what scientology’s apostates can teach us all

February 21, 2011

Last week’s big story, in case you somehow missed it, was a very lengthy, deep, and richly detailed article by journalist Lawrence Wright on the apostasy of former Scientologist celebrity Paul Haggis. At nearly 24,600 words and spanning some 28 pages, it’s epic even by The New Yorker’s standards, but every word is worth it and if you haven’t read the piece already, I highly suggest you do because you will learn quite a bit about how those who run the Church of Scientology actually work and why so many celebrities participate. Scientology is a very bizarre beast to me, probably because watching the development of the ancient astronaut theory and its rising popularity on The (Alternative) History Channel, as well as UFOlogists’ search for a benevolent alien sage who wants to save us from ourselves, I’m starting to think that we’ll see far more religious movements based around a belief in alien visitation. And any future alien religion will have to work very hard to make sure that no one associates it with Scientology, the cult that made enemies out of Anonymous and WikiLeaks with its near constant hysterics, and whose practices started an investigation into human trafficking by the FBI.

Since I don’t have the luxury of writing a third of a book on this blog, and it seems very hard to add to what is a very thorough and well researched effort, I thought I’d just share a few observations for discussion. The first is that very little of what Wright writes is actually new. It’s just been brought together in narratives of several highly visible members of the cult. Scientology’s business model of providing what is basically armchair therapy with a mix of technobabble from the pulp quality sci-fi Hubbard usually churned out, was already documented and the investigations into its mistreatment of its dissenting members and the SeaOrg, who are essentially slave labor for the organization, were covered and brought to national attention by a newspaper in Florida. Just take a look at the last link above for reference. The only really new things are an elaboration of Scientology’s history and the FBI’s hard look into the fate of the SeaOrg members, whose mistreatment should really be appalling, especially in the modern Western world where indentured servitude and slavery are illegal. I mean how else can we call arrangements in which someone is expected to give up his or her freedom for "one billion years," work from dawn until dusk for laughably small wages, and serve Scientologists hand and foot? The very idea that a profession of a particular faith all of a sudden makes this fine is absolutely insane.

Secondly, those who run the Church of Scientology are terrible liars. Just about every basic lie detection class will teach you that one of the tell-tale signs that a suspect has something to hide is twitchiness, which usually takes one of two forms. The first is a total lack of cooperation and furious demands to be left alone. The other is the exact opposite, a furious appeal to innocence in which the suspect showers you with what he will insist absolves him of all responsibility. Scientologists rush to shower anyone around them with affidavits insisting that nothing bad ever happened or could ever happen in their cult at the slightest complaint, and send Tommy Davis, their hyperbole-spewing spokesdragon, to scream about how anyone who dares to say that his cult is anything but perfect must be an escaped lunatic with a vendetta to destroy a pristine, virginally innocent group of charming, beautiful, and wonderful people who’d never hurt a fly. That, ladies and germs, is what we call a major red flag. When you have as much control and can exert as much pressure on your members as Davis’ and Miscavige’s lieutenants, and have far more money in the bank than common sense, of course you could produce a whole lot of affidavits and sworn agreements. Now, what would be impressive is if the group had a reasonable response to an allegation and instead of the usual screaming and legal fits.

Thirdly, the current higher ups of Scientology seem to be utter lunatics, from the abusive and bombastic cult leader, Miscavige, to his main spokesperson, Davis, to their small horde of loyal sycophants. They’ve spent a whole lot of time as Scientologists and lived in cocoons where every criticism of the cult was censored or just dismissed as inane ramblings of the disgruntled. And that’s really what a lot of cults are about. They want you to unplug from the outside world and dedicate all your time (and money) to the group. You must conform and you must defend your group from any criticism, otherwise you’re a traitor who doesn’t appreciate what the cult did for her when she was lost and didn’t quite know where to turn. And this is especially true for Scientology’s vaunted celebrities, many of whom owe their careers to other Scientologists they’ve met, and who were often lured in by the cult’s promise of jump starting their careers. Provided that they also take their auditing classes and donate money every chance they get. So what can we expect when the long-term cultists take the reigns, put their faces on the image of their organization, and get exposed to some real criticism for the first time? I’m not surprised that Davis and Miscavige basically flip out and foam at the mouth with accusations of psychosis and conspiracy, flinging around forged documents which supposedly prove their deceased leader’s tall tales of breaking up black magic circles and suffering horrible wounds which he treated with alien magic.

Finally, there’s one more thing we can gather from Wright’s piece. If you feel lost and unsure of what to do with your life and someone offers you purpose and direction in exchange for money, telling you that he has a key to a secret for how to fulfill your potential and all you have to do is follow him, run the other way. In the end, it’s not worth it. You can be happy without living in a cult and wasting your hard-earned money on enriching its heads, and if you really want to find a charitable cause to which to donate your cash, there are plenty of organizations that could use your money for something a lot better than stuffing their wallets and building slave camps out in the desert. If you find yourself surrounded almost entirely by people from the same group, people who rush to change your mind the minute you say something critical of the group to which all of you belong, or cut off those who decide not to participate in that group any longer, you need to think about making some new friends.

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  • Bruce Coulson

    A little out of date, but a still relevant source is Bare-Faced Messiah, by Russell Miller, a very unauthorized biography of L. Ron Hubbard. Published in 1987, the Church of Scientology went to extreme lengths to prevent publication or distribution of the book. It looks like not much has changed…