Mother Teresa to attain sainthood in September

March 15, 2016 • 12:00 pm

Yes, the Pope announced today that old fraud, Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, otherwise known as Mother Teresa, will ascend to the pantheon of Roman Catholic saints on September 4. As CNN reports:

In December, Francis announced that Mother Teresa would become a saint after recognizing a second miracle attributed to her: the healing of a Brazilian man with multiple brain tumors after loved ones prayed to her to heal him, the Italian Catholic bishops’ association’s official newspaper Avvenire reported. That miracle occurred after her death.

The nun was beatified in October 2003 by now deceased Pope John Paul II. He approved a first posthumous miracle.

A 30-year-old woman in Kolkata said she was cured of a stomach tumor after praying to Mother Teresa. A Vatican committee said it could find no scientific explanation for her healing and declared it a miracle.

Bojaxhiu died in 1997, after long opposing birth control (in India!), and having run a string of institutions where dying people were given Jesus instead of medicines. On top of that, at least one of the two miracles required for sainthood was a hoax. As I discussed in Faith Versus Fact, the “cure” of the Indian woman Monica Besra, supposedly afflicted with ovarian cancer that regressed after she looked at a picture of Bojaxhiu, was actually a cure of a tubercular tumor, and her doctor, who gave her conventional medical treatment, took the credit. I know nothing about the other “miracle” (a cancer as well), but of course some cancers spontaneously regress.

Never mind: the Church needs saints to keep feeding its supplicants. If you want to know what Bojaxhiu was really like, read Christopher Hitchens’s The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (great title!), or dig out the free 2013 paper (in French) by two Montreal researchers that pretty much comes to the same conclusion: Mother Teresa was a fraud, unworthy of even an encomium. (I have a summary in English here.)


Parade Magazine publishes uncritical article about (goddy) miracle cures

March 14, 2016 • 11:30 am
Reader Leon alerted me to a Parade Magazine article in the online Denver Post, “Do you believe in miracles?” (The answer, by the way, is “You SHOULD!”) Parade is the nation’s most widely-circulated magazine (32 million), as it appears each Sunday in over 700 U.S. newspapers. Because of its reach, Carl Sagan used to write for Parade, and good stuff it was, too.
Now, however, the magazine has descended pandering to the faithful, and it’s no coincidence that the article, uncritically touting miracles, was written by Katy Koontz, editor of Unity Magazine, a “spiritual” rag (click on the screenshot if your stomach is strong today):
The highlight of the piece is the story of Annabel Beam, a 9-year-old Texas girl who had two serious illnesses (pseud-obstruction motility disorder and antral hypomotility disorder) that could have killed her, and forced her to take 10 drugs daily. The quality of her life was abysmal.
But then The Miracle happened. Climbing up a hollow cottonwood tree, Annabel fell 30 feet into the hollow trunk, was rescued after several hours, and was helicoptered to the hospital. Amazingly, she was uninjured. Even more amazingly, her two disorders completely disappeared, and four years later she’s doing perfectly well.
That’s the miracle, and though I can’t explain it, we don’t see falls like that restore missing eyes and limbs; the only diseases that get “miraculously” cured are those known to have spontaneous remissions.
Nevertheless, Annabel’s parents, Christy and Kevin Beam, see this as a God-given miracle, and, apparently, so does Hollywood. Annabel’s story is coming out as a movie this week, “Miracles from Heaven” starring Jennifer Garner. (Garner has apparently found religion again.) Have a gander at the trailer:
The rest of the Parade article basically touts miracles, totally uncritically. As reader Leon noted in his email, the article is instructive:
It’s a good read to test out one’s ability to identify various fallacies:  “God of the Gaps”, “God who tweaks the universe,” “God who unpredictably-selectively-arbitrarily-capriciously intervenes,”  “comfirmation bias,” to name but a few.
But it’s also a sad article, for it panders to the credulous. Two excerpts:

If it’s true that eight in 10 Americans believe in miracles—a statistic from a Pew Research Center study—there will be plenty of ticket buyers. Although more religious Americans believe than the nonreligious, more than half of those unaffiliated with a particular faith still say miracles are possible. In fact, belief in miracles is on the rise, according to best-selling author Marianne Williamson, known for her teachings on the Foundation for Inner Peace’s popular spiritual tome A Course in Miracles.

“People are evolving beyond strict adherence to a rationalistic worldview,” she says. “Quantum physics, spiritual understanding and a more holistic perspective in general have come together to produce a serious challenge to old-paradigm, mechanistic thinking.” In other words: “People know there’s more going on in this life than just what the physical eyes can see.”

Another equation of quantum mechanics with God! The article also mentions several books we’re familiar with, without adding that at least one of them, by Eben Alexander appears completely fraudulent. (To its credit, though, Parade notes that another “heaven visit” book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. was a hoax (see my post on its retraction.)

