BOOK REVIEW / Maybe the sun dances, maybe saucers fly: The dancing sun - Desmond Seward: Macmillan, pounds 17.50

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ON 13 OCTOBER 1917 at Fatima a crowd of about 50,000 people allegedly saw the Sun dance. It was the climax to a series of visitations by the Virgin Mary to three Portuguese peasant children, and since then the 'Sun dance' phenomenon has proliferated: it has been observed in Poland, at Medjugorje in the former Yugoslavia, in Czechoslovakia and at Garabandal in Spain; every time associated with Marian visions.

If the Sun had literally leapt out of its orbit at those places, the solar system would have collapsed and the Earth been destroyed. So what is going on in such cases: collective hypnosis, mass hysteria, or delusion caused by religious mania?

An interesting book could be written on this subject. Unfortunately, Desmond Seward, an ultramontane Catholic of extreme right-wing political views (he is a member of the Knights of Malta), simply reiterates, on his visits to the respective European shrines, that these phenomena are literally true. He does not, however, let us in on the secret of his cosmology, for a universe that worked partly on the principles of Newton and Einstein and partly on Seward's Sun-dancing, would make the world of quantum physics a child's two-piece puzzle by comparison.

The most interesting feature of this book is the author's intellectual laziness (evinced, for one thing, by the lack of an index). Had this volume issued from a Catholic publishing house, one could have left it there. But it comes from a mainstream publisher and is, therefore, presumably meant to instruct, entertain, or even persuade a general audience.

Seward, however, makes no concessions. He does not even offer a definition of miracles, when it is well known that many so-called supernatural wonders have naturalistic causes. On one reading, the rise of Mark Thatcher to the status of multi-millionaire could be deemed miraculous, for how could a rather dim, failed accountant become so rich? Since we are assured that maternal influence and defence industry kickbacks played no part in his success, we must assuredly be dealing with a phenomenon allied to Seward's Sun-dancing.

Seward makes a few nods in the direction of Goethe, Renan and Turgenev who, rightly, exposed the fallacy of any religion that needs miracles to buttress its credibility, but then persists as if he were talking to a benighted reactionary cleric. Surprisingly, he makes no mention of the work on miracles by David Hume, or by modern philosophers such as Anthony Flew, Richard Swinburne and Donald McKinnon.

Even more surprisingly, there is no mention of the debate within Catholicism between followers of Thomas Aquinas, who claimed that God alone could work miracles, and those of Pope Benedict XIV, who thought that the privilege extended also to the angels and the Virgin Mary (though not to the demons). Most astonishing of all is the absence from Seward's pages of Jung, who was interested in the Fatima apparitions as part of the general psychology of visions, famously explored in his essay Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky.

All Seward can offer us is a rechauffee of the tired old Tertullian dictum: credo quia absurdum. But, as has many times been pointed out, if you believe in one absurdity, why not another? The composer John Ireland claimed to have seen fairies, as did Conan Doyle. George V claimed to have seen the Flying Dutchman and legions of mariners have described the Sea Serpent.

Once you accept the authenticity of Sun-dancing, the floodgates open. It is not surprising that intellectually serious Catholics like to keep Fatima, Garabandal and Medjugorje at arm's length. Seward frequently laments the good old days before Vatican II, when Catholics had to fast from midnight until Communion before taking a well-earned breakfast.

Doubtless the extended period of the fast he became used to in the Fifties explains his capacity to believe several dozen different absurdities before breakfast.