I was a bit bemused by this opinion piece in a Canadian paper. It’s a good article, no quibble there, but it’s just so striking that it has taken the emergence of an obviously weird religion like Scientology to make someone notice that this is a general problem of all religions.
…after reading Lawrence Wright’s searing new investigative book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, my usual indifference has given way to concern.
On second thought, make that fright. And not just about L. Ron Hubbard’s secretive army of adherents.
Because Wright’s book demonstrates in granular detail what an organization with enough money and zealous acolytes can do once it has wrapped itself in a religious cloak: assault, conspire, burgle, forge, perjure, spy, bully and intimidate anyone who gets in its way.
Convince your flock that they are above earthly laws, and they go about their task with, well, religious ferocity.
And the real problem is that religions are by their nature “above earthly laws” — reality is no check against their excesses, so they can easily spin into dangerous lunacy, sucking their proponents into an ever-expanding cloud of the absurd. How can they believe our criticisms when the almighty all-powerful all-knowing Master of the Universe has personally told them the Holy Truth?
But at least this guy is expanding his consciousness a little bit. If Scientology promotes evil, what about, say, the Catholic Church?
Ask yourself this: If it were proved that senior employees of Microsoft, or Bank of America, had been sexually assaulting minors worldwide for decades, overwhelmingly young boys in their care, and senior company management had been complicit, either ignoring the abuse or actually taking steps to cover it up in order to protect the company’s image, how long would it be before that company would be facing a Justice Department strike force? Or bankruptcy?
Yet the Roman Catholic Church was, at most, dented by such horrific revelations. Individual priests have been charged worldwide, yes. But efforts to hold the church hierarchy responsible for the crimes that were covered up have been exceedingly rare.
Inevitably, that is because of the severe pushback that any large religious organization can command if it feels threatened.
Let’s not just pick on the Catholics and Scientologists, though. Billy Graham, the National Prayer Breakfast, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Moral Majority, Liberty “University”, the Republican Party…notice how religion is reaching out to grasp secular power and influence?
Pierce R. Butler says
Uh-oh. I can tell from the ad on this very page that Liberty University doesn’t have any quotation marks in its name.
As a relatively recent deconverted atheist, I get how easy it is to turn a blind eye to your own religion. I’ve seen a few commenters here say they came here in hopes to find a good reason to keep believing by finding a person fighting the good fight in the comments. That didn’t happen for me either. It was just another part of my finding my own disbelief.
But we can make excuses for what we find to be normal. It can be hard to imagine what life is like without faith, when you are in the midst of the culture drenched in it. It is easy to look at other practices and scoff at how different they are when you have a chorus behind you echoing the same thought. This fiction spreads. It takes something from the outside often, not always, to break the spell. It can be science. That was a help in my experience for generating doubts that required seeking out something to boost my faith.
Or it can be seeing a religion pulled out of the ass of a greedy sci-fi writer. Once the tumblers start falling into place in the head of a believer with doubts, it is hard to stop.
Maybe we won’t see more people flat out reject the notion of gods because of these links, but maybe we can see more people reject all religions. That would be a pretty good start.
We all owe thanks to Elron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, and Reverend Sun Myung Moon.
Thanks to them, we all know where religions come from.
People just make them up.
the Church of Scientology was started over a half century ago by fraud who announced ahead of time that fools have money and he was going after it, yet Scientology is recognized as a legitimate religion. Almost two centuries ago a grifter was casting about for a new scam when he thought up a con involving golden plates. Today, Mormons are a respected religion.
How long before a racket becomes sanctified? Two centuries? Ten? Fifteen?
@ 4 I think the only reason they seem more respected now is that over the past year, many fundies whitewashed their own take of Mormonism as to be more friendly to the GOP nominee. And I imagine they’ll pull ranks even more to include the religion as to have the allies to promote more of the anti-choice, anti-gay nonsense.
