Knock visions lead to eye damage

By Phil Plait | December 2, 2009 11:30 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pareidolia, Religion
MORE ABOUT: solar retinopathy

Comments (62)

  1. I thought it was doing something else that made you blind.

  2. Ward

    It is ridiculous that people do this not only to themselves but to children. I’m all for personal beliefs and freedom of religion but serioulsy. Staring at an object that is going to cause damage to you defies any logic.

    You will see the holy ghost if you get hit by a moving vehical. Though to be honest if god and heaven are real then this little scenario isn’t to far off because odds are it will kill you and you will see it.

    Believe in whatever religion you want, but don’t be stupid about it.

  3. 1. Davidlpf Says: “I thought it was doing something else that made you blind.”

    “But, mom, can I just do it until I need glasses?”

    – Jack

  4. chris

    Who cares? let them go blind. I think this is what Darwin was talking about.

  5. OK, after the first two comments, there are no other witty observations that can be made.

  6. Zargam

    well…im speechless.. =S

  7. “It must have been a miracle. How else can you explain my blindness?”

  8. I’d type another witty response, but the fur on my palms is sticking in the keyboard.

  9. Hey it could of been a Knock, Knock joke.

  10. So let me get this straight: kittens are not affected by the actions implied above?

  11. It’s bizarre how often this sort of things happens, and in different places too.

  12. I know it is not funny what happened to them but most people know not to look at the sun. Just because you think you are going to see the mommy of a religious leader does not change that.

  13. Mario

    We had that kind of staring-into-the-sun-and-seeing-Jesus-eating-a-taco thing here in Spain too. It seems that stupidity is international.

  14. Shame you don’t get this bent up about abortion. People are killing 115,000 children A DAY and you’re venting and fuming about 5 people who have damaged their eyes? They’re exercising their religious freedom. OK – It’s stupid, but the world if full of stupid people, some religious, some not, and stupidity isn’t regulated, forbidden, or even hereditary (although I think you might be able to get it from your kids). Heck, it doesn’t even prevent people from posting blog comments… 😛

  15. Gonzo

    I have to agree with chris (#4). Who cares?

    Yeah, yeah, I know, the children, the children. What-the-frack-ever.

  16. tacitus

    Yep, pro-choice people are not allowed to get upset about anything that causes harm to children, or even adults because they “don’t care about the holocaust of abortion”. That’s the magic of the abortion issue, it doesn’t matter what subject is under discussion, the anti-abortion crowd can play the abortion card and claim to trump any argument being used against them. Far easier than trying to formulate a reasoned argument themselves.

  17. badnicolez

    @Chris #4 – Hear, hear! Unfortunately, though, blindness doesn’t prevent them or their children from reproducing.

  18. Michelle R

    Well OBVIOUSLY the ones that turned blind weren’t faithful enough. D’uh.

    sigh… It burns.

  19. Wayne on the plains

    Okay, before everyone starts drawing up their battle plans to hijack this thread with abortion debates, let’s instead just agree that we agree on the fundamental moral principles involved. Women have a right to their bodies and children have a right to life. The entire debate is not about moral principles at all, it is simply a matter of a definition, namely, defining when a collection of cells becomes a human being. So, both sides please spare us the moral arguments and if you must debate, simply debate the merits of your particular definition of the beginning of life. My personal opinion is that once there is a separate heartbeat, there is a separate life (about 5 weeks), but I can appreciate that arguments can be made from conception to birth based on various biological and religious factors.

  20. Sir Craig

    Wayne @ 18:

    Not letting the thread be hijacked – you’re doing it WRONG.

    Emory: Go away.

    Back to the topic at hand… I find it amazing that these people have forgotten the lesson of the magnifying glass and the ants. They do understand their eyes have nice lenses on the front, right?

  21. Wayne on the plains

    Sir Craig #19,

    The irony was not lost on me, just trying for forestall additional posts and personal attacks.

    Emory: Don’t go away, but let’s stay on topic.

