Saturday, October 31, 2009

Providence Journal and the Shroud of Turin

Here in Rhode Island the only real statewide newspaper left is the Providence Journal, affectionately known as the ProJo, but such affection is rare. I think the main problem with the paper is editorial. The common mistake is made, time and again, that there are two sides to a story, and that both sides have some sort of equal standing. If they run a story touting evolution, you can be sure that the paper will run a letter from some idiot about how evolution isn't real.

Now opinions are important, but only if they come from reasonable, informed sources. Imagine staring into a blue sky, and saying, "What a beautiful, blue sky." Next to you is some guy who says, "That sky's not beautiful." Fair enough, his opinion, is weird, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that. If you wanted to, you could now engage that person in a lively debate about the aesthetics of nature. But imagine if the person standing next to you said, "That sky's not blue," or "That's not the sky." Then what kind of discussion can you have? He's not expressing an opinion, he's expressing nonsense.

Such is my reaction to a letter the Journal published today. The writer, a Louis William Barta from Cranston, Rhode Island, took exception to a story the journal reported on October 6, 2009 about the Shroud of Turin, and why tests show, once again, that the thing is fake. The letter is filled with nonsense that makes my previous example of "That's not the sky" seem positively enlightened. One line from the letter states:

Physicists now theorize that the Shroud’s image of a crucified Jew was formed during a “new event horizon”: the ultimate occurrence in physics during which two separate dimensions converge and, for a nanosecond, time actually stops.
This ignorant, technical sounding jibber-jabber makes no real sense. And it seems to contradict a line Barta wrote one paragraph earlier:

The Shroud’s miraculous, three-dimensional, double-negative image derives from a unique type of flash photolysis that NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, using the world’s most sophisticated technology, cannot duplicate or even comprehend.
So can physicists come up with theories to explain the image or simply not comprehend it? Can we have it both ways? Can we intelligently use science to develop fantastic explanations and reject it when we don't like the conclusions? Barta ends his defense of this medieval fake with the following line:

And how could medieval forgers have possibly procured a blank 14-foot length of ancient kosher Hebrew linen upon which to execute their craftiness?
Which of course begs the question, how did they get their hands on the actual burial clothe of Jesus, which is presumably a 14-foot length of ancient kosher Hebrew linen? What's more likely to be found anywhere, a blank sheet, or a sheet with the image of Jesus on it?

But the whole question of whether or not the Shroud of Turin is fake was resolved in 1389. That's right 1389! According to the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia:
Owing mainly to the researches of Canon Ulysse Chevalier a series of documents was discovered which clearly proved that in 1389 the Bishop of Troyes appealed to Clement VII, the Avignon Pope then recognized in France, to put a stop to the scandals connected to the Shroud preserved at Lirey. It was, the Bishop declared, the work of an artist who some years before had confessed to having painted it but it was then being exhibited by the Canons of Lirey in such a way that the populace believed that it was the authentic shroud of Jesus Christ. The pope, without absolutely prohibiting the exhibition of the Shroud, decided after full examination that in the future when it was shown to the people, the priest should declare in a loud voice that it was not the real shroud of Christ, but only a picture made to represent it. The authenticity of the documents connected with this appeal is not disputed.
So the Pope himself declared the Shroud of Turin a fake over 600 years ago, and left instructions that in the future, the shroud, when shown, should be declared in a loud voice that it is not the real shroud of Christ, but a picture made to represent it. Now normally when the Pope says something I disagree, but in this case...

One more word about the letter writer, Louis William Barta. He may be a nice, well meaning guy. But his final remarks in the letter, which are not about the shroud, display to me the dangers of religious thought:

Over 99 percent of all the universe’s matter exists in the form of plasma, whose ability to conduct electricity is infinite. Lightning is a stream of luminous plasma. Some 16 million lightning storms occur in the atmosphere each year. The Bible says God will use lightning to decontaminate the world. The sooner, the better.
Not withstanding his continued ability to spout utter nonsense cloaked in the guise of physics (99% of the universe's matter is luminous plasma? Say what?) Not withstanding his unique reading of the bible. (God will use lightning to decontaminate the world? Where's that written? The closest thing I could find was a metaphor for Christ's return being compared to lightning in the heavens. (Mt 24:27; Lk 17:24)) No, the saddest and most dangerous thing is that Barta sees the world as needing to be decontaminated by God's lightning, the sooner the better.

What is it about the world that is so bad God needs to hurl thunderbolts at it to clean it? (And while you puzzle that out, think about how much consideration you would give such a thought if instead of God I used the name Zeus or Thor, both known for their thunderbolt hurling.) I think anyone, if given a chance to exercise their imaginations in a mean way can instantly come up with some choice lightning bolt targets. My own include Dick Cheney, Osama bin Laden, and that idiot Glenn Beck, but these are mean-spirited fantasies, not true wishes for a cleansing storm from on high.

Religious belief almost always means not wanting to truly live in the world as it is, not wanting to take responsibility for changing the world, and wishing for a magic lightning storm to make the world a better place. It tortures and tangles your thinking, and makes you a sad person, waiting for the end, rather than a happy person, living the story now.

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