Religious faith is not something one can rationalize, or shove into a semantic corner, or elaborate in words. It's about the mystery of existence, our place in the cosmos, the nature of life, the inevitability of physical death. Are there any subjects more all-consuming than these? Even atheists ponder these subjects with, yes, near-religious fervor. Much of this seems like common sense, but common sense often balks when it encounters the first inklings of religious zealotry. Even people who consider themselves religious (whatever exactly that means) turn into eye-rolling cynics when evident "wackos" of different faiths appear, and those who regularly blame religion for humanity’s myriad ills are always ready with the I-told-you-so’s.
This is the sort of throat-clearing one needs to do when talking about, say, Scientology. Two new books shed some light into the dark corners where this church, founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1950, resides.
(Actually, 1950 was the year Hubbard’s groundbreaking book Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health (English) was published; the Church of Scientology was officially opened for business in 1952).
One book is a firsthand tell-all expose of the excesses of the organization by a former insider. Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige-Hill. What gives this book a little more oomph than previous exposes of Scientology—and there are countless testimonials to corroborate the revelations herein floating around the Internet, too many, in fact, for even Scientology to snuff out—is that the author is the niece of the current head of the church, David Miscavige. This church leader is, by most accounts, an unaccountable tyrant who tolerates no dissension in the ranks. In short, he is like the head of all religious organizations, from Mullah Omar and the Ayatollah to the Pope and Jim Jones and Sri Rajneesh. Cross them at your peril.
The second book, Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief is an even-handed examination of the Church of Scientology, its history, beliefs and enduring appeal in the face of widespread derision it attracts from non-believers. It is authored by a seasoned journalist who writes clearly and passionately about “the effects of religious beliefs on people’s lives” (his previous The Looming Tower is considered the authoritative text about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda) and has a proven track record for excellence and fairness.
Although the Church of Scientology has swatted away the memoir Beyond Belief as though it were a pesky gnat, relegating it to the blanket boilerplate denials of abuse that greet nearly all of the firsthand accounts by former members, it is in a positive (or negative) conniption over Lawrence Wright’s book. This may be a sure indication that Wright has landed the equivalent of a haymaker with Going Clear. For readers who want an honest tour of Scientology’s landscape, you can’t find a better guide than Wright.
Nonetheless, under threats of lawsuits from the Church of Scientology—one of the world’s most litigious organizations—the publishers in Canada and Great Britain, where libel lawsuits are far easier to win, have pulled it from production. Kudos to Knopf for sticking by its author, and its publishing staff, and more kudos to Wright for his willingness to attract, as he knew he would, the magnetic blowback from an organized religion that has $1 billion in its bank accounts and plenty of time and lawyers to drag things through the court system (this is, essentially, how Scientology earned tax-exempt status as a “religion,” by simply wearing down the IRS after years of litigation).
Far more interesting than Wright’s reportage of the Scientology’s sins of omission and commission is the part of his book’s subtitle about “The Prison of Belief”. This gets back to my opening distinction: What is it that draws people, mostly intelligent (and, let’s be frank, mostly moneyed) people to a religion that Wright calls “among the most stigmatized in the world”? What do they get out of it?
Here's how Lawrence Wright begins to answer:
There is no question that a belief system can have positive, transformative effects on people’s lives. Many current and former Scientologists have attested to the value of their training and the insight they derived from their study of the religion. They have the right to believe whatever they choose.”
Does this sound like someone out to do a hit job? By attacking Wright, Scientology is shooting itself in the foot, because he is obviously not an unsympathetic reporter.
Wright’s book is carried along by the stories of the true believers who spoke freely and openly to him about the attraction of Hubbard’s message and the inner workings of the church organization. Paul Haggis, for example, credits Scientology with helping to remove the inner barriers that had thwarted his career as a film director (and musicians like Mark Isham, Chick Corea, and Beck, and actors like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley have made similar claims). For 35 years, Haggis, who won Academy Awards for his work on Crash and Million Dollar Baby, openly supported the church, not just by purchasing its (expensive) courses but also by making recruitment videos for Scientology. He stayed mum in the face of stinging, undeniably true public revelations about its excesses. He found something of value in it, as did thousands of others. He broke with the church only when its anti-gay rhetoric became virulent, hateful and cruel (both of Haggis’ grown daughters are gay). Though his break with the church is final, Haggis still retains positive feelings toward Scientology itself. The same goes for the other highly placed Scientology officials who went through ugly separations from the church, like Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun, both of whom spoke freely to Wright.
“Many [like Rinder and Rathbun, who leave the church] still consider themselves fervent Scientologists, saying that it is the church itself that strayed from [Hubbard’s] example,” writes Wright.
