According to many believing Catholics, a strange and miraculous event occurred on October 13th, 1917 near the town of Fatima in Portugal.1 In the months before the purported miracle, three children named Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco had allegedly received visions of an apparition of the virgin Mary. One of three predictions made by the children was that this apparition, known as “Our Lady of Fatima,” would reveal herself through a miracle that would take place on October 13th. Accounts of the event estimate that on that day thousands witnessed the sun dance in the sky, change to a dull silver color, and then descend towards the earth in a zig-zag pattern before returning to normal.
The so-called ‘miracle of the sun’ is often defended as evidence of god’s divine hand at work in the world. It has been a source of interest and focus for many, especially with some accounts claiming that up to 100,000 eyewitnesses were present, including non-believers. But what does a careful examination of the evidence reveal?
I. Considering the Source
One significant detail often omitted from tellings of the sun miracle is that the common reports seem primarily rooted in a single source. In 1952, John de Marchi, a Catholic priest, published a book on his research on the Fatima miracle, collected between 1943 and 1950. De Marchi’s description is the most widely used source, and yet it compiles varying accounts of the event, even including some outright rejections of the supernatural aspects of it, as the author himself admits.2 These inconsistencies among de Marchi’s sources demand careful consideration.
It is frequently noted that a few of the sources incorporated by Father de Marchi are anticlerical in nature, and thus less likely to be biased. When a non-Catholic source, such as O Seculo, affirms the miracle, it is gladly counted as compelling evidence. Even unbelievers could not deny what they saw. Yet when other non-Catholic sources dispute the miracle claim, the presumption is made that anticlerical sentiments must have been at work. The unbelievers were so awestruck by what they saw that they had to deny it! However, de Marchi collects testimony from both believers and non-believers who had their doubts, some stating plainly that they saw nothing strange or miraculous at all on October 13th, 1917.3
Who do we believe? Thousands of people had shown up, aware of the prediction and expecting to see a miracle. Just as there were non-Catholics who believed they saw something, there were Catholics who did not see what they had hoped to see. De Marchi is really the only source for many of these alleged accounts, of which he cites only a few. Nowhere close to 70,000 independent testimonies exist. These factors make the sun miracle difficult to accept in the first place, and there is still more to be considered.
II. The Power of Suggestion
Could a case of mass hysteria be the truth behind the Fatima sightings? It is not unthinkable, with a large group of believers present and expecting to see a miracle. However, some have objected to mass hysteria on the grounds that so many allegedly witnessed the dancing sun. How could 70,000 people have all hallucinated or lied about the same thing? As noted, the number of witnesses is inconsistently claimed and entirely unverified. Much like the 500 witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15:6, a figure is given with no further information to allow for fact-checking. Because confirming the number of witnesses is next to impossible, the estimates of a few individuals are all that can be relied on, and human beings are known to make mistakes, especially in dealing with large groups during unusual circumstances.
Yet even if so many had claimed to see something at Fatima on October 13th, would that cast any doubt on the power of suggestion? A series of studies conducted in the 1950s sought to test the influence of groups on individuals. The studies, known as the Asch conformity experiments, demonstrate that the tendency to conform to the actions and behavior of others in a group is stronger depending on the size of the group.4 By surrounding a person with confederates, Solomon Asch discovered that when groups of three or more provided a single answer to a certain question, the test subject would be more prone to conform to the group’s answer. Even when confederates provided incorrect answers, the subject would conform 32% of the time. Perhaps most significant is that the subjects attributed the reason of their conformity to personal error, bad vision, and other factors, basically presuming that the agreement of the group was more likely to reflect the truth than their own experience or reason.
Another study which may be relevant to the Fatima event is the Milgram experiment conducted in the 1960s. Stanley Milgram set up a test where subjects would teach another individual certain words and then quiz them over the material. If a wrong answer was given, an electric shock would be administered as punishment. Unknown to the subject (teacher), the participant learning the words was an actor that merely imitated being electrocuted. The experimenter would instruct the teacher how to respond to the learner’s answers, and every so often the voltage level would be increased. The results of the study showed that authority figures serve as a strong influence in whether or not a person will conform to behavior that may conflict with their own conscience.5
Finally, studies have additionally shown that our perceptions, even of a visual nature, are largely affected by wishes, preferences, and desires. Psychologists Emily Balcetis and David Dunning from Cornell University performed five different studies to determine the relationship of motivational states to visual perception. “These studies suggest,” they explain, “that the impact of motivation on information processing extends down into preconscious processing of stimuli in the visual environment and thus guides what the visual system presents to conscious awareness.”6 In layman’s terms, this means some of us do indeed see what we want to see when there is strong motivation to see it.
The power of suggestion ought not to be underestimated or dismissed in a case such as that of the Fatima miracle. The Asch experiments suggest the possibility that individuals present at Fatima on the date of the purported event may have simply gone along with the claims of others, feeling the pressure of group conformity. The Milgram experiment suggests that some who were present may also have reported the vision under the influence of authority figures (children and parents, husbands and wives, religious leaders, etc). The studies of Balcetis and Dunning suggest that some of the believers who had shown up desperately hoping to see a miracle could well have convinced themselves that they had in fact seen one. Altogether, this constitutes a powerful challenge to the veracity of the sun miracle claim.
