Sunday, March 20, 2011


One of these days, I'm going to read L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics. For one, I was always intrigued by it, ever since I saw those TV commercials in the 1980s with the exploding volcano. (I've since learned that the volcano is meant to trigger a repressed memory of a historical event, placed on the cover to make it enticing.) More importantly, I want to read it because it's the book that kick-started what eventually became the religion of Scientology. And I like to read source materials more than I like listening to what second-hand sources have to say. However, since what I'm writing about today isn't meant to be exhaustive and since what I'm writing is largely about these second-hand sources and opinions, I'm going to jump on in and discuss it.

Scientology gets picked on more than any religion I can think of. It gets picked on by religious people in the same way that other religions get picked on by non-religious people: as something ridiculous, man-made, harmful, etc. Tom Cruise jumped on a chair once on Oprah Winfrey's show and John Travolta made a bad movie, and now everyone feels they have the right to mercilessly tease a group that many take as seriously as the more established religions.

And yet -- again, having not read Dianetics or any other book by Hubbard -- based on my current understanding of Scientology, I don't see how it is different from any other religion. Furthermore, Scientology seems to have the added bonus of being just as much about real life (psychology, "self-help," etc.) as the supernatural, a bonus that religions that pretend to be more "normal" don't have.

I'm looking at the official Scientology website for basic beliefs to see how non-unusual this religion is and to see how, in many cases, Scientology is less wacky than its grandfathers. Because Scientology is so new, having begun in 1952, and because the website is more uniform and "official" (in spite of the independent Scientology "Free Zones" that keep popping up), this site proves to be handier than a source that pretends to explain, say, basic Christian beliefs, which vary from church to church.

According to their website, Scientology offers a path that allows people to understand their true natures and their relationship to themselves and everything and everyone around them (including the Supreme Being). Isn't this what every religion claims to do? Ever since humans noticed the order of the heavens and nature, we have tried to align ourselves with this order, to prevent chaos in all of its forms. This is what religion is all about (not to mention basic concepts of the "meaning" of life).

Let's look at some more specific core beliefs:

1. Scientology is more concerned with the "spirit" rather than the body and mind. Nothing new there.

2. Man is immortal and spiritual. Another common conception.

3. Man's experience goes beyond one lifetime. Sounds like reincarnation. And, if you want to get more Western about it, just look to any "sins of the father" theology, that our experiences are the products of a long line of people. No lifetime is an island.

4. Man's capabilities are unlimited, even if he doesn't know it yet. Christian scriptures immediately spring to mind: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" or the ability to move mountains with faith.

5. Man is basically good. Well, that one is certainly not compatible with the religions that teach that man is essentially evil, but even then the idea is that the goodness of man was somehow corrupted through some fall or foreign evil element. (Scientology -- and Rousseau, come to think of it -- says that the evil comes through experiences and exposure.) No matter what, it's not an uncommon or unusual religious thought, and it's one that is believed by both the religious and non-religious the world over.

6. Scientology values observed results over blind faith. Ah! Here we have a big difference between Scientology and faith-based religion, but it's a difference in Scientology's favor. What is more insane than believing in something that you have no evidence for? At least Scientology claims to possess proof.

7. The goal of Scientology is spiritual enlightenment and freedom. Once again, the "spiritual enlightenment" part is Religion 101, and the "freedom" part is more refreshing than the religions that shackle and bind.

That list of seven items was one page ("What Is Scientology?") of the website. I'll skip around now in search for anything incriminating, then eventually move past the "official" word and into what others say.

One of the ideas behind Scientology is that humans are largely better off materially these days (I assume they have a limited population in mind) but they aren't any happier. Scientology attempts to rectify this. For this reason, the religion seems to appeal to the materially better-off (most famously, celebrities) rather than the downtrodden. So maybe it's a religion for the rich. Great. I've certainly heard the testimonies in church: "I may be poor, but the richest man in the world don't have what I got." Then perhaps Scientology is the answer for them.

Or maybe some of its principles is the answer for anyone living in the modern world. According to the site, science has advanced rapidly in the last 100 years, and the humanities have yet to catch up. I don't think the second part is necessarily true, but certainly this feeling exists. This is why religious people often have bad relationships with science: too much of it threatens to kill their religion. Scientology claims to bring balance to the two, which is a better alternative than obliterating one in favor of the other.

Perhaps it sounds like I'm trying to sell you Scientology. I'm not, I promise. What sounds like defense is merely a way of trying to understand others' attacks. But to make you feel better, I'll do a little attacking on my own. One thing the website claims is that Scientology is different, better, the only truly effective practice in solving the problems of mankind. A religion that claims to have all the answers? Wow, it truly is no different than any other religion.

One of their different, better, more effective practices is what is called "auditing." In auditing sessions, auditors listen to people in order to free them of problems they didn't know they had. Sound familiar? Scientologists takes great pains to say auditing is nothing like psychotherapy (and, in fact, are opposed to psychotherapy). In order to distance themselves, they use specific questions (feeling that psychology sessions are too random and unfocused) as well as something called an E-meter, which is a gadget (they call it a "religious artifact") that measures electrical resistance on the body. This is where the "man, these guys are nutty" arguments come in. But remember: I'm not claiming that Scientology isn't nutty. I'm simply saying that it's no more nutty than any other religion. Yes, an E-meter seems pretty un-scientific and ineffective in solving problems. But is it more or less effective than dabbing olive oil on someone's forehead while praying for them to be relived of a mental or physical illness? Is an E-meter more or less effective than prayer beads? Than facing a certain direction when talking to an invisible being? Would you prefer your religion to practice faux science, or would you rather it outlaw science altogether and instead rely on superstition?

