Going Clear: Religion, New and Old

Often during Lent I decide to do some spiritual/religious reading: a book of daily meditations, perhaps, or popular Biblical scholarship. This year, I didn’t. But Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief surprised me by leading me to reflect on my own faith.

Before reading Wright’s book I had a vague impression that Scientology is big in Hollywood and its adherents believe weird shit and like to sue people. Those preconceptions were certainly confirmed (on the last point, the book is not for sale in Canada, probably because it’s easier for plaintiffs to win defamation suits here than in the US. I’m grateful to the intrepid friend who bought it on a cross-border shopping spree and loaned it to me). And Scientology is even more problematic than I realized; Wright’s account of the church’s abuse of its members is well-substantiated. Jessica wrote a great post on what the book reveals about L. Ron Hubbard’s misogyny.

I found Wright’s account of Hubbard’s life, and of David Miscavige’s rise to power in the organization, fascinating reading.

It isn’t perfect, though. It originated in Wright’s New Yorker profile of the writer, director, and erstwhile Scientologist Paul Haggis, and those origins are still obvious in a chapter on Haggis that didn’t feel fully integrated. He comes off as a more sympathetic and fully-realized “character” than any of the other former church members Wright spoke to in researching the book. I don’t doubt it was difficult for Haggis to leave the church after many years (and thus part ways with old friends) or to speak out against it. However, he has a successful career in the mainstream world, was always somewhat skeptical about the church, and was never a member of its inner circles; he has far less to lose, and to fear, than many of Wright’s other sources. Many of them were Sea Org members who had been in the church since their teens; some lack the education and skills that would help them forge a life outside of Scientology; some quite literally had to escape. I wondered whether Wright had spent more time with Haggis than with other sources, or simply found him more congenial because of his skepticism, and that accounted for his (in my view unjustified) prominence in the book.

I also wished that there had been more of the bits that really engaged me intellectually, the reflections on what makes Scientology work as a religion (rather than as an organization) and what might draw people to it. My basic sense is that its techniques for managing negative emotions and thoughts, and for improving interpersonal communication, are valuable to people, but more or less what you could get from some cognitive-behavioral therapy (ironic, given that Hubbard despised psychiatry). There has to be more to it, doesn’t there? I wondered whether Scientology will ultimately be brought down by the secrecy and paranoia that keep it from telling the world what’s appealing about its practices; after all, Wright could only really get close to apostates, not to true believers. As he comments:

[Hubbard’s] often ingenious and minutely observed categories of behavior have been shadowed by the bogus elements of his personality and the absurdity that is interwoven with his bouts of brilliance, making it difficult for non-Scientologists to know what to make of it. Serious academic study of his writing has also been constrained by the vindictive reputation of the church.

As long as this remains the case, I think the outside world will have a hard time seeing Scientology as a valid religion.

Certainly the book left me feeling that there’s no value to Scientology as a religion, but I also had to acknowledge that (as Wright makes plain) pretty much every criticism that can be leveled at it can be leveled at my own faith.

  • They believe crazy stuff. Uh huh. Virgin birth, resurrection, miracles. I resolve this in my personal spiritual life by accepting that there are different registers of truth. It’s not important to me to take the Bible literally (although I realize this makes me a heretic in some people’s eyes) and I don’t worry about trying to “believe in” Christianity the same way I believe in science. I couldn’t remain a Christian if I felt I had to take those things as factual truths rather than symbolic ones. In that way, I guess I am akin to Haggis as portrayed in Wright’s book: he’d just tell himself all this crazy stuff would make sense when he reached the next level. But Scientology, as its name implies, makes it hard for members to take this route, because it does claim to be scientific truth. Going Clear made me think a lot about the mental gymnastics I practice to remain a member of a community of believers I value, and in picking and choosing what I “believe” and how. It’s not unproblematic (now there’s a circumlocution!).
  • They persecute and abuse their members. Uh huh. As far as I’m aware, Christians were too busy being persecuted by others (as is Scientology) in their very earliest years to turn on each other. But they sure got around to it. Schisms, inquisitions, abuses of all kinds, and not all in the past. There are also many better things that the Christian church(s) get up to, and for me those more than balance the bad (though they don’t let us off the hook). Based on Wright’s book, I can’t see that as true of Scientology, but it has a much shorter and more secret history.
  • It’s so secretive and isolating. More so than most religions, absolutely. But all religions have, or have had at certain times, closed groups, secret rites, occult knowledge and practices.
  • It’s very self focused, and interested in money and celebrity. This makes it hardest for me to see Scientology as a religion: it seems very corporate; the benefits seem to be all in feeling better about yourself; any acts of service appear to be for the church rather than for people in need; celebrities like Tom Cruise and church leaders accrue material benefits while others slave (and I don’t use that word lightly) in poverty. And yet, you can see all of this in Christianity. The Vatican vs. religious orders that take vows of poverty, check; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, check; contemporary versions of same, check. I was still left feeling that the thing I turn to religion for, the sense of something not just bigger than me but bigger than humanity, is missing from Scientology. And that’s where I most wished for testimony from ordinary church members, rather than defectors and defensive, obfuscatory leaders. But I also realize how much my emphasis on self-abnegation and sacrifice as markers of religious faith and value is shaped by Christianity.

A provocative book, well worth reading even if you aren’t led down the Lenten byways I found myself on.

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5 Responses to Going Clear: Religion, New and Old

  1. This was a lovely post and you encapsulated so much of why I’m also hesitant to point fingers at Scientology because my religion just slapped another layer of fairytale on top of Christianity.

