When I first learned, a while back, about the absurd “theology” of Scientology, I did a lot of reading about it, including biographies of L. Ron Hubbard and testimonies of defectors from that “faith”. What I learned was horrifying, but also enlightening: people who are rootless, or having life problems, will often turn to anything—no matter how absurd—for solace. So when I read Lawrence Wright’s new New Yorker article on Scientology, I didn’t learn much new beyond the history of screenwriter and director Paul Haggis. Haggis, once, like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, an important celebrity Scientologist, defected noisily when the Church (I use that term loosely) refused to support gay marriage in California. His story is the scaffold on which Wright constructs his exposé.
If you don’t know much about the operations of this nefarious organization, it’s well worth reading Wright’s piece. There are the well-known revelations of how David Miscavige (the “Chairman of the Board” of Scientology) regularly and savagely beat his minions, how the “Sea Org” (a subgroup of the Church) got young people to sign billion-year contracts and worked them like dogs for virtually no pay, how members who screw up are held in Scientology “prison camps,” and brought back if they escape—all the stuff that has come out in the last decade.
And yet Scientology still enjoys its tax-exempt status as a church. The US government has gone after them on this issue, but they launched a fusillade of lawsuits that simply wore the government out, and it capitulated. Most of us probably consider Scientology a cult rather than a religion, but that’s only because it has relatively few followers compared to, say, Mormonism, and because its official dogma is so bizarre.
But is it? As The Los Angeles Times reported, here’s the “theology” of Scientology, a theology that has been deeply hidden by the Church and emerged only during lawsuits:
“A major cause of mankind’s problems began 75 million years ago,” the Times wrote, when the planet Earth, then called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of ninety planets under the leadership of a despotic ruler named Xenu. “Then, as now, the materials state, the chief problem was overpopulation.” Xenu decided “to take radical measures.” The documents explained that surplus beings were transported to volcanoes on Earth. “The documents state that H-bombs far more powerful than any in existence today were dropped on these volcanoes, destroying the people but freeing their spirits—called thetans—which attached themselves to one another in clusters.” Those spirits were “trapped in a compound of frozen alcohol and glycol,” then “implanted” with “the seed of aberrant behavior.” The Times account concluded, “When people die, these clusters attach to other humans and keep perpetuating themselves.”
Okay, that sound really crazy, but is it any crazier than the Christian myths (cue Ben Goren: talking snakes, zombies, sin forgiveness, fondled intestines. . )? As actress Anne Archer (another celebrity Scientologist) points out in the article, one of the reasons Scientology is despised is simply because it’s new. When we’re around to see how a faith is really formed—L. Ron Hubbard popping pills and writing science fiction, Joseph Smith pretending to find golden plates, Mary Baker Eddy’s recovery from a back injury—we see the chicanery, duplicity, and credulousness that attends the whole enterprise. But as a faith ages, it gains more and more respectability, so we rarely think of how crazy theological doctrine really is. If Scientology survives another 200 years (and I’m not sure it will), it will be a respectable faith.
You’ve probably seen the YouTube video of Tom Cruise espousing the “theology” of Scientology. (If you haven’t seen it, watch it immediately. And note that, according to The New Yorker, this video, including the music, was produced by the Church itself!) It’s scary, but this doctrine any scarier than if, say, a priest were to matter-of-factly lay out the doctrines of Catholicism?
But I find this 1986 video even scarier: it’s David Miscavige announcing to assembled Scientologists that L. Ron Hubbard had recently died (Miscavige doesn’t use that word; he says that Hubbard discarded a body that was no longer useful to him in his researches). Miscavige, 25 at the time, is wearing official Scientology duds and is painfully earnest. The video—only one version is online—has been satirically subcaptioned, which at first I found annoying, but in truth the captions are funny and often accurate. L. Ron Hubbard’s lawyer makes a brief appearance at the end. (The “OT” mentioned by Miscavige refers to “operating thetan,” the eight highest levels of Scientology’s “spritual awareness.” And when he says that LRH died in “A.D. 36,” that’s 36 years after his publication of Dianetics.)
If you’ve read the New Yorker piece, you’ll probably want to see photos of Gold Base, the Scientology headquarters near Riverside, California. Note the razor wire and security cameras, and the track where, it is said, bad Scientologists are forced to run laps for hours:
I would love to see some liberal churches—Episcopalians, Methodists, and the like—denounce this particular religion.