On the Bias of Shroud-Skeptics

There is -it can not be reasonably denied- a considerable weight of evidence in favour of the authenticity of the Shroud: scientific theories have gained world-wide acceptance on a basis of less evidence; people -not least of all Jesus himself- have been sentenced to death on the basis of less evidence (believers in the authenticity of the Shroud are often called ‘the faithful’ as if they believe in spite of the great amount of evidence revealing it to be a fake, but it might be reasonably objected that in the light of the overwhelming amount of evidence for the authenticity of the Shroud it is the disbelievers that are ‘the faithful’). The barrier to belief is, not the weight of evidence to the contrary -there is really one a single contrary and easily disposable contra-indication- but the implications of the Shroud for the nature of the universe and man’s role in it. These are so unwanted at the psychological level that many apply to it higher standards of proof than would normally be applied, and seize upon every possible sign that it is a fake. But surely, it might we objected, the pro-authenticity brigade are no less liable to bias than are the con-authenticity brigade; surely they apply lower standards of proof than would normally be applied, and seize upon every possible sign that it as genuine (Many Shroud skeptics argue for example that the STURP team were biased, but in fact many were initially agnostic or skeptical). There is an important difference. Non-Christian Shroud-deniers are more likely to be negatively biased because the authenticity of the Shroud coheres with and therefore is evidence in favor of the central element of Christianity (Jesus’ death and resurrection), whereas for a Christian its in-authenticity is irrelevant. Elaborating, if one disbelieves the central tenet of Christianity, then one expects that there is nothing extraordinary about Jesus’ burial Shroud, and if a claimed burial Shroud exists that does posses extraordinary properties, then one expects that it is inauthentic. If by contrast one believes the central tenet of Christianity, then one need have no expectations regarding the nature of Jesus’ burial Shroud whatever. Certainly, a Christians’s belief structure is not in the least impacted by the existence of a fake Shroud. Perhaps the paradigmatically dispassionate attitude to the Shroud belongs to Barrie Schwortz. An orthodox Jew, and a reluctant and skeptical member of the original STURP team, Schwortz’s later role as perhaps world’s foremost proponent of the Shroud’s authenticity appears to be based solely on the strength of the historical and scientific evidence.

A number of philosophers, including Wittgenstein, Kuhn, and Quine, have written of a mechanism that helps explain the bias of the Shroud-deniers. These philosophers point out that our belief systems may understood as possessing a loosely hierarchical structure, a structure such that beliefs are arranged according to their logical priority, according to their depth. And they point out that deep-rooted beliefs are not readily abandoned or revised. Since a theory of gravity that differs from that of Newton and Einstein is essential to the physics proposed here to explain the image on the Shroud, let me give an example concerning the belief in the classical understanding gravity. Belief in the classical law of gravity is deeper than any belief about the behavior of a dropped-cup. If such a cup seemed to float to the ceiling rather than fall to the floor, then maybe it was dropped by someone in a spaceship or in some gravity-diminished environment, or maybe it was a cup-shaped helium balloon… Better these explanations than a revision of the classical law of gravity because when we are confronted with a relatively shallow piece of evidence that apparently conflicts with a deep-rooted belief we will -presumably for reasons of epistemic economy- tend to try and find a way to discount the shallow evidence. Speaking of revising the law of gravity, one of the buzz-topics in physics has been ‘dark matter’. The flat rotation curves of galaxies can be regarded as shallow pieces of evidence that conflict with the deep-rooted belief that the law of gravity as it appears in Newtonian physics and in General Relativity is correct. Similarly, the Shroud can be regarded as a shallow piece of evidence that conflicts with the deep-rooted belief of many that the biblical account of Jesus’ death is false. Such is their commitment to classical physics, that many physicists would rather believe in the presence of a pervasive, but invisible and undetected substance than accept that the universe is governed by a different set of laws than those proposed by Newton and Einstein. And such is their commitment to an anti-Christian world-view that many skeptics would rather entertain the idea that the image on the Shroud was forged by Leonardo Da Vinci (who was born in 1452, 97 years after the first public presentation of the Shroud in 1335) than accept its authenticity. As indicated above, no such conflict exists for the Christian: he or she may find the idea that the Shroud is authentic to be appealing, but there is no tenet of Christianity that implies or even suggests its authenticity, and so no conflict arises from the possibility that it is a fake. Indeed many of the Shroud’s most ardent critics are Christians. John Calvin for example asked in his Treatise on Relics

How is it possible that those sacred historians, who carefully related all the miracles that took place at Christ’s death, should have omitted to mention one so remarkable as the likeness of the body of our Lord remaining on its wrapping sheet?”