“Yet the Roman Catholic Church was, at most, dented…”
Not even close to dented. Very slightly scratched, maybe. It’ll buff out.
+1 to raven #3.
David Gerard says
Mormonism in the mid-eighteenth century was as weird and scary as Scientology, and Brigham Young was quite comparable to David Miscavige. They’ve mellowed quite a bit by the evolutionary process by which parasites do better if they don’t kill their hosts and evolve toward symbiosis.
The real test (or moment of truth, or whatever) will be when our domestic fundies ally themselves with Islam. They can only ignore their similarities for so long…
Rob Grigjanis says
I don’t know whether the author’s consciousness has been expanded by this, or whether he is just taking the opportunity of a Scientology story to make a larger point. I suspect the latter. Macdonald is a pretty sharp guy.
BTW, this is not a Canadian paper. It’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
I doubt his analogy that the catholic church would be unaffected where a bank would be bankrupt. Executives at Wachovia and many other too-big-to-fails have been, and are still laundering billions in Latin American drug trade money. And anyone remember that ole financial crisis? No one gives a shit.
AJ Milne says
There’s still branches of Mormonism that are deeply scary, deeply nasty. See the FLDS.
The ‘mellowing’ of religions seems partly to do with age, but not entirely. You get scarily insular and generally predatory behaviour in sects that have been around centuries. Life in some of those much-romanticised Anabaptist sects’ communities can be far from pleasant, too. And then there’s ‘honour’ killings in Islamic communities–some of those among relatively downtrodden emigré minority communities–and that religion is no spring chicken anymore, either.
It looks to me like the more predictive factors are around that insularity, around isolation and isolationism. Perhaps just because isolated congregations are maybe more vulnerable to takeover by particularly nasty charismatics, and, because, of course, they’re harder to escape. The scariest ‘cults tend to be the ones that insist upon isolation from your family. Sure, we associate this kind of thing more with NRMs, but that may be because, generally, NRMs are going to be small at the outset, and very frequently alienated (possibly deliberately, on the part of the founder) from the larger community. And perhaps we get more used to the abuses of dominant religions with which we’re familiar; those get normalized. And let’s not forget the Irish Catholic orphanages. It’s an ancient religion, but given the charge of isolated, vulnerable children, the abuses that followed were–let’s put it drily–noteworthy.
What’s scary is: even within quite numerous sects, you can still get this isolationist attitude, this keep it to ourselves thing, and I think that’s the agar upon which the Catholic sexual abuse scandal has thrived. Like PZ sez: they put themselves above the law, pose as better than this world; and the line is canon law is the law ye shall hold to, here, and canon law sez shut up while we move Father McPaedo to a new parish somewhere more isolated, still, with more vulnerable people, still.
That subtitle up there–‘the prison of belief’–that’s evocative. That’s the game many religions play. Try to convince people they’re a people apart, flatter them as being special and holy–and the back edge of that blade is you cut them off from other influences that threaten and question your power over them.
No One says
Diagoras of Melos divulged the inner workings Eleusinian mysteries of the cult of Demeter. The Athenians put a price on his head. 2,500 years later it’s the same nonsense. Religion is and old con.
If it hadn’t been for the attacks on 9-11, I would imagine that a number of fundies would be praising the theocracies of Islam.
They’d be in the minority, but they’d certainly exist. Fundamentalism, at least among US-style fundies, appears to be hopelessly coupled to extreme authoritarianism and in-group thinking. Such to the extent that their religion stems from their politics, not the other way around.
But the fundies who aren’t also racists, or at least patronizing xenophobes? Yeah, I imagine you are quite right. After all, the term “fatwa envy” exists.
I have long suspected that Hubbard’s goals in inventing Scientology were twofold: To enable him to sneer at the people stupid enough to believe it; and to enable him to sneer at the people who scoffed at Scientology but believed in, or at least respected, mainstream religions, the tenets of which are at root every bit as wacky.