If the New York Times best-seller lists are any proof, people are choosing the age of miracles. Two best-selling books published last year—Imagine Heaven by John Burke and Touching Heaven by Chauncey Crandall, M.D.—each share stories of near-death experiences. In 2012, a trio of best-sellers (two by medical doctors) recounted miraculous (i.e., unexplainable) personal experiences. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven tells how the neurosurgeon conversed with what he calls “the divine source of the universe” while in a coma caused by acute bacterial meningitis. Just when doctors were beginning to give up on him, his eyes popped open. Today, he’s completely healthy. Previously, the former Harvard Medical School faculty member believed near-death experiences were medically impossible.

In Dying to Be Me, Anita Moorjani says she learned life-changing spiritual truths while in a coma following a nearly four-year battle with cancer. Moorjani woke up—and was cancer-free when she left the hospital, just weeks after the day doctors told her family she would die.

While kayaking in southern Chile, orthopedic surgeon Mary C. Neal was pinned underwater for more than 15 minutes and drowned. Before she was resuscitated on the riverbank, she says she spoke with angels. In To Heaven and Back, she calls her accident “one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.”

This, of course, raises the age-old question of theodicy: why was Annabel cured while thousands of other sick children die? Is God that capricious? The Beams don’t know:

Why was Annabel healed while countless others haven’t been? “It’s not that God loves her any more than he loves them. It’s not that our family has done anything to deserve a miracle,” Kevin reasons. “This whole experience is just so phenomenally humbling because I remember that desperation of being a parent who would do anything to see my child get better. We experienced that miracle, but I also realize that not everybody will—and those are questions I don’t have a good answer for.”

Maybe the “good answer” is that they aren’t really God-driven miracles, but spontaneous—or, in this case, trama-induced—remissions. One things for sure: the article’s author doesn’t even entertain a naturalistic possibility. Carl Sagan would be appalled.

The Beam family. Photo credit: Marc Morrison

Mother Teresa gets her second miracle, now on the fast track to sainthood

December 18, 2015 • 11:30 am

The Big News this morning is that Pope Francis has, miraculously, come across another miracle performed by Mother Teresa—or rather by her spirit. This gives her the second miracle she needs to go beyond beatification to full canonization, becoming Saint Teresa. The Vatican clearly put the old fraud on the fast-track to sainthood ever since she died, and now they get their chance. In the old days, it took decades or centuries from candidacy to canonization, but now, trying to court popular sentiment, the Vatican has accelerated the process.

But remember that even Mother Teresa’s first miracle was totally bogus. As I wrote in Faith Versus Fact:

The Vatican itself, which requires a miracle to beatify someone, and two miracles to make them a saint, is none too scrupulous about the medical evidence needed to elevate someone to the pantheon. The beatification of Mother Teresa, for instance, was the supposed disappearance of ovarian cancer in Monica Besra, an Indian woman who reported she was cured after looking at a picture of the nun. It turns out, though, that her tumor wasn’t cancerous but tubercular, and, more important, she’d received conventional medical treatment in a hospital, with her doctor (who wasn’t interviewed by the Vatican) taking credit for the cure.

(See also the objections of Indian rationalists to this “evidence.”)

Now, just in time for Christmas, the Pope has recognized a second miracle. The BBC reports:

Pope Francis has recognised a second miracle attributed to Mother Teresa, clearing the way for the Roman Catholic nun to be made a saint next year.

The miracle involved the healing of a Brazilian man with several brain tumours in 2008, the Vatican said.

Mother Teresa died in 1997 and was beatified – the first step towards sainthood – in 2003.

. . . “The Holy Father has authorised the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to proclaim the decree concerning the miracle attributed to the intercession of blessed Mother Teresa,” the Vatican said on Friday.

She is expected to be canonised in Rome in September.

. . . There are few details about the recovery of the Brazilian man, whose life the Vatican says was saved in the second miracle.

His identity has not been disclosed to maintain the discretion needed for the investigation, the Catholic New Agency has said.

It says he was unexpectedly cured from brain tumours in 2008 after his priest prayed for Mother Teresa’s intervention with God.

Well, before Agnes Bojaxhiu can be elevated to the Heavenly Pantheon, she has to be vetted, including examination by the genuine “Devil’s Advocate,” who militates against making her a saint. It was Christopher Hitchens who did that when Bojaxhiu was up for beatification, as described in this article.

But the procedure is not an objective examination of the miracles and saint-worthiness of Mother Teresa; it’s a pure put-up job. We can see that because the Vatican already says she’ll be a saint within a year. I wouldn’t bet against that!

The Church is none too scrupulous about these “miracles,” of course. They decide in advance that someone will become a saint, like the popular John Paul II, and then, if you look hard enough, you’ll find people willing to come forward to provide the requisite two “miracles.” It’s not even close to an objective, scientific procedure.

Even if there were no natural explanation for these “miracles,” usually involving the disappearance of a disease, isn’t it odd that those diseases happen to be the ones that can show spontaneous remission anyway? Nobody gets canonized for helping legs or eyes grow back. And in the case of Mother Teresa’s first miracle, the “remission” occurred after medical treatment, and the disease was misdiagnosed anyway.