Their stories, and the way Wright weaves them into the narrative, are heart-rending. Their lives were utterly ruined when they were kicked to the curb by those they had given so much of their lives to promoting. They did find spiritual sustenance in Hubbard’s writings and camaraderie in the congregation, but then the abuses of power became too hard to ignore. They learned that once you leave the Church of Scientology, you are considered a “suppressive person” or a “Potential Trouble Source,” an apostate so toxic that all contact with family and friends who remain in the fold are severed, much as a heretic is shunned by Protestant denominations or excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church.
And yet, most Scientologists never see such behavior and steadfastly (religiously, one might say) avoid reading or listening to anything negative about the church. Most of the thousands of people who “join” the church—which, essentially, means they take a personality “inventory” and get “auditing”—leave after the initial buzz wears off or the results don’t measure up to the expectations they had. I myself took the inventory one frigid night in Boston, mostly to get out of the cold while waiting for a film to start at a nearby cinema (plus, they offered free coffee). It seemed no more loopy than any other psychiatric survey I’d taken, but the results were inconclusive, according to the auditor I talked to, about whether Scientology would be able to help me. Oh well, it wasn’t the first or last time I was considered beyond the reach of professional assistance.
Once, however, a Scientologist gets beyond the first tier of membership, the church becomes an intractable presence, and this is where the “cult” stereotypes derive. When you reach the higher levels of the church, families are separated, and children, many forced to sign “billion-year contracts,” are raised in group settings with and by veritable strangers, completely cut off from the outside world. This is the experience described in Miscavige-Hill’s book, and it sounds to me like institutionalized child abuse, with a modern-day Dickensian orphanage vibe.
It’s this vindictiveness, intolerance and secretiveness that areligious people most react to when condemning religious zealotry. And with Scientology you never have to look very far to find it. So what was it that “hooked” these and thousands of other intelligent, willing believers?
It all comes back to L. Ron Hubbard. Wright treats Scientology’s founder with respect, even while delineating his chicaneries. Wright’s portrait of Hubbard makes him out to be a sort of likeable rogue or harmlessly eccentric “visionary” who was also a con man, a sort of Edgar Cayce with literary pretensions. But one could look at the same evidence Wright examines and conclude that Hubbard was a dangerous narcissist whose self-admitted mantra is “if it’s true for you, it’s the truth.” That is, his entire “religion” and “Science of Dianetics” is built upon a foundation of fantasy. Hubbard, it should be added, made his living for years writing science fiction stories for the pulps and was friends with Robert Heinlein and many other pioneers in the genre.
“The many discrepancies between Hubbard’s legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man: an explorer, a best-selling author, and the founder of a worldwide religious movement,” writes Wright. “To label him a pure fraud is to ignore the complex, charming, delusional, and visionary features of his character that made him so compelling to the many thousands who followed him and the millions who read his work. One would also have to ignore his life’s labor in creating the intricately detailed epistemology that has pulled so many into its net—including, most prominently, Hubbard himself.”
In other words, Hubbard believed his own self-mythology.
Hubbard berated psychiatry and the Church today treats it (and the pharmaceutical industry, with far more justification) like an evil on par with Satan. Who can forget the TV appearance of Scientology’s poster boy Tom Cruise, the noted behavioral scientist, berating Brooke Shields for her “weakness” in battling her depressions partly with prescription medication? And yet, no getting around the fact that Scientology’s closest analog (or as Wright calls it, its “more respectable cousin”) is psychotherapy.
Auditing is Scientology’s stock in trade, the hook that attracts and keeps willing members of the church. “The theory of auditing is that it locates and discharges mental ‘masses’ that are blocking the free flow of energy,” writes Wright. “Ideas and fantasies are not immaterial; they have weight and solidity. They can root themselves in the mind as phobias and obsessions. Auditing breaks up the masses that occupy what Hubbard terms the ‘reactive mind,’ which is where the fears and phobias reside. The E-Meter is presumed to measure changes in those masses…eventually, the reactive mind is cleansed of its obsessions, fears, and irrational urges, and the preclear becomes Clear.”
This, to me, sounds like a sort of speeded-up version of psychoanalysis. And who wouldn’t prefer to get at the root of one’s problems and hang-ups quickly, to avoid years of lying on a couch for an hour at a time?
From what I can gather of the excerpts included of Hubbard's writings in Going Clear, his template for the “science” of Dianetics was different from psychoanalysis, even if it did contain pieces of Freud and bits of Jung, by bringing in elements of hypnotism, some ideas that seem to be taken from the Mary Baker Eddy playbook, some black magic (yes, Aleister Crowley is in the mix) and lots of science fiction, with a healthy dose of mythology.
Here again, Wright argues with some persuasiveness that Scientology is little different from most other world religions, all of which have beliefs, rituals and visions that would be implausible if not absurd to the non-adherent. He draws the line, however, at Hubbard’s pretensions toward science.
