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.