Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions and Healing Cures

By Joe Nickell

Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 1998, 253 pp., paperback, $19.00.

Reviewed by Douglas Petherbridge

Here is a skeptics' guide to religion-based supernatural phenomena. The focus is mostly on miracles linked to Catholicism and its branches, with short asides into religions of the East. Nickell makes the rounds of all of the most widely known and publicized cases: The Shroud of Turin, The Image of Guadalupe, Fatima and Lourdes. Also included are the many instances of weeping statues, snake handling, visions, prophecies and revival-type healings, as well as many others. The author plays the role of debunker with restrained zeal, and to the book's credit, he does write of his actual personal investigations into the "miracles" in some cases. However, the study mainly relies on the work of former hoax revealers such as Hume and Houdini, and the text is thoroughly referenced.

Particularly interesting is the case of the Shroud of Turin. Nickell retells its long history and chronicles how the Shroud's veracity has fared in light of many scientific studies, including carbon dating. It is supposed to be the burial cloth of Jesus, whose likeness miraculously was transferred to it. The arguments made by skeptics are quite convincing: the image transference is not mentioned in the New Testament, the shroud did not appear until 1355, in 1389 an artist admitted to creating the false relic, and it does not hold up to carbon dating. Nickell references modern studies into the veracity of the shroud including The Shroud of Turin Research Project, sponsored by the Catholic church, and a 1983 study by the International Association for Identification, which result in somewhat conflicting conclusions. The readers will have to decide for themselves.

The historical background of the shrine at Lourdes, France, is another narrative which Nickell's book brings into light. The story is engaging and could be the subject of a book in itself. In 1858, Bernadette Soubirous, age fourteen, told of seeing a vision near a spring in Lourdes. Nickell relates how the vision led to a frenzy in the country, with thousands making pilgrimage to the spring. The girl was deified and many credited the waters with healing powers, although no real healing could ever be proved. Throughout the years the town of Lourdes has profited greatly from its proximity to the shrine, yet ironically, the citizens of Lourdes are no healthier than those of any other town. As it turns out, Bernadette was rather sickly for the rest of her life.

This case, as well as others in the book, points to how many of the miracles follow a similar pattern: one person witnesses a miracle, they are typically someone with strong religious beliefs, they have detailed knowledge of other miracles, they are at an emotionally needy time in their life, and they may have claimed to have witnessed other miracles before. This causes a sort of spontaneous religious hysteria among the surrounding population; the original witness is deified and the eyewitness accounts regarding the miracle site start to increase in number, variety, and implausibility. There is a sort of snowball effect. Even nearby towns claim their own miracles. This miracle-mania is outlined in the book, yet Nickell does not give any explanation as to why people would rather irrationally believe in a fairly obvious hoax than investigate the often conflicting details of any single case -- and this is also to book's credit -- the author just focuses on the cases at hand and not on psychology.

Looking for a Miracle is published by Prometheus Press, which is affiliated with The Skeptical Inquirer, and there is the rather pompous tone of SI throughout the book. Also, within the first few pages of the introduction, Nickell has already reduced the phenomena of miracles to the level of "Elvis Sightings" at your neighborhood gas station. But the book does present the testimony and arguments of believers as well as skeptics. Furthermore, the ground covered by the author is broad, and the nature of miracle-mania, which has been around much longer than UFO-mania or the like, is an important study for forteans. The book brings into focus the unreliability of eyewitness accounts from a single person or from a whole community, and it makes one wonder about the UFO accounts of the 1940s and 1970s, as well as other mass sightings of strange events.