Relics and Faith

Relics and Faith July 30, 2010

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.

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