this (though I entirely see how planting that idea at the beginning of your article emphasises the crescendo to the call for passionate disbelief). There is a body (a growing body, I fondly hope) of those of us who simply cannot ignore articles on religion. Articles such as this one make a euphoric, clear-eyed change from the roll call of religiously motivated social meddling, political interference and violent atrocity. Thank you for speaking out.

    Jonathan Higgs, Stockport,

    Matthew Parris writes that religious zealots "are the very devil, these people, they could wreck our world, and their central belief in God’s plan has to be confronted."

    One must look only to the current threats to world peace and to any number of wars fought in the name of religion throughout history to realise that so many more mortal lives have been lost in the name of religion than have ever been saved.

    Ian Holloway, Melbourne, Australia

    Matthew -

    We have to shout. Loud. Now.
    Religion is a fallacy . A fallacy that's breeding extremism and hate in a technologically dangerous world. The sooner it's dismantled the better. Take religion out of the picture, and suddenly a Muslim and a Christian are just two men.

    Michael C, Newcastle, Australia

    I like your style and your passion: you are absolutely correct that disbelief can a passionate stance. And now, in 2007, it must be passionate.
    Clear thinking should be a core subject in every publicly funded school from primary school onwards. If we don't address this now, the maintenance and growth in and of science will be much harder to fight later on.
    The growing spread of faith-based ant-intellectual thinking and education should worry us all. The dumbing down of scientific method and rational thought into ID and belief will throw us into a new, vicious dark age where new inquisitorial faith based cultures will eradicate all the hard won gains in medicine, the physical sciences and our growing understanding of our place in the scheme of things.
    My hope is that we have come so far that such a scenario can't happen, however your cry for vigilance is timely and should be shouted from the rooftops. Thank you for this article.

    Veronica Guy, Mullumbimby, Australia

    I am entirely in agreement with Matthew Parris.

    He has made the best case for "fundamentalist atheism" I've heard. I really like the term "Passionate Atheist".

    Chris Street, Ringwood, Hampshire

    Reading through the comments to your article (and indeed parts of your articleitself )is to see a wonderfully clear example of how hatred and intolerance can be just as well fostered by militant atheism as by militant faith. Surely the cry must be for tolerance, not for yet another excuse to draw a line between "us" and "them" and condemn all those on the other side of the divide.

    Nicola Davies, Cardiff,