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Is There Strong Evidence for The Miracle of the Sun?

In Portugal, on October 13, 1917, a large crowd of people assembled in a field about 65 miles south of Lisbon and less than two miles from the small town of Fatima. The field was known as the Cova da Iria, which translates as “The Hollow of Irene,” so called because it has the shape of a shallow amphitheatre. The crowd was estimated between 30,000 and 100,000 people. The figure usually given today is 70,000. At noon, solar time, which was 1:30 legal time—because over 50,000 Portuguese soldiers were fighting in France the government had decreed that time in Portugal would coincide with time on the Western Front—something very unusual happened. Whatever happened on that fateful day is now known as the Miracle of the Sun. The Church launched an investigation that resulted in thousands of pages of transcribed testimony, and thirteen years to the day, on October 13, 1930, it declared that the Miracle of the Sun was “worthy of belief.”

In making a case for there being strong evidence for this miracle I’m also claiming that it is “worthy of belief.” But I’m not trying to convince anyone that a miracle occurred. That’s a private matter. Nor am I trying to show that the evidence for this miracle is conclusive. That would be tantamount to trying to prove that naturalism is false, for the definition of a miracle is “interference with Nature by supernatural power.” If miracles occur, then naturalism is false. In my opinion, world views don’t lie in the realm of things that can be proved or disproved—provided that the world view in question has been widely accepted over a long period of time, and is still held by people who are, to all appearances, honest, intelligent and well-informed.

What I am attempting to do is to show that the evidence for the Miracle of the Sun is strong enough that a person can believe it without being guilty of irrational belief. And by “irrational belief” I mean believing something without adequate evidence, especially something that has important philosophical and practical implications. In other words, I’m arguing that whether you believe in this particular miracle or not, it’s a belief that deserves intellectual respect because of the evidence.

OK, here’s my case. Three shepherd children, ages ten, nine and seven, claimed to have seen, heard, and spoken with a beautiful young Lady who appeared to them for the first time on May 13, 1917 while they were tending sheep in the Cova da Iria. The Lady, who was quickly assumed to be the Virgin Mary, allegedly appeared to them a total of six times over a period of five months. She asked the children to return on the thirteenth day of every month, and, with the exception of the fourth apparition, they did as they were instructed. The fourth apparition occurred on August 19 because the children were abducted on the thirteenth by Arturo dos Santos, an official of the republican anti-clerical government. The children were separated from their parents and were driven five miles to the prison in Ourem, the local administrative centre. They were held there for two days, during which time they were threatened with execution unless they confessed they were telling a tall tale. They were told (and they believed) that they would be thrown into a vat of boiling oil. Remarkably, they stuck to their story. The previous month they had claimed that the Lady had promised to work a miracle on October 13th on that very spot, so that, in her words, “all may believe.” This development may have caused the authorities to panic. They were convinced that the children had been enlisted in a Jesuit-inspired, anti-government plot. In any case, it was a public relations disaster for the authorities because the story of the children’s heroism quickly found its way into the newspapers.

The Lady renewed her promise on August 19 and on September 13. This fact is universally admitted by sceptics because the promise was widely publicized in the Portuguese press and beyond. The fact that the time and place of this allegedly miraculous event was predicted three months in advance is universally admitted, and is my single most important piece of evidence. In one of the sceptical articles that Fred sent, the author Brian Dunning wrote, ‘The day was predicted in newspapers by a ten-year-old girl, and this is thoroughly proven. Tens of thousands of people personally witnessed exactly what the prediction said would happen.’

But what actually did happen on the thirteenth of October 1917? Everyone now agrees that whatever happened, it wasn’t fraud—in another one of the sceptical articles that Fred sent, the author Benjamin Radford writes, ‘No one suggests that those who reported seeing the Miracle of the Sun are lying or hoaxing.’ Therefore, it had to be one of three things, or perhaps some combination of two or more of them.

1) Almost everyone present witnessed a miracle, that is to say an interference with Nature by supernatural power.

2) Almost everyone present witnessed a series of natural, though extremely remarkable, solar phenomena, although many took it for a miracle.

3) Almost everyone present suffered from a delusion of psychological origin produced by belief or expectation or crowd dynamics.

