ABC has broadcast part 1 of “The Root of All Evil?” by Richard Dawkins. Produced in 2006, in it Dawkins argues the world would be better off without religion. Part 1 is called ‘The God Delusion”. it was presented in ABC’s Compass brand devoted to faith, values, ethics, and religion with a warning it might cause offence. Dawkins is a British ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and popular science writer who has not only split the evolutionary scientists but has also gained the wrath of religions worldwide by stridently proclaiming his orthodox atheism.
He began by looking at the cult of Lourdes. Lourdes is in Catalan country called Lorda in Occitan. Now a town in the Hautes-Pyrenees department, Lourdes is the largest Catholic religion pilgrimage location in France. In 1858 the Virgin Mary appeared to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous in a cave on the banks of the Gave River at Massabielle.
Massabielle is natural karst cave. It is called a grotto which means it is not a deep cave. For a period of about five months, Soubirous claimed the Virgin Mary appeared 18 times. Marie-Bernarde Soubirous was a sickly child; she had cholera in infancy and suffered most of her life from asthma. Her father was a miller, her mother a laundress. Post Napoleonic France was undergoing hard times and Bernadette grew up in extreme poverty. She survived by doing farm work and waiting at tables in the nearby town of Bartrès. Aged 14, she returned to Lourdes to attend schooling. But the classes in French were difficult for children who spoke Gascon, a dialect of Occitan, which now survives in the form of its cousin Catalan.
Her teachers thought Soubirous was simple minded. On 11 February 1848, she was out collecting firewood with her sister and a friend at Massabielle. Bernadette claimed to see "a small young lady" standing in a niche in the rock. This lady wore a white veil, a blue girdle and had a golden rose on each foot and in her hands she held a string of Rosary beads. Neither of the other two girls saw anything. The Small Young Lady asked her to return every day for the next fortnight.
When Bernadette told her story, the town divided into two camps. While some dismissed her story as nonsense, others were desperate to believe. She soon had a large number of people following her on her daily journey, some out of curiosity and others who firmly believed that they were witnessing a miracle. Bernadette alone would see the young lady for the next seventeen nights. She called her 'Aquerò' ("the lady").
But the townspeople were quick to judge that Aquerò was really the Virgin Mary. Bernadette seemed to confirm this, when on the 17th apparition the Aquerò spoke to the young girl. Speaking in fluent Gascon, the lady said “Que soy era Immaculada Conceptiou”. This translates in English as I am the Immaculate Conception.
Four years earlier the Pope Pius IX had promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; that, alone of all human beings who have ever lived, the Virgin Mary was born without the stain of original sin. This doctrine was not yet well known outside the Catholic intelligentsia and certainly unknown to a semi-illiterate farmherd teenage girl. Here was proof that some higher authority was at work. Matters soon took another turn. After this appearance Soubirous began to dig at the site and discovered a spring in the grotto. The first known cure occurred that same year.
Catherine Latapie lived at Loubajac, a few kilometres from Lourdes. She had injured her right hand after a fall from a tree eighteen months before and was now nearing the end of a pregnancy. One night Latapie got a sudden inspiration, rose at three in the morning and went to Lourdes. Arriving at dawn, she met Soubirous at the grotto and put her hand in the spring. Her hand was immediately cured and went home that evening where she gave birth. A doctor pronounced the Latapie case as “presenting a supernatural character”. Soubirous was now famous.
Some of the people who interviewed her following her revelation of the visions thought her simple-minded. But she stuck to her story. The civil authorities tried to frighten Bernadette into recanting her accounts, but she always remained faithful to the vision Aged 22 Bernadette entered the Monastery of Nevers. She died aged 35 and was canonized a saint in 1933.
Lourdes is now big business. 5.5 million people take the pilgrimage each year. There are 40,000 beds to receive them. 70,000 of these are sick or handicapped and looking for a cure. Out of its millions of visitors, there have been 66 documented cures that have been given "miracle" status by the Catholic Church, including Latapie's case. In statistical evidence, Dawkins pointes out, that is nothing at all. He finds it more likely that patients seeking a cure at Lourdes are more likely to catch another disease from a sick person. Yet the pilgrims desperately lean on the faith like a crutch and their belief remains profound. That is the real miracle.