And yet some people are sick of their personalities and their flaws, and they want to shuffle that off.

Let them do it if they must. I think it's an expression of terrible weakness of character on their part, but if they must become groveling, abandoned serfs, let them do it. But don't let them tell me that I must teach it to my children. Because then it stops being a disagreement and it becomes a quarrel. A fight. I'm not going to let them do that. They may not influence my government. They may not have their nonsense taught in the schools my children go to. They may not raise my taxes to spend on their places of worship. None of this. Surely they've got a direct line to the supernatural. What the hell more do they want? I keep asking, "Why aren't they happy?"

They're in possession of the most wonderful secret that must make them hug themselves with delight. Isn't that enough for them? No, it isn't! I think for good reason.Your book contrasts the numinous with the supernatural. Could you describe the difference?

It's innate in us to be overawed by certain moments, say, at evening on a mountaintop or sunset on the boundaries of the ocean. Or, in my case, looking through the Hubble telescope at those extraordinary pictures. We have a sense of awe and wonder at something beyond ourselves, and so we should, because our own lives are very transient and insignificant. That's the numinous, and there's enough wonder in the natural world without any resort to the supernatural being required.

That's what Richard Dawkins says. Do you agree with Dawkins?

I don't agree with Mr. Dawkins on everything, but he's been an absolutely outstanding contributor to this argument. I say in my book that if you look through the Hubble Telescope, or read a few pages of Steven Hawking on, say, the event horizon, I think you'd be a very undernourished person spiritually if you could go on being impressed by the idea of a burning bush when compared to things like that.

It seems utterly trivial to me to say, "A real miracle is Jesus driving pigs mad and sending them down the hill with devils inside them into the sea." That doesn't impress me at all. I don't believe it ever happened. It was sorcery if it did. But I'm totally unimpressed.

The idea of someone who's been mentally ill suddenly being well doesn't impress you? Someone who was raving and miserable?

No, because we can say mentally ill, and we know what we're talking about. We have chemical cures for schizophrenia. The expression in this instance, that of being possessed by devils, often led to appalling treatment of the mentally ill because they were thought to be possessed by Satan. It's all the difference in the world. In fact, it illustrates the difference very well. You can't cure mental illness by driving devils into pigs. I'm sorry; it's primitive and revolting.

Nor, by the way, would I be impressed if a virgin gave birth.

You would not be impressed?

Not in the smallest degree. I imagine that freak parthenogenesis is just possible. There are, in fact, species that reproduce partly that way. If someone said, "The thing about me that you don't have in common with me is that my mother was a virgin when I was born, I would say, "Well, so what? It certainly doesn't prove the truth of everything you say."

If he later was to tell me that last week he died, and I'd read about it in the papers and actually seen him dead, and I was surprised to see him again in the street, I wouldn't be that impressed. It wouldn't prove anything about the truth of his doctrines. It would not prove he was the son of God or entitle him to forgive me my sins.

But you're prepared to believe that he would have risen from the dead?

I say granted, there are more wonderful things in the natural world than that. But I will not say, if he proves all these things to me—supposing he could--that he has the authority to make two and two be five, or declare himself part of a Trinity, or least of all to forgive my sins.

If I suddenly went blind and he said, "Well, I can take care of that, just by spitting on your eye," then I'd have to say, "I'm very impressed now. You've really made my day."

But we all know that this stuff is completely puerile fantasy and invention. None of it ever happened or ever could have. And the belief in it is attractive in children, perhaps. A fairy tale bit. But it's not really attractive in grown ups, and it can't be taught to people as if it were true. And it's wicked to say to people: If they don't believe it, they'll be tortured forever.