Catholics should be ashamed of themselves for buying into this bogus vetting of saints. For, after all, this is not just an earthly honor, for sainthood is not supposed to be bestowed on an individual by the Church, but recognized as a special sign of holiness and God’s favor. And once you’re a saint, you have special access to God, and therefore praying to saints gives one a hotline to the divine.

What a foolish idea, and one made more foolish by the purely subjective decision that it takes at least two miracles to confer—excuse me, recognize—sainthood, and by the arbitrary and tendentious way these miracles are recognized.


h/t: Matthew Cobb

Pope Francis endorses the fake Shroud of Turin

November 29, 2014 • 11:18 am

The Shroud of Turin, which is revered by many Catholics as the real cloth that covered Jesus’s body after his crucifixion, is of course a fake. First, have a look at it again. You can see the image of Jesus in both fore and aft views, his hands covering his genitals.



The first record of the shroud is in 1355, and it’s been revered ever since (though not officially endorsed by the Catholic Church) as a miracle, like the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe that supposedly appeared on a cloak in Mexico in 1531 (I’ve seen it). The Shroud reposes in the Cathedral of Turin, and is occasionally exhibited to the faithful. (This will happen again next year.)

The image has degenerated substantially over the centuries. We know this because there are a fair number of paintings from centuries ago showing what it looked like. The degradation is due to its repeated unfurling and exhibition, which would crack and flake the paint, in addition to the fact (revealed in the article I’ll cite in a second) that in past times it was customary for supplicants to hurl their rosaries at the shroud and then recover them.

But we know the Shroud is a fake for several reasons. Carbon dating of the linen cloth (in three separate labs) has placed its manufacture between 1260 and 1390, which (if you know dating) is the time at which the flax plants furnishing the cloth would have been harvested, no longer absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Further, an Italian scientist managed to reproduce the Shroud by using materials that would have been available during the Middle Ages.

The other reasons for fakery (not fraudulence, as it apparently wasn’t designed to deceive people) are given in a very nice article by the historian Charles Freeman that just appeared in History Today, “The origins of the shroud of Turin.” (It’s free online.) I recommend that you read it, as it’s a fascinating summary of what we know about the shroud.

The other reasons for fakery are these:

  • The shroud is covered with gesso (calcium carbonate; ground-up chalk), which was used as a ground for painting. If it was the miraculous imprint of Jesus on a burial shroud, there would be no reason for the gesso.
  • As Freeman notes, the nature of the cloth itself bespeaks a medieval origin:

“Circumstantial evidence also comes from the nature of the weave. Linen has been woven from 6,000 bc and herringbone weave has been known in Sweden from as early as the second millennium bc. However, three-in-one weave, in which the weft threads go under one thread of the warp and then over the next three, is very rare, with few examples earlier than the silk damasks of the third century ad. No three-in-one herringbone linen weave has ever been discovered from an ancient site, let alone one that has been preserved in such excellent condition as the Shroud. The only surviving example of a three-in-one herringbone twill in linen other than the Shroud is to be found in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. It consists of two fragments of a block-printed stole or maniple. The print has been dated to the 14th century, confirming that this pattern of weave was known then.”

Freeman adds that there are cotton fibers mixed haphazardly in with the linen, probably the result of cotton in the air that was being spun or woven nearby and landed on the shroud as it was being produced. But cotton and flax weren’t processed in the same sites until medieval times, giving further evidence for a late production of the Shroud.

  • As Freeman notes, the position of the fore-and-after figures of Jesus don’t correspond:

“What can we say about the painting on the Shroud? The images are crude and limited in tone. They show none of the expertise of the great painters of the 14th century, who, even on linen, were capable of mixing a variety of pigments into rich colours. The join of the head and the shoulders on the frontal image is particularly inept. Although the artist did try to reproduce images that might have touched a crucified body and left a mark, the two images are not even simultaneous representations of the same body. This can be seen from the arms as they are shown in the early depictions. If you lie on the ground and place your elbows in the same position as those on the back image of the Shroud, you can quickly see that it is impossible to hold the position of the crossed arms in the front. There is a difference of seven centimetres between the lengths of the two bodies. Then again the heads do not meet, suggesting that this was not a cloth that was ever folded over an actual head. A cloth laid on a body would pick up its contours, but there is no sign of this. Again, the hair of the body would have fallen back if the figure had been lying down but the blood is as if it is trickling down the hair of a standing figure. In short, it appears to be a painting made by an artist whose only concession to his subject is to imagine that this is a negative impression of the body (as shown by the wound on the chest being on the left of the image in contrast to the conventional right, as seen in the Holkham crucifixion scene) that had been transferred to the cloth.”

  • Finally, the image changed over the year. In 1355 to at least 1559, Jesus was naked, with his hands covering his genitals. But in 1578, as Freeman notes, reproductions show it with a loincloth over Jesus’s groin and butt. Clearly there were some prudes, possibly the Bishop of Milan, who were distressed at the exposure of the Saviour’s bum.  The loincloth later disappeared, though there’s still a white patch on the Shroud showing where it was.

