Towards the end of the nineteenth century Émile Zola wrote an interesting novel about Lourdes, the claimed miracles, the character and visions of Bernadette Soubirous and the huge pilgrimage site Lourdes became. He wrote the novel through the eyes of Pierre Froment, a priest struggling with his loss of faith.
The passage below shows how in Zola’s view confusion can be a vehicle for human hopes and passions even when faced with the stark realities of death and incurable disease. Over two centuries earlier Baruch Spinoza saw confusion as the essential element of misguided human thought. Whatever one thinks of the Lourdes phenomenon, it is very far from being the only area where confusion has bypassed painful or inconvenient realities.
Pierre had now begun to understand what was taking place at Lourdes, the extraordinary spectacle which the world had been witnessing for years, amidst the reverent admiration of some and the insulting laughter of others. Forces as yet but imperfectly studied, of which one was even ignorant, were certainly at work — auto-suggestion, long prepared disturbance of the nerves; inspiriting influence of the journey, the prayers, and the hymns; and especially the healing breath, the unknown force which was evolved from the multitude, in the acute crisis of faith.
Thus it seemed to him anything but intelligent to believe in trickery. The facts were both of a much more lofty and much more simple nature. There was no occasion for the Fathers of the Grotto to descend to falsehood; it was sufficient that they should help in creating confusion, that they should utilise the universal ignorance. It might even be admitted that everybody acted in good faith — the doctors void of genius who delivered the certificates, the consoled patients who believed themselves cured, and the impassioned witnesses who swore that they had beheld what they described.
And from all this was evolved the obvious impossibility of proving whether there was a miracle or not. And such being the case, did not the miracle naturally become a reality for the greater number, for all those who suffered and who had need of hope?
Émile Zola – Lourdes (1894)