A handy trope would be to assume any given church is a prison and the warders (small attempted pun there) often invisible. There may be exceptions, but I, for one, am not holding my breath.
Religion, uncontaminated by power, can be the source of a great deal of private solace, artistic inspiration and moral wisdom. But when it gets its hands on the levers of political or social authority, it goes rotten very quickly indeed. – Philip Pullman
Oh, I think they would be dismissive and outright racist at times as well. I just imagine them putting aside that blind hatred as to have another avenue to express their homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic insanity.
On some alternative Earth, Scott Lively is writing about the totally not gay paradise that is Iran.
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious convictions.”
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Yes, I’ve never quite gotten the mentality that sees the obvious absurdities of Mormonism and Scientology, but thinks talking snakes are perfectly reasonable.
Religion is a business, and a lucrative one at that (woohoo, tax-free status anyone?). It has a ready-made product that does not require manufacture and people will pay to hear the same message week in, week out. If you attack religion you attack their money-making capability – of course they will fight back with all the tricks a sheltered corporation can muster. It surprises me that a lot of the atheist literature attacks religion on purely theological or moral grounds when this just diverts attention away from their primary focus – raking in the cash. This is what is hurting the catholics since, for example, lots of Germans aren’t tithing any more so their response is an (expensive?) advertising drive to attract new members.
Dalillama, Schmott Guy says
His primary, stated reason was to make lots and lots of money, but I don’t doubt that you have identified reasons 2 and 3.
It’s probably 40 days and 40 nights.
Lots of things happen in ’40 days and 40 nights’: Flooding rains, the fasting of various celebrities, epiphanistic sojourns or aimless wanderings in arid desert wilderness while delirious with life-threatening thirst or starvation (and burning soles), while being tempted by the devil or chatting with God through burning bushes, chiseling out His commandments on stone tablets while hanging out on sacred mounts (presumably forms of ancient multitasking), dedicated search campaigns for promised lands, wars against enemies who won’t let you have theirs, or just because they’re there, the overthrow of city-states, women who had given birth to a male child to undergo ‘purification’ for that period (exception: twice the penalty – 80 days – if she was so impudent as to give birth to a female child), observing special rituals (like Lent), and other sundry purifications, renewals, prayer frenzies, embalming sessions, funerary rites, bowel movements…etc.
Almost everything happens in 40 days and 40 nights.
Apparently the reference of that particular number is supposed to be sacred and denote “a long time”, but that doesn’t explain why the time unit referred to is always in days rather than years, generations, centuries or whatever. Actually, I’m surprised that the Creation didn’t take that long (God was carelessly speedy in doing it in 7), or, say, something more novel, that the universe isn’t actually perpetually 40 days and 40 nights old through some quirk of Divine Dynamic Tempo recycling, but we all know the first casualty of the mental faculties of the devout mind is the imagination.
I’ve often wondered, too, how long it’ll be before the “Church of Elvis” begins. What with his untimely “death”, and frequent “sightings” in random locations, his own “Holy Mecca” (Graceland), and huge fan base, it only seems natural someone should found a “Church” in his name. But I fear it won’t be in my lifetime, but may be in my kids’ or grandkids’. Here’s waiting…
dysomniak, darwinian socialist says
congenital cynic says
Scientology is so obviously a scam that one can scarcely imagine how anyone with an ounce of sense could get sucked into that bullshit. People in a crisis, with self-esteem issues, etc., could be victims, but people who don’t have those issues also fall victim. Strange stuff.
Mormonism, though it’s also relatively young, is still laughable in its claims of origin. But I suspect that the desire among of those in the young country of the US to have an American prophet was so strong that many succumbed. I’d bet that the men eagerly went along in the beginning because of the promise of many wives. Why the women put up with that crap is harder to figure.
