Fairy Stories
Shared Death Experiences

Dawkins on Fatima (by Robert Perry)

[I'm tied up with finishing a project - which I'll be writing about here before long. In the meantime, continuing the theme of incredulous scientists, many thanks to Robert Perry for providing these thoughts on a passage in Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion - RM.]

Recently, I was poking around in Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, which a friend lent to me and which I haven't gotten around to reading. The book jacket promises that Dawkins "eviscerates the major arguments for religion." A bold claim, which I thought I would check out.

One of the arguments he "eviscerates" is "The Argument from Personal 'Experience." It is a short section of only about five pages, but it doesn't need to be long, since it makes it clear that any experience of God is clearly an aberration of human psychology:

This argument from personal experience is the one that is the most convincing to those who claim to have had one. But it is the least convincing to anyone else, and anyone knowledgeable about psychology. (p. 88)

So, anyone knowledgeable about psychology is entirely unconvinced by the phenomenon of spiritual experience, because they can see it's just an illusion of the mind. That's quite a sweeping claim, and an entirely false one, of course. There are many who are far more knowledgeable about psychology than Dawkins and yet are genuinely convinced by the data of spiritual experiences. One obvious example was Carl Jung. Dawkins provides a number of illustrations of personal experience as psychological illusion: campers convinced they have heard the voice of Satan when in fact it was just the shrieks of the infamous "Devil Bird"; the Yorkshire Ripper who "distinctly heard the voice of Jesus telling him to kill women" (p. 88); Dawkins himself who as a child heard a "ghost" that turned out to be the wind blowing through a keyhole; people seeing "the face of Satan in the smoke rising from the Twin Towers" on September 11, 2001.

Of course, all that Dawkins has done is take the universally-acknowledged fact that the brain can conjure up illusions and show that some otherworldly experiences can be explained that way. He then seems to assume that this gets rid of all such experiences. I recently read a line that fits perfectly here: "But, as all philosophers know, the word 'some' has very different logical properties than the word 'all.'"

One wonders why he doesn't deal with stronger examples; for instance, spiritual experiences in the psychologically healthy that cannot be seen as misinterpretations of sensory phenomena, that are contrary to personal and cultural expectation, that follow universal patterns, that promote mental health, and that even contain a veridical element. Thus, instead of near-death experiences in which people accurately see things far from their bodies and their non-functioning brains, we get campers misinterpreting bird calls. If he is "eviscerating" religious experience, why go after the straggling calves? Why not face the bulls in the herd?

If Dawkins were willing to go after those bulls, his argument would have the potential to get interesting. Then, at the end of the section, that is exactly what he does. He confronts the famous "solar miracle" at Fatima:

On the face of it mass visions, such as the report that seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 saw the sun 'tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude,' are harder to write off. It is not easy to explain how seventy thousand people could share the same hallucination. But it is even harder to accept that it really happened without the rest of the world, outside Fatima, seeing it too-and not just seeing it, but feeling it as the catastrophic destruction of the solar system, including acceleration forces sufficient to hurl everybody into space. David Hume's pithy test for a miracle comes irresistibly to mind: 'No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.'

It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. Or that history is mistaken in recording that seventy thousand people claimed to see the sun dance. Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage (they had been persuaded to stare at the sun, which can't have done much for their eyesight). But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing. I mean, Portugal is not that isolated. (pp. 91-92)

He appears to have faced this "harder to write off" example head-on and completely destroyed it. But there are many things he tellingly fails to mention:

First, the seventy thousand weren't just "pilgrims," as he puts it. There were many non-believers, including journalists and, yes, atheists. As such, not everyone there shared the will to believe. Some shared Dawkins' will to not believe.

Second, it was widely reported that, even though the rain had been pouring down beforehand, after the "solar miracle" the pools on the ground had vanished and people's clothes were inexplicably dry. This is obviously difficult to explain under the mass hallucination theory.

Third, the sun was photographed. There is a photo that's readily available on the Internet. It is a crude black-and-white picture, but the sun in the photo looks very much like the opaque disk that people described on that day.

Fourth, the event was seen outside of Fatima, by witnesses who were up to 25 miles away (some accounts say 11 miles away), witnesses who by their own account weren't even thinking about the event. This is a highly relevant fact, one that most accounts seem to mention. Strange that Dawkins doesn't, even while commenting on the significance of no one "outside Fatima, seeing it too."

Fifth, and in my mind most importantly, even believers explain the event as a local phenomenon, as a miracle that was performed for the benefit of the people who had gathered. We may have many disagreements with the Catholic Church (which officially accepts the reality of the miracle), but do we really think it is so cosmically stupid as to believe the sun literally danced in the sky on that day?

