Sympathizing with Scientology

The most unsavory “four-letter word” in America may be “change.” Perhaps its antecedent “new” also carries some seriously suspicious impressions. Whether warranted or not, Americans are reticent to readily accept, incorporate, or appreciate relatively new religious movements.

Although we like to pick our way through the buffet of religions on offer to us in a digital and global age, we are suspicious of full-fledge nouveau religious systems. After all, we like our religion like we like our comfy pants — worn-in, familiar, and neutral in color. Or perhaps, we prefer those religions that remind us of mom’s Thanksgiving stuffing recipe — don’t transgress the recipe and we can all enjoy a scoop or two of whatever we want.

Then there’s the Church of Scientology. Founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology (as it is popularly known) is the quintessential new religious movement for examining Americans’ wariness of accepting entities, beliefs, and rituals they do not understand.

Based on Hubbard’s book Dianetics, published in 1950, and other writings and manuals Scientologists believe that the individual is first and foremost a spirit, or thetan, and that thetans can be cleared of negative energy through a process called auditing. They espouse this as “spiritual technology” as auditors use machines called “e-meters” that measure stress and other markers of spiritual and material tarnish.

Scientology has long suffered derision in popular culture and in political maneuvers. Likewise, Scientology has been one of the most famously secretive and prone to take their complaints against their detractors to the civil courts. Their publications, while slick and well produced, appear paranoid and overcomplicated. Their public personas (Tom Cruise, John Travolta, etc.) are often edited and represented in news media as strange and nutty.

All of these streams at work in the societal misgivings concerning Scientology and the religion’s disgruntled posture recently came to a head with the release of Alex Gibney’s combustible HBO documentary “Going Clear,” based off of the best-selling book of the same name written by Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11). The film has drawn ire from the church, who took out a full-page ad in The New York Times to combat perceptions of Scientology solely based off the film, released a series of online videos to contest Gibney and Wright’s claims, and also arranged a team of lawyers to prepare litigations.

I read Wright’s book when it came out. Wright is a powerful and convincing investigative writer. His work was scrupulously researched (just look at the nearly 50 pages of endnotes!) and he leaves no Scientological stone unturned.

Certainly, in investigating Scientology’s founder, history, theology, rituals, and leadership systems (including the infamous ‘Sea Org’) Wright presents an impressive, engaging, and eerie story of a religion that many view as an out-of-control cult. And, in Wright’s estimation, they may have every reason to believe so.

Granted, Scientology has some strange beliefs and practices. Its cosmogony features a perplexing narrative that started some 75 million years ago. At that time, according to Hubbard and Scientologists, the Galactic Confederacy was run by an evil overlord named Xenu who exiled human souls (thetans) to Earth in space ships that look more like DC-8s than anything alien or ancient. Then there is the secretive Sea Org leadership crew and its Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF). The RPF involves punishment for Sea Org members who act, or speak, out and takes them through a process of remediation wherein they are supposedly forced to live in primitive conditions of forced asceticism, forced labor, and without contact with the outside world.

So yeah, when it comes to Scientology things can get weird.

Like most people, I am simultaneously enthralled and repelled by exotic entities such as Scientology. Therefore, just as I took a creepy little drive through the polygamous planned community of Colorado City after reading Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, I decided to drop by the Scientology center in Phoenix, AZ.

A backside view of Scientology's "Ideal Org" in north Phoenix, AZ.

A backside view of Scientology’s “Ideal Org” in north Phoenix, AZ.

Greeted by a young man we’ll call “Tom” in suit and button-up shirt, looking the picture of business-casual Arizona chic, I was invited to sit down, served a glass of water on a seasonably warm day in the Valley of the Sun, and was given a run-down of the center’s significant history. Tom told me the Phoenix center has some renown because it was the birthplace of Scientology, where Hubbard reportedly “made the breakthrough discoveries of the human spirit that gave rise to our religion.” The Phoenix center is an “Ideal Organization” (or “Ideal Org”) as it provides the full spectrum of facilities to educate Scientologists and serve as their home base for spiritual technological ritual.

I was then invited to enjoy an initial auditing session, what they called “a free stress-test,” and take a brief tour of the facility. Already late for a meeting at a local church, I declined. I’ll be honest, it was a convenient excuse. Bathed in Wright’s analysis of Scientology I was swimming in cultic images and depictions of domination and control. I shivered as I left the air-conditioned insides of this Ideal Org and stepped into the Arizona sun.

Fast-forward to 2015. This time, I’m not in Phoenix, but in Nashville, TN walking along broadway, the epicenter of “Nash Vegas” and its hoard of honky-tonks, neon-lit big boots, and country music kitsch.

There, replete in matching red table cloth and seeming personnel uniforms were two Scientologists, piles of copies of Dianetics in multiple languages, and two E-meters just ready to read my stress levels and invite me into the world of Scientology. Just a week from the premier of the controversial HBO documentary I decided to dive back into the world of “spiritual technology.”

Free stress tests courtesy of Scientology.

Free stress tests courtesy of Scientology.

