Category Archives: Religious Fanaticism

Dear Devout Christians – a reply

 Following is what came to mind when I read Bishop Forsyth’s statements on devout Christian’s fears if same sex marriages were to be made lawful. The article to which I am replying can be found here (

“Dear devout Christian bakers, florists and photographers,
According to one of your bishops you fear that if marriage legislation were to change you could be forced to  “… engage in effectively celebrating same-sex marriage against their conscience”. He also fears for your religious freedom, strange as this may seem, considering that same sex couples wish to marry according to the law, rather than live “in sin” so to speak, and surely their act of commitment is far from a threat to your freedom to follow your Christian beliefs. Citing a possible attack on freedom of religion will instantly gain sympathy for you and gives you the opportunity to claim the status of the victim in a victimless crime. In reality you and your preachers are only concerned about increasing the power of your institutions and enforcing your particular views.
However, should marriage equality ever become a reality, you might want to consider displaying your stance in advance.  The shopkeeper from Royston Vaysey, a true master in scaring off unwanted customers, comes to mind as a suitable example you could follow. You could amend his catchphrase ‘This is a shop for local people’ to “This is a shop for straight local people” and display your new slogan for all to see. If you wish to be more blunt “Same Sexers are not welcome here” could be an option to ensure that your premises would not become a den of complicity against your will.  In doing so, you would not only do yourselves a favour but also keep away those members of the public, who support same sex marriage or who are favourably disposed towards anyone you despise.
At the same time you would be doing the community a service by openly advertising your opposition to marriage equality as it would enable tolerant and accepting citizens to avoid you and the wedding-services you offer. The benefit for you would be no longer having to make decisions affecting your religious conscience, or to give it its real name, bigoted dogma. You would no longer have to interact with customers who do not share your belief system. They in turn would not be forced to  “… engage in condoning or supporting fanatical devoutness against their conscience” as they would no longer feel comfortable about receiving goods and services from you or your fellow self-proclaimed guardians of rather dubious ethics and morals.
You can then cry ‘persecution’ and ‘discrimination’ against you and your faith and will be able to blame the loss of income on those awful, godless non-believers out there and being even more convinced of the righteousness of  your prejudice and fanaticism. You will blame same sex marriage, secular law makers, the anti-Christ, Satan, liberal Christians, Muslims, political parties  and anyone else whom you consider and enemy of your faith, for your misfortune and liken yourself to a martyr bravely facing the lions in a Roman arena.
For decades you and your proselytising lot have imposed and spread irrational belief, rules and dogma, often resorting to vilification and destruction of those who object, dare to disagree or whom you deem evil, dangerous or inconvenient.  You judge others by their belief not their behaviour. Your institutions, as those of other religions, have no qualms establishing a rule of religious law based on nothing more than personal convictions sanctioned by a deity .
You considers it a right to interfere in political decisions, purely because you are convinced your rules are to be followed. You have no scruples accepting government money for your chaplains to get easy access to vulnerable young minds, giving no consideration or thought at all to the damage your subjective and prejudiced advice can cause. But then, your conscience has no room for those whom you consider evil or wrong because you are in no doubt at all that you are right.  You certainty and lack of self-doubt make you a ruthless in your divinely sanctioned mission to destroy whatever you think is a sin or  to demonize whomever you consider an unrepentant sinner.
Considering that you feel the need to voice your opposition to marriage equality as if it were to lead to the destruction of Australian society you ought to put your money were your mouth is. Put up shop signs, carry placards, do what you think you have to. Why would you fear discrimination and persecution?  History shows that you love proclaiming martyrdom and persecution, as this seems to give you instant justification of lashing out or vilifying those who dare to question your beliefs.
Of course usually anyone vilifying and denigrating a person due to their religion, sex or ethnicity, ought to face the consequences, but it is clear that you do not agree with such repercussions as far as you being discriminating is concerned. You are very aware that new laws mean could mean new vilification regulations and as you are not prepared to live by those rules or amend your beliefs you will do everything in your power to give you the right to openly discriminate with impunity.
Hopefully decent, caring, moral and ethical people will recognise your supposed conflict of conscience for what is, namely an attempt to exercise power and control by spreading fear, exploiting prejudices and creating doubt.
Those of you who,  without a moment’s hesitation and with complete conviction, are prepared to use issues such as marriage equality in order to fabricate a campaign to convince people that their freedom of religion is at stake, are unlikely to ever consider themselves in the wrong or question their motives. You demand respect by all for your belief system, yet at the same time you only give respect to those of your choosing. The most disturbing and frightening aspect however is your utter lack of insight that that it is you who are discriminating against others, that it is your attitudes which are discriminatory. Anti-discrimination laws are in place for good reason and are intended to prevent the horrors of persecution. Your bishop says you fear being ‘caught out by these laws’, a statement which indicates that some churches consider themselves to be above the laws by which everyone else has to abide thereby absolving you of all responsibility.
Claiming that you could possibly be asked not to discriminate against a same sex couple does not constitute persecution of your beliefs it constitutes a dangerous and wilful misrepresentation of facts. Should marriage equality ever become a reality in this country, and I sincerely wish that this happens soon, I hope that Australia will be a better, more inclusive place where your disgraceful self-righteousness and your self-serving utterances will attract neither approval nor support but be dismissed with the disdain and disapproval they deserves.”

