Guest post by MJ Lisbeth
Years ago, I did a solo bicycle tour from France into Spain and back. Along the way, I stopped in Lourdes. I didn’t expect its waters to heal any of my psychological wounds (of which I had many) or even physical ones (of which I was, at the time, almost entirely free). Rather, I was simply curious.
Having attended Catholic school, I’d heard and read about the supposed Marian apparition. I didn’t expect to see anything of the sort or, really, anything fit for an X Files script. To tell you the truth, even when I was a believing, observant Catholic—or, later, when I conflated something I now realize as a psychological near-breakdown with “accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour” and threw myself into an Evangelical Church and organization—I didn’t believe in divine or Marian apparitions, or anything else that could be called “miraculous” or “supernatural.” Some might argue that on that basis, I never was a “true” Christian, and I won’t argue with that assessment mainly because today, as an atheist, it really doesn’t matter to me. I guess that, if anything, I wondered whether there was some rock formation or something that might’ve looked like the figure of Mary, just as some mirage in the desert might’ve caused someone to think that Jesus or somebody was turning stones into bread or water into wine.
I did have two other reasons for stopping in Lourdes. One, it was along my way and, being a fairly large town in a rural area, I figured I could get something to eat and refill my water bottles, if not with the “holy” stuff. Second, I wanted to get a gift for my mother. I accomplished both: She was happy to receive the Sainte Bernadette medal I bought.
Even if my mother had been indifferent to it, I would have been happy I went to Lourdes. It’s actually a lovely place, in part because of its location in the Pyrenees foothills. (But I must warn any potential traveler: “It ain’t Paris.” When I was there, the cafes and everything else in the town slammed shut at 9pm.) And I continued a correspondence with the man from whom I bought the medal until he passed away. Turns out, he had no more religious belief than I had!
Ironically, my brief stay among thousands of pilgrims, some of whom had saved up for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, may have been a nail in the coffin of whatever belief I still may have had. I wasn’t quite a full-blown atheist, but by that time I had dissociated myself from organized religion and knew that I didn’t—trending toward couldn’t—harbor any faith in a supernatural being. Still, I kept my eyes open for someone who might hobble up to the grotto, take of the water, throw off his or her crutches and skip away, singing praises to the Lord. I’m not sure that such a spectacle would have ignited any kind of faith in me, but I didn’t see anything of the sort.
I am sure other people hoped, or even expected, to see a “cure” or “miracle”—or to be the beneficiary of one themselves. They probably would have had a greater chance of winning the jackpot in the Francaise des Jeux—even the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges that only 69 miraculous cures have occurred at the site since Bernadette Soubrious had her vision in 1858.
What brought all of this back to mind? A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a news item that, even after the Trump Presidency, makes an episode of The X Files seem like The Financial Times.
It happened in the wake of the Texas snowstorm, which itself seems almost surreal. Some folks picked up balls of the white stuff, lit a cigarette lighter or match—or turned on a blow dryer–and, upon seeing that the snow “didn’t melt,” decided that it was fake. Oh, but it gets even better: The “fake” snow is, they believe, part of a “government conspiracy” initiated by, depending on whom you listen to, Bill Gates or Joe Biden himself.
The science behind the “snow that doesn’t melt” is so simple that I—who last took a science class when Jimmy Carter was President—could understand it. You don’t even need my outdated, rudimentary knowledge: If you’ve ever ordered a snow cone on a boardwalk or at a state fair, you’ve seen it: The snow cone remains, well, a snow cone because the water from snow that melts on the surface is absorbed by the remaining snow. (If you’ve ever watched piles of snow disappear over a period of days after a storm, you’ll notice that the snow ever-so-gradually collapses inward and the water seeps out from underneath.) That is how snow cones hold onto their sugary flavor (and why they taste so good)—and why “fake” snow “doesn’t melt.” And the black marks you see in some of the videos are chemical burns from the butane lighters.
The folks who believe in “fake snow” sent by “government conspiracies” are certifiably mentally ill—or they also believe that the “stolen election” was a way “God is testing us” in preparation for Donald Trump inheriting the mantle of the Kingdom of God on Earth. (Did I repeat myself?) Such irrational beliefs are the only possible foundation for a faith or philosophy based on little more than, well, one’s belief in the divinely inherent superiority of one’s race, gender, country, way of life—or beliefs. I grew up in a church that taught us that in putting a wafer in our mouths, we were “partaking” of the “flesh” of Christ, and the sweet wine in the priest’s chalice was Christ’s blood. The Evangelical Church of which I would later be a part told us that “allowing the Lord to speak through you” (Frankly, even then, I thought it was gibberish!) would “save” or “transform” you and, according to some, would cure you of your ills and bring you prosperity. If you were poor or unwell, well, it meant that you needed to pray and believe more.
In brief, the news about “fake snow” and the other lunatic ideas promulgated by the likes of Paula White, Marjorie Scott Taylor, Franklin Graham, Ravi Zacharias, and their ilk are magical thinking, as are the hopes and wishes that motivated the pilgrims I saw in Lourdes. The main difference is that those folks, making what might be their one and only major trip, paid for the experience. So, probably, did the ones who tithed to the churches whose preachers and pastors told them to vote for Trump. On the other hand, Trump, White, Scott Taylor, Graham, Zacharias, et al. are making rather nice bank from the conspiracy theories, dogmas, and flat-out lies.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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