Holy Relics, Batman!

 stop wasting our time and energy


I’m pretty sure that even the most devout Christians experience flash episodes of atheism; that is, they see for a few moments, with clarity, that God doesn’t exist. One of the most famous of these flash episodes actually made the news some years ago. In March 1996, a gunman massacred 16 kids and their teacher at a school in Dunblane, Scotland. The United Kingdom was stunned, and in the days following thousands of flowers were placed as a memorial outside the school. One bouquet was accompanied by a Teddy Bear, with a note attached: “Wednesday, 13 March 1996—the day God overslept.” (Reported in the New York Times, 23 March 1996.)

Maybe it was a believer who had written the note, stunned into disbelief by the horror of it all; “God overslept” is a way of saying that God just wasn’t there. We wouldn’t be surprised if this was just a flash episode of atheism…or it could have meant a permanent loss of faith.  


A few years later, 26 December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed almost a quarter of a million people. The following day, one of my devout Catholic co-workers expressed his anguish at this horror, to which I responded, “Yes, God overslept again.” He looked straight at me, terrified. There it was: he had experienced a flash episode of atheism; at least for a moment he grasped that there is no God.  


The church is well aware that flash episodes of atheism are real, but employs euphemisms to blunt them, e.g., “Oh, it’s normal to have doubts.” Corrosive doubts can pop up all over the place because there is so much incoherence in Christian theology, as real world events—such as massacres and tsunamis—illustrate.


In addition to the euphemisms, the church has gone big-time into show business, making up for lack of substance—i.e., its product is invisible—with spectacle, glitz, and glamour. At its best, church can be amazing, powerful theatre, often with spectacular sets; the great cathedrals of Europe are wonders of art and architecture. To this day, even I can get goose bumps hearing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” blasted by a thundering pipe organ. The costumes and rituals enhance the experience. 


And, oh yes, the relics—especially for Catholics. When God is so mysterious, even unknowable (for example, when theologians can’t figure out why God allows massacres and tsunamis), faith gets a boost when an object in the physical world has been designated as especially holy: it was owned by, touched by, or was even part of, a person who, for sure, knew God in a special way. Relics make God real.   


But here, for the most part, the faithful have been conned. So be it, the hierarchy seems to think, if people feel better about the faith—no matter how ridiculous:


“…there were no fewer than six holy foreskins of the circumcised Jesus in as many churches (at least one surviving), as well as hay from the manger; various relics of Joseph and Mary, including vials of the latter’s breast milk; and especially relics of Jesus, such as a tear he shed at Lazarus’ tomb, one of the vessels in which he changed water into wine, and especially relics of the crucifixion, including, for example, an entire crown of thorns, although not the only one, and individual thorns that turned up here and there.”


So writes Joe Nickell in his essay, “The Turin Shroud: A Postmortem,” in John Loftus’ anthology, Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion. (pp. 336-337) In Nickell’s book, The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible, there is also a chapter on the shroud.


The Turin shroud is probably the most famous relic of all. What more could you want than the cloth in which Jesus’ body had been wrapped? It seems to be confirmation that the gospel stories about the death of Jesus are true—not that the people who venerate the shroud doubt anything in the gospel accounts. But verification of the shroud runs into the same problem as verification of the gospels: the provenance is unknown. In the art world, a painting up for sale must have documentation; the seller has to provide evidence that the painting is authentic:  Yes, it really is a Van Gogh, for example. 


Nickell’s essay is a great example of an expert on the hunt for facts; he reminds us that religious veneration blocks critical analysis. He describes the pile of evidence that debunks the shroud—and the debunking began long ago, even in the 14th century when the shroud first showed up. He quotes the text of a report sent to Pope Clement VII by a man who became a bishop:


 “The case, Holy Father, stands thus. Some time since in this diocese of Troyes the dean of a certain collegiate church, to wit, that of Lirey, falsely and deceitfully, being consumed with the passion of avarice, and not from any motive of devotion but only of gain, procured for his church a certain cloth cunningly painted, upon which by a clever slight of hand was depicted the twofold image of one man, that is to say, the back and the front, he falsely declaring and pretending that this was the actual shroud in which our Savior Jesus Christ was enfolded in the tomb…” (p. 338)


Hence the Pope ordered that a disclaimer be announced when the shroud was displayed: “It is not the True Shroud of our Lord, but a painting or picture made in the semblance or representation of the Shroud.” (p. 338)


But, of course, as the shroud changed hands and was handed down—by those who stood to gain from its veneration—these warnings were lost in the archives and forgotten.


