The Sunday New York Times Book Review always appears online on Saturday, and this week’s issue has reviews or blurbs about two books of interest.
The first is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright, reviewed by Michael Kinsley, editor at large at The New Republic. You may remember Wright as the author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book The Looming Tower, which traces the roots of Islamic terrorism, and the 9/11 crashes, to the 1940s and the initial disaffection of one man with western mores considered heretical to Islam. (By the way, it’s a superb and engrossing book, showing clearly that what Al-Qaeda does now has its roots not in politics or territory, but in pure religion: the desire for Islamic hegemony.)
At any rate, Wright has now turned his sights on an equally dangerous topic: Scientology. (Remember that Scientology loves to harass and sue its critics.) I will surely be reading this book, for Scientology, officially classified by our government as a religion, enjoying all the tax benefits of, say Catholicism, is really a vicious cult with a “theology” so outré as to be laughable. (Of course all theologies are laughable when viewed through the lens of unfamiliarity.) Here’s some snippets of Kinsley’s review:
So what are poor thetans to do, where are they to go, when they find themselves between lives? Left to Venus or right to Mars? For sure, they can’t stay here. “The planet Earth, formerly called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of planets under the leadership of a despot ruler named Xenu,” said Hubbard, who was a best-selling science fiction writer before he became the prophet of a new religion. To suppress a rebellion, Xenu tricked the confederations into coming in for fake income tax investigations. Billions of thetans were taken to Teegeeack (you remember: Earth), “where they were dropped into volcanoes and then blown up with hydrogen bombs.” Suffice it to say I’m not hanging around Earth next time I’m between lives.
Hubbard apparently could go on for hours — or pages — with this stuff. Wright informs us, as if it were just an oversight, that “Hubbard never really explained how he came by these revelations,” but elsewhere he says they came to him at the dentist’s office. Of the Borgia-like goings-on after Hubbard’s death in 1986, Wright says cheerfully, “Every new religion faces an existential crisis following the death of its charismatic founder.” He always refers to Scientology respectfully as “the church.”
But Wright’s book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” makes clear that Scientology is like no church on Earth (or, in all probability, Venus or Mars either). The closest institutional parallel would be the Communist Party in its heyday: the ruthless struggles for power, the show trials and forced confessions (often false); the paranoia (often justified); the determination to control its members’ lives completely (the key difference, you will recall, between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, according to the onetime American ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick); the maintenance of something close to prison camps where dissenters, would-be defectors and power-struggle rivals were incarcerated in deplorable conditions for years and punished if they tried to escape; what the book describes as mysterious deaths and disappearances; and so on.
. . . All this was going on under the nose of Tom Cruise, who, according to Wright, allowed Scientology’s leaders to pimp for him (no, no: all women), among other favors. Young women were told that they had been chosen for a “special program” that would require they drop their boyfriends. But the fish that got away, Scientologists believed, was Steven Spielberg. He told Haggis that Scientologists “seem like the nicest people,” and [director Paul] Haggis responded that “we keep all the evil ones in the closet,” which was close enough to being true that Haggis was in hot water with the Scientology powers-that-be. But he didn’t quit.
Kinsley picks out some flaws in Wright’s book, like his failure to explain Scientology terms when they come up, but concludes that “Going Clear is essential reading for thetans of all lifetimes.”
I’m fascinated with Scientology, for it shows us clearly what some people are looking for when they turn to “religion”—and it’s not always candles, songs, potted palms, the afterlife, or membership in community of people determined to good.
Jared Diamond has also come out with a new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Lean from Traditional Societies?, which was given a mixed review by David Brooks in last week’s NYT Sunday book review. Today, in “By the Book,” Diamond is interviewed by an unnamed interlocutor about The World Until Yesterday and various booky topics. It’s quite revealing: Diamond talks about his favorite books as an adult and child, the book he’d recommend that President Obama read, and the last book that made him cry. I found the following Q&A intriguing, for I’ve read Primo Levi’s book and thought it stunningly good:
What was the last truly great book you read?
Primo Levi, “If This Is a Man” (original, “Se Questo È un Uomo,” 1947). At one level, Levi’s book is about how as a young Italian Jewish chemist joining the resistance during World War II, he was captured, sent to Auschwitz, and survived. At another level, the book is about our everyday life issues, magnified: the life-and-death consequences of chance, the problem of evil, the impossibility of separating one’s moral code from surrounding circumstances, and the difficulties of maintaining one’s sanity and humanness in the presence of injustice and bad people. Levi dealt with these issues and was lucky, with the result that he survived Auschwitz and went on to become one of the greatest authors (both of nonfiction and fiction) of postwar Italy. But he survived at a price. One of the prices, the loss of his religious beliefs, he summarized as follows: “I must say that the experience of Auschwitz for me was such as to sweep away any remnants of the religious education that I had had. . . . Auschwitz existed, therefore God cannot exist. I find no solution to that dilemma. I seek a solution, but I don’t find it.”
I love Levi’s writing, and was so sad when he died in 1987, perhaps by suicide. Beside “If This is a Man,” I’d highly recommend “The Periodic Table” (Levi was a chemist as well as a writer), which was voted by the Royal Institution as the best science book ever written, ahead of even On the Origin of Species (I’d contest that!).
Just FYI, here is the list of the Royal Institution’s winners:
Primo Levi The Periodic Table
Konrad Lorenz King Solomon’s Ring
Tom Stoppard Arcadia
Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene
James Watson The Double Helix
Bertolt Brecht The Life of Galileo
Peter Medawar Pluto’s Republic
Charles Darwin Voyage of the Beagle
Stephen Pinker The Blank Slate
Oliver Sacks A Leg to Stand On
“Arcadia,” while a great play, is a bizarre choice, for it’s not really a science book. I’d put Darwin as #1, purely for its importance in transforming human thought.