I sat down across from “Betsy.” After the exchange of pleasantries I had two metal cylinders in my hands, connected by black wires to a red E-meter (really, they had the color coordination thing down). Betsy proceeded to ask me questions about my family, work, travel, and life situation letting me know when the E-meter showed signs of stress and diving deeper into the contexts that may be responsible for tension in my life.

Through the course of this conversation it came up that I am a PhD student studying religion (so I am totally stressed and totally feel guilty about it) and also work as a freelance religion newswriter and offer commentary on religion and culture.

The gig was up.

Our tête-a-tête turned away from my troubles and re-focused on Betsy’s conversion, her experiences on the streets with naysayers, gawkers, and seekers, and yes, that book and documentary. The talk got personal quick and I could tell that Betsy’s partner was slightly uncomfortable with the amount of intimate detail that she was divulging (although she would catch herself at times to keep some elements of her story closer to the chest). I promised Betsy I would not share the particulars of our dialogue, but I have to admit that as I walked away from the resplendently red table and matching everything I didn’t shiver or shake from a rush of adrenaline or a sufficient sense of creepiness.

Instead, I felt like I’d just talked to a human being. More than that, a spiritual and physical being in search of something greater than herself and finding it in the “spiritual technology” of Scientology. In my work as a religion newswriter, academic, and Christian churchworker I have interacted with lots of Betsy’s. They’ve been Muslim, Lutheran, non-religious, Buddhist, pantheistic, and everything else betwixt and between.

Over the years I’ve had many of my presuppositions flipped on their side or completely shattered. I’ve learned a lot in talking, and interacting, with “the religious other.” Along the way, I’ve come to appreciate the humanity of each and every religious body and I am here to say that it is clearly time for the American public, the news media, and academia to do the same with Scientologists. At the very least, and in the worse-case scenario, I’ve been able to walk alongside someone who was in danger in their spiritual walk and was a resource for them as they found their way out of the religion they were a part of. Along the way, I’ve learned that my sympathy and friendship may be the greatest gifts I can offer to the “religious other” I encounter in my neighborhood, at the local pub, or on my city’s streets.

Is Scientology a dangerous cult or an exalted form of 21st-century “spiritual technology” that holds the keys to our mythic past and our advanced future? The truth is probably on neither end of the spectrum, nor anywhere in the middle. Scientology is certainly strange (at least to me, and I am assuming, many of you) and its claims are surely suspect and deserving of skepticism. Nonetheless, the effort needs to be made to endeavor to understand even that which seems overly exotic, cultic, or bizarre  — Scientology included. 

Could I be being swayed by propaganda, both public and personalized? Quite possibly. Is there something to be gained, and learned, through scrupulous study spurred by suspicion? Most definitely. Even so, I believe it is time to uncover another side of the Scientology story by investigating it sympathetically, exploring its human dynamics, and pursuing an emic ​(insider’s) point-of-view.

As I oft-repeat as an advocate for religious literacy, there is a pertinent need for Americans (and indeed, people throughout the world) to cure ourselves of our irredeemable ignorance when it comes to religious beliefs, rituals, personages, and communities. Given our increased secularity and over-reliance on spiritual individualism some aspects of religion have become more controversial and more prone to explosive conflict. This is concomitant with reduced levels of religious literacy. New religious movements — from ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) to Scientology and other unconventional and perhaps uncomfortable forms of religion have become especially suspect at a time when religious institutions in general are being openly called into question. While Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, atheists and other religious bodies all catch plenty of flak, new and unusual religious groups encounter the most hostility. At a time when are questioning levels of “Islamophobia” in the U.S. it is important we question our presuppositions about new religious movements as well. At the same time, some new religious movements have turned more inward and made matters worse lashing out with violence and more secrecy. This is a vicious spiral of ignorance, conflict, and occasional bloodshed. 

To turn away from this powder keg of a situation not only will Americans need to open ourselves up, so will Scientology. Just as the U.S. public should not be putting forward an image that says we are a place of religious freedom, “melting pot” multi-culturalism, and tolerance when in reality we are perniciously suspicious of anything we don’t understand or can’t associate with Scientology should also make the move away from propaganda and focus their previously cited  proficiency with media to tell their story on personal and pellucid terms. 

In that way, we can all move forward and “go clear” in our efforts toward greater religious literacy and interfaith engagement. 

*With all this said, let me add this caveat: I recommend you to read Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear. I also suggest you check out Scientology’s website to watch their responses. You could even go so far as to read Dianetics. As of right now, I would not encourage you to visit Scientology centers or receive “free stress tests” unless you are a researcher or journalist. There is still too much unknown about the organization, its beliefs, and practices for me to advocate a completely open stance. Likewise, I don’t want to put you in a situation where you would feel threatened. This applies to the non-Scientologist as well as the Scientologist. I don’t want those seeking understanding to be made unwarrantedly uncomfortable nor do I want to see people attacking the Betsys and Toms of this world for their beliefs. I would not want to be responsible for untold harm or damage to anyone, Scientologist or not. More time, and more purposeful transparency on both sides, is needed before we can be bold in our dialogue and exchange with Scientology. 

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