Instead of mentioning these five key things, Dawkins sets up a false choice: We either have to accept a completely naturalistic explanation, no matter how improbable, or we have to accept something utterly preposterous: the Earth being "suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit." Well, we all know the Earth didn't leave its orbit. We can knock that straw man down without even thinking. Therefore, we are forced to accept that the "miracle" has to have a naturalistic explanation. Dawkins doesn't attempt to identify which naturalistic explanation is correct. He freely admits they are all improbable, but this is as far as he needs to go. He has shown it simply must be one of them, and having established that much, we can just stop there, our curiosity having expended itself.

Now, I'm not a Catholic. I don't know exactly what to make of the solar miracle. I am frankly not entirely comfortable with it. I certainly don't think the apocalyptic message that it apparently conveyed was something that would come from God. I read a book on it years ago and, since then, have always more or less wished it would go away. On the other hand, it does seem like something physical happened that day, or at least something with a physical component. (I give that last qualification because not everyone saw the same thing.) I don't have a specific explanation for what happened. But it seems clear that any explanation has to at least try to account for all the data.

What has Dawkins accomplished in this section? First, he has shown that some otherworldly experiences can be explained as illusions of the brain, picking on weak examples like seeing faces in smoke. And second, with the one example he admits is "not easy to explain," he shows a surprising inability to actually face the phenomenon as it really is. He fails to mention key pieces of evidence and then offers us as our only paranormal option one so ridiculous that even believers don't go there.

Both of these have one thing in common: Dawkins seems to have difficulty facing these experiences in their strongest form. He avoids the strongest evidence and the strongest, most credible, paranormal explanations. In short, he seems unable to look at the phenomenon he's trying to vanquish in its full strength. To use what he thinks the Fatima pilgrims should have done, it is as if he is trying to protect his eyes by refusing to stare at the sun.

Having dispensed with the solar miracle, Dawkins concludes his section with this:

That is really all that needs to be said about personal 'experiences' of gods or other religious phenomena. If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings. (p. 92)

This is how one "eviscerates the major arguments for religion"? I think this is one evisceration that has to be taken on faith.


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Thanks Robert, this reminded me of an experience of my own.

Years ago, in my foreign corresponding days when I was working in Portugal, I was persuaded with a bunch of other journalists to travel to the north to witness the doings of a lady who was reputed to do Fatima-type 'miracles'. I don't think we took it at all seriously, but it was big news in Portugal at the time, so we thought we ought to cover it. There was a crowd of several thousands on a hillside, and the lady praying and doing her stuff somewhere in the distance, and getting us all to join in. It was all a bit tiresome actually, and after three or four hours I was getting ready to go home when there was a sudden gasp from the crowd and we all gazed heavenwards and there was a bit of a rainbow, in a bright blue cloudless sky!

The crowd was impressed, and seemed to think they'd got their money's worth. I wasn't sure what to think, and haven't thought about it much since.

Very interesting. Wish I'd been there. When you say "a bit of a rainbow," it made me think of sun dogs. You may know what they are, but if you don't, they can sometimes appear as little patches of rainbow immediately to the right or left of the sun. I tend to see them as the sun is getting lower in the sky. They can be pretty puzzling if you don't know what they are.

Yes I wondered if it was a natural phenomenon, but I don't think it was sundogs. It didn't look natural at all.

When it comes to putting Dawkins in perspective as a self-appointed expert on religion and spirituality, I think Terry Eagleton gets it about right. Dawkins' asking people to accept his authority as a religious commentator, says Eagleton, an English Literature professor, is "as absurd as me telling people I am now a world authority on ornithology because I once read 'The Observer Book of British Birds'."

Well said Terry. I only wish your books on critical theory had been that pithy when I was trying to wade through them all those years ago as an undergraduate. If they had, I might have bothered turning up to some of your lectures.


I think that Terry Eagleton quote captures a lot of the problem. But it's more than just lack of training. He doesn't appear to be engaging in a sincere pursuit of truth, but more in a faith-based mission, one whose vital importance for world salvation requires more fervent sermon than balanced observation.

Robert M and Robert P,

Great piece, Robert P! Interestingly, what you wrote became the focus of one of my precognitive dreams. I've written the following up for my own journal, and I'll pass it along here. Though I'm well aware that one's dream journal can be less than thrilling for others to read. :o)

As (and if) you read this, please remember that, as so often happens with me, the dream and the corresponding waking event were very close to each other, in this case a half hour or less.

DREAM: I had a dream in which I think I see President Obama, but I realize that it is only someone who resembles him. I see the false Obama a second time, and on the second occasion, I know it is the false Obama, and remark to someone else, who IS fooled, that yes, he resembles Obama a lot, especially when he talks.

I remember ending the dream with the second encounter, focusing on the man's speech, thinking how much it sound like the President's.

I clearly remember my great surprise at seeing Obama in a place where I would never expect to see him, a place that I normally hang out, but that doesn't seem like HIS territory.

WAKING EVENT: I visited Robert McLuhan's blog within a half hour of waking up. I was very surprised to see an article by him, because he had just written one a few days ago, and normally there's a period of weeks between posts.