A few quick observations from the site and then on to a list of others' complaints. 1. Scientologists have Sunday Services. 2. Scientology has ministers. And, unlike other kinds of ministers who often don't have an understanding of their own religion, Scientology ministers (at least according to themselves) also learn about other religions from around the world. 3. The Church of Scientology has a creed which consists of more or less sane principles: all men are equal regardless of race, men have religious freedom, man shouldn't destroy man, etc. Based on their presentation of themselves, Scientology is just like any other religion, combined with elements of psychology (even though they disagree) and "self-help."

So what are others saying about Scientology? What are some of the big things being ridiculed? I know you shouldn't look at the product's home page for an objective view of the product; you should look at the customer reviews. So I'll snatch the most common criticisms from the web and comment on how these complaints could just as easily be lodged against any other religion.

L. Ron Hubbard was a science-fiction writer. -- So? Science-fiction is one of the more common ways of expressing religious, philosophical, and mythological thought these days. The Matrix, Star Wars, superhero comic books, whatever. (Not that Dianetics is written as sci-fi anyway.) And at least we know who Hubbard was. We don't know who the writers of most of the ancient texts were, but we do know that they had the same kind of vivid imaginations as sci-fi writers. Yes, Scientology is "man-made," but what religion isn't?

1952 wasn't that long ago. -- Does a religion need thousands of years for it to be authentic? I've heard many a Christian wish he could have been born during Jesus' time, since he would have definitely been a disciple. Not if he followed this "new is bad" logic he wouldn't. You gotta start sometime. One reason we tolerate the nutty nature of ancient religions is because the huge time distance makes the nuttiness more palatable, as if the laws of nature were different back then. Besides, the current version of political/evangelical American Christianity began around the same time with Billy Graham, and it's taken off like a rocket.

Scientology has a mythology involving space aliens. -- Yes, Hubbard conceived of a "space opera" involving Xenu blowing up millions of frozen people around volcanoes with a hydrogen bomb 75 million years ago which released Body Thetans that now plague humanity. Is this any odder than Indra slaying the dragon Vritra in order to release the water that the dragon had been restraining? Is this any odder than God and Satan having a war in Heaven, apocalyptic horsemen, the downfall of man depending on a piece of fruit? Any odder than God writing a book that he passes on to Gabriel who reveals it to Muhammad? Any odder than a baby being born of a virgin mother whose death somehow releases people from sin? Mythology is mythology, and at least Hubbard's contains things that observe the laws of nature (aliens not being something out of the realm of possibility). Also, these stories are only meant for more advanced Scientologists (and doesn't even appear in any of their official literature), whereas other religions force their mythology on beginners and children and are viewed as critical to the life of the believer. South Park said that Scientology's mythology is stranger than others', but they didn't explain how they evaluated this strangeness.

All these weird words are stupid and confusing. -- They only sound stupid and confusing because they are new, but they are often just different names for existing things. A thetan is just a soul. A body thetan is something like an evil spirit. An engram is a suppressed image in the mind. A state of Clear is more or less Nirvana. We need words to describe abstract ideas, and these are the ones Scientologists use (choosing, for better or worse, not to utilize existing ones).

Scientology is a cult. -- Every religion is a cult. A cult is just a collection of people who worship a particular god. Some cults are just bigger and more respected than others. Christianity is the largest cult right now: a spin-off sect of Judaism (more or less) whose leader was so cultish that he was deemed worthy of the death penalty. (Not to mention the other Christian leaders. Don't forget that Peter was crucified upside down.) I know, I know: attackers have a more specific definition in mind, one involving the "manipulation, controlling, and exploiting of its members." Still sounds like every other religion to me. If they don't think so, perhaps they're in a cult themselves.

Scientology brainwashes its members. -- The teacher might not write this one on the chalkboard since it is already covered under the "cult" entry, but I'll treat it separately anyway. I've always been dubious of the idea of "brainwashing" to begin with, since it brings up images of Clockwork Orange style manipulations and other things that don't exist. But if the word is used generally to mean that the brainwashing organization gets members to think what they think, then yes, Scientology seems to do this. So does, once again, every other religion (not to mention any group you hang around with or listen to for any length of time). One reason other religious people hate Scientology so much, one might argue, is that they're brainwashed to do so. (A digression: Wouldn't a brain washing be a good thing, a cleansing? Shouldn't the term be "braindirtying"?)

Scientologists attack those who attack them, often with law suits. -- Would you prefer holy wars? All religions do this, to lesser and greater degrees. Ask Salman Rushdie. Or watch Fox News. At least Scientologists wait to be attacked, and at least their retaliation is death-free.

Scientology is a scam. -- Watched any televangelists lately? If a scam is something to which you give your money or time and receive nothing or little in return, then -- one more time -- all religions could be considered scams. All this energy expended on things that are invisible. If people feel that the money and time they put into their religion actually give them positive results, then they probably do not think it's a scam. Scientologists feel they get results, too, so to them it's not a scam either. This is one of the defenses people give for religion in general: "I don't care if it's real or not; it makes me feel good." Let's be happy with our favorite scams and let others be happy with theirs.

I'll stop there. If I haven't made this clear enough I'll say it one more time. I'm not promoting (or attacking) Scientology, and I'm not attacking (or promoting) other religions. I'm simply trying to show that I can't tell any difference between the two, and often I see positive things about Scientology that other religions seem to be lacking. By all means, let's continue to call BS on every religion that exploits people, steals their money, makes false promises, uses confidence tricks, etc. Let's just realize that the older ones with angels and souls are no different than the one with aliens and thetans.

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