The Prison of Belief
I just finished Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & The Prison ofBelief, and uh, well, thoughts follow.
Scientology on paper is about par for the course as far as self-help ideologies go. You have a soul or thetan or spirit or whatever it gets labeled as in whatever belief system you subscribe to and the general idea is to purge the body of negative thoughts and energies and toughen up, “go clear” as Scientologists describe it. You get “audited” and are asked to recount memories and moments that brought pain to you and rethink them over and over until they no longer cause stress. Okay, cool, whatever.
Like most all religions the core idea is just a very informal set of systems not really subject to any kind of rigorous scrutiny which aim to make you a better person. But that’s not what makes religion fun - and definitely not what makes reading about the history and culture of Scientology fun. What makes these things fun are the crazier aspects of the culture, of religion.
L Ron Hubbard was a Saturday morning cartoon villain. Or an anime villain. I can’t quite decide which. I’ve always felt there’s little holding back a person from living out their most absurd fantasies other than their fear of judgement from others and a lack of money to carry out their will. Hubbard found a way to use the former to earn the latter. Before Xenu and all the space opera mumbo jumbo, Dianetics was mostly feel-good hokum - well written hokum that a post-WW2 population who’s perception of psychiatry was that of lobotomies and electro shock therapy found agreeable. Hubbard wrote convincing comfort food. Wright best articulates it with this passage:
"The broad canvas of science fiction allowed Hubbard to think in large-scale terms about the human condition. He was bold. He was fanciful. He could easily invent an elaborate, plausible universe. But it is one thing to make that universe believable, and another to believe it. That is the difference between art and religion."
- Lawrence Wright, “Going Clear”, p.39
Hubbard would regularly lie about being a war hero, a CIA operative, a scientist, to know about psychiatry and physics and space and such. He would beat his wives and mistresses and attempt at-home abortions, rumors were that despite his anti-Homosexual public remarks he at point had relations with Robert Heinlein among others. He would keep a brigade of thirteen year old girls to enforce the law on his ships which he used to lead people around the world in search of buried treasure - never actually finding any, of course.
Lawrence Wright spends a third of the book on Hubbard, there’s far too much to summarize here. What interested me the most however was how the church was able to get away with all this.
The church has been accused over the years of various human rights violations, unethical behavior and mistreatment of non-celebrity members. It gets away with it in part due to some damn good celebrity PR, alongside the argument that it is a nascent religion, that all of these are just kinks on the road to being something fully fledged and culturally accepted along the same lines as Christianity.
I agree, in part, that yes as a nascent religion it is going to be criticized so heavily. Mormons know what that’s like. We’re a whole lot smarter about these matters than we were even a thousand years ago, so newer religions are going to face tougher scrutiny.
The problem I see is, why aren’t older religions held to harder scrutiny? Scientology effectively won its place at the table, not due to rigorously proving it is a legitimate religion, but by playing up a sort of cultural laziness - that hey, all those other old dusty religions get aways with shit, why can’t we?
At one point Lawrence talks about a raid on a Scientology compound where law enforcement found people who had been put into isolated rooms - imprisoned with little food, water, or daylight. Those members of the church believed they deserved to be there. At one point Lawrence mentions all any of these people had to do was call the police and press charges. None of them did. Members of Hubbard’s Sea Org grew up at sea, onboard ships, never getting any formal education. Scientology was all they knew. They couldn’t leave the system or they’d be friendless, jobless, without any identity or skill set outside of the church. The feds don’t care coz hey, last time the IRS checked someone was paying the bills on time. They’re a church, no need to bother them, we proved that in the courts.
It isn’t just that these members of the church are stockholm syndrome’d into these positions, this acceptance of a specific religious system, it’s that culturally we’re conditioned not to question religious systems at large.
Scientology would be gone if we were willing to accept as a culture that all religions, beyond their general set of self-help rules, are kind of just as crazy.
I know I’m not the only one who ignores Leviticus 19:19.