The Sciences

Knock visions lead to eye damage

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitDec 2, 2009 10:30 PM


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Last month, I wrote about thousands of people at the Knock shrine in Ireland who stared at the Sun because they thought they were seeing visions of the Virgin Mary. I specifically said, "That’s a bad idea: it can cause temporary blindness, and permanent damage to the retina..." Guess what? Yup. A doctor in Ireland says he is seeing an unprecedented rise in the number of cases of solar retinopathy, damage to the eye from staring at the Sun. Moreover, those cases are directly linked to the Knock "visions":

Dr Eamonn O’Donoghue, a consultant ophthalmologist surgeon in University Hospital Galway, says the hospital would usually see one case of solar retinopathy “at most” per year. However, this year there have been five such cases, all of which have been linked to events at Knock. Dr O’Donoghue said people needed to be warned of the condition as it was “potentially very, very dangerous” and could cause long-term damage to the most vulnerable part of the eye. “These people came in because they have had a significant reduction in their vision and they could very well be a smaller representative sample,” Dr O’Donoghue said, adding that two of those who had presented to the hospital had also reported that other members of their families had suffered visual damage.

As I wrote before, if people want to believe in something, that's their right. But when it causes physical damage, including potentially permanent diminution of eyesight, where do we draw the line? I imagine parents at Knock were telling their children to look at the Sun, too. Realistically, trying to stop this sort of thing is extremely difficult. It's obvious that staring at the Sun is dangerous, but because the people involved were having a religious experience they tend to get a pass in the media (in the original news article, an unnamed skeptic got one line, but believers got far more attention). If this happened in America I would think that it would be covered very delicately by the press. But imagine if this happened at some cult compound in a rural part of a state, and children were involved. There'd be a public outcry, and it's not too much to expect that the government would take action. This is a real problem. When I write an article about a person who sees Jesus on a burnt iron or the Virgin Mary in a wood grain pattern, no matter how polite I am someone always accuses me of being arrogant, and asking how dare I make fun of someone's belief? This is why I dare do it. Belief is one thing, but when it leads to obvious physical or mental harm then we are obligated to speak up. I have no problem with respecting people's feelings, or the fact that their beliefs are an important part of their own identities -- even if I don't necessarily respect the belief itself -- but when that leads to something like staring at the Sun, or not protecting your children from disease, then we cannot give people a free pass just because they are acting on their religious beliefs. Tip o' the sun filter to Cian Finnerty and Len Feehan.

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