It should be recognized that these studies can be applied to other alleged phenomena that are said to be witnessed by numerous individuals, like UFO and alien encounters. In fact, one alternative interpretation of the Fatima event is that religious believers mistook a UFO sighting for a divine miracle.7 Yet again, who are we to believe? When something is so open to interpretation that some call it a vision of Mary, others call it a UFO, and still others say they never saw anything at all, the power of suggestion seems a not unlikely culprit.
III. Miraculous Vision or Scientific Phenomenon?
Despite the fact that some in attendance saw no miracle on October 13th, and the fact that no observatory reported any of the strange visions that day, scientific explanations have been put forward in an attempt to account for the story of Fatima. A few of these explanations are a bit hard to swallow, like a dust cloud from the Sahara or a solar storm,8 but there are a couple of more interesting and probable ones that are worth looking at. We ought also remember that supernatural explanations have a very low track record for supplanting natural explanations – arguably, that record is zero – and for this reason, as well as the rarity of miracles by definition, natural explanations ought to be accorded a higher probability than supernatural explanations.
Auguste Meessen, a professor of the Institute of Physics at the Catholic University of Louvain, has proposed that the visions at Fatima were simply the optical effects of prolonged staring at the sun. The changes in color were caused by the bleaching of photosensitive retinal cells, and the appearance of the sun dancing in the sky was due to retinal after-images.9 Anyone who spent time staring at the sun as a child can see the logic of this explanation. Even staring at a light bulb for an extended time can produce a similar effect. When you shift your focus slightly away, strangely colored ‘duplicates’ of the light source become visible and may appear to move or dance. These phenomena are known as after-images, and are the result of the cone cells in our eyes losing sensitivity in the process of working out the over-stimulation that comes from staring at a light source.
Meessen also points out that sun miracles have been reported in France, Germany, Italy, Rwanda, and many other areas, frequently bearing the same characteristics as the visions claimed by witnesses at Fatima. In his own experiment, Meessen looked directly into the sun at a time when its light intensity was attenuated, being low above the horizon. His experience nearly replicates all the claims of Fatima, and the circumstances seem to be key as well, since the reports of the sun miracle indicate that it had ceased raining before the event, which would have left humidity in the air that would attenuate the light intensity and allow for prolonged sun-staring without physical pain.
Steuart Campbell suggests that a stratospheric dust cloud may have played a role in the apparent color change, movement, and ease of viewing of the sun.10 Campbell cites an example of this in reports of the sun changing colors in China around 1983. Skeptic and paranormal researcher Joe Nickell has advanced an explanation that a sundog was the real phenomenon witnessed by believers in Fatima.11 A sundog, or parhelion in scientific terms, is a common atmospheric optical effect that gives the illusion of multiple light sources or suns.
In response to these suggested alternative explanations, believers in the Fatima miracle often choose one or another detail to nitpick in order to justify writing off the entire alternative as too far-fetched to be plausible. Sundogs are stationary illusions, so how does that explain the dancing? How could 70,000 people, some watching from miles away, mistake the effects of a dust cloud for the miracle they saw? As already noted, though, not everyone present saw the sun dance. Not everyone saw the sun change colors. Some did not see anything unusual at all. There is no excuse for presuming uniformity among accounts when there is none. Writing about the compilation of sources for the Fatima miracle, paranormal investigator Kevin McClure says, “[I have] never seen such a collection of contradictory accounts in any of the research I have done in the past 10 years.”12
IV. In Summary
The testimonies for the Fatima sun miracle are inconsistent not just in their content, but in their number as well. This is weak evidence on which to build a case for the supernatural, and it is far removed from the claims about the strength of evidence that are typically made by those who profess belief in the miraculous event. Studies showing the powers of suggestion and conformity among groups, as well as the tendency to see what we want to see when motivation is strong, add further room for doubt. If it seems hard to accept that a group of believers might subconsciously invent an experience of something they had turned out expecting to see, then the alternative natural explanations can supplement for what could have been witnessed.
To put it simply, there seems to be very little reason to think the problematic account of testimonies collected by Father de Marchi documents an actual miracle, and there is quite a lot of reason telling against it. Whatever the attendants of Fatima saw or thought they saw on that October day decades ago, the involvement of the supernatural is far from evident.
1. Bob & Penny Lord, Miracle of the Sun, Discover-Catholic-Miracles.com. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
2. John de Marchi, The True Story of Fatima (1952), 143.
3. Stanley Jaki, God and the Sun at Fatima (Real View Books, 1999).
4. Kendra Cherry, The Asch Conformity Experiments, Psychology.About.com. Retrieved Feb 20, 2015.
5. Gregorio Encina, Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience to Authority, University of California webpage. Retrieved Feb 20, 2015.
6. Emily Balcetis & David Dunning, See What You Want to See... Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2006). Retrieved July 12, 2011.
7. Vallee Says Fatima Event Was UFO, Ufoseek.org. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
8. Paul Simons, “Weather Secrets of Miracle at Fatima,” The Times (2005); George A. Filer, Massive Coronal Ejection From Sun, National UFO Center (2000). Retrieved July 12, 2011.
9. Auguste Meessen, Apparitions and Miracles of the Sun, Science, Religion and Conscience (2003). Retrieved July 13, 2011.
10. Steuart Campbell, “The Miracle of the Sun at Fatima,” Journal of Meteorology, Vol. 14, No. 142 (1989).
11. Joe Nickell, Looking for a Miracle (Prometheus, 1993).
12. Kevin McClure, The Evidence for Visions of the Virgin Mary (Aquarian Press, 1983).