“Scientology wants to be understood as a scientific approach to spiritual enlightenment,” Wright says. “It has, really, no grounding in science at all. It would be better understood as a philosophy of human nature; seen in that light, Hubbard’s thought could be compared with that of other moral philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard, although no one has ever approached the sweep of Hubbard’s work. His often ingenious and minutely observed categories of behavior have been shadowed by the bogus elements of his personality and the absurdity that is interwoven with his bouts of brilliance, making it difficult for non-Scientologists to know what to make of it. Serious academic study of his writing has also been constrained by the vindictive reputation of the church.”
Now, getting back to the human element of Scientology: where there are humans, there will inevitably be flaws and weaknesses and foibles. And L. Ron Hubbard had more than his share. His feet were made of clay. Indeed, based on the evidence presented in Going Clear, Hubbard was, at one time or another, all of the following: a philanderer, an adulterer, a serial liar, bully, miser, anti-Semite, racist, neglectful parent and chronic masturbator. He lived like a rich mobster, under disguises and false names. He was seemingly always on the run, with shoeboxes of cash in the closet, paranoid and delusional and surrounded by lackeys whom he sometimes abused. When his son committed suicide, all Hubbard could say, according to witnesses Wright talked to, was, “The little shit has done it to me again!” It is nearly impossible to read this book and NOT wonder how L. Ron Hubbard escaped a prison cell or a padded cell.
And yet, with all that said, Hubbard was a pussycat compared to the current head of the church, David Miscavige, who comes off in Wright’s and Miscavige-Hill’s books as a borderline sociopath abusive to his staff and given to sudden, unprovoked physical attacks on others. He essentially took over the church with a tire iron in his hand.
So, does all of this negate what Scientology has to offer?
One could just as easily ask “Do the Crusades, the Inquisition, the corruptions of the papacy and the more recent pedophile scandals negate what Roman Catholicism has to offer? Do the Salem Witch trials, Fred Phelps, Terry Jones, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, et al., negate what Protestantism has to offer? Does Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah negate what Islam has to offer? Every religion has some example of excess or abuse. While the teachings are allegedly derived from the spiritual realm, the structure of the organization around the religion is created by humans, flawed humans.
Some may find it surprising that the Beat Generation writers had a connection to scientology almost from the inception of Hubbard’s church. Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs’ friend and fellow tenant of the Beat Hotel in Paris, was dabbling with Hubbard’s book Dianetics as early as 1959. His interest sparked Burroughs’ own dabbling in the "weird cult", an autodidactic ride through eight years of readings, experimentation and visits to Scientology centers in Europe.
According to David S. Wills in his new book Scientologist!: William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult', Hubbard’s teachings inspired “the plot and narrative of some of his most famous novels ... and informed the creation of the Cut-up Method and Burroughs’ developing view of language as a virus.”
Ultimately, though he had his serious doubts about the religion, Burroughs underwent years of intensive Scientology courses and even wrote a series of pro-Scientology articles for the British skin mag Mayfair. Too much of a free spirit—or a loose cannon—Burroughs was eventually excommunicated from the church, after having attained the status of “Condition of Treason.” This, of course, did not stop Burroughs from continuing to read Hubbard’s writings and dabble in scientology’s methods, particularly the auditing process.
Reading about Scientology recalls my own past experiments with alternative religions. There was a time in the 1980s when Siddha Yoga was important to me. It helped me overcome the urge to drink in a way that Alcoholics Anonymous could not. Or, rather, in a way that was far more appealing than the depressing church basements, cigarette butts and Styrofoam cups of coffee that defined my AA experience. I, in fact, became immersed enough in the disciplines and the meditation practice of Siddha Yoga to visit their ashram in upstate New York. In the years just prior to this, the guru for Siddha Yoga, Swami Muktananda, had been accused of sexual improprieties with some of his adherents, allegedly molesting women under the pretext of checking for virginity. He was eventually forced out and replaced by Gurumayi, a woman who has been scandal-free since. While the benefits I got from Siddha Yoga were not tainted in any way by this information, no doubt it was fuel for those predisposed to think of the religious organization as “weird.”
In the end, I stopped doing Siddha Yoga, leaving the fold amicably and with no drama involved. I decided it was just not for me, at least not on a semi-permanent basis (there were no “billion year contracts”), or perhaps I got what I needed from it and moved on. Likewise, Scientology is not for me. But then I could make the same claim for countless other religions, including the Rosicrucians, Seventh-Day Adventism, Mormonism, Christian Science, Catholicism, Presbyterianism, the Baptist Church in all of its manifestations, Krishna consciousness, Rastafarianism, the Unification Church, etc.—the list could span an entire page.
None of these religions, available to any American who so desires them, are for me, nor are they for everyone. The problem I have with any of them, including Scientology, is when they move beyond the spiritual realm, setting up us-vs.-them paradigms, proclaiming their religion’s adherents as the “only” believers or the chosen ones (and relegating everyone else to heathen or “damned” status) and then acting on this pathology in the population at large. Or that they abuse those generally powerless people under their sway.
Barring that, it’s each to his or her own. Isn’t that what freedom of religion really means?