Alan Duff's vitriol and vilification of religion is counter-scientific and unwarranted, writes Jeff Tallon.

In his own inimitable style,

. This debate is welcome and necessary.

But we need to be clear about the ground rules. In such a crucial question, invective has no place. This immediately excludes many of the protagonists, including perhaps Duff himself. No debate has been settled among reasonable minds by vilification.

Leaving aside the vitriol, his central argument relies on the sheer immensity of the universe - "He (the Creator) made way too much". This has the appearance of an appeal to science. But it is only an appearance.

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Cosmology has, in fact, shown us the reverse. The universe must be as immense as it is and as old as it is for us to exist to debate the question.

This is not even new science. Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal and immediate past president of the Royal Society, one of the world's leading scientific academies. In a 1979 review article in the leading journal Nature, Rees, with co-author Bernard Carr, examines all the known objects in the universe to show that they each must be the size they are.

For example, the size of the universe relative to the size of an atom is quite simply determined by the ratio of the electromagnetic force to that of gravity - a huge factor equal to a billion-billion-billion-billion, or 1 with 36 zeroes after it (usually expressed as 1036).

Moreover, our own Milky Way galaxy must be as large and ancient as it is because we are the product of a supernova explosion in which the heavy elements necessary for life were first formed. That requires the full maturation of a solar system within a mature galaxy necessarily of 3 to 10 billion years old.

Thus Duff's quasi-scientific argument is actually counter-scientific. The other side of the cosmic coin is that the universe about us is unbelievably fine-balanced and uncomprehendingly improbable. We have only to look to the writings of Roger Penrose (the PhD supervisor of Stephen Hawking) to see just how improbable it all is. So this raises the issue as to how this cosmic knife-edge ever arose through purely random processes.

Duff dismisses Jesus as a madman and instead espouses Richard Dawkins as his Messiah. But even Dawkins acknowledges the possibility that his atheism might be wrong - at a level of about 0.1 in 7. That's more than 1 per cent. One does have to wonder whether all that vitriol, venom and scorn is warranted when there remains a residual acknowledgement that it might, after all, be misdirected.

The universe about us is inbelievably fine-balanced and uncomprehendingly improbable. This raises the issue as to how this cosmic knife-edge could have arisen through purely random processes.

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And curiously, Dawkins states that he will not discuss climate change in public because he isn't familiar enough with the science. This is a strange acknowledgement from the former Oxford Professor for Public Understanding of Science. Be that as it may, one must wonder why he feels perfectly comfortable attacking religious faith where he is clearly even less well informed.

To return to Duff, searching for more scientific support for his religious balloon popping, he states that the universe is not actually all that beautiful - "the sun's temperature is 5505 Centigrade".

In fact, the core of the sun is 3000 times hotter than this. But again, unless the sun is a mature main-sequence star with the very temperature it exhibits we do not, we cannot, exist.

This is the stuff that is taught in primary school. The sun is the primary energy source for planet Earth, and the sooner we migrate to a solar energy economy the better. So how can the sun's high temperature possibly have anything to do with the argument against theism.

And by the way, last night's setting sun looked stunningly beautiful as the weary day rubbed its red eye on the horizon.

Finally, Duff echoes the abuses of religion over the centuries. And here, of course, he is right. Anything can be hijacked for the purposes of politics, power and prejudice and Christianity has not escaped corruption. But there is certainly another side to this coin also.

Let us suppose that the churches were shut down by the state - all their activities proscribed and rigorously so. There would forthwith arise a huge impost of unmet social needs within our communities. For the fact is that Christians are passionately committed to caring for others in less fortunate circumstances.

Let Duff rage, but let him rage against misinformation, non-science, prejudice, hatred and the structures of society that make life so difficult for so many.

Dr Jeff Tallon is an Auckland physicist.