Relics and Faith

Guest post by Peter Nothnagle

On June 30, someone stole a piece of the True Cross (you know the one I mean) that was enshrined in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. It had been kept in a small compartment in the base of a crucifix hanging on a wall in a chapel. Someone walked in, pried it open, and helped himself. That was a mean thing to do.

The faithful are very attached to their sacred relics. They see these bits of bone, cloth, vegetable matter, and globs of goo as links to the times, places and persons of their spiritual forebears. Many of these items are supposed to have had extraordinary powers in the past — raising the dead and so forth — although modern church leaders are much more modest in their claims.

The most famous relics have been the most studied — and study has cast serious doubt on their authenticity. Yet the faithful cling fiercely to the idea that they are authentic, as if the debunking of, say, the Shroud of Turin or the painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe would undermine their faith. As for the True Cross, according to tradition (which will have to suffice in place of history), it was discovered after torturing witnesses, some 300 years after the (alleged) Crucifixion, and then repeatedly captured by invaders, held for ransom, concealed, rediscovered, divided into tiny pieces to be distributed among visitors and dignitaries — none of which gives much confidence in the authenticity of any surviving fragments.

The Bible is the most popular relic of all. Most Christians cherish the Bible as the foundation of their faith, considering it divinely inspired, but the poor thing has been cobbled together from many traditions over the centuries, redacted, amended, translated from translations and copied from copies, and cannot be an accurate record of any one faith tradition. In the 21st century, we have powerful tools for the scientific examination of historical claims, and we know things that should shake the faith of anyone who ascribes any more than the vaguest, metaphorical “truth” to the stories in the Bible: there was no Creation, no Adam, no Eve, no Fall, no Flood, no Moses, no Exodus, and on and on. The fact that all those stories are flatly contradicted by science and history must lead any rational person to be suspicious of all the other tales of angels, miracles, prophetic utterances, and even unimportant details like genealogies and place names, unless independent evidence should corroborate them.

Eventually the penny will drop for the faithful. Everybody has experienced that the provenance of an object, or the veracity of a story, is subject to being falsified. Everybody understands that, to paraphrase biologist Jerry Coyne, you can’t be confident that you’re right about something unless you can tell if you’re wrong. When the faithful bolster their immaterial faith with evidence, they’re playing our game, and unbiased examination of the evidence has only gone one way — badly for the faithful.

There is only one true and honest way to have faith, and that is to ignore evidence — to abandon it, even to flee from it. To base one’s religious faith on evidence, even something as subjective as “I just feel in my heart that it’s true”, is to invite rational rebuttal, which should lead a sensible person to doubt.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • SteveC

    “There is only one true and honest way to have faith, and that is to ignore evidence — to abandon it, even to flee from it. To base one’s religious faith on evidence, even something as subjective as “I just feel in my heart that it’s true”, is to invite rational rebuttal, which should lead a sensible person to doubt.”

    Martin Luther could have written that, though he might have worded it a bit more strongly. ;)

    – steve

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    Huh. I never knew that the Christians knew the shroud of Turin to be fake, but I guess that makes a sort of sense. Why would they want to propagate an obvious hoax? Are they really so short-sighted that they don’t see how this could turn around and nip them in the ass? Why can’t they follow ol’ Popey’s example and IMPLY, but never say it to be genuine? Gah, Christians are weird.

  • http://onthewaytoithaca.wordpress.com EvanT

    A despicable act theft, for sure, but they needn’t worry. We can send them from Greece as much holy cross wood as they need. We produce it by the truckload :P

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    Stealing a piece of the True Cross (even if it’s extremely unlikely to be the real thing) was a really horrible thing to do.

    I love history, and I’m often amazed by historical artifacts, buildings, etc. They help me appreciate the past. I think believing in a fake history just prevents us from fully appreciating real history.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    Perhaps the theif is taking it back to the lab for analysis.

  • 2-D Man

    Since no one’s said it yet, I will.

    Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed;
    Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.
    - Tim Minchin

  • XPK

    “there was no Creation”

    There was. It’s called the Big Bang. I’m with you the entire rest of the way, Peter, but even I have to admit there is still the “vaguest ‘metaphorical’ truth” to that story from the Bible.

  • colluvial

    There is only one true and honest way to have faith, and that is to ignore evidence — to abandon it, even to flee from it.

    It doesn’t seem to me that believers ignore evidence – only evidence that goes against what they want to believe. Their infatuation with relics, supposed miracles, and toasted cheese sandwich virgins seems to demonstrate a desperate need to bolster their faith with whatever evidence they can get.

  • Wednesday

    Colluvial – Are the cheese sandwich manifestations really touted as evidence, though? It seems to me that they all begin with the assumption of a specific divine system, and are mostly an attempt to make money (either by having a relic for pilgrams to come see, or by selling it).

  • L.Long

    Their infatuation or lust for relics is a basic principle of most magical systems.
    The 1st 3 commandments make all relics an abomination in the sight of g0d, but their lustful belief in magic still keeps them violating there commandments and rationalizing it away because they must have the magic symbols. Every one of the top 5 religions and most all of the lower ones all have relics. Only a few cults have tried to succeed without relics of some sort but they remain very small–in fact I’m only assuming some exist. Even the amish, which is fairly un-relic-y, still has the buybull.
    Relics are another classic example of the HIPPO-crites saying the buybull (or whatever) is the word and law of g0d , then violating large parts of it.

    Oh, the piece of the cross was probably stolen by a black-wizard to use it powerful mojo in a spell. I don’t know if that is true but its as sensible as any other BS reason.


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