Separation of Church and State II

Letter to Thomas Cooper

Jefferson’s letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, from Monticello, February 10, 1814.

ear Sir, — In my letter of January 16, I promised you a sample from my common-place book, of the pious disposition of the English judges, to connive at the frauds of the clergy, a disposition which has even rendered them faithful allies in practice. When I was a student of the law, now half a century ago, after getting through Coke Littleton, whose matter cannot be abridged, I was in the habit of abridging and common-placing what I read meriting it, and of sometimes mixing my own reflections on the subject. I now enclose you the extract from these entries which I promised. They were written at a time of life when I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led, and bearding every authority which stood in their way. This must be the apology, if you find the conclusions bolder than historical facts and principles will warrant. Accept with them the assurances of my great esteem and respect.

Common-place Book
873. In Quare imp. in C. B. 34, H. 6, fo. 38, the def. Br. of Lincoln pleads that the church of the pl. became void by the death of the incumbent, that the pl. and J. S. each pretending a right, presented two several clerks; that the church being thus rendered litigious, he was not obliged, by the Ecclesiastical law to admit either, until an inquisition de jure patronatus, in the ecclesiastical court: that, by the same law, this inquisition was to be at the suit of either claimant, and was not ex-officio to be instituted by the bishop, and at his proper costs; that neither party had desired such an inquisition; that six months passed whereon it belonged to him of right to present as on a lapse, which he had done. The pl. demurred. A question was, How far the Ecclesiastical law was to be respected in this matter by the common law court? and Prisot C. 3, in the course of his argument uses this expression, “A tiels leis que ils de seint eglise ont en ancien scripture, covient a nous a donner credence, car ces common ley sur quel touts manners leis sont fondes: et auxy, sin, nous sumus obliges de conustre nostre ley; et, sin, si poit apperer or a nous que lievesque ad fait comme un ordinary fera en tiel cas, adong nous devons ces adjuger bon autrement nemy,” &c. It does not appear that judgment was given. Y. B. ubi supra. S. C. Fitzh. abr. Qu. imp. 89. Bro. abr. Qu. imp. 12. Finch mistakes this in the following manner: “To such laws of the church as have warrant in Holy Scripture, our law giveth credence,” and cites the above case, and the words of Prisot on the margin. Finch’s law. B. 1, ch. 3, published 1613. Here we find “ancien scripture” converted into “Holy Scripture,” whereas it can only mean the ancient written laws of the church. It cannot mean the Scriptures, 1, because the “ancien scripture” must then be understood to mean the “Old Testament” or Bible, in opposition to the “New Testament,” and to the exclusion of that, which would be absurd and contrary to the wish of those |P1323|p1 who cite this passage to prove that the Scriptures, or Christianity, is a part of the common law. 2. Because Prisot says, “Ceo [est] common ley, sur quel touts manners leis sont fondes.” Now, it is true that the ecclesiastical law, so far as admitted in England, derives its authority from the common law. But it would not be true that the Scriptures so derive their authority. 3. The whole case and arguments show that the question was how far the Ecclesiastical law in general should be respected in a common law court. And in Bro. abr. of this case, Littleton says, “Les juges del common ley prendra conusans quid est lax ecclesiae, vel admiralitatis, et trujus modi.” 4. Because the particular part of the Ecclesiastical law then in question, to wit, the right of the patron to present to his advowson, was not founded on the law of God, but subject to the modification of the lawgiver, and so could not introduce any such general position as Finch pretends. Yet Wingate [in 1658] thinks proper to erect this false quotation into a maxim of the common law, expressing it in the very words of Finch, but citing Prisot, wing. max. 3. Next comes Sheppard, [in 1675,] who states it in the same words of Finch, and quotes the Year-Book, Finch and Wingate. 3. Shepp. abr. tit. Religion. In the case of the King v. Taylor, Sir Matthew Hale lays it down in these words, “Christianity is parcel of the laws of England.” 1 Ventr. 293, 3 Keb. 607. But he quotes no authority, resting it on his own, which was good in all cases in which his mind received no bias from his bigotry, his superstitions, his visions above sorceries, demons, &c. The power of these over him is exemplified in his hanging of the witches. So strong was this doctrine become in 1728, by additions and repetitions from one another, that in the case of the King v. Woolston, the court would not suffer it to be debated, whether to write against Christianity was punishable in the temporal courts at common law, saying it had been so settled in Taylor’s case, ante 2, stra. 834; therefore, Wood, in his Institute, lays it down that all blasphemy and profaneness are offences by the common law, and cites Strange ubi supra. Wood 409. And Blackstone [about 1763] repeats, in the words of Sir Matthew Hale, that “Christianity is part of the laws of England,” citing Ventris and Strange ubi supra. 4. Blackst. 59. Lord Mansfield qualifies it a little by saying that “The essential |P1324|p1 principles of revealed religion are part of the common law.” In the case of the Chamberlain of London v. Evans, 1767. But he cities no authority, and leaves us at our peril to find out what, in the opinion of the judge, and according to the measure of his foot or his faith, are those essential principles of revealed religion obligatory on us as a part of the common law.