    That said, here’s where I would now (after having read your post) draw the distinction. You said:

    But Scientology, as its name implies, makes it hard for members to take this route, because it does claim to be scientific truth. Going Clear made me think a lot about the mental gymnastics I practice to remain a member of a community of believers I value, and in picking and choosing what I “believe” and how. It’s not unproblematic (now there’s a circumlocution!).

    Except this isn’t a good comparison.

    A religion’s raison d’etre is FAITH. So whether one says, “I KNOW X to be true” or “I BELIEVE X to be true,” it makes no difference. It’s still a belief and thus, still a measure of faith. One is SUPPOSED to take things on faith in religion. That’s the whole POINT.

    One does not have to believe (or “have faith”) in science for it to be true. If one must circumlocute around scientific fact, is it really science? There is not supposed to be any “faith” in science because for those following scientific method, it skews the results. There is hypothesis, theory, and prove/disprove. One may have faith in the scientific method that one can arrive at A truth, but FAITH, as it is practiced by the religious of any stripe, really has no counterpart in science. And those who practice religious faith in the experimentation of hypotheses and theories are roundly mocked.

    So I don’t think you should compare your circumlocution with a Scientologist’s if he claims that his faith is based on scientific fact. It’s either fact or it’s not. Faith makes no difference.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks for this great comment. You’re right–I guess my point was that there are some things I don’t even try to take on faith, because I know I can’t. I have given myself permission not to worry about them, because most of the time I find that I do believe in “the divine” in some form, and the church I was raised in is as good a place as any (more than that, for me) to experience the divine.

      The book actually addressed the whole question of faith: Wright talks about the Nightline interview Ted Koppel did with Miscavige in 1992, where (in Wright’s account) Koppel basically kept trying to say “every religion asks you to take things on faith” and Miscavige kept saying, “no, this is fact/science.” Which, as Wright firmly points out at the end, it’s not, because it is not testable or provable.

      I found the book so interesting, because Wright clearly sees the organized church as very, very problematic, but is still open-minded about the idea that the religion/belief system, as distinct from the organization, can have value (and there are people who have left the church but still consider themselves Scientologists). They lost faith in the church but not the religion.

  2. SonomaLass says:

    One of the things that distinguishes religion has always been the need for faith. Almost all religions are based on the idea of a community of the faithful, those who believe what cannot be proven. Because If you could prove it, you wouldn’t need faith, and then there’s nothing special about being a “believer,” a member of the elect. The basic premise of faith/belief is that it requires that leap, and that’s what separates the in-group from the out-group of unbelievers. Otherwise we’d, in theory, all sit around waiting to see which religion could prove itself above the rest, and that’s in the realm of the material, not the spiritual.

    When I was a serious student of religion, that was my stumbling block. Once one read the various faith accounts, there was no real ground for choice except what rang true to you — it’s a matter of feeling, rather than thinking: the spiritual, not the intellectual, appeal to one personally. For us skeptics, any, all, or none have equal appeal. “True believers” find it, and the rest of us don’t, and that’s the line of demarcation.

    Not sure where all of that goes, except that I respect folks who find that belief for themselves, but I have little patience for believers who expect everyone to have the same experience they have. To try to seize political power based on “our beliefs are right” is to invalidate the (in my mind) equally valid spiritual experiences of others.

  3. Ros says:

    Really interesting post and discussion.

    Years and years ago, before I was even a Christian, I think, I read a scene in a book between two teenage characters who were discussing their faith or lack of it. I was very struck when one of them said something like, ‘It’s faith either way. Either you believe it’s true, or you believe it isn’t.’ That still rings true to me. Having faith isn’t a thing that separates religious people from other people, it’s the object of the faith which differs. I’m a Christian now because I believe it’s true, on the basis of my own experiences as well as historical and other evidence. That is really important to me.

    So I guess one of the things that worries me about Scientology in particular, is that it seems so defensive. You mentioned people having to escape and being insufficiently educated to get jobs and so on. If a religion is scared of educating its members – about science, about other religions, about the world, about anything! – then it seems to me that it is scared of them discovering the truth. You’re quite right, of course, that all religions, not least Christianity, have been guilty of this sort of isolationism at various times. But it feels different when that’s an inherent part of the whole thing. Isn’t that one of the key factors which distinguishes a cult from a religion?

    Slightly off topic, I watched a TV interview with Tom Cruise and Rosamond Pike a few months ago. It was a study in body language. Pike sat as far as she could from Cruise, legs crossed away from him, arms protecting her. It was hard to watch without shuddering.

  4. Liz Mc2 says:

    My own blog keeps eating my comment! Thanks to all of you for these thoughtful and helpful comments. I wrote the post because there was something I had to figure out for myself, but I didn’t really expect others to be interested.

    Today was Palm Sunday. In church I listened, again, to the story of the Passion. I heard a sermon that pondered why THIS is the story Christians tell over and over. I sang a hymn including the line, “to whom the lips of children make sweet hosannas ring,” which always makes me laugh/cry because my sister, as a child, heard it as “sweet rolls” and associated it with coffee hour, and asked why Jesus and sweet rolls on his ring. What I got today was a sense of being connected to many other people across time and space–including a connection to my own past times and places. For me, that’s a very powerful feeling and support to my attempts at faith, the sense that many, many other feet have made this journey before mine, and are making it with me. I don’t think religion is the only place to get that sense of connection, but it’s a big one. It’s something that a new religion cannot really offer, or not to the same extent, and I think that’s one part of what feels “off” to me about Scientology, and one which is completely unfair, because only time will tell if it has what it takes to become an old religion.

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