Wednesday, April 1, 2015


The truth is, I have always been skeptical about Scientology--and skeptical is perhaps an understatement.  It first came to my attention a long time before I came to the United States.  I was living in London at the time, sharing a house with a handful of Cambridge alumni who had each taken a room.  My neighbor on the top floor was a friend from our Cambridge days, a man of great intellectual achievement but, well, let's say genuinely eccentric in his interests.  It was he who brought home a copy of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics and immersed himself in the study of Scientology.  I don't honestly know--or don't recall--how far his interest took him; but I do remember, even at that early date, that I was somewhat spooked by it, and nursed some rather disparaging judgment about my friend's sanity.

This would have been, I guess, around 1959 or 1960.  Between then and now, I heard occasional reports about what seemed to me this dangerously controlling cult.  Living in Hollywood, I have been aware of the expansion of its real estate empire, including some historic landmarks in the area.  From where I lived for many years, I would frequently drive by their "Celebrity Center" on Franklin Avenue--and always with what I have to admit was a shudder.  Nowadays, I'm more likely to drive past that dreadful blue monster between Sunset Boulevard and Franklin Avenue, the one with the billboard-sized lettering identifying it as the headquarters of SCIENTOLOGY.  I experience the same shudder as I catch glimpses of the residents in their quasi-naval uniforms and their--my judgment--rather pallid, sickly, alienated appearance.

Alex Gibney's HBO documentary, "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief," relieved me of none of my skepticism about this organization.  I'm astonished--outraged would be the better word--that the Internal Revenue Service allowed itself to be browbeaten into granting the status of a religion to something that seems to me no more than a third-rate work of sci-fi parlayed into a tax dodge by its pulp fiction author.  What's deeply troubling is that otherwise intelligent people are persuaded to submit to a controlling entity that claims to offer liberation even as it dictates the progress of their lives, their relationships, their families, their finances--and punishes transgressions with isolation, humiliation and excommunication.

I'm not one to scoff at all religion.  At its best, it encourages skepticism, doubt, and questions.  Belief is a struggle, as I see it, never a submission.  It's a door that opens up to possibility, not one that slams shut in your face when you try to walk through it.  Scientology is an extreme case, and far from anything I would identify as a religion.  But too many religious practices, these days, are restrictive, intolerant of questions, authoritarian, overbearing and exclusive--the very opposite of everything they claim to be.

What's troubling is that we humans, in an age of uncertainty, seem so ready to submit to their certitudes.  No matter that its subject is Scientology, Gibney's film has more broadly something of value to teach us about ourselves.  One important lesson of the Buddha is that we not guide our lives and actions according to some preordained "belief," but rather that we need to think for ourselves, to test ideas out for their worthiness and usefulness, and follow only those principles that make sense and lead us further down the path to freedom and happiness.  I'll go for that.


Carol Es said...

You should understand, and know from the documentary, that the lure of Scientology is just that: to think for ones self. It was one of the interviewees that mentioned that no one in their right mind would sign up for any course in the Church if they knew what they would later be getting into down the road because the basic root of its teachings is about thinking for yourself, communication and cultivating better relationships. It was a shame that they didn't comment much about HOW one becomes enchanted by the Church in the first place, leaving it to seem that the people that get involved are nothing but sheep when they are some of the brightest and most idealistic people in the world, as many of them are artists and student plucked straight out of university.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks for this comment, Carol. Good to hear from you. For myself, the documentary did not leave the impression that those who get involved were simply "like sheep." They seemed to me mostly bright, sincere and "searching" folk. What they were persuaded to suspend at first, as I saw it, was the critical judgment that would have allowed them to retain the necessary ounce or two of the kind of skepticism the Buddha recommends: believe nothing, until you've put it thoroughly to the test. In their enthusiasm, they surrendered to belief... Something to talk about, though!

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes. "believe nothing" is quite a profound concept in and of itself. Because I really think that people that are coming into this cult not only have their critical thinking skills askew like Peter mentions, but they do want to believe in something and/or are at least willing to. That might be the key difference in someone who would get caught up in it and someone who wouldn't. Scientologists fully believe they have put their "beliefs" to the test in a scientific way and feel all the tenants they have read have been proven right before their very eyes, so they don't "believe," they KNOW. There is a system in which they use to prove each and everything they read to make sure it is not just true for Hubbard, but that it is "true for them." Thus, it is more difficult to lure one out of this cult than any other.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks again for this further clarification. It helps me understand a little better what I failed to understand before.