Thus we find this string of authorities, when examined to the beginning, all hanging on the same hook, a perverted expression of Prisot’s, or on one another, or nobody. Thus Finch quotes Prisot; Wingate also; Sheppard quotes Prisot, Finch and Wingate; Hale cites nobody; the court in Woolston’s case cite Hale; Wood cites Woolston’s case; Blackstone that and Hale; and Lord Mansfield, like Hale, ventures it on his own authority. In the earlier ages of the law, as in the year-books, for instance, we do not expect much recurrence to authorities by the judges, because in those days there were few or none such made public. But in latter times we take no judge’s word for what the law is, further than he is warranted by the authorities he appeals to. His decision may bind the unfortunate individual who happens to be the particular subject of it; but it cannot alter the law. Though the common law may be termed “Lex non Scripta,” yet the same Hale tells us “when I call those parts of our laws Leges non Scriptae, I do not mean as if those laws were only oral, or communicated from the former ages to the latter merely by word. For all those laws have their several monuments in writing, whereby they are transferred from one age to another, and without which they would soon lose all kind of certainty. They are for the most part extant in records of pleas, proceedings, and judgments, in books of reports and judicial decisions, in tractates of learned men’s arguments and opinions, preserved from ancient times and still extant in writing.” Hale’s H. c. d. 22. Authorities for what is common law may therefore be as well cited, as for any part of the Lex Scripta, and there is no better instance of the necessity of holding the judges and writers to a declaration of their authorities than the present; where we detect them endeavoring to make law where they found none, and to submit us at one stroke to a whole system, no particle of which has its foundation in the common law. For we know that the common law is that system of law which was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement in England, and altered from time to time by proper legislative authority from that time to the date of Magna Charta, which terminates the period of the common law, or lex non scripta, and commences that of the statute law, or Lex Scripta. This settlement took place about the middle of the fifth century. But Christianity was not introduced till the seventh century; the conversion of the first christian king of the Heptarchy having taken place about the year 598, and that of the last about 686. Here, then, was a space of two hundred years, during which the common law was in existence, and Christianity no part of it. If it ever was adopted, therefore, into the common law, it must have been between the introduction of Christianity and the date of the Magna Charta. But of the laws of this period we have a tolerable collection by Lambard and Wilkins, probably not perfect, but neither very defective; and if any one chooses to build a doctrine on any law of that period, supposed to have been lost, it is incumbent on him to prove it to have existed, and what were its contents. These were so far alterations of the common law, and became themselves a part of it. But none of these adopt Christianity as a part of the common law. If, therefore, from the settlement of the Saxons to the introduction of Christianity among them, that system of religion could not be a part of the common law, because they were not yet Christians, and if, having their laws from that period to the close of the common law, we are all able to find among them no such act of adoption, we may safely affirm (though contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law. Another cogent proof of this truth is drawn from the silence of certain writers on the common law. Bracton gives us a very complete and scientific treatise of the whole body of the common law. He wrote this about the close of the reign of Henry III., a very few years after the date of the Magna Charta. We consider this book as the more valuable, as it was written about fore gives us the former in its ultimate state. Bracton, too, was an ecclesiastic, and would certainly not have failed to inform us of the adoption of Christianity as a part of the common law, had any such adoption ever taken place. But no word of his, which intimates anything like it, has ever been cited. Fleta and Britton, who wrote in the succeeding reign (of Edward I.), are equally silent. So also is Glanvil, an earlier writer than any of them, (viz.: temp. H. 2,) but his subject perhaps might not have led him to mention it. Justice Fortescue Aland, who possessed more Saxon learning than all the judges and writers before mentioned put together, places this subject on more limited ground. Speaking of the laws of the Saxon kings, he says, “the ten commandments were made part of their laws, and consequently were once part of the law of England; so that to break any of the ten commandments was then esteemed a breach of the common law, of England; and why it is not so now, perhaps it may be difficult to give a good reason.” Preface to Fortescue Aland’s reports, xvii. Had he proposed to state with more minuteness how much of the scriptures had been made a part of the common law, he might have added that in the laws of Alfred, where he found the ten commandments, two or three other chapters of Exodus are copied almost verbatim. But the adoption of a part proves rather a rejection of the rest, as municipal law. We might as well say that the Newtonian system of philosophy is a part of the common law, as that the Christian religion is. The truth is that Christianity and Newtonianism being reason and verity itself, in the opinion of all but infidels and Cartesians, they are protected under the wings of the common law from the dominion of other sects, but not erected into dominion over them. An eminent Spanish physician affirmed that the lancet had slain more men than the sword. Doctor Sangrado, on the contrary, affirmed that with plentiful bleedings, and draughts of warm water, every disease was to be cured. The common law protects both opinions, but enacts neither into law. See post. 879.

