The Shroud of Turin

Presented at our April 2013 Service of the North Texas Church of Freethought

Il Mistero Della SindoneEvery year around Easter it seems that Christian believers spring some sort of "news" to plug their beliefs and dogmas. This year it was yet another claim of "new proof" that the Shroud of Turin is the authentic burial shroud of Jesus Christ. Even if it were, of course, it would not verify Christian theology. And the "new proof" is nothing of the kind, not even published in a scientific journal, but in a book you have to buy. Fox News called it "new research" and "testing" but left it vague as to what was actually tested.

It turns out that the two Catholic authors of this book did a bunch of different things having to do with analysis of fibers of the cloth and dust particles they say they vacuumed off of it. Their methods are not considered generally reliable. Meanwhile, these two authors and other Shroud believers dismiss the radiocarbon analysis done in 1988 at three independent labs which confirmed that the linen material dates to 1260-1390, consistent with its being a forgery. The authors of this new book — and others — now say that the samples tested were from material used to mend the shroud in the 16th Century. The Catholic Church has officially neither asserted nor denied that Shroud is "real" but has said that its authenticity is "impossible to falsify" and clearly benefits from the "controversy."

Hardly ever mentioned is that when the shroud first appeared in the 14th Century, the local Catholic bishop knew it was a hoax and said in a letter to the Pope that the artist who had made it had confessed to making it. No human remains have been identified on the cloth. The "bloodstains" are simple pigments. Nor have any traces of the usual spices and ointments used to treat corpses, and mentioned in the Bible, been found. And although it is often insisted that no known process could create the image, or that prodigious amounts of energy — either electricity or high-energy radiation — would be needed, similar images have been made with a technique of applying cloth to bas-relief sculptures.

Also notable is that the average height of men who lived in the Middle East when Jesus is said to have lived was about 5'1". And Jesus is said by the Gospel of Luke to be "low of stature" and by the account attributed to John to be "a man of small stature." Yet the image on the Shroud is of a man measuring 5'7" or 5'9", a tall man for the time.

Would such controversy be connected with this artifact if certain people did not have an emotional investment in proving that it is authentic and was produced supernaturally? I daresay that if "Ötzi the Iceman," the natural mummy found in the Alps in 1991 whose remains date to about 3300 BCE, had been found in the 13th Century and claimed to be body of one of the New Testament Apostles and stored in the Vatican, that there would be controversy surrounding it and "scientific evidence" of its dating to the 1st Century CE instead of the 33rd Century BCE. Not to mention there would be many claims of people being miraculously cured by it, as is true of the Shroud of Turin. (But over the years of study of Ötzi, some of those involved have died and so there is already the idea of an "Ötzi curse!")

Why People Believe Weird ThingsWhat is really fascinating about things like this is not just that normally sensible people resort to all sorts of deliberate self-deception and impostures in order not to have to change their minds. It is that people can do such things. Why is that? It doesn't seem to be an ability that contributes to survival or differential breeding success, does it? Perhaps it is just an unavoidable byproduct of something about us that is distinctive and very helpful to our success as a species: our ability to imagine and, especially, to learn so many things by the spoken or written word, which is to say, through symbols.

Lock Ness MonsterThere seems to be a "moral of the story" here. So many religious believers say that an attachment to material things and especially to money is immoral and wicked. At the same time, all religious organizations — heck our church too! — want your money and resources. At least you can do things with material wealth: you can feed the hungry and educate people, you can fling space probes out beyond the solar system and you can figure out the cause and cure of terrible diseases and much else besides. No, what is immoral and wicked is to be overly-attached to beliefs. Not just god-beliefs, but beliefs in all sorts of irrational and counterfactual claims seem to be at the root of so much human misery. This is a message that needs to be understood and disseminated.

If you want to know more about the Shroud of Turin, the best critical treatment remains that of paranormal investigator Joe Nickell's Inquest on the Shroud of Turin: Latest Scientific Findings.