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.