    I don’t know if people think about the optics, but you’d think the pain would be enough to make them stop. Then again, my very smart HS physics teacher used to look at the Sun as a kid working off the theory that “pain makes your muscles stronger, so pain = improvement”. He also rotted his teeth eating lemons because he read they were nutritious. Too little knowledge, even to a logical mind, can be dangerous.

  22. Sir Craig


    We need an &#60irony&#62 notation after these things…

    As for pain, yes, any normal, non-rapture intent person would think, “Hey, staring at the sun makes my eyes hurt – I’d better knock it off,” but we’re not talking about normal people. Think of all the religiously enthralled types in the Philippines who willingly crucify themselves around Easter, or those who go about self-flagellating (minds out of the gutter, people – I said flagellate) – pain is easily overcome when your sanity goes bye-bye…

  23. Am I the only one who definitively finds it tragic that young children could be told by their parents to stare at a searing ball of fusing plasma? It’s not a “think of the children” issue in the sense of some legislative agenda to take away adult rights. No, this is a *clear-cut* case of unabashed religious stupidity. Most cases aren’t so blindingly (heh, sorry) obvious.

    Yeah, it’s sad that doctors should even HAVE to tell people not to flood their retinas with radiation, or stick forks in their eyes, or whatever. But it’s also sad that they could be brainwashed into thinking that crap is a good idea in the first place.

    Gonzo & Chris: Don’t be “social Darwinists”. That garbage has nothing to do with Chucky D or biological evolution, and in fact our ability to deny the prerogatives of our “selfish genes” makes us *more* human.

  24. Seriously Phil, there comes a time when you don’t have to respect anyone’s beliefs. Saying you respect their beliefs/practices up to the point of imminent danger is a good safety net for you and others because it allows you to say “I’m not condescending; I’m just looking out for the greater good.”

    But let’s call this one what it is: Pure Stupidity. The thermonuclear furnace around which we orbit is not magic, has never been magic and will never be magic. Amazing, sure. Not magic.

  25. ^ ++ Eyeballs are not, and have never been, magic either.

  26. has

    So anyway, an Irishman walks into a bar…

  27. Jason Nyberg

    It’s ok, they can just pray for their eyes to heal… Surely God will tend to these devoted souls.

  28. #26: Ouch, good one!

  29. Big Al

    Hey, I heard that if you go out at night and watch for these really pretty meteors from the vicinity of M20….

  30. tacitus

    Seriously Phil, there comes a time when you don’t have to respect anyone’s beliefs. Saying you respect their beliefs/practices up to the point of imminent danger is a good safety net for you and others because it allows you to say “I’m not condescending; I’m just looking out for the greater good.”

    It’s a question of the right time and place. An old colleague of mine (and a very nice person) once commented on how a discussion I’d just had with another person about the potential for various geological disasters (super-volcanoes, super-tsunami, etc.) was very interesting because it reminded him very much of Noah’s flood in the Bible. (To him this was a historic event.) Though my brain was going “I can’t believe you could be so deluded that you think that all really happened” my mouth went something like “Uh-huh” and quickly changed the subject.

    As a colleague and friend I afforded him enough respect not to call him out for believing that nonsense since believing that Noah’s flood is real history isn’t, by itself, going to cause harm to others, and while I was fully aware that the other fundamentalists beliefs that go along with that might be cause for concern, it just wasn’t the right time and place to call him out.

    If he’d have been listening to a discussion on vaccines and he had then confided in me that he wasn”t going to get his children vaccinated because it was all a government plot to brainwash the children of America, I would have come back armed with all the statistic and information I could find and told him in no uncertain terms (politely) that he could not be more wrong.

  31. Woody Tanaka

    I think that any parent who told their kid to stare into the sun should have his kid taken away and he should be tossed in jail. I am not kidding about this. This is child abuse, pure and simple.