Here’s part of an engraving by Tempestra in 1613, clearly showing the shroud with the loincloth on Jesus (click to enlarge):


I highly recommend Freeman’s piece, which is loaded with history, science, and scholarship, but written for a popular audience. It does go easy on religion, saying clearly that the Catholic Church never recognized the Shroud as authentic, but considers it an “object of veneration”: a religious piece that is simply supposed to inspire people to muse about Christ’s Passion.

But it’s not as simple as that, for several Popes, and the Church itself, have never explicitly admitted it’s a fake—a mere painting rather than some divine imprint of Jesus. Rather, as is its wont, the Church stays mum, refusing to take a strong stand on its authenticity. They clearly want to have their cake and eat it too, saying it’s an “object of veneration” so they won’t look stupid because science has debunked its authenticity, but nevertheless still hinting that, somehow, it might be a real relic of Jesus.

We can see that in a recent news article by Inés San Martin on the Catholic Crux website describing how Pope Francis will venerate the Shroud when it’s exhibited in Turin between April 24 and June 24 of next year. (The Pope will visit on June 21.)

All three recent popes have been careful not to pronounce definitively on the authenticity of the shroud, generally referring to it as an “icon” that inspires genuine faith regardless of its historical origins.

“The pope comes as a pilgrim of faith and of love,” said Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia of Turin, papal custodian of the Shroud, during a Vatican news conference Wednesday to announce the pope’s trip next June.

“Like his predecessors did, Pope Francis confirms the devotion to the shroud that millions of pilgrims recognize as a sign of the mystery of the passion and death of the Lord,” Nosiglia said.

Is that a weasel statement or what? The last paragraph simply vindicates the many people who not only see this as a “sign of the mystery of the passion and death of the Lord,” but see it as a relic of the passion and death of the Lord.

In view of the multifarious evidence, the Church really should say that it was a medieval painting that could not have been Jesus’s burial shroud. But they won’t do that; it would turn off the supplicants who think it’s real.  Indeed, even the Crux article casts doubt on the dating methods:

A radiocarbon dating test performed in 1988 over small samples of the icon by three laboratories, at the universities of Oxford and Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, concurred that the samples they tested dated from the Middle Ages, between 1260 and 1390.

Other scientists, however, believe those results could be off by centuries, pointing to the possibility of bacterial contamination of the cloth. They note, for instance, that burial shrouds for Egyptian pharaohs sometimes test to centuries later than their known age for precisely that reason.

Hogwash! As we’ve seen, the debunking of the shroud rests on far more than just carbon dating, and the pieces from the Shroud were cleaned and dated in three separate labs, all giving roughly consonant dates. And if it’s bacteria, how come all that bacterial carbon got into the shroud in the Middle Ages, and none since then?

It hasn’t helped that the Popes keep visiting the damn thing, keeping alive the belief that it’s genuine. As Crux notes:

Despite the controversies, Pope Benedict XVI visited the shroud during its last public exhibition in 2010, and St. John Paul II did so three times: in 1998, in 1980, and in 1978, months before the conclave that elected him pope.

During the first days of his pontificate, Francis referred to the disfigured face depicted in the Holy Shroud as “all those faces of men and women marred by a life which does not respect their dignity, by war and violence which afflict the weakest …”

Now why would the Popes keep making pilgrimages to something that’s just a painting?

Catholics must have their miracles, even in the face of counterevidence. Just once I’d like to hear the Church declare unequivocally that the Shroud is simply a painting from the 14th century or so. And I’d also like to hear them say that Adam and Eve weren’t the historical ancestors of all humanity. (Genetic studies have disproven a two-person ancestry.) But it will be a cold day in July (in Chicago) when that happens!

Michael Nugent kicks butt on miracles

November 25, 2014 • 7:17 am

Here are two clips from a recent debate in Ireland on miracles, especially the so-called “miracle cures” that supposedly occur at Lourdes, France and similar shrines. On a panel of faitheists, priests, and advocates of the divine, Michael Nugent, head of Atheist Ireland, holds his own against the existence of miracles in an intellectually hostile but civil milieu. He’s the only one who even questions these superstitions.

I recommend watching the entire debate (the second clip), if for no other reason than to see the grasp that faith still holds on Ireland, even among doctors and t.v. presenters.

YouTube gives details of the debate:

Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland debates miracles on RTE’s Spirit Level with host Joe Duffy, Fr Richard Gibbons, parish priest at Knock, Louise Hall, author of a book on Medjegorje, and Dr Michael Moran, a member of the Lourdes medical miracle assessment committee.

The first short clip shows Nugent (who apparently has done his homework) taking down the efficacy of visiting Lourdes. The statistics on rates of spontaneous cancer remission (higher than the cure rate at Lourdes!) were new to me. If you don’t have 26 minutes to watch the second clip, at least watch this 1.3 minutes of takedown:

The second, longer clip (which includes the first) shows everybody but Nugent at least holding out the possibility that visiting Lourdes (or its equivalent in Ireland, Knock) really can cure you. Note that the priest says that cures “are not a matter of statistics,” which of course is bogus. How else can you show that visiting Lourdes will help your malady? But several of the faith-osculators say, “You really have to visit it for yourself.” They argue that you can’t suss out the true efficacy of this place until you go there and “encounter the divine.” Somehow the “atmosphere of calmness, energy, and spirutually” is a substitute for real evidence of God.