I read the entire article, not understanding that it was Robert Perry's writing, and thinking it was McLuhan's. I enjoyed the article a lot, thinking what a fine writer McLuhan was. When I finished the article, saw the comments, and eventually realized whose writing it was, I looked at the article and pondered it again, and thought about the fact that it STILL reminded me of McCluhan's way of presenting an argument.

• The dream and W.E. both focus on a male whom I admire, a person of strength and authority in his field.
• I think I see that person.
• I am both surprised and delighted to see that person in that specific place.
• I eventually realize that it's not who I think it is, but that I was fooled, in particular, by how similarly they speak.
• On a second "meeting" (in the waking event, my second reading) I am not taken in, but still I reflect on, and am surprised by, how similarly they speak.
• In both cases, the "impostor" is not intending to mislead others. The mistake is all mine.

Strong points:
• Can't remember having other dreams of mistaken identity.
• Last dream on awakening.
• Waking event happens within half an hour.

So there it is, Robert and Robert. A coincidence? Maybe. But as I said, this pattern happens often--the last dream before waking up, and something that actually happens within an hour or so.

Bruce, I actually find this extremely interesting. I don't know if you're aware of my model that I call CMPEs (Conjunctions of Meaningfully Parallel Events), but this sure looks like it could be one. The model requires two events very close in time (more than half are within a half hour), that share a long list of parallel features (usually between 6 and 10). Of course, that is exactly what you have here.

I have had this kind of experience many times, the exact thing you relate, where I have a dream near waking and then another event happens in a short time that is parallel to the dream in multiple ways.

The question is: Is it a CMPE or a precognitive dream? You have understandably classed it as the latter. For a long time, I pondered this, and in my case I decided on the former. I'll share with you why, in case it can be food for your own thought.

First, I don't display much precognitive ability in my life.

Second, the pattern of morning dream followed by parallel event fits perfectly a phenomenon that I experience all the time. The only difference is that the one event takes an unusual form--a dream. However, the events of CMPEs typically take all kinds of forms. Some are even just thoughts one is having. So it seems logical to me to just consider the dream as just another event within a CMPE rather than seeing it as an example of psychic ability.

However, now that I'm writing about this, and the longer I do, the more the line between the two explanations is blurring. Why couldn't both be true? I like to resist the lure of "both/and" explanations and only opt for them when they seem valid. But in this case, they might just be.

I had one of these just a couple of months ago, by the way. Well, it sort of fits. My wife and I woke up with highly parallel dreams. And actually, she has more of these sorts of CMPEs than I do, and she is quite a psychically gifted dreamer, unlike myself.

Anway, thank you for "boring" us with your dream journal. Very interesting!

I'm glad you found my dream interesting, Robert.

I saw your model for CMPEs. Very interesting! I see how my dream clearly has some elements of that.

I tend to think of it as a precognitive dream because that's a category I'm familiar with. It's funny because in some ways, the dream was so different from the waking event (a president instead of an author, speaking instead of writing, etc). But in essence, as you can see from the the correlations I listed, they were really precisely the same.

This dream was different than many of my dreams, and weaker in a way, because there were no visual images that correlated with the waking event. Those can be really specific in my dreams--like a squirting hose, or an unusual carved picture frame, or a helicopter flying with a person who's not in it, but beneath it.

It was a dream with that last image in it, as well as other quirky details, that finally convinced me of the reality of psi. That's after years of fence-sitting.

Andrew Paquette just released a book about precognitive dreams with examples from his journal--many of them stunning and infinitely better than mine. It's called Dreamer, and I recently reviewed it on Amazon.

It's an atheist tradition to discount all mystical experiences as hallucinations and illusions created by the brain. They don't have to prove it, they feel it's enough to just say it and everyone will believe them. And very often that is what happens.

We know that our perceptions are not always entirely accurate, and that we should be skeptical and not always trust our senses. But that doesn't mean we should go overboard in the opposite direction and never trust anything we experience.

Dawkins and others like him are not seeking truth or trying to understand the world. They are trying to fit everything into their prefabricated world view.

Bruce, thanks for the mention of the Andrew Paquette book. I think I came across that somewhere, on someone's blog.

realpc, I have noticed the same thing and agree completely. Lately, I have been mulling over a possibility. There is something in Freudian psychology called reaction formation, where you are afraid of some tendency in you, and to defend yourself against it, you adopt a pose of having the opposite tendency. And so, a man with homosexual tendencies will become ultra-macho and homophobic, all to mask his own latent homosexuality.

I wonder if there isn't a certain amount of reaction formation going on with the atheists. The one's I have read (and I admit with some embarrassment to liking Sam Harris, even though I obviously don't agree with him), seem to be almost on a religious mission. There is such a religious quality to their anti-religion mission. It does make you wonder what's really going on there.

Exactly, Robert. We disparage in others exactly those qualities we most dislike in ourselves.

Oh, OK, so you're Bruce Siegel, the guy I was having the Koko the gorilla and life after death conversation with over on Michael Prescott's blog!

That's me!

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