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Nina Burleigh

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Science and Belief in Turin

Posted: 04/11/10 10:53 AM ET

What some people call the clash of civilizations is not a fight between Islam and the West but between science and faith. The religious rightists in America may want us to believe that they are different from the theocrats of Iran and the fundamentalist of Al Qaeda who teach their suicide bombers that they are targeting "infidel" Christians or Jews, but in fact, the dogmatically religious have more in common with each other than with non-believers.

We live in an age of intense materialism in which scientists are on the verge of understanding how the universe was formed, but we also live at a time of resurgent faith that remains as hostile to science as when Galileo was locked up for observing the centrality of the sun.

The Shroud of Turin, put back on exhibit this week in Turin after eight years, predates Galileo but is one of the most scientifically analyzed religious relics in history. It is said to have come from Jerusalem, possibly brought over by the Knights Templar, a monastic Christian fighting sect formed to protect pilgrims to the Holy Land in the twelfth century. The Shroud is the most famous of Europe's thousands of relics. No cathedral worth its arches and gargoyles was ever complete without one of these objects, delivered through great peril from the Holy Land, and ranging from the picturesque -- the Virgin Mary's four-inch-wide green onyx wedding ring in Perugia, Italy, for example -- to macabre bits of saints' bones and enough skulls of John the Baptist to populate a very large choir.

The Shroud returns to public view at a difficult time for the institution of the Catholic Church, with the Pope himself implicated in a pedophile cover-up. The Shroud's authenticity has been suspect since the fourteenth century, but not until the twentieth century did forensic science and physics create the modern tools with which to date, decode, identify, and otherwise debunk the claims behind such objects. The Church isn't vouching for the authenticity of the Shroud anymore. Rather, as the archbishop of Turin has said, people should look at the Shroud "with their hearts, not their minds."

The Shroud of Turin is only the most famous product of a thriving trade in alleged Biblical relics in the Holy Land, which today is a million-dollar business filtered and "verified" through the scientific lens of archaeology. New finds are always popping up, but despite all the available science, the forgery rate isn't much lower than it was in the Middle Ages. The most notorious recent find, a bone box declared as the first archaeological evidence of Christ's existence, is exhibit A in a trial in Jerusalem that has been going on for about five years.

In my travels around Israel and the occupied territories researching my book Unholy Business, about the alleged forgery of dozens of Biblical antiquities including the James Ossuary, I discovered the fantastically murky underworld that is the age-old antiquities trade in Israel. A collaboration of Palestinians and Israelis, scholars, illegal diggers, licensed dealers, tourists, and millionaire artifact collectors keeps the trade alive and well in the only country in the Middle East where such commerce is allowed.

The finds have enormous meaning for believers around the world. In Israel, the discovery of ancient relics also has profound political implications that can affect both the telling of Israeli history and national land claims. The James Ossuary forgery trial pits science against belief in a courtroom where dozens of archaeologists have been called to the stand and had their scientific expertise shredded by canny defense lawyers. The entire field of biblical archaeology seems to be on trial. An archaeologist at Tel Aviv University told me that when the acquittal happens, we will in short order see the sword of Muhammad and Solomon's sandals, revealed at press conferences and put on sale to a proof-hungry religious public.

In the twenty-first century, many of us have come to believe in science like we once believed in religion. There is danger in that too. I recently spent months watching the Amanda Knox trial in Italy, where material evidence against the two convicted students came down to two specks of DNA, collected and analyzed in a manner about which scientists argued for weeks. These days, a single scientist can say something about which lay people understand nothing, and the public will accept the story without question, as believers once did when priests and shamans revealed messages from the beyond.

Can there be a truce in the war between science and belief? In the end, science can tell us exactly why and how our loved ones die, but it cannot bring them back to us. The angry, fanatical worldwide religious resurgence in our supposedly enlightened generation is a reaction to this failure, this outer limit of science. The Archbishop of Turin got it right this time. As long as we keep heart and mind separate, maybe, just maybe we can all get along.

 
 
 

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