Power of belief in sceptical times

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The Independent Online

Religious Affairs Correspondent

Outside the developed world, there is nothing very miraculous about miracles. Claims include people rising from the dead in southern Africa to miraculous healing of every sort of disease, from lung cancer to Aids.

In one of the most celebrated miracles of the century, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared at Fatima in Portugal in 1915, after which 80,000 Portuguese saw the sun zoom crazily around the sky. However, the meaning of a miracle, most theologians nowadays argue, is only apparent to someone who already speaks the language.

The idea of a God who would intervene in unambiguous ways to conquer evil has been fairly well discredited in a century which has probably seen more genocide than any other. Yet belief in significant, inexplicable events is widespread.

The most widely believed reports of miracles this century centre around the repeated appearances of the Virgin Mary, of which there have been at least 70. The Virgin often warns of impending catastrophes and demands holy living to avert them.

Miracles of healing are more controversial. The criteria at Lourdes are strict and none has been accepted for 20 years. But some Christian evangelists who depend on raising cash from the faithful still claim wholesale healing miracles.