This is an impressively researched book, and I have to admire Wright’s courage in covering something as controversial as Scientology. I enjoyed this (audio) book not so much because I had a curiosity about Scientology, but because it helped me solidify my feelings about religion and religious freedom and the difference between a cult and a religion. So this review is going to be as much essay as review, and if you’re religious, you will probably feel insulted.
The book starts out as a biography of L.Ron Hubbard, a prolific science fiction writer of the mid-20th century who had a brief and non-exemplary naval career. He married, cheated on his wife so much that he drew scorn from his peers, married a second time, finally got around to divorcing his first wife, then married again after kidnapping his child and accusing his second wife of conspiring with communists. He had many children, and died of illness after founding one of the most influential and controversial new religions of the 20th century.
The path to scientology began when Hubbard invented what he called the “E-meter” something like a polygraph machine, which is used to “audit” (find) troublesome emotional events which are then revisited until they no longer have any emotional impact. Claiming that his invention could cure just about everything and anything, he drew the ire of psychologists and psychiatrists, who admonished him publicly for his false claims. (He retaliated by developing a lifelong enmity for all psychology) Other people, however, found his e-meter techniques amazing and life-altering, and joined him in a group called the “sea org.”
The sea org traveled around the world in their small fleet of boats, spreading the new gospel, as L. Ron Hubbard wrote what would become the basis of scientology. At this point of the book, I started to understand why Hubbard’s biography felt so familiar. It resembled the biography of Jim Jones and Joseph Smith and all the other self-styled prophets of the last century or so. Meglomaniac liar amasses slavishly devoted followers through sheer charisma and unrelenting conviction in his beliefs. The stories of teenage “messenger” girls crowding around him reminded me of some of the more lurid tales of Joseph Smith. The stories of people being thrown overboard or locked into the hold reminded me of the first hand accounts of punishments ladled out for those who strayed in the Aum Shinrikyo sect.
This is that part when I had to wonder, was Jesus like this? Was Buddha? Was Mohammed? Maybe the only thing that is needed to turn a cult into a religion is a few hundred years to make all the damning evidence of the prophet’s insanity disappear. Batty, unbelievable acts or evidence of con artistry turn into “Moroni took the tablets back” or “that fig tree was asking for it.” If I were a Roman matron in 100 AD and my daughter wanted to join the Christians, I’d have kittens. They practice ritual cannibalism! They worship in tombs! They long for death! Freaks! Fast forward a couple thousand years and suddenly those freaks are normal people who you and I both know and call friends. They teach our children, they run for public office, they look just like you and me. Maybe religions, like sausage, are one of those things you just don’t want to see being made.
According to this book (and you’ll have to read it yourself for exact dates, because I can’t cross-reference an audiobook) Scientology lost its tax-exempt status in the 60s. The courts determined that it was merely a moneymaking racket to sell self-help documents, instead of an organization of people who rally around their belief in a particular body of fiction. Because Hubbard didn’t believe in paying taxes, Scientology got into a fight with the IRS over a few billion dollars owed to the US government. Astoundingly, Scientology fought the law and Scientology won, settling for less than the full amount and winning back the right to call themselves a religion.
So the US courts basically decided where they fell on Scientology, but other people wonder, it a cult or a religion? At first I thought the difference between a cult and a religion was like the difference between a hill and a mountain, that is, merely semantics. Or perhaps like the difference between a dialect and a language, that is a language has an army and a navy to put the smack down on anyone who says otherwise. But now I’m wondering if the difference between a cult and a religion isn’t more like the difference between a tadpole and a frog. It’s a process, with a lot of in-between time. You can tell when it’s definitely a tadpole. An organization that keeps some of it’s people in slavery for years without trial because of slights against church authority seems like it has a wiggling tail. An organization where the people only go once a week, except for weddings and funerals, has hind legs and says “ribbit ribbit.”
Then again, the church that brainwashed me when I was a kid was McChristian mainstream. So who’s to say that religions are any safer than cults? Maybe the difference between a religion and a cult is like the difference between cocaine and alcohol. You’d think the first is horribly dangerous and the second is common and safe, but Freud used cocaine often and found it wonderful, and everyone knows someone whose life was ruined by alcohol. (If I were Queen of the world, religion for children would be as illegal as alcohol for children. As you might have guessed, I am not a big fan of religion.) Is Scientology a cult? Maybe it once was, and now it’s evolving into something different. If things had gone a little differently, if Hubbard hadn’t been so self assured, so financially solvent, and if he hadn’t had the prudence to attain the cache of celebrities, who’s to say that Scientology wouldn’t have ended in self-destruction like so many other new religions of the 20th century did?
People make fun of some of the wackier Scientology beliefs, particularly Xenu, the galactic overlord who imprisoned all of humanity trillions of years ago on a planet that was an exact replica of 1950’s America. Is that any wackier that your own particular favorite demigod/prophet/holy man claimed to have done? Is it weirder than walking on water? Than riding into heaven on a magic steed? Than making an ocean part? At least in Scientolgy, the people who commit genocide are the bad guys, which is more than I can say for some other mainstream religions. Hubbard may have been a liar and a cheater and a power hungry despot, but he did found an enduring religion, and you have to admit that’s impressive. Scientology has helped hundreds of thousands of people improve their lives. It’s also defrauded people of millions of dollars, destroyed lives, and brainwashed people (some of them innocent children) so badly that they can barely function outside the confines of their bizarre and xenophobic society. Which is to say, it’s just like other religions. In a few hundred years, people will assert that Hubbard is as holy a prophet as Jesus and Mohammed, that David Miscavage is equal to Brigham Young and St. Paul. Personally, I think they’re equal now.
I find a lurid titillation in reading about cults and new religions. It’s like reading about disasters, or people who ruin their lives with drugs or gambling or other addictions. I don’t believe that the people who get caught up in any of these tragedies are less intelligent than me, or less moral. Indeed, many cults and new religions sucker people in with the promise that they will help make the world a better place, so one could argue that cultists are better than non-cultists. Mostly, I feel sorry for them, and am grateful that I am not in the same place. I’m glad that I don’t have to decide between loving who I love and being accepted by the vengeful sky daddy. I’m glad that I can watch Harry Potter without worrying that Satan is going to eat my soul while I sleep. I’m glad that I’m not slavishly devoted to an organization who can force me to divorce or abort. Religions are dangerous. Scientology has helped many people. Plenty of people can use cocaine recreationally. I’m going to avoid both for the same reason: it’s hela expensive, and there’s no telling where the safe dosage is.
I really admired how well-researched this book was, how Wright used source after source after source to corroborate stories, and included in the footnotes the pithy “the church officially denies this conversation took place” or “Mr. Cruise’s lawyer asserts he has no recollection of these events.” After a while, it was like “come on, guys, you’re not going to even admit this? Really?” Given how brutal the financial, psychological, and occasionally physical assaults Scientology has leveled at its apostates, I am impressed with Wright’s bravery in publishing this, and I admire his publisher for taking the chance.
I recommend this for people who have never read about cults and don’t know how anyone could do such a thing. It’s less depressing than Underground (by Haruki Murakami, about the cult who put sarin in the subways )or Seductive Poison (by Deborah Layton, about the Jonestown massacre). The story of Scientology, at least, ends with money and movie stars rather than poison and botched apocalypse attempts.