I’ve been reading Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright, which I have to say is one of the most frustrating books I’ve ever worked through. Not because it is a bad book, but because the author is doing his job: Wright maintains a detached, non-judgmental, even sympathetic tone while describing appalling madness. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the book, and I’m still waiting for Wright to snap and tell us what he really thinks about the evil L. Ron Hubbard has wrought — a step I would have reached by about page two.
It’s painful. Hubbard was so clearly delusional and so malevolently manipulative that you find it hard to believe people actually do fall for this nonsense, and fall for it hard. People put up with shocking abuse for years, decades even, all the while apologizing for their behavior, making excuses for the church, and even voluntarily submitting to the most degrading punishments. For instance, Scientology maintains something called the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), which is little more than confinement and humiliation. People who question the dogma or annoy David Miscavage (the head of the religion now that Hubbard is dead) or sometimes just on a whim are tossed into basements or kept in trailers with no furnishings, no means of communication, and fed on slops, with frequent punishment drills. It’s like a horrible caricature of a banana republican prison — it is a prison.
But there aren’t locks on the doors. The inmates stay there, punishing themselves, begging for more, all in the hopes of achieving redemption in the eyes of the psychotics running the show. The whole book is a lesson on how human psychology can be warped and used by religion, leading people to submit to commands that I can’t imagine ever respecting…but they are led step by step into an earthly hell, all the while thinking it’s paradise.
One thing that struck me is that Scientology is a pathological extreme, but in substance it’s no different than other religions. And this was confirmed in a discussion of the numerous court cases that challenged Scientology. Scientology had its tax exemption as a religion stripped from it for a long while, and fought hard to get it back (and they eventually did, in a craven capitulation by the IRS). One of their allies in these trials was a former Franciscan friar and product of the Harvard Divinity School, Frank Flinn, who happily defined religion for the courts and pointed out that Scientology was just like Catholicism.
Flinn defined religion as a system of beliefs of a spiritual nature. There must be norms for behavior — positive commands, and negative prohibitions or taboos — as well as rites and ceremonies, such as initiations, prayers, and services for weddings and funerals. By these means, the believers are united into an identifiable community that seeks to live in harmony with what they perceive as the ultimate meaning of life. Flinn argued that Scientology amply fulfilled these requirements, even if it different in expression of them from traditional denominations.
Like Catholicism, Flinn explained, Scientology is a hierarchical religion. He compared L. Ron Hubbard to the founders of Catholic religious orders, including his own, started by Saint Francis of Assisi, whose followers adopted a vow of poverty. Financial disparities within a church are not unusual. Within the hierarchy of Catholicism, for instance, bishops often enjoy a mansion, limousines, servants, and housekeepers; the papacy itself maintains thousands of people on its staff, including the Swiss Guards who protect the pope, and an entire order of nuns dedicated to being housekeepers for the papal apartments.
The Catholic Church also maintains houses of rehabilitation (like the RPF) for errant priests hoping to reform themselves. Flinn saw the RPF as being entirely voluntary and even tame compared to what he experienced as a friar in the Franciscan Order. He willingly submitted to the religious practice of flagellation on Fridays, whipping his legs and back in emulation of the suffering of Jesus before his crucifixion.
One of Flinn’s most interesting and contested points had to do with hagiography, by which he meant attributing extraordinary powers — such as clairvoyance, visions of God or angels, or the ability to perform miracles — to the charismatic founders of a religion. He pointed to the virgin birth of Jesus, the ability of Buddha to “transmigrate” is soul into the heavens, or Moses bringing manna to the people of Israel. Such legends are useful in that the bolster the faith of a community, Flinn said. The glaring discrepancies in Hubbard’s biography should be seen in the light of the fact that any religion tends to make its founder into something more than human.
I found myself agreeing entirely with Flinn: Scientology is a religion, different in no substantial way from Catholicism, and I think it should be classified as such. No problem.
What irritates me, though, is that anyone can read that and argue that any religion deserves a tax exemption, or should be regarded as anything more than a self-aggrandizing perpetual money-making machine for the hierarchy. As I said, the IRS did eventually give in in an out-of-court settlement and let the Church of Scientology have everything they wanted…but the message they should have taken away is that no church deserves special treatment. Tax ’em all. Remind the world that all of their mythologies are lies, and that all are just as corrupt and just as fraudulent as Scientology.
Kylie Sturgess has a documentary on the Australian Scientology RPF. Another thing brought up is how they keep children in ignorance, a point also brought up in Wright’s book with an example of one young woman.
Lauren was told that Scientologists shouldn’t look at negative stories about the religion. She was supposed to be saving the planet, so why was she wasting her time reading lies? Because of her isolation, and the censorship imposed on her education, when Lauren finally graduated from high school at the age of twenty, she had never heard anyone speak ill of Scientology, nor did she question the ban on research about her religion. She thought, “I guess I’m not supposed to do these things. I will stay away.” Like her father [Paul Haggis], she learned it was easier not to look.