Doctor Moran is an annoying waffler. When Nugent asks him, “Do you believe that Muhammad split the Moon in two?”, the doctor, an apparent believer, replies, “I don’t really have much of a background in Islam, to be honest, so I don’t know.”  And yet the doctor calls himself a scientist. The proper scientific answer would be “we have no evidence for Moon-splitting.” (One Muslim woman says that this claim isn’t part of the Qur’an, but it is (see the link above).

Here’s the full video (recommended by Professor Ceiling Cat):

Nugent gives another eloquent answer when the obviously biased presenter asks the panel at 20:23, “Would you knock Knock?” Nugent asserts that atheists can indeed have a sense of community and meaning, and that the notion that religion gives us morality is a “con,” as are miracles themselves. Father Gibbons does not look happy. Nugent goes on to ask a good question, “If you attribute the cures to God, why don’t you attribute the diseases to God?” None of the believers have an answer, of course.

Thank God (can I say that?) for people like Nugent, who provided a genial smackdown of the tawdry Catholic trade of miracles in a land where that trade is still big business. But at least the discussion is being had in public, on television, and they do include an atheist. I’m always in favor of atheists like Nugent—those who really make a difference in this world.

More “miracles” with the Malaysian jet

March 11, 2014 • 9:14 am

It’s a common atheist trope to call out those people who, after a tragedy, say that those who survived were spared by God, or that such survivals were “miraculous”.

In fact, such criticism has become so common that it’s almost a cheap shot, and yet it’s still worth pointing out the hypocrisy implicit in asserting loudly that survivors were spared by God while not mentioning that, by the same token, those who died must have been killed by God. The reason to mention such things is that they reveal not only how common faith is, but how inconsistently it’s applied. I say this not to cheapen the horrible pain experienced by the friends and family of the missing, but to suggest that perhaps it’s palliative to know that these deaths were not God’s decision, but the inevitable vagaries of a natural world. The answer to “why me?” is simply “shit happens.”

So two items about the missing Malaysia flight 370, which almost certainly has crashed without survivors.

First, according to WBRC News in Birmingham, Alabama (I also heard this on NBC News last night), a man who almost boarded the doomed flight is attributing his survival to God:

A man with a ticket for the lost plane to Malaysia called a last-minute decision not to board an act of God.

Greg Candelaria works in global technology services, which requires him to frequently fly around the world.

He planned to board Flight 370 for business and then meet his daughter, who is in China wrapping up the adoption process for her child.

“I think this is a God thing,” Candelaria said. “I don’t think it’s coincidence. Part of my motivation was to fly over there on business and meet my daughter and my new granddaughter.”

Company policy mandated Candelaria fly back to Houston for the flight to Asia instead of his original plan to fly from Spain.

If all had gone as planned, he would have been on the Beijing-bound Flight 370 that vanished this past weekend.

Has anybody ever asked one of these exultant survivors if they think that the deaths were also “a God thing”? I’d be curious how they’d answer.

Finally, reader Chris sent me a link to the MSN News “picture of the day” about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. The caption is this:

A sand sculpture in a beach in Puri, India, wishes for the well-being of the passengers of a missing Malaysian Airlines flight.



I find that ineffably sad in two ways.

The Shroud of Turin: why religion is a pseudoscience

February 20, 2014 • 10:32 am

A recent article by Carpinteri et al. (no link or free download, but judicious inquiry may yield you a pdf) demonstrates the two ways that religion is a pseudoscience.  The first is that it relies on empirical claims to buttress its dogma. While Sophisticated Theologians™ may argue that God is beyond all evidence, being some imperceptible and numinous “thing” that can neither be defined nor seen as interacting with the cosmos, that’s not what believers think.  So, for example, claims that Jesus was born of a virgin, died, was resurrected, or that Mohammad went to heaven on a horse, or that Joseph Smith received the golden plates in New York and translated them, or that 75 million years ago Xenu loaded his alien minions onto planes resembling DC-8s, or that there is an afterlife, and that good people go to Heaven, or that God hears and answers prayers, and is benevolent and all-powerful, are claims about the way the world is. And many of those claims are testable, though all have been refuted. In the prescientific era, these claims constituted a sort of science.

But as real science arose in the 15th and 16th centuries, and began eroding religion’s claims, religion began turning into a pseudoscience. That is, it still made empirical claims, but immunized itself against refutation of those claims using a variety of devices—the same devices used by other forms of pseudoscience like ESP, UFOlogy, homeopathy, and astrology. These include arguing that the propositions themselves are untestable, using poor standards of evidence (including reliance on “revelation” as a “way of knowing”), reliance on a priori personal biases that are not to be tested but merely confirmed, refusing to consider alternative hypotheses, and engaging in special pleading when religious tenets are disconfirmed.