879. Howard, in his Contumes Anglo-Normandes, 1.87, notices the falsification of the laws of Alfred, by prefixing to them four chapters of the Jewish law, to wit: the 20th, 21st, 22d and 23d chapters of Exodus, to which he might have added the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, v. 23, and precepts from other parts of the scripture. These he calls a hors d’oeuvre of some pious copyist. This awkward monkish fabrication makes the preface to Alfred’s genuine laws stand in the body of the work, and the very words of Alfred himself prove the fraud; for he declares, in that preface, that he has collected these laws from those of Ina, of Offa, Aethelbert and his ancestors, saying nothing of any of them being taken from the Scriptures. It is still more certainly proved by the inconsistencies it occasions. For example, the Jewish legislator Exodus xxi. 12, 13, 14, (copied by the Pseudo Alfred § 13,) makes murder, with the Jews, death. But Alfred himself, Le. xxvi., punishes it by a fine only, called a Weregild, proportioned to the condition of the person killed. It is remarkable that Hume (append. 1 to his History) examining this article of the laws of Alfred, without perceiving the fraud, puzzles himself with accounting for the inconsistency it had introduced. To strike a pregnant woman so that she die is death by Exodus, xxi. 22, 23, and Pseud. Alfr. § 18; but by the laws of Alfred ix., pays a Weregild for both woman and child. To smite out an eye, or a tooth, Exod. xxi. 24-27. Pseud. Alfr. § 19, 20, if of a servant by his master, is freedom to the servant; in every other case retaliation. But by Alfr. Le. xl. a fixed indemnification is paid. Theft of an ox, or a sheep, by the Jewish law, Exod. xxii. 1, was repaid five-fold for the ox and four-fold for the sheep; by the Pseudograph § 24, the ox double, the sheep four-fold; but by Alfred Le. xvi., he who stole a cow and a calf was to repay the worth of the cow and 401 for the calf. Goring by an ox was the death of the ox, and the flesh not to be eaten. Exod. xxi. 28. Pseud. Alfr. § 21 by Alfred Le. xxiv., the wounded person had the ox. The Pseudograph makes municipal laws of the ten commandments, § 1-10, regulates concubinage, § 12, makes it death to strike or to curse father or mother, § 14, 15, gives an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, strife for strife, § 19; sells the thief to repay his theft, § 24; obliges the fornicator to marry the woman he has lain with, § 29; forbids interest on money, § 35; makes the laws of bailment, § 28, very different from what Lord Holt delivers in Coggs v. Bernard, ante 92, and what Sir William Jones tells us they were; and punishes witchcraft with death, § 30, which Sir Matthew Hale, 1 H. P. C. B. 1, ch. 33, declares was not a felony before the Stat. 1, Jac. 12. It was under that statute, and not this forgery, that he hung Rose Cullendar and Amy Duny, 16 Car. 2, (1662,) on whose trial he declared “that there were such creatures as witches he made no doubt at all; for first the Scripture had affirmed so much, secondly the wisdom of all nations had provided laws against such persons, and such hath been the judgment of this kingdom, as appears by that act of Parliament which hath provided punishment proportionable to the quality of the offence.” And we must certainly allow greater weight to this position that “it was no felony till James’ Statute,” laid down deliberately in his H. P. C., a work which he wrote to be printed, finished, and transcribed for the press in his life time, than to the hasty scripture that “at common law witchcraft was punished with death as heresy, by writ de Heretico Comburendo” in his Methodical Summary of the P. C. p. 6, a work “not intended for the press, not fitted for it, and which he declared himself he had never read over since it was written;” Pref. Unless we understand his meaning in that to be that witchcraft could not be punished at common law as witchcraft, but as heresy. In either sense, however, it is a denial of this pretended law of Alfred. Now, all men of reading know that these pretended laws of homicide, concubinage, theft, retaliation, compulsory marriage, usury, bailment, and others which might have been cited, from the Pseudograph, were never the laws of England, not even in Alfred’s time; and of course that it is a forgery. Yet palpable as it must be to every lawyer, the English judges have piously avoided lifting the veil under which it was shrouded. In truth, the alliance between Church and State in England has ever made their judges accomplices in the frauds of the clergy; and even bolder than they are. For instead of being contented with these four surreptitious chapters of Exodus, they have taken the whole leap, and declared at once that the whole Bible and Testament in a lump, make a part of the common law; ante 873: the first judicial declaration of which was by this same Sir Matthew Hale. And thus they incorporate into the English code laws made for the Jews alone, and the precepts of the gospel, intended by their benevolent author as obligatory only in foro concientiæ; and they arm the whole with the coercions of municipal law. In doing this, too, they have not even used the Connecticut caution of declaring, as is done in their blue laws, that the laws of God shall be the laws of their land, except where their own contradict them; but they swallow the yea and nay together. Finally, in answer to Fortescue Aland’s question why the ten commandments should not now be a part of the common law of England? we may say they are not because they never were made so by legislative authority, the document which has imposed that doubt on him being a manifest forgery.

( Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thomas Cooper, from Monticello, February 10, 1814; Merrill D. Peterson, ed.,

Separation of Church and State I

A Teacher, a Student and a Church-State Dispute

The New York Times

New York Times

December 21, 2006

To the Editor:

People cited violation of the First Amendment when a New Jersey schoolteacher asserted that evolution and the Big Bang are not scientific and that Noah’s ark carried dinosaurs.

This case is not about the need to separate church and state; it’s about the need to separate ignorant, scientifically illiterate people from the ranks of teachers.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

New York, Dec. 19, 2006

The writer, an astrophysicist, is director of the Hayden Planetarium

Physics training influenced Richard Holbrooke’s approach to diplomacy

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson used the New York Times letters to the editor section to share a story about diplomatic titan Richard Holbrooke on the occasion of his passing on December 13.  Tyson noted that Holbrooke majored in physics for a time as an undergraduate at Brown University before switching to political science.

Tyson described a conversation the two had during a tour of the Hayden Planetarium in 2000.  When asked whether his physics training affected his diplomatic practice, Holbrooke responded “emphatically ‘yes,’ citing the physics-inspired approach of sifting for the fundamental drivers of a cause or phenomenon — stripped of all ornament. To get there, one must assess how and when to ignore the surrounding details, which can give the illusion of importance, yet in the end, are often irrelevant distractions to solutions of otherwise intractable problems.


The Perimeter of Ignorance

A boundary where scientists face a choice: invoke a deity or continue the quest for knowledge

Natural History Magazine

by Neil deGrasse Tyson

From Natural History Magazine, November 2005

Writing in centuries past, many scientists felt compelled to wax poetic about cosmic mysteries and God’s handiwork. Perhaps one should not be surprised at this: most scientists back then, as well as many scientists today, identify themselves as spiritually devout.