Nickell provides a nice summary of insights and research in modern times that demonstrate the shroud’s 14thcentury origins. For example:

(1) The shroud can be located in art history.  “There are many additional image flaws that point to artistry. For example, the physique is unnaturally elongated—like figures in Gothic art!” (p. 340) It is “…most suspicious that a ‘shroud’—its whereabouts unrecorded for 1300 years—should suddenly appear, bearing an image of Jesus looking exactly like artists had come to imagine him.” (p. 341) “…from an iconographic point of view, these various traditions come together in the Shroud of Turin and suggest that it is the work of an artist of the thirteenth century or later.” (p. 341)


(2) The blood is fake. “This had remained bright red,” Nickell points out, “which itself is suspicious, since real blood eventually blackens with age. In fact, the red stains failed all the sophisticated microscopical, chemical, biological, and instrumental analysis. The preliminary tests for peroxidase (a blood enzyme) and traces of hemoglobin and hemoglobin derivatives were negative, as were attempts to detect corpuscles or any other blood components.” (p. 342)


(3) Radiocarbon dating. In 1983 the shroud ended up at the Vatican, which authorized the radiocarbon tests. Nickell describes the controls in place for the test, to eliminate bias, and the result: “The age span of the Shroud of Turin was determined to be 1260-1390 CE, and the results gained added credibility by correct dates being obtained from the controls…And that date was further supported by the shroud’s lack of provenance before that time, its medieval iconography, the weave and condition of the cloth, as so on.” (pp. 344-345)


But once an idea has been embraced with religious fervor—let the evidence be damned. Nickell points out that there is the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP): “…the members are invariably billed as impartial scientists, chosen for their expertise, in fact they lacked experience with art forgery, most were religious and  even shroud enthusiasts, and both of their leaders and some members served on the Executive Council of the Holy Shroud Guild, a Catholic organization devoted to the ‘cause’ of the supposed relic. Having such people examine the shroud is akin to asking the Flat Earth Society to investigate the shape of the planet.” (p. 343)


Shroud believers, Nickell notes, were devastated by the carbon dating, and attacked the results. “They used a method they had always employed, what I call ‘shroud science’: that is, beginning with the desired answer and then, with ‘confirmation bias,’ only seeking evidence that appeared to favor authenticity…Some unscientifically invoked the supernatural, suggesting that an imagined burst of radiant energy at the moment of Christ’s resurrection had altered the carbon ratio.” (p. 345)


Please stop wasting our time and energy


The world desperately needs to delete magical thinking. We need people to think clearly, critically, rationally to solve human problems. We don’t need the distraction of overcoming superstition and—frankly—religious nonsense. The world doesn’t need to believe that a piece of cloth painted in the 14th century wrapped the body of a 1st century Galilean peasant preacher; nor is there any point whatever in believing in the magic formulas at the heart of Christianity, e.g. “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) 


In my article last week I mentioned the news item about a Catholic archbishop performing exorcisms in Portland, Oregon. We don’t need such primitive superstitions that drag the world down: there are real world causes for racial problems. Nor do we need religious bureaucracies that prop up astounding silliness reflected in this recent headline: “Worshippers flock to ‘Virgin Mary’ spotted in water stain on a car park wall as locals claim it protects them from Covid.” The Catholic hierarchy needs to explain why the Virgin Mary has shown up in countless visions—and on toast, tree bark, and water stains—but doesn’t appear in the rooms where clergy are raping children. 


Joe Nickell’s essay is excellent investigative journalism, but that he had to go to the trouble of combatting shroud nonsense—well, that’s what prompts my plea: please stop wasting our time and energy. The Vatican, by the way, has its own staff of exorcists, which is cringe worthy; but Nickell acknowledges that even Pope Francis seems to have turned his back on the shroud fanatics: 


“The Vatican appears to have accepted the scientific results. And the new pope, Francis I, revealingly referred to the cloth (at Easter 2013) as an ‘icon’ (i.e. a work of art) rather than ‘relic’ (which it would be, in Catholic parlance, if it had actually wrapped the corpse of Jesus). Does he know the difference between icon and relic? Is the pope Catholic?” (p. 355)



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


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