The Virgin Mary Comes to Portugal
On October 13, 1917, in the small Portuguese village of Fatima, 3 shepherding children had
managed to gather quite a following. The three children had claimed an apparition of the Virgin Mary had appeared repeatedly to them. One, Lucia de Jesus dos Santos, insisted that the Blessed Virgin had spoken to her. Mary was to offer as proof a miracle which would occur on this day.
From 70,000 to 100,000 people came to witness this miracle, including many skeptics. As they waited, we can imagine the murmur that ran through the crowd as Lucia's hand pointed skyward. The sun was dancing! It swelled and shrank, gyrated, and vibrated in the sky. According to modern day believers:
The miracle occurred with the sun. All could stare perfectly at the sun without blinking, or even hurting their eyes. While all were watching the sun, it rotated, got large and small, got close to the people, and got far away from them. The sun "danced". Every single person who was there testified to seeing the sun dance, even non-believers who immediately dropped onto their knees and begged for forgiveness.1
How could this not be a miracle? Even the skeptics witnessed it and agreed. What possible scientific explanation could exist for the sun dancing in the sky? The Church agreed, and has accepted this as one of the few legitimate modern era miracles.
But even large groups of people can be fooled. No, it wasn't done with mirrors. But part of this miracle must have been that it occurred only to the crowd gathered in Fatima, because no one not there at the time...including the scientists who were gazing skyward around the world...noticed this phenomenon. Of course, believers will argue that nothing is beyond the realm of an all-powerful god. Yet, isn't there another, more mundane possibility? Remember Occam's Razor: When two or more possible explanations exist, the simplest is most likely the correct one.
Is it likely that an all-powerful being that less than half the world believes in caused a star weighing 2 x 1030 kg (roughly 4 billion trillion pounds) to dance like a drunken Fred Astaire for the entertainment of a few? Or is it more probable that a huge crowd, most of whom expected a miracle, experienced an optical illusion caused by staring directly into the sun? Such an action is generally not considered conducive to clear visual perception.
Certainly, some people came for a laugh and apparently left shaken, if not converted, by this incident. Why did they see it, when they didn't expect to? It is a fairly common occurrence (not the dancing sun, the seeing things). The human mind is a complex organ, and has been shown time and again to be imperfect, to say the least. Psychologists have repeatedly shown that memories and perceptions can be easily influenced on a subconscious level. For instance, a number of subjects were shown a film of an accident. Psychologists later asked them about things they saw, directing some questions so as to imply an answer. Asking questions along the lines of "Did car A hit the sign" often resulted in answers about the sign...which didn't actually exist in the film. The mere assumption within the question caused people's memories to "insert" a sign. When 100,000 people claim something happened, and seem to be consistent in what they saw, is it then reasonable to believe people who didn't actually see anything begin to "remember" seeing it?
Should we disregard the claims of the children? Two of them only claimed to see apparitions. The third, Lucia, was the only one to have been spoken to. Do people run to defend children from the monsters under their beds? No indeed, yet children are still convinced they exist. Lucia herself apparently had a history of seeing angels and other "apparitions". In fact, Lucia's own mother stated that her daughter was "nothing but a fake who is leading half the world astray". One must obviously bring into question the very source when her own mother calls her a fake.2
2Nickell, Joe Examining Miracle Claims, Deolog March 1996