Isn't it contradictory to claim that while multiple universes exist something still initially arises from nothing?
His use of the term "nothing" either means literally "no thing" or is poorly employed ergo misleading.
Its as though you want it to be misleading just so you an argue against it. I didn't find it misleading, because I took the time to try to understand his claim within the context of his general view. This seems to be a better approach than force-fitting one's own definitions onto another's work and then saying that work doesn't make sense.
Religious thought can likewise be based on reason and empirical data. My objection is that is he making claims based on dodgy reasoning and moreover he is making unfalsifiable claims. I would suggest that he is representing not so much science but the emerging form of religious materialism that is presently fashionable amongst scientists.
Your original claim seemed to be stronger than this; but perhaps I misunderstood you. Still, I find it hard to believe that you have read and understood his entire book on the topic and therefore can claim that his reasoning is "dodgy." In fact, I would venture to guess you're basing your entire view on the 4 or so lines given in this article.
Also, it is very common for scientists to engage in reasoning on the ontological implications of their data. (In fact, if you really think about it, no meaning could be drawn from scientific data at all without a certain level of reasoned interpretation. The very idea of drawing truths from science is based on the [problematic] concept of induction.) This has occurred since the emergence of science; I think very few have viewed it as a religious enterprise.
Now, I agree with you, there is a thin line that must be drawn between what is the domain of science and what is the domain of further reasoning/interpretation. This line has become increasingly blurred by the rise of theoretical physics. Many scientists and philosophers of science have commented on this trend; I don't think any of them took it as a rise in commitment (religious or otherwise) to materialism: most of them simply called for a clearer methodological delineation between scientific findings and reasoning based on them. Personally, I think anyone with a bit of intellect should be able to distinguish between the too. The problem arises when people take science to be a flawless epistemological tool solely capable of uncovering the truth: a premise that no scientist believes. Most scientists are very careful to temper their confidence in the implications of their findings ("this data seems to support the hypthesis that..." not "this data shows that ____ is the case"; the use of statistical confidence intervals, etc.), it is the fault of the reader for glossing over the tentativeness of these theses.
Your concept of an "emerging form of religious materialism that is presently fashionable amongst scientists" seems misguided as well. Western metaphysics has always leaned towards the view that all is reducible to the physical. While this may not seem intuitive to you, or many Buddhists, you cannot deny that this is a justifiable view based on sound reasons (that you may or may not agree with). Scientists may be tend to think in this direction; but, It is not as though scientists have recently become religiously devote to this idea -- this was simply the working hypothesis in Western metaphysics for years.
Actually, most recently, this is the very idea that has come be called into question by advances in science. Doesn't the very concept that energy and matter are fundamentally the same thing (as expressed in Einstein's formula E=MC^2) undermine the roots of materialism? What about the concept of anti-matter? What about the idea of the non-distinguishability of particles and waves? These are all fairly recent concepts which cast doubt on a strictly physicalist view.
Or, gah, what about using functional magnetic resonance imagining to try to understand the subjective experience of meditation? This is science.
I say all of this simply to make the point that: your view of scientists is too cynical. I don't think scientists are under the influence of some religious agenda supported by shadowy figures in the state to convince everyone that the world physically exists and that it came from nothing, defying causality. Rather, I think scientists, just like you, are working with the evidence they have and their best reasoning skills to try and find the truth.
Here's a little anecdote to further muddy up your neatly packaged preconcieved notion of science, materialism and philosophy: I once worked for a fairly prominent scientist (at least within his field) who told me of an interesting debate he had with prominent modern philosopher Daniel Dennet. While Dennet holds [actually based on some very interesting unconventional argumentation] that all things reduce to the physical, including, most relevantly, thoughts and mental events themselves; the scientist argued against him, claiming not only that thoughts are non-physical BUT EVEN THAT thoughts supercede and can directly causally effect what we take to be the physical world. Religiously devout materialist? I think not.
So, please, before dividing the world into some crazy Manichean duality of non-sensical materialists/scientists and right-minded idealist/Buddhists, come into contact with some actual scientists, read some works on philosophy of science, even try to read the arguments of some materialist thinkers to try and understand where they're coming from. Otherwise, your argument seems to closely resemble something along the lines of, "I'm not certain what I'm talking about, but I'm certain that I'm right."
(Further, you might even consider refining your understanding of the Buddhist approach to material/form. I think you'll be suprised what you find: Buddhism is not so strictly idealistic as you might think. Dan Lusthaus has an interesting portion in his book, "Buddhist Phenomonology," which makes some interesting points on the role and meaning of rupa in the abhidharma. You might also consider the Sautantrika-Svatantrika view of the physicality of conventional svhabhavas and its relation to materialist philosophy...)
The beginninglessness of time is a consequence of inference. It is a simple conclusion drawn from the easily tested observation that all phenomena are caused and those causes likewise have causes. To say that causality could be initiated from causelessness is absurd. I'm sure you know this already, but I say this to clarify the point for other readers.
I don't think its so easy to test every single phenomena of the past, present, and future for causality. Generalizing from your available "data set" (i.e. inference) always relies on a certain leap of faith (see Hume on the Problem of Induction). Again, I agree with your general stance, I just don't see it as intuitively given as you seem to.
Also, to say that "something emerged from nothing" [which, again, is NOT what Hawking is saying here, at least in the sense we are getting at here] does not necessarily imply that causality emerged form causelessness. This is why I cited Aristotle's idea of hylei: that the universe could have emerged from a nothingness which is a pure potentiality
. I, as I imagine you would, find this concept fishy, but that isn't to say that someone raised with different philosophical presuppositions than us might find this idea more appealing than the idea of an infinite regress of causality. That is, this view is not, as you say, absurd (you seem to act as though its so absurd as to preclude any necessity of argumentation for its absurdity). Many excellent thinkers have come up with some very challenging arguments against the "infinite causal regress," most notably, perhaps, Aristotle and Bertrand Russel. I don't think we can count it out as a simply "absurd" notion.
It is easy to imagine where Mr. Hawkings is speaking from -- he is attacking monotheists. When scientists speak of religion it is almost always in reference to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. God is their opponent.
When I spoke of understanding where he was coming from, I was speaking of something much more comprehensive than what you are doing. I was talking about actually putting yourself in his shoes, attempting to enter his "existential habitat," considering the philosophical presuppositions and argumentation he was incubated in his entire life, the history of historical contingencies and philosophical debates which shaped that intellectual climate, the recent developments in science that influenced his view, the competing views in the field that have influenced his, etc. etc. You might even go so far as to speculate as to certain emotional attachments to particular modes of thinking and interpetive grids which might influence his thinking.
It is never easy to imagine where someone else is coming from. If its easy, you are simply objectifying or projecting your own views onto the other person. I don't think Hawking views god as his "opponent," I think he is just interested in the truth, like you and I.
Sorry for the long post, too much caffeine.