But a careful reading of older texts, particularly those concerned with the universe itself, shows that the authors invoke divinity only when they reach the boundaries of their understanding. They appeal to a higher power only when staring into the ocean of their own ignorance. They call on God only from the lonely and precarious edge of incomprehension. Where they feel certain about their explanations, however, God gets hardly a mention.

Let’s start at the top. Isaac Newton was one of the greatest intellects the world has ever seen. His laws of motion and his universal law of gravitation, conceived in the mid-seventeenth century, account for cosmic phenomena that had eluded philosophers for millennia. Through those laws, one could understand the gravitational attraction of bodies in a system, and thus come to understand orbits.

Newton’s law of gravity enables you to calculate the force of attraction between any two objects. If you introduce a third object, then each one attracts the other two, and the orbits they trace become much harder to compute. Add another object, and another, and another, and soon you have the planets in our solar system. Earth and the Sun pull on each other, but Jupiter also pulls on Earth, Saturn pulls on Earth, Mars pulls on Earth, Jupiter pulls on Saturn, Saturn pulls on Mars, and on and on.

Newton feared that all this pulling would render the orbits in the solar system unstable. His equations indicated that the planets should long ago have either fallen into the Sun or flown the coop—leaving the Sun, in either case, devoid of planets. Yet the solar system, as well as the larger cosmos, appeared to be the very model of order and durability. So Newton, in his greatest work, the Principia, concludes that God must occasionally step in and make things right:

The six primary Planets are revolv’d about the Sun, in circles concentric with the Sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts, and almost in the same plane. . . . But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions. . . . This most beautiful System of the Sun,

Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.

In the Principia, Newton distinguishes between hypotheses and experimental philosophy, and declares, Hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. What he wants is data, inferr’d from the phænomena. But in the absence of data, at the border between what he could explain and what he could only honor—the causes he could identify and those he could not—Newton rapturously invokes God:

Eternal and Infinite, Omnipotent and Omniscient; . . . he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done. . . . We know him only by his most wise and excellent contrivances of things, and final causes; we admire him for his perfections; but we reverence and adore him on account of his dominion.

A century later, the French astronomer and mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace confronted Newton’s dilemma of unstable orbits head-on. Rather than view the mysterious stability of the solar system as the unknowable work of God, Laplace declared it a scientific challenge. In his multipart masterpiece, Mécanique Céleste, the first volume of which appeared in 1798, Laplace demonstrates that the solar system is stable over periods of time longer than Newton could predict. To do so, Laplace pioneered a new kind of mathematics called perturbation theory, which enabled him to examine the cumulative effects of many small forces. According to an oft-repeated but probably embellished account, when Laplace gave a copy of Mécanique Céleste to his physics-literate friend Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon asked him what role God played in the construction and regulation of the heavens. Sire, Laplace replied, I have no need of that hypothesis.

Laplace notwithstanding, plenty of scientists besides Newton have called on God—or the gods—wherever their comprehension fades to ignorance. Consider the second-century a.d. Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy. Armed with a description, but no real understanding, of what the planets were doing up there, he could not contain his religious fervor:

I know that I am mortal by nature, and ephemeral; but when I trace, at my pleasure, the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch Earth with my feet: I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.

Or consider the seventeenth-century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, whose achievements include constructing the first working pendulum clock and discovering the rings of Saturn. In his charming book The Celestial Worlds Discover’d, posthumously published in 1696, most of the opening chapter celebrates all that was then known of planetary orbits, shapes, and sizes, as well as the planets’ relative brightness and presumed rockiness. The book even includes foldout charts illustrating the structure of the solar system. God is absent from this discussion—even though a mere century earlier, before Newton’s achievements, planetary orbits were supreme mysteries.

Celestial Worlds also brims with speculations about life in the solar system, and that’s where Huygens raises questions to which he has no answer. That’s where he mentions the biological conundrums of the day, such as the origin of life’s complexity. And sure enough, because seventeenth-century physics was more advanced than seventeenth-century biology, Huygens invokes the hand of God only when he talks about biology:

I suppose no body will deny but that there’s somewhat more of Contrivance, somewhat more of Miracle in the production and growth of Plants and Animals than in lifeless heaps of inanimate Bodies. . . . For the finger of God, and the Wisdom of Divine Providence, is in them much more clearly manifested than in the other.

Today secular philosophers call that kind of divine invocation God of the gaps—which comes in handy, because there has never been a shortage of gaps in people’s knowledge.

