The following originally ran in The Dallas Morning News on 27 March 2005. It is also posted in The North Texas Skeptic for April 2005 at http://www.ntskeptics.org/2005/2005april/april2005.htm#visions.
In 1429 a French teenager convinced church scholars and the future Charles VII that God had commanded her to drive the English from France. That Jeanne d’Arc actually spoke to God – or even that God exists – may be debatable, but the consequences are not.
A French army under her leadership turned the tide against the English in the Hundred Years War, and history was changed forever. While the French may have had reason to embrace the Maid of Orleans’ claim of divine guidance, the English were less than amused. They laid hands on her and burned her at the stake after a 14-month trial for heresy and witchcraft.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, in which we have abandoned the burning of witches, but our credulity is still being stretched by claims of heavenly conversations and miraculous visions. How then are we to take stories such as that of six young schoolchildren who reported an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1981 near Medjugorje in what was then Yugoslavia? And what of the supposed miracles that have become associated with this and similar places such as Lourdes, Fatima and the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe near Mexico City?
For the faithful, apparently, little coaxing is necessary. Thousands visit these sites every year for spiritual inspiration and to seek miraculous cures. The pope has visited the Guadalupe shrine four times, and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated every 12th of December.
But did these miraculous sightings and dialogues with God actually occur, or are they the result of self-delusion or even deliberate deception? In one scheme of things it may not matter. The historical result is the same as if they did happen. These days the British pound isn’t recognized on the Champs-Elysees, and the poor in spirit and body still flock to the shrines. No other proof is needed.
Except, there are some for whom the truth is not a sometime thing. For these people “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” This is the mantra of “rational skeptics,” some of whom are even organized. We skeptics want you to carry rationality to its logical conclusion and give weight to the least convoluted explanation. It’s an idea elaborated by William of Occam way back even before my time, and it’s called “Occam’s razor.”
In the case of miraculous sightings we may ask you which is simpler to believe: That a woman who has been dead for nearly 2,000 years has now become visible to a selected few individuals and only to them, or that these are just made-up stories, born of either design or an overwhelming need to believe. And not really true. Not true in the same sense as “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…”
So, what if these stories are not true? Does it make a difference in the course of history? And why do skeptics even give them a second warming? Besides, doesn’t trampling on these sacred toes amount to religion-bashing?
To answer the last, let me tell you what rational skepticism is not. It is not anti-religion. We skeptics don’t want to tell people how to manage their souls. However, we do insist that the physical realm needs to be approached through critical study and reason. We maintain that wishful thinking does not translate into reality. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan is noted for saying, “Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Whether you, as a devout person, would be offended by this stance depends on your approach to religion and how seriously you consider the consequences of mistaken belief. If you need to hang your faith on fake miracles, you may be overlooking the moral benefits of your religion’s teachings. Maybe your faith can benefit from skepticism on your own part.
Outside of that, skeptics take up these issues partly because they object to the outrageous abuses perpetrated on behalf of the shrines. Confusing belief in miracles for religious faith, the gullible are induced to place reliance on magic above common sense. Tragically, real people with real medical problems every year abandon helpful medications and prosthetics at these sites under the delusion they have been healed.
Maybe a moral compass will be found among the abandoned items as well.
[John Blanton is a member of The North Texas Skeptics (www.ntskeptics.org), an organization devoted to the rational and scientific investigation of paranormal claims. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]