3rd of January, 2009: Epic slow news day

The culpritIt must have ben a slow news day, because I ended up finding this story in the "National" section of the Sydney Morning Herald, normally a fairly reliable news source:

Holy vision greeted return of Mary MacKillop's nuns

 OK, I mean seriously, WTF? You mean just because an SMH fluff-peddler had a boring day, I have to beat up on some old codger from SA? Fair enough, let's get moving.

The story tells of a 93-year-old man called "Nat Renfrey", a devout catholic and long-term resident of Penola, Mary McKillop's home town. Supposedly, in 1936, when 20 years old, at Renfrey was playing tennis with friends when he heard the approach of a train, braking to pull in to the station. I'll let Nat continue the narrative:

"I was chasing a ball across the road towards the train tracks when I heard the train and looked up to see an intense light that grew larger and larger until it was plain to all of us that it was a cross," Mr Renfrey said.

OK, right.....

"We knew the nuns were on the train, but I wasn't seeing things. There were four of us there that day - my sister, two mates and myself - and we all saw the cross in the sky - and one of my mates was an atheist."

Ah, great. OK. Thanks Mr Renfrey, that's all we needed to know, You can go back to playing dominoes and complaining about the modern age now if you like. Nice detail on one of your mates being an atheist, by the way, I'm sure you think that adds credibility, and I'm also sure I think otherwise. After all, this was over 70 years ago, and this is the first time this story seems to have hit the press.... Anyway....

There's something familar about this scenario. Where have I heard something similar before? Oh, wait, I know! and it's a doozy!

And here it is

To reprint the first paragraph:

The last time I ever saw Anthony Sherman was on July 4, 1859, in Independence Square. He was then 99 years old, and becoming very feeble. But though so old, his dimming eyes rekindled as he gazed upon Independence Hall, which he came to visit once more. "Let us go into the hall," he said. "I want to tell you an incident of Washington's life - one which no one alive knows of except myself; and, if you live, you will before long, see it verified.

OK, details check:

  • old guy, close to the old coil shuffle
  • religious vision angle
  • he's never told anyone else up until now

Brilliant, we're on track. The story above, paraphrased, tells how George Washington, while camped at Valley Forge after some military reversals, was troubled. However, divine providence! Out of the blue he receives a visitation, evidently from a major hottie, who, assisted by some other clearly more trustworthy presences, vouchsafes unto him a bunch of info about what will become of the fledgling republic. It's all pretty ordinary, banal stuff, not prophetic rocket science.

The catch is, the whole thing is bullshit, either cut from the whole cloth by the journo Wesley Bradshaw, or credulously accepted by Bradshaw upon meeting the real Anthony Sherman, who according to extant pension records certainly served in the war but was as certainly NOT with Washington at the time (he was actually serving under Benedict Arnold, not Washington). Thousands of sources all over the dread interwebs have reprinted this as fact, not pausing for a moment to think to themselves "hey, just how bullshitty is this story?"

So, we have either a faudulent journo, a fraudulent source, or a work of fiction overhyped by credulous retellers.

Or a combination of all three, of course

So, Nat. Dear old Nat. Is there any reason you can think of why any person interested in the world the way it actually is should believe the drivel you just spouted all over the national press, with the able assistance of Daniel Murphy, fluff journalist extraordinaire? Can you produce the companions who saw this vision with you, or are they all, quel surprise, dead as fucking doornails?

In short, Nat, why the fuck should I believe you are anything other than a washed up old liar out for a bit of national attention before you pop your catholic clogs?

Hello? Nat?

Oh, guess it must be nap time Anyway, I'll be sure to keep those fucking kids off your lawn until you wake up Nat, because let's face it, I'm waiting for an answer.


Jett Travolta is dead

Many media outlets are reporting on this, most under their "entertainment" sections, and this being the case, you may wonder, if you're not already in the know, why I'm writing about it, on the homepage of a self-confessed atheist, geek, climber, curmudgeon. How can this possibly tie back to the topic this blog is ostensibly based on?

