Paul P. Mealing

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Monday, 22 April 2013

Scientology – a 20th century science fiction religion


I’ve just read 2 books: Beyond Belief; My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, by the current leader’s niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill (co-written with Lisa Pulitzer); and Going Clear; Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Lawrence Wright. I bought both these books after reading reviews in Rupert Murdoch’s paper, The Weekend Australian Review (Rupert’s Australian publications are a lot more left-leaning than his American counterparts I suspect). Previously, I had just finished reading a Scottish crime thriller, but both of these books were a lot harder to put down.

I should disclose that I had my own brush with Scientology a few years before Jenna Miscavige Hill was born, when I was around 30 (sometime between 1978 and 1983) when I was solicited in a Sydney street, along with a friend, and invited to take part in a ‘session’, but I’ll talk about that later.

There are many different ways one can define religion – to me it’s part of a personal internal journey: very introspective, self-examining and impossible to share. But the public face of religion(s) is often something different: judgemental, proselytising and mentally claustrophobic. I suspect that many followers of Scientology see themselves in the first category, but the institution itself falls squarely into the second.

Religion, in the context of historical Western civilization, has been predominantly about mind control, and it was largely successful up until the Enlightenment, when novels, new scientific discoveries (in all fields) and Western philosophy all made inroads into the educated Western psyche. In the 20th Century, mind control appeared to be the principal political tool of totalitarian regimes like the former USSR and China. It’s not something one would expect to find in an American institution, especially one tied to the celebration of celebrity, but that’s exactly what Scientology is if one believes the accounts revealed in these 2 books.

I defy any normal sane person to read Micavige Hill’s book without getting angry. I imagine a lot of high-level people with the Scientology Church would also get angry, but for different reasons. Of all the events that she recounts from when she signed her ‘billion year contract’ at the age of 7 (she tried to run away a year later) to when she finally left under enormous duress as a married adult (after threatening to jump off a 5 storey ledge), what made me most angry was something that was at once petty and unbelievably controlling and intrusive. As a teen she received letters sent by her estranged mother, but she could read them only after they were already opened and she was never allowed to keep them. At the age of 10 she had to fill out a form so she could visit her parents for her 10th birthday. Yet this is nothing compared to the alleged abuses by the organisation that Lawrence Wright documents in his carefully researched and fully referenced book.

Stalin was infamous for creating a culture where people reported on their neighbours thus creating fear and mistrust in everyday interactions. China had a similar policy under Mao and during the cultural revolution families were split up and sent to opposite sides of the country. According to Miscavige Hill, both these policies were adopted by Scientology, as it happened to her own family. According to her, all her friends were estranged from her, especially in her teens, and the Church even attempted to separate her from her recently wedded husband (also a ‘Sea Org’ member in the organisation) which culminated in her threatening suicide and eventually leaving, totally disillusioned with her lifetime religion but with her marriage intact.

The Catholic Church has the confessional and Scientology has ‘auditing’ and ‘sec-check’, both using their famous ‘E-Meter’. In the comprehensive glossary at the back of her book, Miscavige Hill defines ‘Sec Check’ as “A confessional given while on the E-Meter. Sec-checks can take anywhere from three weeks to a year or longer.” But unlike the Catholic Church confessions, the Scientology equivalent are not confidential, according to those who claim to have been blackmailed by them, but are according to the Church. According to Scientology’s doctrine the e-meter never lies so people being audited, including Miscavige Hill, quickly learn to confess what the auditor wants to hear so they can get it over with. Later, if they try and leave the Church, as she did, these confessions can be held over them to stop them publicly denouncing the Church. Some of these confessions are of a highly personal nature, like the intimate details of sexual relations.

Naturally, the Church denies any of these allegations, along with the practice of ‘disconnection’ (denying access to family members) and child labour, which Miscavige Hill experienced first hand from the age of 7. Allegations of basic human rights abuse are predominant in both books, yet all legal proceedings against the Church seem to eventually be settled out of court (according to Wright’s account).

Miscavige Hill also provides insight into the conditioning of both receiving and giving instructions without question. In principle, this is one of the biggest philosophical issues I have with a number of religious educations, including my own, whereby one doesn’t question or one is discouraged from thinking for oneself. Part of an education I believe, should be the opposite: to be exposed to a variety of cultural ideas and to be encouraged to argue and discuss beliefs. Teenagers are at an age where they tend to do this anyway, as I did. Reading Albert Camus at the age of 16 was life-changing at an intellectual level, and deepened my doubts about the religion I had grown up with.

Wright’s book is a good complementary read to Jenna’s autobiography, as he provides a history lesson of the whole Church, albeit not one the Church would endorse. The book contains a number of footnotes that declare the Church’s outright disagreement on a number of issues as well as numerous disclaimers from Tom Cruise’s attorney, Bertram Fields. Wright is an acclaimed author, with a number of awards to his name, and is staff writer for The New Yorker. His book arose from a feature story he wrote on Paul Haggis (a disillusioned Scientologist) for that magazine. The book starts and ends with Haggis, but, in between, attempts to cover every aspect of the religion, including a biography of its founder, testimony from many of its disaffected members, and its connection to Hollywood celebrity.

