One of the most perverse aspects of American culture is the contradiction between our self-professed guiding ethos and what many of us actually do. This is the country of the self-made, the independent thinker, the individualist. We build elaborate mythologies extolling the virtues and victories of our heroes, who are all of a piece, wholly their own creatures, dependent on no one and nothing to be what they are. Daniel Boone to Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, the self-sufficient American is our national role model.
Yet a look at our actual history shows that we as a people are surpassing great joiners. We attach ourselves to collectives, to movements, to institutions, and borrow ideologies from them, speaking with a group voice and shunning those whose independence of thought causes them to criticize whatever party our fellows have joined that gives them a sense of worth. We have been known as the most religious country on Earth, per capita, and any close look at the religious movements that have swept this country over more than two centuries shows a deep approval of support for such causes even at the expense (sometimes especially at the expense) of those who are genuinely independent in thought and action. Americans often readily bury their freedom of conscience in support of all manner of mass social incarnations, be they labor unions, political parties, or churches.
For a nation founded on an idea of letting people be who they wish to be, America has a questionable track record, with periods of tolerance punctuated by spasms of intolerance, but always with an apparent acceptance of a preference for belonging that runs counter to our professed pride of independence. This also runs counter to the related “virtue” we like to boast of being hard-nosed skeptics. To be sure, many of us are, and most of us exercise a degree of skepticism at least in certain areas of our lives, but again we are inconsistent, especially, it seems, when it comes to religions.
Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollwood, & the Prison of Belief, delves into one of the most quintessentially American religions of the 20th Century. Generated in the 1950s out of the imagination of one man, it has grown to international proportions, and along the way has been subject to as much if not more controversy than any other movement of comparable size, in some ways akin to Mormonism. (In significant ways, Scientology and Mormonism share a great deal—both creations of single individuals who then went on to uproot a community of followers, creating an insular ideology that separated members from the wider world, based on cosmologies invented almost from whole cloth, establishing themselves in the minds of their adherents with such visceral force that no amount of fact seems capable of dislodging faith in the central tenets, fact in both instances far more easily produced and demonstrated than in most other religions.)
Many books have been written about Scientology, the majority by or about former members whose objectivity may be doubted. This is not, on the inside, a religion that seems content to allow its membership the kind of options we expect from more mainstream faiths. You may join the Baptists, stay awhile, and then, if it doesn’t suit, leave. According to most accounts by ex-Scientologists, there is no apparent regard for such an option, and those who do leave are rarely left alone. (By contrast, when a Mormon repudiates the faith, the opposite tends to happen—they are closed out and shunned.)
Wright has no axes to grind. He is an investigative journalist telling a story. He did exhaustive research, covered as much material as he could, found many people to talk to, both in and out of the church, and has produced what may be to date one of the most evenhanded treatments of the subject yet published. The evolution of the movement, from the imagination of its founder, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, is charted clearly, as is the growth of the church from the size of a club to a cult to a major religion boasting millions of members. One of his guiding questions, however, has to do with volition:
If Scientology is based on a lie…what does it say about the many people who believe in its doctrine…?
Throughout the book, this question hovers in the background. We see people from all walks of life encounter Scientology and then surrender themselves to it, sometimes for life, sometimes for a few years, for a myriad of reasons. Wrights finds people who swear by the efficacy of the doctrines, who use it to be better people. He seems to find just as many who have apparently few other options for self-discovery and actualization. After long enough, it becomes difficult if not impossible to conceive of life outside the church.
The ones that cause the deepest stirrings of concern are those born into it, at least those born into it within the deepest circles, the Sea Org and administration. They grow up never knowing enough, if anything, about the outside world to be able to function anywhere but within the church.
There are orders of renunciates the world over, retiring groups who close themselves off from the world at large. Their existence calls into question criticism of Scientology for doing essentially the same thing. However, as the story of the interior world Hubbard created unfolds, we see a disturbing absence of all the aspects of free will, free choice that we take for granted. Yes, strictly speaking, these people joined on their own and stay by choice.
But so, too, did the followers of Jim Jones or David Koresh. A close look at Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church reveals a similar break from the standards of free association we associate with the exercise of rights. Coercion takes many forms and the most effective are those that manage to convince people to place the chains on themselves.
And yet…and yet…
The doctrines created—invented—by Hubbard come straight out of science fiction. Hubbard was a pulp writer in the 1930s, he wrote fantastic fiction (as in content not necessarily quality), he was a colleague of Heinlein, de Camp, others who established the idioms of what we know today as science fiction. When you read the ideas that informed Hubbard’s central mythos for the church, it is straight out of science fiction, but of an earlier era where some of the constraints of science, even in passing, did not pertain. It is difficult to take any of it seriously. Much of it flies in the face of physical fact (the universe is 14 billion years old, not 4 quadrillion) and defies the logic of evolution. It combines elements of pop psychology with Antlantean mythology with flights of fancy that would be ridiculed today by savvy readers if the attempt were made to foist it onto them. How can anyone swallow this stuff, we may ask, incredulous at the apparent gullibility of adherents.
But, then, the same could be said of the basic doctrines of any religion. Joseph Smith was a con artist and his frauds were documented, yet people virtually worship him as the avatar of their theological universe. Fact has little bearing on the need to join and believe exhibited by so many people. Cordons sanitaire are drawn around the primary ideologies of any religion, exempting them from even the most mundane of critical analysis.
Few have been so closely guarded as those of Scientology.
What is striking, though, is the apparent ease with which such movements attract followers in a place where supposedly the defining cultural motifs all promote the idea of not being gulled, not being fooled, not be led unquestioningly. Wright has no answers to such dilemmas. What he has given us, however, is a clear-eyed look at method and process and, it may be hoped, a possible antitode to self-imposed slavery.