Well, if you'll allow me to elaborate, this ties back to potential harm caused by religious dogma. Come with me on a journey into dogma unleashed.

You see, Jett Travolta, in addition to being a 16 year old kid prone to seizures and exhibiting symptoms some have tied with autism, was the teenage son of Scientology's #2 couple, John Travolta and Kelly Preston. And furthermore, some of the key tenets of Scientology include a belief that psychological and psychiatric illness, including things like epilepsy and seizures, do not really exist as we outside Scientology know them.

Witness, for instance, Tom Cruise lambasting Brooke Shields for her use of drugs to combat post-natal depression*, and his additional rants against psychiatry. Or, closer to home, read of Tim Brunero's meetings with local Scientology flack Cyrus Brooks. Aditionally there is plenty of documentary evidence of the cult business fully respectable church's stance on medication including anti-seizure medication, ranging from personal accounts to leaked documents to direct statements from spokespeople.

So, let's talk about established facts: what we have is a kid prone to seizures, cared for by parents whose professed belief system states that the medication for these seizures is, quite literally, a product of evil and someting to be avoided at any cost.

Can anyone see where I'm going with this?

Now, until autopsy results are revealed and investigations completed, tying Jett Travolta's tragic death to Scientology doctrine is complete speculation, but in my opinion such speculation is justified, indeed needed. If an investigation failed to explore this angle, heads really ought to roll, but again I'm prying into legal areas in which I have no standing, so back to the default stance we go. Any speculation on the Jett Travolta incident, at this time, is just that: speculation.

Still, until the facts are in, I'm using the high profile of this incident to highlight a wider problem

We already have ample documentary evidence that the doctrines of numerous "religions" cause clear medical harm. Deaths preventable by simple transfusion are recorded in great numbers from the Jehovah's Witnesses, and deaths from neglect of even simple ilnesses are recorded in surprising numbers in the case of Christian Science. Individual parents have been convicted of negligent manslaughter in numerous cases. This is not far-fetched. Once your dogma starts to make medical claims, death and illness are the inevitable result.

So far, I've been talking about preventable deaths from illnesses mankind already has the means to conquer. What about an even worse level of harm? What about death directly inflicted, rather than death through neglect? As with other cults/religions/groups, call them what you will, we also see murder, manslaughter and suicide manifest due to dogma, as in this scientology-related case right here in Sydney, or this honour killing in Jordan as just one example of an entire genre, and as a final dessert, the most famous mass suicide of them all, Jonestown**, and this is without even mentioning September 11th 2001, possibly the most spectacular case of dogma enabling mass murder on record.

All the world's religions have cases of death or harm directly inflicted by believers on others either justified post-hoc, or caused, by dogma.

So, again, does anyone want to question why I'm opposed to religion, unreason and dogma? Would anyone now like to stand up and tell the world that these deaths are justified because doctrine must be adhered to, and that the beliefs of those causing the harm must be respected at any cost?

I thought not.

To round out this post, which I'm sure is going to cause problems one way or another, I'd like to mention that harm of the sort I'm outlining here is not restricted to minority cults and fringe religions.  Death, ilness, bankruptcy and the sundering of human relationships are constant companions on the road away from reason, and for heartbreaking proof of this, please go and read  "What's The Harm", and weep.

Oh, and as a final parting note, The Church Of Scientology has a well deserved reputation for suppressing criticism. I agonised over whether to post this for over 24 hours, and I have taken care to outline exactly how this speculation hang together, but still I would not be surprised to see reaction in either official or "unofficial" forms from the organisation, and of course I will report on anything that does ensue.

*to our US cousins, post-partum depression
** Jonestown is worty of special mention. Most people who I've mentioned Jonestown to seem to believe it was some kind of fringe cult with strange beliefs not unlike  Heaven's Gate. In fact, The People's Temple was a Christian Gospel church with methodist and baptist influences, among others. It would be considered mainstream, moderate, even liberal, in the modern United States.
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