As reverent as Newton, Huygens, and other great scientists of earlier centuries may have been, they were also empiricists. They did not retreat from the conclusions their evidence forced them to draw, and when their discoveries conflicted with prevailing articles of faith, they upheld the discoveries. That doesn’t mean it was easy: sometimes they met fierce opposition, as did Galileo, who had to defend his telescopic evidence against formidable objections drawn from both scripture and common sense.

Galileo clearly distinguished the role of religion from the role of science. To him, religion was the service of God and the salvation of souls, whereas science was the source of exact observations and demonstrated truths. In a long, famous, bristly letter written in the summer of 1615 to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany (but, like so many epistles of the day, circulated among the literati), he quotes, in his own defense, an unnamed yet sympathetic church official saying that the Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.

The letter to the duchess leaves no doubt about where Galileo stood on the literal word of the Holy Writ:

In expounding the Bible if one were always to confine oneself to the unadorned grammatical meaning, one might fall into error. . . .

Nothing physical which . . . . demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words. . . .

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

A rare exception among scientists, Galileo saw the unknown as a place to explore rather than as an eternal mystery controlled by the hand of God.

As long as the celestial sphere was generally regarded as the domain of the divine, the fact that mere mortals could not explain its workings could safely be cited as proof of the higher wisdom and power of God. But beginning in the sixteenth century, the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton—not to mention Maxwell, Heisenberg, Einstein, and everybody else who discovered fundamental laws of physics—provided rational explanations for an increasing range of phenomena. Little by little, the universe was subjected to the methods and tools of science, and became a demonstrably knowable place.

Then, in what amounts to a stunning yet unheralded philosophical inversion, throngs of ecclesiastics and scholars began to declare that it was the laws of physics themselves that served as proof of the wisdom and power of God.

One popular theme of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the clockwork universe—an ordered, rational, predictable mechanism fashioned and run by God and his physical laws. The early telescopes, which all relied on visible light, did little to undercut that image of an ordered system. The Moon revolved around Earth. Earth and other planets rotated on their axes and revolved around the Sun. The stars shone. The nebulae floated freely in space.

Not until the nineteenth century was it evident that visible light is just one band of a broad spectrum of electromagnetic radiation—the band that human beings just happen to see. Infrared was discovered in 1800, ultraviolet in 1801, radio waves in 1888, X rays in 1895, and gamma rays in 1900. Decade by decade in the following century, new kinds of telescopes came into use, fitted with detectors that could see these formerly invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Now astrophysicists began to unmask the true character of the universe.

Turns out that some celestial bodies give off more light in the invisible bands of the spectrum than in the visible. And the invisible light picked up by the new telescopes showed that mayhem abounds in the cosmos: monstrous gamma-ray bursts, deadly pulsars, matter-crushing gravitational fields, matter-hungry black holes that flay their bloated stellar neighbors, newborn stars igniting within pockets of collapsing gas. And as our ordinary, optical telescopes got bigger and better, more mayhem emerged: galaxies that collide and cannibalize each other, explosions of supermassive stars, chaotic stellar and planetary orbits. Our own cosmic neighborhood—the inner solar system—turned out to be a shooting gallery, full of rogue asteroids and comets that collide with planets from time to time. Occasionally they’ve even wiped out stupendous masses of Earth’s flora and fauna. The evidence all points to the fact that we occupy not a well-mannered clockwork universe, but a destructive, violent, and hostile zoo.

Of course, Earth can be bad for your health too. On land, grizzly bears want to maul you; in the oceans, sharks want to eat you. Snowdrifts can freeze you, deserts dehydrate you, earthquakes bury you, volcanoes incinerate you. Viruses can infect you, parasites suck your vital fluids, cancers take over your body, congenital diseases force an early death. And even if you have the good luck to be healthy, a swarm of locusts could devour your crops, a tsunami could wash away your family, or a hurricane could blow apart your town.

So the universe wants to kill us all. But let’s ignore that complication for the moment.

Many, perhaps countless, questions hover at the front lines of science. In some cases, answers have eluded the best minds of our species for decades or even centuries. And in contemporary America, the notion that a higher intelligence is the single answer to all enigmas has been enjoying a resurgence. This present-day version of God of the gaps goes by a fresh name: “intelligent design.” The term suggests that some entity, endowed with a mental capacity far greater than the human mind can muster, created or enabled all the things in the physical world that we cannot explain through scientific methods.

