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Turin Shroud resurrected

The Daily Telegraph (Dec 20th) has an article by the Reverend Peter Mullen spurred by alleged recent evidence from Italy that the Turin shroud cannot be a fake. The new 'evidence' amounts to yet another 'Argument from Personal Incredulity': the Italian scientists cannot understand how it could have been faked. By contrast, the carbon-14 evidence that the shroud's linen is much too young to be the shroud of Jesus is rock solid. Three independent labs, in Arizona, Zurich and Oxford, were each given four samples, making 12 datings in all. The dates varied within expected margins of error, but all put the linen as younger than 600 AD. The shroud may or may not bear the genuine imprint of a body, but that body is not the body of Jesus or of anyone who lived before 600 AD.

Peter Mullen, however, is not interested in mere matters of fact. Factual evidence, in his view, is of no importance to people of faith.

I don’t think that we can ever know for certain. Moreover, I don’t think it matters.

When pressed to give his judgment on the shroud’s authenticity, Pope Benedict never went further than to affirm that it could prove a strengthening of faith among those who already believe. It is, he said, “an image which reminds us always of Christ’s suffering”. And this is surely right. To make this problematic piece of cloth the criterion for belief in the Resurrection is to be guilty of the same mixture of crass literalism and the misapplication of forensic science as that found in Richard Dawkins’s declaration that if God exists, we should be able to detect him with our telescopes.

I hope it is superfluous for me to deny that I ever said that. Presumably Mr Mullen is attempting to satirise my more general belief that, before we believe in gods we should require evidence of some kind. His is a version of a particular canard about atheists that I dealt with near the beginning of The God Delusion:

This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort to the book, one that would otherwise – as sure as night follows day – turn up in a review: ‘The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either. I don’t believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.’ That old man is an irrelevant distraction and his beard is as tedious as it is long. Indeed, the distraction is worse than irrelevant. Its very silliness is calculated to distract attention from the fact that what the speaker really believes is not a whole lot less silly. I know you don’t believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let’s not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.

Mullen takes to a clear extreme his point about facts not mattering to people of faith:

It is an unsatisfactory faith which insists upon forensic proofs. Suppose that today’s consensus is that the shroud is genuine. Then do we all become devout believers? And must we then give up that belief if tomorrow there is a conclusive report to demonstrate that it is a medieval forgery?

He doesn't go quite this far, but he makes me wonder how he would respond to the following thought experiment. Suppose archeologists and historians unearthed conclusive evidence that Jesus never existed; suppose unequivocal proof were found that the whole story of Jesus was a work of fiction, would this shake the faith of Peter Mullen and other Christians that Jesus was the Son of God, who redeemed mankind of sin? Would they say something like the following: "Maybe Jesus is a purely fictional character and maybe it is only in fiction that he died for our sins, but he is still my Redeemer and the Son of God. Why shouldn't I have a fictional redeemer if my faith is strong enough?"

I find it impossible to imagine such a warped view of reality, but there are precedents, for example creationist scientists who privately believe the universe is only 6000 years old, yet happily write mathematical papers assuming that it is 14 billion years old.

It's worth visiting the Telegraph to see, not so much Mullen's article as the comments that follow it. I haven't made a systematic count, but at the time of writing a surprisingly large number of them are atheistic. I found it very encouraging, given the right wing politics with which the Telegraph is traditionally associated.

Richard

[Update- Polish translation]
Całun Turyński wskrzeszony
Autor tekstu: Richard Dawkins
Tłumaczenie: Małgorzata Koraszewska
„The Daily Telegraph" (20 grudnia) opublikował artykuł wielebnego Petera Mullena, zainspirowany niedawnymi rzekomymi dowodami z Włoch, że Całun Turyński nie może być fałszerstwem. Nowe „dowody" to po prostu jeszcze jeden „Argument Osobistego Niedowierzania": włoscy naukowcy nie mogą zrozumieć, jak mógłby być sfałszowany. W odróżnieniu od tego, dowody z badań C-14, że len całunu jest zdecydowanie zbyt nowy, by mógł być całunem Jezusa, jest solidny jak skała. Trzy niezależne laboratoria: w Arizonie, Zurychu i Oksfordzie otrzymały cztery próbki każdy, co pozwoliło na w sumie 12 datowań. Daty różniły się w ramach spodziewanego marginesu błędu, ale wszystkie ustaliły wiek lnu na młodszy niż rok 600 n.e. Całun może mieć, a może nie mieć, autentyczny odcisk ciała, ale ciało to nie było ciałem Jezusa ani nikogo, kto żył przed rokiem 600 n.e.
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TAGGED: COMMENTARY, RELIGION, RICHARD DAWKINS


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