It really does strain credibility to be confronted, yet again, with nonsense about the Turin Shroud, the medieval piece of cloth with the image of a man imprinted upon it, widely believed, at one time, to be the actual grave clothes of Jesus. We don’t even have evidence that Jesus was buried. Most crucified people were never buried. They were left on the cross for carrion creatures like dogs and vultures, and then, if there was anything left, it would be thrown on the rubbish heap, where it would either burn or rot away. Crosses, at the time, were short. They were not “noble” and tall, as the crucifix often pictures the crucifixion of Jesus. They were short things, just tall enough to make the torture effective, and to enable them to be accessible to animals on the ground. Even before they had died animals might tear away the flesh of crucified persons. There was nothing noble or beautiful about this way of dying. It was deliberately to treat the human being as less than human, to torture, degrade and humiliate them. They were hung out naked in the sun to die in torments. There was no discreet loin cloth to cover the pudenda (‘pudendus’ just means ‘shameful’ in Latin). The whole purpose was to dehumanise and to degrade by making a person’s naked suffering public. It was supposed to deter offences against the law, or against nobility.
But now we are being told that the shroud has been shown, scientifically, no less, to be genuine. According to Nick Squires at the Telegraph, “Italian study claims Turin Shroud is Christ’s authentic burial robe“. The claim is that
Italian scientists have conducted a series of advanced experiments which, they claim, show that the marks on the shroud – purportedly left by the imprint of Christ’s body – could not possibly have been faked with technology that was available in the medieval period.
Which means, being interpreted, that they don’t know how the image was made, but they needed to use technology not available in the medieval period in order to duplicate the image. As Tom Chivers tells us, in the same newspaper, “The Turin Shroud is fake. Get over it.” And even if it isn’t, as Chivers points out, it still doesn’t prove that Jesus was divine; it doesn’t prove that he was raised (or rose) from the dead; it doesn’t prove that his words are thereby given special authority over us; it doesn’t prove a thing. All it is, whatever its origin, is a piece of cloth with a strangely imprinted image of a bearded man.
However, none of this really matters, the Vatican tells us. No matter what the truth is, whether it’s a fake or a genuine relic from the grave of Jesus, it has a particularly important role to play in the life of the faithful. In Daily Mail type language
The Turin Shroud DOES have miraculous powers… whether it is genuine or not
According to the pope, who won’t be called out on the dispute over the authenticity of the shroud — because, by taking a position, he’d have to take a position on the supposedly scientific evidence — better reserve judgement on all that – the shroud
… is an extraordinarily powerful image of Christ’s suffering — and made so because of the faith people have in it, whether it is genuine or not.
“And that,” says Peter Stanford, the author of the Daily Mail piece,
… surely, is the point about religion — a point we are in danger of missing now that every belief and theory is judged to be worthless unless it can be put under a microscope by scientists and proved, irrefutably, to be true.
Some things, some important things, just don’t fit into this rigid, logical model of the world.
Science, as the saga of the shroud epitomises, can never get to the bottom of faith.
It’s the old “other ways of knowing” trope, but Stanford wouldn’t have been writing about it in the Daily Mail if scientists hadn’t come up with a claim that science shows the shroud to be genuine. Genuine what? is still a question that needs to be answered. Without this ”science” the “truth” about the shroud would have been decently hidden being ecclesiastical subterfuge and prevarication. The cathedral in Turin has too much invested, spiritually (and financially too, of course), in the relic, to abandon it now.
The story in the Independent doesn’t pull any punches at all:
Scientists say Turin Shroud is supernatural
The story begins with these words:
Italian government scientists have claimed to have discovered evidence that a supernatural event formed the image on the Turin Shroud, believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.
But this is nonsense, since they don’t know how the image on the Shroud was made. They made a similar image, apparently, using modern technology, but it does not follow that there is no other way of making the image. Besides the original carbon dating puts the shroud somewhere in the vicinity of 13-1400 CE, well after the supposed resurrection of Jesus. As one of the scientists — Luigi Garlaschelli, a professor of chemistry at Pavia University – told the Independent:
The implications are… that the image was formed by a burst of UV energy so intense it could only have been supernatural. But I don’t think they’ve done anything of the sort.
And of course Luigi Garlaschelli is absolutely right. The only way that they could show that it could only have been made by some supernatural force is by showing that it could not be made in any other way, and this is something that has not been demonstrated. Religious scientists shouldn’t let their religion interfere with their scientific conclusions.
The funny thing is that it doesn’t really matter. If the image was made supernaturally, the image is a holy relic, and if the image was made by some process now forgotten, it’s still a holy relic! After all, it’s about faith, not science. The devotion shown to relics is not about anything that can be scientifically established; it’s determined by the way people feel, how they react, what kind of spiritual nurture they get out of it; because the church clouds the whole thing with so many layers of piety that panders to people’s credulity that it really doesn’t matter whether anyone knows the truth about things or not. It functions just the same whether it’s true or not. This is why some people think that the new atheists are wrong to put so much emphasis on belief. This criticism would be right only if belief did not stand at the centre of what the church and other religious institutions are up to. Sure, it’s easy enough to say, with the pope, that it doesn’t really matter; but it matters like hell, because, if they began to say what they seem to be saying, that the whole thing may be just a story that gives us some kind of psychological lift, there would be an outcry from the faithful so overpowering that even popes would fall. Religion keeps the religious project going by believing or half believing or believing in belief — it really doesn’t matter how it’s put — so that people can go on deceiving themselves about what it is that religion is really all about. So, whatever it is, as the pope says, ”it is an extraordinarily powerful image of Christ’s suffering” because people believe it, not because it is. And this is a perfect recipe for self-deception, because, if you look at the picture at the head of this post, you’ll see that it’s really the image of a dead man, not of someone who is suffering. This is the kind of double-dealing that the religions practice. It’s a con.