Over the past month, these are the events in faith, science and culture that have been catching our attention.
31 March – Ralph Ellis, an author with no university affiliation, has gained a lot of media attention by claiming that a coin showing the head of an ancient King of Edessa (pictured above) is actually the earliest known likeness of Jesus Christ. Ellis has acknowledged his claim is controversial, but others have gone further by saying it is on a level with claiming the pyramids were built by aliens. Simon Gathercole of Cambridge University says the argument is ‘crackers’, while Francesca Stavrakopoulou of Exeter University says, ‘It’s a theory that’s so wacky it’s completely beyond the realms of scholarly debate.’
30 March – In China, a resurgence of religious faith is changing the landscape, says an article in the Economist. ‘There are now as many as 80m Christians in China, many of whom like the faith’s links with the West and its commitment to social change,’ says the piece, which reviews The Souls of China, by Ian Johnson.
28 March – Islam may overtake Christianity as the world’s biggest religion before 2100, a new study has claimed. The Pew Research findings are based on two factors: Muslim families are having more children than the families of other religions; and Muslims are on average younger than non-Muslims, with 23 being the average age in 2010.
27 March – Daniel Dennett has been featured in an in-depth profile in The New Yorker. Dennett is often cited as one of the ‘four horsemen of New Atheism’, alongside Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, and has written extensively on human consciousness. Even though Dennett has argued that religion should be studied rather than practised, the profile says he is ‘comfortable with religion – even, in some ways, nostalgic for it’.
24 March – Bashir Mohammad has been dubbed ‘The jihadi who turned to Jesus’ in a feature telling his story in the New York Times. A Syrian who became radicalised and joined the Al-Nusra Front, Mohammed eventually fled Syria with his wife, and the couple became Christians in Istanbul. Mohammed, who now meets with other Christian refugees for weekly prayer and Bible reading, says: ’There’s a big gap between the god I used to worship and the one I worship now. We used to worship in fear. Now everything has changed.’
23 March – Pope Francis has a new book out, The Name of God is Mercy. Mercy is an important focus of Francis’ teaching, and the book explores the themes that lie at the heart of his papacy, including reconciliation and the closeness of God. Says Time magazine, ‘Pope Francis shows in this book a compelling way to present God’s love anew to a skeptical world without denying the ancient teachings of faith.’
22 March – The ‘tomb of Christ’ has opened to the public this month, after a year-long restoration programme. But engineers who worked on the tomb, which is within Jerusalem’s ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre, have revealed the whole structure is in danger of collapse due to poor foundations. The blunt message of Antonia Moropoulou, a scientific supervisor on the project, is: ‘When it fails, the failure will not be a slow process, but catastrophic’.
20 March – Lawrence Krauss, physicist and populariser, has been interviewed in this month’s Vox about his latest book, The Greatest Story Ever Told… So Far. The book is a compressed history of physics – from the Big Bang to Newton to Galileo to Einstein and beyond. The title claims that the greatest story ’is the intellectual journey we’ve taken to understand the amazing universe we live in’. Krauss says: ‘science, like art or literature, also forces us to confront our place in the universe, to ask how we got here and where we’re going.’
16 March – The Old Testament has found a sympathetic champion in Katharine Dell, whose new book, Who Needs the Old Testament? has just been published. Subtitled, ‘Its enduring appeal and why the New Atheists don’t get it’, the book aims to help readers rediscover the appeal of the Old Testament for the 21st century, in the face of atheist ridicule and the indifference of many believers.
16 March – Martin Luther and his story has been retold in a new biography by Catholic writer Peter Stanford, in time for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this autumn. Says Melvyn Bragg: ‘Peter Stanford has written a compelling biography of one of the greatest men of the modern age. He is particularly brilliant on the tensions inside Luther’s private and spiritual life. This is a very fine biography written with a flourish.’
13 March – Siobhan O’Neill, a committed atheist, has written impressively about how her 12 year-old daughter has become religious and how she has supported her faith, which has included arranging for her to be baptised. In a generous story which religious believers could take notes from, she says: ‘Since childhood indoctrination is one of the things I like least about religion, I’m proud of Una for challenging my own atheist indoctrination of her.’
13 March – Atheist decline? A new study (which seems more eye-catching than serious) has suggested that atheists are at risk of dying out due to belief in contraception. Scientists from the US and Malaysia have studied over 4,000 students, asking them about their religious beliefs and how many siblings they have. They found that Malaysian atheists had 1.5 fewer siblings than the average.
Photo of King Manu of Edessa: Ralph Ellis