Friday, October 11, 2013

Scientology by Lawrence Wright

Photo: Ron L.Hubbard testing his hypothesis that plants feel pain too.

Going Clear; Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright; Knopf, N.Y. 2013

Born in 1911,  Ron L. Hubbard became a very prolific and well-regarded writer of pulp and science fiction. After serving in the Navy during World War II he moved to Southern California where so many ambitious and rootless members of his generation were seeking their destiny. There was a proliferation of exotic new religions in America and other countries, caused by the tumult of war and disruptions of progress that older denominations weren’t very well prepared to solve. Southern California was filled with migrants who weren’t tied to old creeds and were ready to experiment with new ways of thinking. The region was swarming with Theosophists, Rosicrucians, Zorastrians, and Vendantis.  Swamis, mystics, and gurus of many different faiths pulled acolytes into their orbits. In particular, Hubbard lived for a while in a Pasadena mansion with John Whiteside Parsons whom some scholars have called the James Dean of the occult.[To what extent Hubbard was involved in the witchcraft and sexual magical of Parson’s branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis is one of the many contentious questions in his life and in the history of the church of Scientology.]

In May 1950 Hubbard published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health,  written in a bluff, quirky style overrun with patronizing footnotes that did little to substantiate its bold findings. Never-the-less, it became a sensation, lodging itself for twenty-eight weeks on the New York Times best seller and laying the groundwork for the category of postwar self-help books that would seek to emulate its success.

The book arrived at a moment when the aftershocks of the world war were still being felt. Behind the exhilaration of victory, there was intense trauma. Religious certainties were shaken by the development of bombs so powerful that civilization, if not life itself, became a wager in the  contest  between  powerful yet surreally blind ideologies called the Cold War. Loss, grief, and despair were cloaked by the stoicism of the age, but patients being treated in mental hospitals were already on the verge of outnumbering those being treated for any other cause. The profession of psychiatry- always viewed with suspicion in much of America as a European (mainly Jewish) import- entered into a period of brutal experimentation characterized by the widespread practice of lobotomies and electroshock therapy. Psychoanalysis  was time-consuming and fantastically expensive. Hubbard promised results “in less than twenty hours of work” that would be “superior to any produced by several years of psycho-analysis.” Furthermore, Hubbard wrote: “Dianetics is no awfully solemn adventure. For all that it has to do with suffering and loss, its end is always laughter, so foolish, so misinterpreted were the things which cause the woe.”

The people who were drawn to Dianetics were mostly young to middle-aged white-collar Protestants who had a pronounced interest in science fiction, along with many other truth seekers, often veterans of other movements and cults that were responding to the dislocations of the age. They were attracted by the legend of the heroic Navy officer who had been blinded and crippled by the war, who had healed himself through Dianetic techniques. Like Hubbard, they sought a cure. Society and science had let them down. They hoped to be lifted up, enlightened, restored, and made whole. Hubbard set up schools to train auditors in major cities, which, along with book sales and his lecture fees, generated a cascade revenue; money started pouring in.

Given his biography, it would be easy to dismiss Hubbard as a fraud, but that would failed to explain his total absorption in his project. He would spend the rest of his life elaborating his theory and –even more obsessively – constructing the intricate bureaucracy designed to spread and enshrine his visionary understanding of human behavior. His life narrowed down to his singular mission. Each passageway in his interior expedition led him deeper into his imagination. That journey became Scientology, a totalistic universe in which his every turn was mapped and described.

In addition to tax advantages, religion supplies a commodity that is always in demand: salvation. Hubbard ingeniously developed Scientology into a series of veiled revelations, each of which promised greater abilities and increased spiritual power. “To keep a person on the Scientology path,” Hubbard allegedly told one of his associates, “feed him a mystery sandwich.”

The evolution of Scientology into a religion resembles the progression of Christian Science. Like Hubbard, Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, experimented with alternative ways of healing. Like Hubbard, she claimed to have been an invalid who cured herself; she, too, wrote a book based on her experience, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, which became the basis for the founding of the Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1879. Far more than is the case with Scientology, Christian Science stands against mainstream medical practices, even though both organizations lay claim to being more “scientific” than religious. Scientology, like many religions including Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shakers, Millerites, Mormons and Pentecostals  has experienced scorn and persecution. Some have died out, others have elbowed their way into the crowded religious landscape of American society.

There is a constant churning of spiritual movements and denominations all over the world. One should look at Ron L .Hubbard and the odyssey of his movement against this historical backdrop and the natural yearning for transcendence and submission.

By the mid-seventies the air around Scientology was giddy and playful, especially in Hollywood. It was seen as a cool, boutique religion, aimed especially towards the needs of artists and entertainers. The counterculture was still thriving, Scientology was both a part of and stood apart from it. There was a saying, “After drugs, there’s Scientology,” and it was true that many who were drawn to the religion had taken hallucinogens and were open to alternative realities. Recruits had a sense of boundless possibility. Mystical powers were forecast; out-of-body experiences were to be expected; fundamental secrets of the universe revealed.

 I do not doubt that there is some truth to the allegations of violence and human trafficking in Scientology  Wright presents in this book. Ron Hubbard himself struggled mightily with the demons in his soul through-out his life and , after his death, the struggle in the church’s leadership for control of the immense wealth and power it encompassed was particularly intense. My intent here is neither to elaborate nor apologize for this aspect of its history but to place it in the context of the inchoate age in which it arose.

