BEAST Goes to Church, Learns About Jesus’s Fake Do-Rag
A couple weeks ago I heard about a presentation at a local church. Some guy called Russ Breault (unfortunately not pronounced BRO!) was going to talk about the Shroud of Turin and how it was magic. Or something like that.
The cover of Jesus’s debut thrash metal album.
The Shroud of Turin is a linen cloth with the image of a person on it. Some Catholics claim the cloth was Jesus’s burial shroud and that God Photoshopped a .jpg of Jesus onto it as part of his resurrection.
One of the few cool things about living in this area is that the Center For Inquiry’s (CFI) world headquarters is right here near the North Campus of the University at Buffalo. So even though Buffalo’s a rotting medium-sized rust-belt city, we have a higher percentage of skeptics here. The lead paranormal investigator at CFI is a guy named Joe Nickell and he’s written a book on the Shroud of Turin, concluding that it’s a forgery from the Middle Ages. And it’s not blood on the cloth but paint. Also, it’s French. So take that, Christians.
I interviewed Nickell to prepare for writing about the event and maybe to ask a question or two at it. But in doing some research to prepare for the interview it quickly became clear that trying to change anyone’s mind on this stuff would kind of like convincing a creationist they’re wrong in 20 seconds. This Breault bro had spent the past quarter century building his career on giving talks about this piece of cloth. He’s armed with ad hoc rationalizations about as well as the Flat Earth Society. And he’s just as wrong as them, too.
One big problem for the Shroudies is that there’s a historical record of a forger’s confession. And he confessed to a bishop, who then relayed it to the Pope. Being true believers, they didn’t want dishonesty among their parishioners, so they denounced those who were using the shroud as part of a faith-healing scam.
Another problem is that there’s no real record of the shroud before the 14th century. It’s just not there. You get descriptions of burial cloths in the Gospel of John, but they’re different from how the shroud ended up. Then no record for 1,300 years, and suddenly it turns up and just happens to look like a painting of that part of the world in that particular era. Carbon-dated samples also pointed to the conclusion of it being a Medieval painting.
The funniest independent line of evidence against the shroud’s authenticity is that the “blood” on it is still red. That’s a neat trick seeing how blood stains darken pretty quickly. Much quicker than 2000 years, actually. Of course any hardcore believer could just handwave this and any other line of evidence that contradicts their preconceived notions as part of some supernatural intervention. God made the blood stay red to test our faith. God made the Carbon decay slower to test our faith. That sort of thing.
The weird part is that even though the shroud’s mostly a Catholic thing, this presentation was at a Lutheran church. So I didn’t even get the benefit of looking at the purdy paintings and decorations Catholics like to use to liven up their churches. It seems like Protestants borrowing from Catholics is becoming a thing now, especially when you combine this with the recent political freak-out over contraception. Most of Western New York is still hung over on Catholicism and alcohol from last weekend regardless of religious affiliation anyway, so whatever.
“Dudes, check this poster we got from the University Store!”
Breault started off his presentation with a hook about mysteries. There are lots of mysteries. Mysteries like Stonehenge and crop circles and the Pyramids at Giza. But the only thing mysterious about those things is why people are gullible enough to watch “documentaries” about them on the “History” Channel. Breault’s been on the “History” Channel, and seemed proud of it. The only thing more depressing than the insulting nature of his introduction is that none of the audience seemed to be insulted by it.
After that Breault started the more secular half of his talk. It was sprinkled with Christian platitudes and references to the Bible as if it were legitimate history, but for the most part it followed a pattern of argumentation I’d recognized from other fringe claims. Breault would hype up single dissenters from the Medieval forgery hypothesis and casually dismiss the consensus of the larger group of relevant experts. He started with a supernatural assumption and conformed the evidence to fit that assumption instead of forming a hypothesis based on raw data.
You get the same sort of thing with creationism and haunted houses and stuff like that. So I couldn’t go point by point and refute everything he said (for that you’d be better off reading Nickell or McCrone’s books on the shroud), but it all matched a formula lots of people use to cherry-pick data to make spurious points.
The second half of the talk was just straight-up preaching. He mixed up Bible passages with stills from The Passion of the Christ and called skeptics a bunch of Doubting Thomases who need to just believe even though his introduction included an admission that he couldn’t make a very strong case for the shroud’s authenticity using science. Like most purveyors of nonsense, Breault wanted to have it both ways. Whenever he felt his points were convincing, he was all like “What else you would need to believe in The Jesus?!?” But whenever problems arose for his case, suddenly it all became just a mystery.
There were two highlights for me. The first one was a PowerPoint slide with a picture of a plant which he was saying was probably the one used for Jesus’s crown of thorns. Next to that was an image of a part of the shroud which he claimed had an imprint of that same plant. He quickly moved his mouse over the uniform gray area and said, “Hey, do you see that outline?”
No, I didn’t see it. There wasn’t an outline there. In his book Nickell describes this comparison as similar to to seeing vivid images in Rorscharch tests. I thought it was worse than that. It was just a smudge of grayness. It’s no wonder he wanted to move on from that slide so quickly. I felt like standing up and screaming “BULLSHIT!” from my seat in the corner of the back pew, but some weird and misguided sense of politeness compelled me to sit down and shut up.
My personal Lord & Savior fights crime.
The other best part was during the Q&A, which probably only lasted 5 or so minutes. Someone asked how the shroud was kept in such great condition for nearly 500 years since the “history” (and I’m using that term in the sense of the “History” Channel) Breault laid out was a little light on the details of who actually had the shroud during that first half a millennium after Jesus blew his nose on it or whatever. Breault made a perfect I DUNNO LOL face and curtly replied that it must have been a miracle. It was yet another mystery.
It seems like Breault and his Shroudie friends had a completely different definition of mystery than the rest of us. For most of us, a mystery implies that there’s some aspect of our universe which we either don’t currently or can’t possibly understand. Does a multiverse exist? Is there life on other worlds? Will the Sabres ever win a Stanley Cup? These are real mysteries.
But for Breault, a mystery is just a point of data which contradicts his beliefs. It’s a twisted handicap he gives his own worldview when the facts don’t line up in the way in which he would like them. Maybe we should feel sorry for him since he’s missing out on the awe and wonder we experience when we contemplate real mysteries as well as the exhilaration we get when we fill in gaps of our knowledge.
Then again, he’s making a living off of bilking gullible people into thinking he has something to say worth saying. So fuck that guy.