  32. When #26 says “walks into a bar” he means he really walks into the bar! Bangs his shin painfully! He’d been looking at the Sun and was blind, of course…

    I somehow missed the earlier post about all this, and I’m shocked that this can happen in the industrialized world. It doesn’t surprise me too much when it happens in the third world (though it really should, maybe I’ve devolved from skeptical to cynical, dunno) but this just shows me that we must remain ever vigilant. Ignorance is far too easy and people will take the easy path every time.

    Teh stoopid really burns! -[flames shooting from eyes]-

  33. @tacitus: What specifically made that not “the right time” to call him out on Noah’ flood? I’m still grappling with this concept of just why nonsensical fundie beliefs should be afforded such breathing room. After all, your colleague felt free to bring it up right then and there, correct?
    Isn’t calling out woo and patently false things part of Phil’s (and the JREF’s) message on “eternal vigilance”? If you don’t speak up immediately, it gives bad ideas time to flourish. Couldn’t you at least said “no, actually these geological disasters are nothing like a mythical global flood” before changing the subject?
    In a way it’s almost patronizing to let someone you value go on with rubbish beliefs, pat them on the head, and label it “respect”. I’d think actual respect for a person’s cognitive faculties would instead entail challenging their bald-faced statements, especially on factual matters like geologic history.
    Of course, I do it too, but I think of it more as a nasty habit like biting my nails :p

  34. Radwaste

    Respect beliefs? Be politically correct about them? Oh, yeah, that’s spiffy.

  35. Amenhotepstein

    Any word from the Catholic church in Ireland? Like, maybe “DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN! IT IS NOT THE VIRGIN!” All a quick Google search could find is one archbishop saying people were “being misled”. Not exactly a blanket condemnation and call to stop imediately.

  36. tacitus

    @Brock: That’s a fair question. I think the issue goes to understanding that most people have the ability to compartmentalize their irrational belief system. My colleague may have been a young earth creationist, but he was a darned good programmer and a great team player. His religious beliefs had never had any impact on his ability to do his work, so in the interests of comity, I didn’t feel it would have been productive to begin engaging in such a debate. (I was also his team lead at the time, which makes the issue a little more complicated given the rules of the workplace, but that’s not really the key point.)

    I guess I could have said something along the lines without getting embroiled in a debate over religious beliefs, but the moment passed quickly (we were walking out of the office at the end of the day) and it certainly wasn’t something I was willing to dive back into the next day.

    There is also the question of how much anxiety you want to risk dropping into someone’s life. I am an atheist and while I am not “in the closet” I don’t seek out chances to challenge someone’s sincerely held beliefs (not in real life anyway). If it comes up I will defend my corner, but I don’t really have any desire to undermine someone else’s irrational beliefs if they aren’t impacting others in a serious way.

    Take the chap in question, for example. His wife is also a fundamentalist, and a majority of his social life revolved around his church life. If I had pushed the issue so hard that he began to question a major aspect of his faith, then not only am I disturbing his life, but also the life of those around him. (In the extreme cases, marriages have ended over such things.) You can blame me for being oversensitive (I admit that I am too empathetic at times, but that’s just the way God made me :) ), but while I understand that leaving him alone in his delusion serves to propagate that delusion into the next generation, I don’t think it’s my place to risk disrupting a colleagues life over what was really a trivial matter in that particular context.

    But above all, most people are defined by much more than their religious beliefs. We get a distorted view through the filter of the internet where people are much freer with their opinions. In real life — and particularly in a workplace where religious and political discussions are discouraged, (for obvious reasons) someone’s irrational beliefs are usually just not that important in a casual relationship. My colleague’s faith was obviously very important to him in his personal life but it wasn’t at all in the context of our working relationship and friendship. If I had directly challenged his beliefs, it would have necessarily changed that relationship, possibly in a way that would have made it harder to work together.

    In terms of respect, it also can be tricky. Again, it’s easy to show disrespect for the views of some anonymous commenter or a public figure you don’t know personally since you are only getting a very one-dimensional view of that person. But finding out that a friend or colleague you know has irrational beliefs doesn’t necessarily invalidate the respect you might already have for them as a valued friend or colleague. You have to decide whether or not you want to risk damaging your relationship with that person over that one thing, and that depends on what it is, and the type of person you are dealing with. Not everyone has the strength of personality to come out of such a challenge unscathed.