But the older religions have a kind of patina of old age that keeps the obvious taint of their beginnings cloaked in the obscurity of a much massaged mythos (they’ve had time to build bullshit rationalizations and develop an entire philosophy and system of thought to support the bullshit). None the less bullshit, but bullshit that has managed to embed itself in society like a good social parasite, providing some benefit to the host, without killing it outright, but feeding on it relentlessly.
My take on this is that we humans are predisposed by evolution to be tribal in thinking. And the things that mark people as “of our tribe” are no longer simply location (and for some people, those markers seem to be more difficult to find in a large heterogeneous population of a large city). And religion, that operates on a scale of congregations – a collective on a scale that is much more manageable for the human brian – provides that tribe for people. But it also serves to exacerbate the “in group” “out group” differences of the tribe, because it deals with the fundamental nature of truths about the universe. I think that we will be hard pressed to get over our tribal nature any time soon (though we really need to), but I think that religion stands as a powerful impediment to that ever happening, and getting rid of religious belief would be a great first step in the process.
I don’t expect any of this to happen in my lifetime, though I do hope that the percentage of religious folk to drop in the west. As long as people are comfortable with cognitive dissonance, and new generations of kids get brainwashed at the knee of their parents, then this will linger on for a long time.
Personally, I don’t get the hope for an afterlife. Eternity is too long, and I’ll have had enough of this whole existence thing by the time I’m 85. Some days I’m tired of it already. Largely because of the stupidity and meanness of some people and the ease with which so many people exploit others.
re dysomniak, darwinian socialist @ 25
Good catch. Sorry I missed it.
Oh my, oh my. Doom, doom, doom…
What a Maroon, el papa ateo says
How religions begin.
Most of us see through the lies that are Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy, etc., before we’re teenagers. Yet so many never take the next logical step.
(On a related note, my 10-year-old thinks he may be Jewish, because he doesn’t believe that Jesus is the son of god. Just one more step….)
Yes! This! (That said, I’ve been making that analogy for ages, and all I seem to get is the interweb equivalent of blank stares. Ho hum.)
As to the title, “It took Scientology to wake you up?” Yeah, it kinda did, for me…
Caveat Imperator says
It would actually be LESS reprehensible if the upper echelons of large corporations had been committing the same crimes as the Catholic Church, even if the actual offenses were exactly the same. Why? Because Microsoft do not claim to be the earthly representatives of the creator of the universe, or the sole source of proper morality. The RCC claims both.
This is exactly the same technique used by abusive spouses to convince someone to put up with the abuse and stay with them. Exactly.
Someone (not me) said: the difference between a sect and a religion – in every belief system there is some guy at the top who knows it’s a scam. In a religion this guy is dead.
It is wierd that it took Scientology to wake him up to this. Every religion on the planet has been indulging in the above behaviour for centuries, in some cases millenia.
Happiestsadist, opener of the Crack of Doom says
Relatedly, Going Clear is a pretty amazing book. A bit tough to get easily in Canada, but a hell of a fascinating, weird, horrifying read. I’m about a third of the way in now. The weird part is that at the beginning, before Scientology itself, LRH seemed to actually believe the shit he was saying. In as much as he was capable of believing anything he said, being a pathological liar, racist and wife-beating bigamist with numerous drug addictions over the years. So take away the drugs (presumably), and you’ve sort of got Joseph Smith, as several other commenters have noted.
It is amazing what it takes for someone to examine things and see how fucked up their superstitions actually are, though.
Alan @21, that was a big part of the anticlericalism that lead to the Reformation. Tradesmen were angry at all
As a foreign devil, it took me a second to realise what you meant about the pledge of allegiance. To us, the reference to god isn’t what’s weird, it’s the whole thing of doing it every day. It seems like it’s going to create the same problem, as scoundrels can wrap themselves in the flag as others do with their cassock.
Not to have a go at Americans, of course. Doing that would be exactly like calling muslims religious nutters because they pray five times a day, while not worrying about nutters of other faiths since they pray one or two times a day.