We can see all of these—but especially in the last—in a paper by A. Carpinteri et al. on the Shroud of Turin, a paper that’s gotten a lot of publicity. It’s an attempt to defend scientific radio-carbon dating of the Shroud, which showed it to be a medieval forgery, by special pleading invoking earthquakes.

First, a short review. You almost surely know that the Shroud of Turin is a sheet of linen in a cathedral in Turin, Italy, bearing the likeness of a man who is said to be Jesus. The cloth is, indeed, supposed to be the burial shroud of Jesus. Here’s what it looks like: the image is much clearer in negative form than as a positive. Here’s the body (pictures from Wikipedia; there are actually two images on the shroud, as if the body had been enfolded):


The face in negative and positive:


Although scientists and artists aren’t yet sure how the image was made (it appears to include AB blood, suggesting, since Mary was a virgin, that God carried either an A or a B Landsteiner allele (or both), but what is not in dispute is that radiocarbon dating of the linen shroud by three independent labs puts the date at between 1000 AD to 1260 AD. In other words, the shroud was medieval, and could not have been Jesus’s burial shroud.

While religionists have raised numerous reasons why the dating could be wrong—foremost among them is the claim that the dated sample was taken from a piece of cloth used to patch the shroud much later—none of these appear credible. The Vatican itself takes no position on the authenticity of the shroud, which of course means that believers are free to think the Church thinks it could be real.

Science has thus debunked this as Jesus’s shroud.  But religionists, in their pseudoscientific way, won’t give up.  They have now raised a new ad hoc hypothesis to explain why the dating was wrong—earthquakes! To be specific, an earthquake occurring after Jesus’s body was wrapped produced a bunch of neutrons by shaking up the rocks. Those neutrons were captured by Nitrogen-14 to produce Carbon-14, the parent material used in radiometric dating. (This is in fact how Carbon-14 is formed in the atmosphere.) But Carbon-14 also degenerates back to nitrogen by emitting an electron. Carbon 12, the more common isotope of carbon, does not decay. Since a carbon-containing sample will have, when it is made or when its possessor died (like an old piece of wood), the same ratio of Carbon-14 to Carbon-12 present in the atmosphere at the time of manufacture or death, the Carbon-14 will gradually decay (no more carbon can be absorbed from the atmosphere). At the end, if we know the rate at which Carbon-14 decays (its half-life is 5720 years), we can estimate the age of a sample by simply measuring the ratio of C-14/C-12.

You can see, then, that if a sample were to somehow be able to be infused with extra Carbon-14 after it died or was manufactured, it would look younger than it was: as if the original amount of radiometric carbon had not sufficiently decayed to give it a lower and time-appropriate C-14/C-12 ratio.

And that is what Carpinteri et al. suggest: an earthquake around the time of Jesus’s death (33 A.D.) caused a huge emission of neutrons; those neutrons were captured by the nitrogen in the shroud, producing a higher level of C-14 than would have been there if the shroud were really made at the time of Jesus. That, in turn, would make the shroud look younger than it really was. In other words, they’re suggesting the original dating was wrong because the assumption (that no C-14 had gotten into the shroud) was violated by a big earthquake.

Oh, and they also suggest that neutron capture, presumably by the body, would have produced the image, though there’s no reason, scientifically, to think that an image could be produced by that.

Although there is evidence that some earthquakes can transitorily release substantial amounts of neutrons into the atomosphere, there are three scientific problems with this hypothesis.

1. The evidence for an earthquake is thin. The authors cite four sources. The first is Thallos, a historian in Rome who wrote about 50 A.D., and whose works mention Jesus as well as an earthquake and a solar eclipse that happened during the Crucifixion. This evidence is not credible (there was no solar eclipse then), and Biblical scholars no longer accept Thallos’s quoted words as evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

The second is the Gospel of Matthew, which also mentions an earthquake when Jesus died. Needless to say, this is not independent evidence, and the other Gospels don’t mention an earthquake.  Why not? If it had happened, wouldn’t all the Gospels have mentioned it?

The third source is Joseph of Arimathea, who, according to the Gospels, donated his own future tomb to Jesus. His “narrative,” a non-canonical Gospel that mentions an earthquake, is not accepted by scholars as independent evidence for the historicity of Jesus; indeed, I can find no credible evidence that this Joseph even lived.

Finally, Carpinteri et al. cite, of all people, Dante’s Inferno (XXI, Canto: 106-114) as mentioning a big earthquake, but who would possibly think that that is independent evidence for an earthquake, since Dante wrote this 13 centuries after Jesus supposedly lived and was, of course, basing much of his poem on the Bible. The authors fail to cast any doubt on the credibility of these sources.

2. There is no evidence that neutron emission during an earthquake could alter the C-14 content of a shroud. This, of course, could be tested in laboratory experiments, but the authors didn’t do it.