    So, like I said (before all this rambling!), there’s a time and a place.

    (P.S. Just to make it clear, I am talking about irrational beliefs that are not going to directly lead to harm and injury. Alt-med issues — like if a friend who is thinking about taking homeopathic medication instead of seeking real medical help — are a different matter entirely)

  37. Scot Danner

    The opposite occurs in some countries. In Dubai in 1999, there was an 89% eclipse of the sun (totality was in Iran, making it tantalisingly impossible for me to travel a few hundred miles to see it.)

    The usual warnings about not looking directly at the sun without protection became distorted into a general fear of the “harmful rays” of the eclipse. The President of the United Arab Emirates issued a warning to pregnant women to stay indoors to avoid damage to their unborn children. The entire city of Dubai shut down: people stayed home from work. The normally busy roads were deserted. The hysteria was not surprising, but it was amusing. Less disturbing than people stupid enough to damage their eyes, but only just.

  38. tacitus

    When speaking religion things can get very hairy indeed. Beliefs can be such a large part of a person’s life – so large that those beliefs may, at least in part, define who they are. It’s my experience that when those beliefs are ridiculed it quickly becomes an attack on the individual who holds those beliefs. So, I understand there being a “time and place” for ridicule. I know you don’t want to jeopardize what appears to be a fruitful working relationship with this guy, but he must also realize that his beliefs have jack squat to do with your programming business.

    Now, when somebody brings up something that is demonstrably false, they need to be called on it. Period. Being a geologist who has no inclination to believe in spirits, I would not have been able to let this one go. He would have been ripped a new one on the history of the planet alone.

    Suppose another colleague talks about how they’d like to invest in unicorn breeding, and they’re dead serious. Would you really be able to respect their belief of unicorns? Would you really be able to respect them? I’d find it very difficult.

  39. steeleweed

    Stop stupid people from having children.
    Stop protecting stupid people from the consequences of their stupidity.
    Per Darwin, there would eventually be a lot less stupidity in the world,

  40. Davros

    Hey you got Farked

  41. I'd rather be fishin'

    Irish proverb: A fool and his eyes are soon parted.

    #32 got it slightly wrong when he said “Teh stoopid really burns! -[flames shooting from eyes]-“. |The flames should be shooting into the eyes.

  42. Jinx

    A prelude to natural selection, at its finest. If someone is stupid enough to destroy their eyesight over this, then perhaps they deserve to be blind and shouldn’t contribute anything to the gene pool.

  43. Wilberforce

    @Wayne on the plains: ” HS physics teacher used to look at the Sun as a kid working off the theory that “pain makes your muscles stronger, so pain = improvement”. ”

    Surely you meant your ‘physical education’ teacher.

  44. Mergatroid

    I agree with #4. This is evolution in action. Let them do what they want. Also, let their insurance company deny their claims due to self inflicted damage.

  45. Petrolonfire

    @35. Amenhotepstein


    Of course our Sun is a virgin! How dare you cast these foul calummny’s at our daytime stars chaste reputation! I’m quite sure our Sun has never made it to first base or even held hands let alone been deflowered! 😉

  46. csrster

    This _has_ happened in America. In fact not that many years ago there was an outbreak of this lunacy (solarcy?) at the Mother Cabrini shrine, not very far from where you now live. (And I would guess that staring at the Sun at an altitude of a mile through the clear thin Rocky Mountain air is considerably more dangerous than doing so in Ireland.)

  47. Richie

    Classic case for

  48. Jar Jya Binks Killer

    @ 44 Petrolonfire :

    Of course our Sun is a virgin! How dare you cast these foul calummny’s at our daytime stars chaste reputation! I’m quite sure our Sun has never made it to first base or even held hands let alone been deflowered.

    Any man trying to pop the Sun’s cherry is heading for a world (or should that be *star*?) of pain! 😉

    Although our mother Sun sure is one *HOT* mamma! 😉

    (‘Bout six thouand degrees hot yeah?)