Paul Haggis is a successful screenwriter and his credits include some of the best films I’ve seen: Million Dollar Baby, The Valley of Elah (which he also directed) and Casino Royale. His career-changing movie was Crash, which I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen. I remember when it came out, it was on my must-see list, but it never happened. He also wrote Flags of Our Fathers, which Eastwood directed following Million Dollar Baby. In The Valley of Elah is a little known movie starring Charlize Theron (I believe it’s one of her best roles) and Tommy Lee Jones; part crime thriller, part commentary on the Iraq war. I saw it around midnight in a Melbourne arthouse cinema, such was its low profile. He also made The Next 3 Days with Russell Crowe, which I haven’t seen. We never know screenwriters - they are at the bottom of the pecking order in Hollywood - unless they are writer-directors (like Woody Allen or Oliver Stone) so no one would say I’d go and see a Paul Haggis film, but I would.

Haggis campaigned against Proposition 8 in California (a bill to ban same-sex marriage) which I’ve written about myself on this blog. His disillusionment with Scientology was complete when he failed to get the Church to support him.

Scientology promotes itself as a science, and, in particular, is strongly opposed to psychiatry. But at best, it’s a pseudo-science; a combination of Freudian psychoanalysis and Buddhist philosophy. The e-meter auditing, which supposedly gives it its scientific credibility has never been accepted by mainstream science or psychology. L Ron Hubbard, before he started Dianetics, which became Scientology, was a highly prolific pulp sci-fi writer and best friend of Robert Heinlein (a famous sci-fi author with right-wing politics). But while Hubbard lived and wrote during the so-called ‘golden era’ of science fiction, his name is never mentioned in the same company as those who are lauded today, like Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke or Ursula Le Guin (still alive, so possibly later) and I’ve never seen or heard his name referenced at any Sci-Fi convention I’ve attended.

When it comes to psychological manipulation, Scientology excels. In particular, the so-called ‘Bridge to Total Freedom’, aka ‘the Bridge’, which is effectively a sequence of stages of spiritual enlightenment one achieves as a result of courses and ‘sessions’ one completes. At the end of this process, usually taking many years and costing thousands of dollars, one is given access to ‘OT III’ material, the end of the journey and one’s ultimate spiritual reward. According to Miscavige Hill, people ‘on the Bridge’ are told that given early access to OT III would cause serious injury, either mental or physical, such is its power. Now, common sense says that information alone is unlikely to have such a consequence, nevertheless this was both the carrot, and indirectly, the stick, for staying with the course. As revealed, in both of these books, OT III is in fact a fantastical science fiction story that beggars credulity on any scale. It’s effectively an origins story that could find a place in Ridley Scott’s movie, Prometheus, which is better rendered, one has to say, in its proper context of fiction.

In my introduction, I mentioned my own very brief experience with Scientology in Sydney (either late 1970s or early 1980s) when I was interviewed and offered an ‘e-meter’ session. Something about the whole setup made me more than suspicious, even angry, and I rebelled. What I saw were basically insecure people ‘auditing’ other insecure people and it made me angry. I had grown up in a church (though my parents were not the least religious) where once we were called to stand up and declare ourselves to Jesus in writing. I remember refusing as a teenager, mainly because I knew my father opposed it, but also the sense of being pressured against my will. This feeling returned when I was in the Scientology centre in Sydney, or whatever it was called. Interestingly, they took me upstairs where I met some people about my own age who were very laid back and surrounded by a library of philosophical books. I said I would prefer to explore their ideas at my own leisure and so I bought a copy of Dianetics and had nothing more to do with them. I never read Dianetics, though I’ve read the complete works of Jung and books by Daisetz Suzuki on Zen Buddhism, so I was very open to religious and philosophical ideas at that age. Likewise, I’ve never read any of Hubbard’s fiction, though I once tried and gave up.

5 comments:

Virginia Andrews said...

I agree on Mr. Hubbard's fiction. Not my cup of tea, but no science fiction is my choice of reading matter.
I disagree on Dianetics and Scientology. I care nothing about the writings of people with an axe to grind. I was middleaged when I found Dianetics and Scientology and they have made the second half of my life far better than it would otherwise have been.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Virginia,

There are so-called ‘public Scientologists’ (Jenna Miscavige Hill’s term, or the Church’s term), who obviously have no idea what happens in the organisation’s inner sanctum. And some of these are highly educated people and even people I admire, like Aussie singer, Kate Ceberano (pronounced Ser-brarno).

At present there seems to be a cocoon, and the ‘Sea-Org’ members are inside the cocoon and a lot of public members are outside the cocoon, but this cannot be maintained indefinitely, especially if members from within the cocoon keep breaking out.

I think false imprisonment from early childhood gives a person every right to have an ‘axe to grind’. I expect that the Church will eventually have to change its ways if it wants to maintain some credibility. I can’t imagine that it can continue to abuse its most loyal members if it wants to maintain its Church status and not completely alienate public opinion.

Regards, Paul.

The Atheist Missionary said...

Paul, you must see Crash. It's excellent.

I must confess a grudging admiration of Hubbard. He must be the only Church founder in the history of humanity who openly speculated about establishing a religion to make money and then went ahead and did it!

Paul P. Mealing said...

Yes, the impression you get from Wright's book is that it's all about money. Wright also revealed a grudging respect for Hubbard in that, in addition to his fecund imagination, or because of it, he founded a religion and gave it a celebrity status.

I watched Crash today. It has similar themes, and even a similar structure, to Babel, which was made some years later (I have a copy). It has a couple of clever plot twists, one of which is the sort of brilliance that writers strive for but rarely attain.

Regards, Paul.

John G Messerly said...

It is sad that so many fall for these cults; but it also says something about how bad society is that persons will latch on to anything. I blog about such issues at reasonandmeaning.com