3. The alteration of the amount of C14 in the shroud would have to be sufficient to make it look sufficiently pre-modern, but not too young. In fact, the first accepted mention of the Shroud happens to be 1390, pretty close to the time when it was radiocarbon dated. If there was more C-14 generated by the earthquake, it would make it look like it dated from, say, 1600 or later, which wouldn’t comport with the historical records.  So the earthquake managed to give it a false data that happens to correspond to its first mention. That’s too much of a coincidence, and the authors don’t mention this.

4. There is no known way that an earthquake could, by neutron emission, produce an image of a body on a shroud. The authors don’t deal with this, either.

The Carpinteri paper is thus a confection of unlikely and untested hypotheses, all assembled to try to save the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin as the true burial cloth of Jesus. It is not a piece of science, but a piece of apologetics.

Nevertheless, it’s been uncritically accepted in some venues. Take a look at the February 11 article in the Telegraph, “Turin Shroud may have been created by earthquake from time of Jesus.” It presents the theory, and offers not a single piece of counterevidence, nor a single dissenting scientist (and there are some), casting doubt on the thesis. This can be attributed to shoddy journalism, to a credulous or lazy journalist (Sarah Knapton), to a desire to placate a public hungry for evidence that Jesus really lived, or all of these factors. What is certain is that the Carpinteri et al. paper is deeply flawed, is not objective science but advocacy, and has been reported uncritically by the press. I’m just a lowly website writer who spent an hour reading the paper and an hour writing this piece and looking stuff up. Why couldn’t Knapton do the same thing?

Indeed, even Wikipedia does a better job than the popular press, and points out something that Ms. Knapton should have known: Carpinteri is the editor of the journal that published this flawed paper. What does that say about the review process? As Wikipedia notes:

A team of researchers from the Politecnico di Torino, led by Professor Alberto Carpinteri (and published in the journal Meccanica, where same Alberto Carpinteri is currently the acting Editor-in-Chief, believe that if a magnitude 8.2 earthquake occurred in Jerusalem in 33 AD, it may have released sufficient radiation to have increased the level of carbon-14 isotopes in the shroud, which could skew carbon dating results, making the shroud appear younger.This hypothesis has been questioned by other scientists, including a radiocarbon-dating expert. The underlying science is widely disputed, and funding for the underlying research has been withdrawn by the Italian government after protests and pressure from more than 1000 Italian and international scientists. Dr REM Hedges, of the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit of the University of Oxford, states that “the likelihood that [neutron irradiation] influenced the date in the way proposed is in my view so exceedingly remote that it beggars scientific credulity.” Raymond N. Rogers conducted various tests on linen fibers, and concluded that “the current evidence suggests that all radiation-based hypotheses for image formation will ultimately be rejected.”

Of course none of this counterevidence will shake the faithful, who will still see the Shroud as authentic, and will come in droves to pay homage when the Shroud has one of its rare showings. Like believers in homeopathy or ESP (or, now, Adam and Eve), they continue to hold their faith despite all scientific counterevidence.


Carpinteri, A., G. Lacidogna, and O. Borla. 2014. Is the Shroud of Turin in relation to the Old Jerusalem historical earthquake? Meccanica DOI 10.1007/s11012-013-9865-x

A miracle cheesecake in Arizona

December 26, 2013 • 10:08 am

In a short piece calledHoly sighting on Scottsdale cheesecake,” reports one of the loonier miracles I’ve heard of  It’s not even the face of Jesus on the cheesecake, either, but simply a cross.  There’s a video on the site, whose entire narration is below (I love the “objective journalism” of the last sentence):

“A family makes a cheesecake for the holiday season, and when it was cooling off, it formed a crucifix. Is this a simple crust-cracking, or is this actually Jesus Christ coming back and showing support for this family’s religious beliefs?”

Here’s a screenshot from the video. Are you convinced? If it was Jesus, why did he come back in a cheesecake instead of appearing as a person to the family and saying “I am Jesus Christ, and I approve of your beliefs”? He could then produce many cheesecakes from the single one—enough to feed all of Scottsdale.

Screen shot 2013-12-26 at 6.53.41 AM

The site adds:

“Family members say they won’t be eating the cheesecake. Instead they plan on selling it and donating the money to a local charity or church.”

People on eBay will eat this up.

Why are there miracles for Africans but not Americans?

April 6, 2013 • 10:03 am

Inquiring minds want to know. All over Africa, the Lord performs miracles on a regular basis, including healing of the blind and lame—and even resurrections! But here in the U.S.? Not so much. In fact, beyond the quotidian Jesuses in tortillas and tree stumps, I haven’t heard of a good old-fashioned miracle in ages. No Fatimas, no sun spinning and dancing in the sky, no amputees with regrown limbs.

On the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pat Robertson explains why. It’s because Americans are too sophisticated, scientific, and secular. God does miracles only for the “simple and humble” people who live “overseas.” Watch and laugh:

The transcript of Robertson’s words below is taken from a short essay in The Atlantic by Heather Horn, “Why are there so few resurrected corpses in the United States?

