A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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In 1858, at a grotto by the river Gave near Lourdes, France,  a 14-year-old peasant named Bernadette Soubirous claimed that the Virgin Mary, identifying herself as "the Immaculate Conception," appeared to her some 18 times.* You'd think such a great number of visitations would have provided an opportunity to channel a short theological treatise of some significance. It seems, however, that the main message from the alleged "mother of a god" was: "Pray and do penance for the conversion of the world." Oh, and take a drink of the spring water.

To its eternal discredit, the Roman Catholic Church investigated Soubirous's claims for four years before approving devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes. Since then, the Church has validated 67 miracles at Lourdes* (of the thousands that have been reported*) and canonized the peasant girl.* (Her body, which is on display, is alleged to be incorruptible, but the face and hands, which look so lifelike, are made of wax.) It is estimated that in recent years about 5 million pilgrims a year visit the shrine at Lourdes. Over the past 150 years, some 200 million people have made the pilgrimage.* For those who care, that's a success rate of .0000335% or 1 out of every 3 million. Furthermore, since 1947 anyone claiming a miraculous cure has to go before a medical board. "From 1947 to 1990, only 1,000 cures were claimed and only 56 were recognized in that time, averaging 1.3 cures a year, against 57 a year before 1914."* Since 1978, there have been only four recognized cures.* So, if you're thinking of going to Lourdes for a miracle cure, the odds are not very high in your favor. Pilgrims might find some consolation in a British study that tested miracle-seekers at regular intervals for a year after they visited Lourdes and found that they were significantly less anxious and depressed.* Who wouldn't be cheered up by a trip to southern France and by being surrounded by people much worse off than yourself?

Of all the cures alleged to have occurred at Lourdes, however, none have involved dramatic, unambiguous events like the growing back of a severed limb. Belgian philosopher Etienne Vermeersch likened this fact to the lack of clear, unambiguous data in support of the existence of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. He also claimed that there have probably been significantly more fatal accidents suffered by pilgrims on their way to or from Lourdes than there have been cures.

The fact that the stories of miracles found in the scriptures of various religions involve cases that could be explained naturalistically (raising the dead or curing cancer...well, he wasn't really dead or she didn't really have cancer) or dismissed as mythological (born of a virgin, resurrected into heaven, survived three days under water) led Vermeersch to coin the expression "Lourdes effect" to describe this curious lack of a single unambiguous miracle by all the alleged miracle workers who have dazzled crowds for millennia. Why do supernatural powers resist manifesting themselves in a clear way? It's certainly not a matter of difficulty.


The grotto near Lourdes in 1858

Lourdes has a population of around 15,000. To accommodate the 5 million pilgrims who descend on the town each year, there are some 270 hotels. Only Paris has more hotels in France. Needless to say, business is good. The water's free if you go there. For those who can't make the trip, many enterprising folks will bring Lourdes to you: they sell water from the spring (100€ will get you 1 liter). The water is believed to have healing properties. It certainly generates a lot of hope and revenue thanks to the continuing abundance of wishful and magical thinking among the afflicted. But the odds of anyone being cured of anything except thirst by this water are less than favorable, excluding, of course, those cured by a placebo effect.

See also collective hallucination, faith, faith healing, Fatima "prophecy," incorruptible body, John of god, Littlewood's law, miracle, prayer, saint, and Our Lady of Watsonville.

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further reading


Hume, David. An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X "Of Miracles," (1748), Bobbs-Merrill, Library of Liberal Arts edition.

Nickell, Joe. Looking For A Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions and Healing Cures (Prometheus Books: Buffalo, N.Y., 1993).



Miracles and Modern Scientific Thought Professor Norman Geisler

"Miracles" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Examining Miracle Claims by Joe Nickell

Worcestor Bishop Releases Preliminary Findings in Audrey Santo Case by Joe Nickell

Lourdes Souvenirs from the Skeptiseum


Isolated village mistaken for Lourdes thanks to pilgrims' GPS blunders An increasing number of Catholic pilgrims are showing up in the village of Lourde nestled in the Pyrenean border country south of Toulouse. The hamlet of 94 people has little in common with Lourdes, located around 90km to the west. It has no hotels, no shops, and no history of Marian apparitions.

Last updated 26-Jul-2015

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