An interesting hypothesis.

But why confine ourselves to things too wondrous or intricate for us to understand, whose existence and attributes we then credit to a superintelligence? Instead, why not tally all those things whose design is so clunky, goofy, impractical, or unworkable that they reflect the absence of intelligence?

Take the human form. We eat, drink, and breathe through the same hole in the head, and so, despite Henry J. Heimlich’s eponymous maneuver, choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional injury death in the United States. How about drowning, the fifth leading cause? Water covers almost three-quarters of Earth’s surface, yet we are land creatures—submerge your head for just a few minutes, and you die.

Or take our collection of useless body parts. What good is the pinky toenail? How about the appendix, which stops functioning after childhood and thereafter serves only as the source of appendicitis? Useful parts, too, can be problematic. I happen to like my knees, but nobody ever accused them of being well protected from bumps and bangs. These days, people with problem knees can get them surgically replaced. As for our pain-prone spine, it may be a while before someone finds a way to swap that out.

How about the silent killers? High blood pressure, colon cancer, and diabetes each cause tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S. every year, but it’s possible not to know you’re afflicted until your coroner tells you so. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had built-in biogauges to warn us of such dangers well in advance? Even cheap cars, after all, have engine gauges.

And what comedian designer configured the region between our legs—an entertainment complex built around a sewage system?

The eye is often held up as a marvel of biological engineering. To the astrophysicist, though, it’s only a so-so detector. A better one would be much more sensitive to dark things in the sky and to all the invisible parts of the spectrum. How much more breathtaking sunsets would be if we could see ultraviolet and infrared. How useful it would be if, at a glance, we could see every source of microwaves in the environment, or know which radio station transmitters were active. How helpful it would be if we could spot police radar detectors at night.

Think how easy it would be to navigate an unfamiliar city if we, like birds, could always tell which way was north because of the magnetite in our heads. Think how much better off we’d be if we had gills as well as lungs, how much more productive if we had six arms instead of two. And if we had eight, we could safely drive a car while simultaneously talking on a cell phone, changing the radio station, applying makeup, sipping a drink, and scratching our left ear.

Stupid design could fuel a movement unto itself. It may not be nature’s default, but it’s ubiquitous. Yet people seem to enjoy thinking that our bodies, our minds, and even our universe represent pinnacles of form and reason. Maybe it’s a good antidepressant to think so. But it’s not science—not now, not in the past, not ever.

Another practice that isn’t science is embracing ignorance. Yet it’s fundamental to the philosophy of intelligent design: I don’t know what this is. I don’t know how it works. It’s too complicated for me to figure out. It’s too complicated for any human being to figure out. So it must be the product of a higher intelligence.

What do you do with that line of reasoning? Do you just cede the solving of problems to someone smarter than you, someone who’s not even human? Do you tell students to pursue only questions with easy answers?

There may be a limit to what the human mind can figure out about our universe. But how presumptuous it would be for me to claim that if I can’t solve a problem, neither can any other person who has ever lived or who will ever be born. Suppose Galileo and Laplace had felt that way? Better yet, what if Newton had not? He might then have solved Laplace’s problem a century earlier, making it possible for Laplace to cross the next frontier of ignorance.

Science is a philosophy of discovery. Intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance. You cannot build a program of discovery on the assumption that nobody is smart enough to figure out the answer to a problem. Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes. We know when and where they start. We know what drives them. We know what mitigates their destructive power. And anyone who has studied global warming can tell you what makes them worse. The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms.

To deny or erase the rich, colorful history of scientists and other thinkers who have invoked divinity in their work would be intellectually dishonest. Surely there’s an appropriate place for intelligent design to live in the academic landscape. How about the history of religion? How about philosophy or psychology? The one place it doesn’t belong is the science classroom.

If you’re not swayed by academic arguments, consider the financial consequences. Allow intelligent design into science textbooks, lecture halls, and laboratories, and the cost to the frontier of scientific discovery—the frontier that drives the economies of the future—would be incalculable. I don’t want students who could make the next major breakthrough in renewable energy sources or space travel to have been taught that anything they don’t understand, and that nobody yet understands, is divinely constructed and therefore beyond their intellectual capacity. The day that happens, Americans will just sit in awe of what we don’t understand, while we watch the rest of the world boldly go where no mortal has gone before.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. An anthology of his Universe columns will be published in 2006 by W. W. Norton.