I would argue that we can rule out number three because some people witnessed it who were far from the Cova da Iria, the solar phenomena being visible over an area of at least 1300 square miles. At the time of the “miracle,” author and poet Alfonso Vieira was on the veranda of his summer house by the sea in San Pedro de Muel. According to Google Earth, he was about 21 miles from the Cova da Iria, as the crow flies. At the time he wasn’t thinking that this was the day of the promised “miracle,” although like everyone else in Portugal he was aware of the ongoing story. He was suddenly gripped by astonishment when he saw the solar phenomena over the mountain—according to Google Earth the Cova da Iria is 350 metres above sea level—and he called his wife and mother-in-law to come out to see it. Mr. Vieira’s widow gave John M. Haffert, author of “Meet the Witnesses,” her deposition in 1960 in which she confirmed it.

Another witness was Mr. Albano Barros, a successful building contractor from Somerville, New Jersey. He was from a village near Minde, about eight miles from Fatima. Twelve years old at the time, he remembers the miracle as though it happened yesterday. “I was watching sheep, as was my daily task, and suddenly there, in the direction of Fatima, I saw the sun fall from the sky. I thought it was the end of the world. . . I was so distracted that I remember nothing but the falling sun. I cannot even remember whether I took the sheep home, whether I ran, or what I did.” There were other witnesses who were far from the Cova da Iria who have given similar testimony.

I think, therefore, we can rule out number three. A reasonable question to ask now is this: What are the chances that a series of remarkable solar phenomena would occur on the predicted day and at the predicted place in front of a mass audience that included thousands of non-believers? Specifically, what are the chances that the vast majority of those people, believers and non-believers alike, would report seeing what they did report, namely: the clouds parted and something that looked like the sun appeared; it was of diminished luminosity and people could stare at it without discomfort, like the moon; it appeared to “tremble” or “dance”; it began to spin like a St Catharine’s firework, throwing off non-prismatic shafts of light in all the colours of the rainbow and these shafts of light bathed sectors of the field in monochromatic hues, including people and objects; then it apparently fell from the sky (some say two, some say three times) in such a way that most people felt its heat and thought that the world was going to end?

Now it’s important to remember that there were thousands of sceptics and agnostics and cynics present among the crowd that day in the Cova da Iria. And not just the irreligious, but among believers and clergy as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if one third or more of those seventy thousand people were agnostic at best. It has been noted in some of the sceptical articles that both the families of the children and the local clergy were highly sceptical. But let’s ignore all the believers and only consider what the non-believers had to say, or not say, about what they had witnessed. Presumably, if there was nothing to see, or something that looked like natural phenomena, many of them would have said, “Well, I was there and saw nothing unusual, except for some outbursts of mass hysteria among the crowd,” or “I saw something that was almost certainly a natural phenomenon, but which the believers took to be a miracle.” Apart from Antonio Sergio, the National Minister of Education, who suggested that what he witnessed was a natural phenomenon, I have not been able to find any such testimony, and none of the sceptical websites that Fred provided quote any such testimony. Here’s what Sergio had to say: “When the sun appeared there were light clouds that gathered round it and which, under the effect of the storm, were driven by gyratory movements that had nothing astonishing about them.”

There is quite a lot of interesting testimony from the professional and scientific people who were present, many if not most of whom were probably sceptics at the time. Some of these people, such as the Baron of Alvaiavere, changed their world view as a result of what they saw, others remained sceptical. We have no way of knowing how many converts the “miracle” made. But to complete my case I think only requires the testimony of one man, professed republican and atheist Avelino de Almeida, chief editor for the pro-government, anti-clerical newspaper O Seculo (The Century). O Seculo was founded in 1881, was very influential in 1917, and only ceased publication in 1977.

According to my sources Almeida mocked the children in previous articles. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to locate any of these articles. Nor could I locate his article on the morning of October 13. What I do have is his vivid and well-written eye-witness account that was published in O Seculo two days later, October 15. And I have two poor translations of his open letter to another sceptic, who was also an eye-witness. This article was published two weeks later on October 29. I would like to draw your attention to what Almeida said in these two articles, and, by implication, what he didn’t say.

And then I comment on these two articles by Almeida:

October 15: How the Sun Danced at Noon in Fatima

October 29: The Miracle of Fatima  (the second article at the link)

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