For one thing, there is a Jewish taboo cornering the removal of grave-clothes from a tomb, for another, Jesus’ disciples were in a vulnerable position at this time, but a simple answer to Calvin’s query is that the image is a very faint negative that can only be seen from several meters away, the majority of whose features only became discernible 20 centuries later – it might be said the Shroud is a message that can be properly understood only by those living in the 20th and 21st centuries… Non-Christians are motivated to deny the authenticity of the Shroud in a way that Christians are not motivated to affirm it: if a non-Christian can’t deny the authenticity of the Shroud, then they must face the prospect that the gospels offer a true account of the life of Jesus, and this prospect is at very least a disquieting one. In particular, atheists will believe anything rather than believe in the resurrection. Their commitment to a world without resurrection runs so deep that they will concoct any story no matter how implausible. The most implausible -and the funniest- of these atheistic narratives I know of comes from another art historian, Thomas de Wesselow, who in 2012 published a book –The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Birth of Christianity– claiming that a) the image on the Shroud is an image of Jesus of Nazareth following his death by crucifixion formed by natural chemical processes, but more significantly that b) it was later used to fool the disciples into believing that Jesus had risen from the dead  (behold this negative, barely discernible discoloration in the shape of man, for it is the risen Christ):


Many physicists may be predisposed to a belief in dark matter for the innocent reason that they can’t think of any better theory than General Relativity. One of the pioneers of the discovery of the flat rotation curves -Vera Rubin- inclines to the idea that dark matter is a sign that the traditional 1/r^2 force law is modified at galactic scales:

If I could have my pick, I would like to learn that Newton’s laws must be modified in order to correctly describe gravitational interactions at large distances. That’s more appealing than a universe filled with a new kind of sub-nuclear particle.

There are strong indications however that Shroud-skeptics have dismissed the alternative for psychological reasons. Consider some typical responses to a newspaper article describing the work of a team headed by Dr Paolo Di Lazzaro who after a their series of tests decided that the image on the Shroud could only have been created by “some form of electromagnetic energy” such as a flash of light at short wavelength but that the energy required was too great for contemporary technology. I choose to quote the following comments because of the article’s unjustified use of the word ‘supernatural’ (Di Lazzaro’s team did not say that the image on the Shroud was produced by supernatural means, only that the probable means of production were such that it could not have been the work of a medieval forger):

“Has this work been peer-reviewed? Where is it published?”

“And they call these people scientists in Italy, do they? How quaint.”

“Galileo must be turning in his grave. I suspect the inquisition got to em.”

“Scientists ? hahahahahahaha
Since the Shroud has been radiocarbon dated independently by labs in Arizona, Oxford and Zurich with the result that the Shroud was made between 1260 and 1390 one has to assume that their theory is a tiny bit wrong …..
Or perhaps the fact that radiocarbon dating shows the Shroud to be a fake is another miracle ? Perhaps these “scientists” believe that God was not only using UV lasers but also removed C-14 isotopes from the Shroud ?”

“Sorry, This is junk science. Amazing they published. It is the total dose (intensity X time), not a one off ‘flash’.
Further, this rag was carbon dated to well after the time of the supposed death of the mythological son of an mythical construct, based upon Assyrian myths from 4500 years ago.
Probably a timely piece to encourage the decreasing numbers of ‘believers’..”

“I just spat out my morning corn flakes reading this tripe!
The corn flakes then formed a perfect image of Virgin and Child on my kitchen table.
It must be true – I’m off to church.”

“Meh! What is it with those nutbars? As the irrationality and absurdity of religion becomes increasingly obvious, they try to harness a tailored version of science to impress people. If their sky fairy really existed and wanted to give us a message, I’m sure it would have done so much more directly a long time ago.”

“Another story about more Jesus botherers and their pathetic ‘evidence’ of something that could be mistaken for being an unsupernatural event……and this indeed was another of those events. I’m sorry, but if you think Jesus was some real supernatural son of some creator of this universe, and that this creator used his magic powers to do this Shroud, then you are simply stupid.
Why should even the slightest bit of respect be given for any simpleton who believes this nonsense?”

The wording on these comments is suggestive, not of dispassionate contemplation, but of hatred and its parent emotion fear, emotions that are directed especially toward the idea of a world governed by quite different principles than the familiar everyday world with which their authors have been deceived into feeling comfortable with.