Many atheists, myself included, see certain aspects of religion, and some religions themselves, as scams.  Tricks played on the gullible, exploitation of the vulnerable. It can be difficult to provide substantive proof to back up these opinions.  Where scientology is pretty overt in its quest for money, there are far more subtle tactics being played out every day around the world (oh, is that the collection plate?).

One might argue that anyone who is taken in by the claims of any religion might be considered gullible, or vulnerable, but there are certainly those who are more gullible than others.  I’ve written previously about psychics and mediums, and the way they exploit certain members of our society (and there were some fantastic comments on that post by people who had been taken in by those scammers) but these tactics certainly aren’t limited to the less mainstream belief systems.

A recent example of this is the case of 10,000 people turning up to Knock in Ireland because two visionaries predicted that an apparition of the Virgin Mary would appear.  Yes, unfortunately you read that correctly, 10,000 people.  By now you’re probably assuming that one of two things happened.  Either the apparition did appear, converting every heathen atheist in one foul swoop or it didn’t, and these “visionaries” were laughed out of town.

sheep

Well, this blog is still here and active, so I guess option 1 didn’t pan out, so they must have been laughed out of town, right? Again, unfortunately not.

Mr Coleman left the shrine before 4pm, claiming he had witnessed an aparition, as he had anticipated. He said he had received communication from the Virgin Mary but insisted that he was as yet unprepared to reveal the nature of the message.

So one of the “visionaries” saw the apparition he predicted, provided no proof, no verified witness accounts and doesn’t even want to describe what happened.  Those of us who are inclined to question things might, at this point, be crying foul.  Fortunately for the “visionaries” their target audience are those who do not question, those who are used to believing absurdities, Catholics.

Like most scams, there is an ingenuity to this.  The “visionaries” announced that:

…the visitation would only be visible “to people who come with an open heart”.

This is a statement that crops up whenever supernatural acts come under scrutiny.  If you don’t see/experience/feel it, then you aren’t worthy/open (delete as appropriate).

There are two very interesting aspects to this case.  Firstly, this has been done before by the same visionaries.

Earlier this month an estimated 5,000 gathered at Knock Shrine for a similar gathering with some people claiming to have seen the sun dancing in the sky.

The sun dancing in the sky.  The sun, dancing in the sky.  To qualify that claim, I’d like to point you to this description of the TV coverage:

I saw it on TV here in Ireland yesterday. The camera panned across the crowd and there was a 50ish woman using binoculars to get a better look – of the sun! Yup, this stuff truly is for idiots.

So clearly the only logical explanation for that is the sun moving in the sky, but only being visible in that particular part of the world.  Witnesses doing damage to their eyes by staring at the sun couldn’t possibly explain what they saw.

The second interesting aspect to this is that it’s very nearly illegal to actually criticise this event in Ireland.  The absurd, draconian blasphemy law is doing it’s best to allow the vulnerable to continue to be exploited by people like these “visionaries” (to be clear, I’m not suggesting that they are directly gaining in financial terms from these apparitions) because no one dares speak out against them for fear of prosecution.  A law like that curtails free speech, permits the vulnerable to be exploited and pushes back progress in religious discourse decades.

And this really brings me back to the point of this post.  Atheists, at times, do things that I don’t agree with. They, occasionally, make me embarrassed to be an atheist.  Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence.  If I were religious, I’d be incredibly angry at events like this which make theists look unstable, deranged, jealous, paranoid and incredibly gullible.  How can theists be expected to be taken seriously when things like this happen again and again?  As I’ve learned, you sometimes get tarred with the same brush as the worst of your kind.

Sheep picture by jetteketet.