The 1990s, for example, saw the rise of apocalyptic movements in many different countries and the familiar themes of science fiction and UFO’s became especially pronounced and deadly  in October 1994 when police in Switzerland discovered eighteen corpses wearing ceremonial garments arranged like spokes in a wheel, the victims of a cult named the Order of the Solar Temple. More corpses associated with this religion were discovered in Grenoble, France and Quebec. Americans witnessed similar suicidal tendencies develop among the Branch Davidians and among the followers of Jim Jones. In March 1995, adherents of a Japanese movement called Aum Shinruikyo ( Supreme Truth) attacked five subway trains in Tokyo with sarin gas and it was later discovered that this was just one of at least fourteen attacks the group staged in order to set off a chain of events intended to result in an apocalyptic world war. Several  American Christian splinter groups and militia movements staged  attacks against government infrastructure and law enforcement agencies. There appears to be a narrow boundary between religious cultism and terror which became even more obvious with the rise of al-Queda.

Although Scientology has persecuted its critics and defectors – the manner in which it has deflected attacks against it  using its vast wealth to hire battalions of lawyers, infiltrate the offices of public prosecutors and the I.R.S, harass judges and mobilize global celebrities to influence politicians and polish its public image is actually quite remarkable- it has never engaged in mass murder or suicides. However, the public anxieties surrounding the above sensational events added rancor and fear that often well-up in places like Germany. Could Scientology also turn violent in this manner? There were elements mixed into these various groups that resembled some features of Scientology – magical beliefs and science fiction being the most obvious. Like Aum Shinrikyo, Scientology has ties to Buddhist notions notions of enlightenment and Hindu beliefs in karma and reincarnation. Structurally, Aum Shinrikyo was similar to the “Supreme Truth” in having both a public membership and a cloistered clergy, like the Sea Org, called renunciates, who carried out directives that the larger organization knew little or nothing about.

When the U.S. State Department, under Bill Clinton, began to pressure their government on behalf of Scientology Germans were puzzled that their American counterparts seemed not to know about the church’s RPF camps, which they called penal colonies, or the reported practices of confinement, forced confessions, and punishing physical labor, which they said amounted to brainwashing. There was a belief in the German cabinet that the church’s real goal was to infiltrate the government and create a Scientology superstate. “This is not a church or religious organization,” labor minister Norbert Blum told Maclean’s magazine. “Scientology is a machine for manipulating human beings."

Scientology wants to be understood as a scientific approach to spiritual enlightenment. It has, really, no grounding in science at all. It would be better understood as a philosophy of human nature and seen in that light Hubbard’s thought could be compared to many other moral philosophers, perhaps even Kant or Soren Kierkegaard.The field of psychotherapy is Scientology’s more respectable cousin, although it cannot claim to be a science either. Freud’s legacy is that of a free and open inquiry into the motivations of behavior. He also creates postulates – such as the ego, superego, and the id – that might not endure strict scientific testing, but do offer an approach to understanding of the inner workings of personality. Hubbard’s concept of the reactive and analytical minds attempts to do the something similar. Carl Jung’s exploration of archetypes, based on his psychological explorations, could be said to anticipate the evolution of Dianetics to Scientology – in other words, the drift from therapy to spiritualism. Just consider some of the obvious sources of Hubbard’s unique concoction – Buddhism, Hinduism, magic, General Semantics and shamanism – that also provide esoteric categories to explain the ineffable mysteries of life and consciousness. One can find parallels to Hubbard in many faiths, e.g. Joseph Smith and even the late Pope from Poland.

 Hubbard’s often ingenious and minutely observed categories of behavior have, however, been shadowed by the bogus, legendary elements of his personality and the absurdity that is interwoven with his bouts of brilliance- his stories practically invite ridicule and disbelief -but every religion features bizarre and uncanny elements, making it difficult for non-Scientologists to know what to make of it. Serious academic study of his writing has been constrained by a vindictive response to the success of his church.


  1. To an outsider who has struggled to understand the deep appeal of Scientology to its adherents, despite the flaws and contradictions of religion that many of them reluctantly admit, perhaps the missing element is art. Older faiths have a body of literature, music, ceremony, and iconography that infuse the doctrinal aspects of the religion with mystery and importance. The sensual experience of being in a great cathedral or mosque may have nothing to do with “belief”, but it does draw people to a religion and rewards them emotionally. Scientology has built many impressive churches, but they are not redolent palaces of art. The aesthetic element in Scientology is Hubbard’s arresting voice as a writer. His authoritative but folksy tone and his impressionist grasp of human nature have cast a spell over millions of readers. More important, however, is the nature of his project: the self-portrait of the inside of his mind. It is perhaps impossible to reduce his mentality to a psychiatric diagnosis, in part because of his own rendering of it is so complex, intricate, and comprehensive that one can only stand back and appreciate the qualities that drove him, hour after hour, year after year, to try to get it all on the page – his insight, his daring, his narcissism, his defiance, his restlessness, his imagination – these are he traits of an artist. It is one reason that Hubbard identified wit the creative community and many of them with him.

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