Cause people overseas didn’t go to Ivy League schools! [chuckles] Well, we’re so sophisticated. We think we’ve got everything figured out. We know about evolution, we know about Darwin, we know about all these things that say god isn’t real. We know about all this stuff and if we’ve been in many schools, the more advanced schools, we have been inundated with skepticism and secularism. And overseas they’re simple, humble, you tell them God loves them and they say “okay he loves me.” And you tell them God will do miracles and they say “okay, we believe you.” And that’s what God’s looking for. That’s why they have miracles.

What an incredibly pretentious and condescending piece of tripe!  I’d belabor it but, really, attacking Pat Robertson no longer counts as serious criticism of religion. The man is simply addlepated, good for a few laughs but that’s about it. Does any religious person still take him seriously?

In fact, Robertson’s argument is the wrong way round. Presumably God should perform more miracles in the U.S. to convince all those sophisticated nonbelievers of His existence.  But Robertson unwittingly gave the real answer to his question in his last three sentences. Credulity.

Heather Horn shows why Robertson’s data are in fact wrong:

I suspect United States is in fact ahead of the African nations in bringing the dead back to life. It’s hard to find a good estimate of how many bodies are resurrected in the U.S. each year, but let’s go with this vastly oversimplified figure: 92,000. 92,000 is the number of people the American Heart Association estimates are saved in the U.S. each year after their hearts or their lungs have stopped moving, i.e. by CPR. Or let’s go with a percentage: 45.3%. That’s the success rate in the bottom-quarter of American hospitals in a 2012 study in restoring circulation to a body whose heart has completely flatlined. 14.5% of the bodies treated managed leave the hospital. And that’s in the hospitals with the lowest performance. Wait till you see American rates for getting the lame to walk and the blind to see.
Horn reaches an accommodationist conclusion: faith and science should work hand in hand, and Robertson should give God some credit for those people revived by CPR, and for the curing of polio and leprosy.  Horn doesn’t realize, though, that then he’d also have to give God credit for killing all the people in the Indonesian and Japanese tsunamis.
There are only 9 comments at the Atlantic site; here’s one:
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The enigmatic ways of God

January 6, 2013 • 9:02 am

Thanks Ceiling Cat that guest poster Sigmund is back after a hiatus, and forwarded me two items from the American news. The first, from CNN, involves the reaction of a woman who survived the crash of a small plane into her house.  Although she emerged unscathed, all three people on board were killed.

(CNN) — The woman who scrambled to safety after a small plane crashed into her Florida home gave thanks to God on Saturday for allowing her to escape without a scratch and for keeping her family safe.

Susan Crockett stood in front of her one-story Palm Coast home, which now has a huge black hole where the four-seater plane went down Friday afternoon, killing all three people aboard.

“God is good. He really is,” Crockett told reporters. “I got out without a scratch on me. A little bruise from taking a tumble through the window, but other than that, I’m fine. I’m blessed. Truly, God was with me.”

Crockett offers additional sickening apologetics on a local news site, The Palm Beach Observer:

“If people don’t believe there’s a God, they better start believing,” Crockett said. “I got out without a scratch on me. I have a little bruise from taking a tumble through the window. There’s no way anyone else should’ve got out of there, but God has other plans for me.”

Crockett, who is a member of Mount Calvary Baptist Church, said she was planning to attend church on Sunday.

Is comment really necessary here? How does God killing three people, and saving one, show how good he is? It amazes me that people can be so solipsistic, and so stupid, that they see such a tragedy as a reason to strengthen one’s faith.

The other three people weren’t so lucky, as God clearly didn’t love them. The Observer adds:

While the Seminole Woods neighborhood is in shock, a community in Albany, Ky., mourns a loss of an educational pioneer.

Friday was [pilot Michael] Anders’ 57th birthday.

Randy Speck, who lives in the same town of Albany, Ky., said Anders was a popular high school teacher at Clinton County High School, where he taught Spanish, golf and chess.

Speck said the community has been impacted by the loss of a popular educator.

“Michael Anders was extremely popular among all students at our high school, as well as throughout the community,” Speck said. “Students are in mourning. Today, they are praising him by saying that he not only taught them Spanish, golf or chess, he also taught them about life. It will take these students a long time to get over his death.”

As a commenter on the CNN site argues below, there must have been something wrong with Anders’s faith!

Truly, this wanton evocation of “miracles” makes me ill.  If one looks at stuff like this or the Newtown shootings objectively, it is absolute proof that people’s common conception of God as omnipotent, merciful, and loving is just wrong.  Undeserved suffering is, in my mind, the strongest evidence we have that the Abrahamic conception of God cannot be true.

Sigmund added, when emailing me this story:

It is, however, heartening to see the [CNN] comment thread. While it is seemingly out of bounds for a journalist to ask the rather obvious question (“If God really was that caring, why didn’t He just allow the plane a couple of extra minutes of flight so that it could have landed in the airport, rather than have it crash into your house, incinerating all three people on board?”), it is posed in many ways by those commenting on the story.

Here are four comments:

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Here’s someone who’s been poisoned by faith:

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But a palliative:

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