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Posted: 05 December 2018

A famous letter by Albert Einstein which expresses his thoughts about God, the Bible and Judaism, was sold at auction for $3 million this week. The letter had been expected to sell for half the price.

Writing to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, Einstein’s thoughts on religion are essentially negative. He writes: ’The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.’

The letter has been previously described (by the New York Times) as ‘pouring gasoline on the culture wars between science and religion’.

Writing in the Guardian, Harriet Sherwood comments: ‘The sentence has been hailed as evidence that the physicist, one of the 20th century’s...

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Posted: 30 November 2018

An ancient copper ring unearthed in Israel 50 years ago, but which has only just been cleaned and examined, may once have belonged to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who sentenced Jesus to death, archaeologists have announced.

The ring, which was discovered in 1968 in the ruins of the Herodium, the palace of King Herod the Great, near Bethlehem, shows a wine vessel surrounded by the Greek letters of a word translated as ‘Pilatus’. The ring would have been used to seal official documents, and archaeologists believe it may have belonged either to Pilate himself, or to an aide in his office, sealing letters on his behalf.

The discovery has excited interest because this is only the second artifact ever discovered to carry the name of Pilate. The other is a stone block bearing a...

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Photo of the front page of the Christian Age newspaper for December 1915

Posted: 05 November 2018

An ancient copy of a long-forgotten religious newspaper from the time of the First World War, which was recently sent to us, reveals attitudes towards prayer and ‘this terrible war’.

We recently received a rather battered copy of a religious newspaper, The Christian Age, just over a century after it was published. The copy had languished in the loft of a house in St Kevenrne, Cornwall, until the house’s current owner, Jim Dowling, came across it while the loft was being renovated. The newspaper, which was published in December 1915, at the height of the First World War, is a time capsule of Edwardian news and comment, with one article sharing the secret of staying warm in the winter weather. ‘According to Arctic explorers, anything containing fat, such as chocolate, butter, or bacon,...

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Posted: 30 October 2018

Our online video of the Drawbridge Lecture, which was delivered in May this year by Marcelo Gleiser, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College, is now available with Portuguese subtitles. The lecture, ‘Unknowns in Heaven and Earth’, focuses on Professor Gleiser’s vision of science as a deeply human endeavour, exploring the unknowns of the universe.

This Portuguese version was put together by Luiz Antônio Melo, an undergraduate physics student at the University of Santa Cruz in Brazil. Marcelo Gleiser himself was born in Rio de Janeiro.

Says Luiz: ‘I’m an enthusiast of science, and I have a deep admiration for professor Marcelo’s work. I think it is very important to spread the knowledge of science, especially in my country.’

The subtitled video is on Luiz’s...

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Posted: 09 October 2018

Earlier this year, the oldest known fragment of the Gospel of Mark was finally published, some 115 years since it was unearthed in a long-forgotten Egyptian rubbish dump in what was once the city of Oxyrhynchus. The small scrap of papyrus was discovered by two British archaeologists in about 1903, along with half a million other bits and pieces chucked out in ancient times, including receipts, private letters, shopping lists, tax returns, poems and pages from books. Scholars have been working ever since, for over a century, to identify and publish this mountain of ancient texts.

The fragment of Mark’s Gospel, known as Papyrus 137 (or P137), has something of a notorious modern history. In 2012, it became famous when a scholar sensationally claimed that Papyrus 137 had been written in the...

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Photo of a detail taken from the cover of Seven Types of Atheism

Posted: 29 September 2018

The book Seven Types of Atheism, by the British philosopher and atheist John Gray, and published earlier this year, looks at first glance like a field guide to godlessness. Gray distinguishes and explores the branches of atheism ancient and modern, from the old atheists of the Enlightenment through to the New Atheists of the recent past, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, whom he describes as ‘mostly a media phenomenon and best appreciated as a type of entertainment’. That comment immediately tells you that Gray’s book is not merely a field guide (although it is that too, and a very enjoyable one), but also a polemic against the types of atheism Gray thinks are too much in debt to religion.

Gray’s antipathy to the New Atheists generally and Richard Dawkins in particular has been...

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Posted: 09 August 2018

The Drawbridge Lecture 2018, delivered by Marcelo Gleiser, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College, is now available as an online video. Click above for the complete lecture, followed by discussion and audience questions.

The lecture, ‘Unknowns in Heaven and Earth’, focused on Professor Gleiser’s concept of science as a deeply human endeavour, exploring the unknowns of the universe. He sees science as a human project of exploration, rather than a method by which a grand unified theory will eventually be discovered. He told the audience that in all likelihood we will never get to the bottom of some of the mysteries of the universe, not because we don’t know enough, but because they are by definition unknowable.

Quoting Einstein and Heisenberg, he said that the study...

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Photo of Richard Dawkins

Posted: 26 July 2018

A frequent argument of new atheists is that religion is intrinsically violent. But the writings, interviews and soundbites of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens reveals their surprising willingness to sign up to the politics of violence, says Nick Megoran. (Republished from The Conversation.)

Celebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins appear to claim the moral high ground when it comes to violence. Dawkins, along with Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, insist that because religion is intrinsically violent, then atheism is inherently more pacific. After all, if all the evils in the world can be blamed on religion, then arguably eliminating religion is not only desirable but a moral obligation for atheists who believe in peace.

Yet our research shows that in...

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Posted: 13 July 2018

‘I believe because it is absurd’ is a saying that has been pinned on Tertullian, the early Christian writer, even though he never said it. Peter Harrison follows the story of this fake quote, which has a long history in anti-religious polemic.

Religious belief is often thought to evince a precarious kind of commitment, in which the degree of conviction is inversely proportional to correspondence with the facts. Exhibit A for this common characterisation of religious belief is the maxim of the third-century Christian writer Tertullian, who is credited with the saying ‘I believe because it is absurd.’ This paradoxical expression makes a routine appearance in philosophical evaluations of the rationality of religious belief, in contemporary polemics addressed to an imagined opposition...

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Posted: 16 June 2018

The ashes of the physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking were laid to rest in Westminster Abbey yesterday between the remains of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. The inscription on his memorial stone echoes the words on the memorial of his new neighbour, Isaac Newton: ‘Here lies what was mortal of Stephen Hawking’, although it also includes, at Hawking’s request, his most famous equation, describing the entropy of a black hole.

Stephen Hawking identified himself as an atheist. In 2014, he explained what he meant when he said (in his book A Brief History of Time) that if we had a complete theory of why the universe exists, ‘then we would know the mind of God’. He said, ‘We would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an...

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Photos at the top of this column by:
Taro Taylor and Jon Sullivan