  49. dr_cy_coe

    “It’s a MIRACLE! I could see, but now I am blind.”

  50. Ian

    re: staring at the sun. Is it something that one gets more sensitive to as they get older? As a kid I remember I used to stare at the sun without protection for seconds, even a minute, up to the point where it turns a brilliant blue and looks like a round pill suspended in the sky. As you look away the image is burned in. But no ill effects were noted. However as an adult I find it very difficult to do the same now, and I expect that if I forced myself I would do damage. so, are childrens’ eyes more able to shield the harmful rays?

  51. Not to make Ireland look any more backward (because it’s not, really) but that was only the second religious nutters story this year. The first involves a tree stump:

  52. Gonzo

    Gonzo & Chris: Don’t be “social Darwinists”. That garbage has nothing to do with Chucky D or biological evolution, and in fact our ability to deny the prerogatives of our “selfish genes” makes us *more* human.

    Oh give me a break. Don’t be so self-righteous. Religion is dangerous as hell. I will not doll out sympathy for idiots. I say again, who cares if these morons go blind? Maybe it’ll wake some people up to the lie that is religion.

  53. Nigel Depledge

    Ward (2) said:

    Believe in whatever religion you want, but don’t be stupid about it.

    Erm …

    No, I’ll refrain from making the obvious comment. But I did chuckle when I read this line.

  54. Nigel Depledge

    Emory Stagmer (14) said:

    Shame you don’t get this bent up about abortion.

    Erm … off-topic much?

    People are killing 115,000 children A DAY and you’re venting and fuming about 5 people who have damaged their eyes?

    You’re ignoring the core of that debate and presenting your personal view as if it were fact. It ain’t. Different nations have different definitions of what is and isn’t permitted.

    The reality is that there’s a whole grey area, and you’re assuming that your viewpoint is the right one. Perhaps you should try to demonstrate that you are right before spouting off like that?

    They’re exercising their religious freedom. OK – It’s stupid, but the world if full of stupid people, some religious, some not, and stupidity isn’t regulated, forbidden, or even hereditary (although I think you might be able to get it from your kids).

    Well, some forms of ignorance and stupidity are hereditary in the vaguest sense of the word – because most children accept without question what their parents teach them, up to about the age of 12, anyhow.

  55. Wayne on the plains

    @ Wilberforce #43,

    Nope, he taught physics and chemistry (very well, I might add). I did say this was when he was a KID, probably 1950’s. The amazing thing is that he was able to admit such foolishness. He was probably making a point that logic can lead you astray if you don’t have enough information.

  56. Andrea

    Ian, children heal faster than adults and can recover from things that an adult could not. Also, when staring at the sun things like cloud cover, relative humidity, and altitude play a part. Did you live somewhere else as a child?

  57. Stuart

    In this secular republic known as the United State of American no on is required to respect anyone’s religion or religious beliefs. We respect one’s right to have such, but we are not required to respect what they believe. There is a difference.

    I have no respect what so ever for the beliefs of those who use them to justify flying airliners into buildings, or blowing themselves up with bombs to kill others in the hope of being serviced by virgins for eternity, do any of you?

    I respect their right to believe what they do, but I have no respect of or for what they believe.

    To me, respect can not be commanded or demanded, but only earned.

    Those who use religion to harm themselves and others earn no respect from me for what they believe or for their beliefs.

  58. @tacitus: Sorry it’s late, but thanks for the reply. I’ve been in similar situations with coworkers that believe nonsense. Usually it works out such that I slip in a bit of dry sarcasm and we both drop the topic fast. Although on one occasion I took the time to research and find documentation on why one woman’s alt-med (“colloidal silver!”) statements were woo, but she dismissed it with some half-mumbled conspiracy theory about the FDA not knowing what they’re doing and somehow being in bed with the pharmaceutical industry anyway… *sigh*

  59. Mike C.

    I used to feel a bit down for being only half Irish. This story made me rethink that.


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