Religion, grrrr

Rachel Aviv

  • The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion by Hugh Urban
    Princeton, 268 pp, £19.95, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 14608 9

Empirical study led L. Ron Hubbard to the principles on which Scientology is based. He never claimed to have had a revelation. He spelled the principles out in 1950 in Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the bestselling self-help treatise in which he presents rationality as our birthright. The human mind, he wrote, is a perfect computer corrupted by ‘incorrect data’. He urged readers to reflect on their lives and ask themselves: ‘Where is the error?’ With the help of a lay therapist, called an ‘auditor’, they could uncover early traumas – mothers who wanted to abort them, or slept with too many men – and become less irrational: ‘Many of the things which Freud thought might exist,’ he wrote, ‘such as “life in the womb”, “birth trauma”, we in Dianetics have … confirmed.’

Hubbard insisted that the principles of Dianetics had nothing to do with ‘any mumbo-jumbo of mysticism or spiritualism or religion’. He assured readers that ‘Dianetics is a science; as such, it has no opinion about religion, for sciences are based on natural laws.’ Throughout the United States, people formed Dianetics clubs and helped each other to become ‘clear’: in this state, they would be free of all compulsions, neuroses and delusions, see colours vividly for the first time, appreciate melody, perform complex mathematical calculations and recall every moment of their lives. Hubbard was so confident of the merits of his electro-psychometer, a device used to detect hidden trauma by measuring galvanic skin response, that he asked the American Medical Association to investigate his new tool. The medical establishment showed no interest. In a review in the Nation, the kindest thing the psychiatrist Milton Sapirstein could say about Dianetics was that ‘the author seems honestly to believe what he has written.’

Hubbard took the rejection badly. When his followers were arrested for practising medicine without a licence, he complained that the United States made it ‘illegal to heal or cure anything’. He began to reconsider the distinction he’d made between psychology and spiritual practice. In a 1953 newsletter he wrote that the process of uncovering repressed memories through auditing is ‘perhaps allied with religion, perhaps a mystic practice and possibly just another form of Christian Science or plain Hubbardian nonsense’. The following year, embracing what he called the ‘religious angle’, he opened the first church of Scientology in Los Angeles. The electro-psychometer was no longer used as a diagnostic tool but became instead a ‘valid religious instrument, used in Confessionals’.

In The Church of Scientology, one of only a handful of academic treatments of the subject, Hugh Urban is less interested in the experiences of Scientologists than in the legal processes and semantic twists through which a set of beliefs becomes a religion. A professor of religious studies at Ohio State, Urban is interested in secrecy in religion, and in this book he chronicles the way Hubbard reacted to legal and political challenges to his authority by attempting (largely successfully) to conceal his theories from the public. Had he stuck with his original conception of Dianetics, his practices could have been investigated and judged according to scientific standards. A religion, on the other hand, can turn self-help platitudes into a scarce and privileged resource; criticism can be dismissed as intolerance, or persecution.

Like any therapy, Scientology appealed to people searching for a story that would explain why they hadn’t made the most of their lives. Hubbard’s disavowal of medicine required only slight adjustments. He replaced the term ‘brain’ (and tentative references to its architecture) with ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’, and expanded his concept of time. If a patient (called a ‘pre-clear’) couldn’t remember being abused, an auditor would encourage her to think about her experience in the womb; if she couldn’t recall any trauma there, she was urged to reflect on previous lives, in other galaxies, spanning hundreds or thousands of years. Through their recovered memories, pre-clears were initiated into the Scientology mythos, which hinges on the story of an intergalactic dictator called Xenu who 75 million years ago collaborated with psychiatrists to massacre a population of aliens whose tortured essences now inhabit the bodies of humans.

Scientology quickly became one of the loudest (and least articulate) voices in the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s – a time when doctors still had unfettered authority to administer drugs to unwilling patients. (The first international edition of the Scientology magazine, Freedom, showed horned devils performing lobotomies.) To Scientologists the ‘psychs’ were conspirators who wanted to take over the world. The new church’s survival depended on the claim – born of rejection and disappointment – that only religion is equipped to study the mind.

But Hubbard never let go of the dream that the world would become explicable through science. Since he lacked credentials, he defined his practice in the vaguest terms: ‘All we want is something with a high degree of workability, that’s all any scientist needs.’ Science was a perspective rather than a method. The proof that Scientology worked was Hubbard’s own life. In his book Mission into Time, he claimed he had finally triumphed over his unconscious; he now remembered ‘with certainty’ every moment of his existence. ‘The small details of it like what I ate for breakfast two trillion years ago are liable to go astray here and there,’ he wrote, ‘but otherwise it’s no mystery.’

Hubbard had begun exploring the redemptive possibilities of science in the 1930s and 1940s, when he was writing the voluminous short stories that appeared – he produced nearly 100,000 words a month – in Astounding Science Fiction, the most popular US magazine of its kind. His stories were crass, overdetermined and breezy; his heroes morally, mentally and physically superior to the rest of humanity. He had an exalted sense of his creative powers, but in any case held that artists were higher beings, superior to the ‘raw public’, which had been ‘booby-trapped’ into believing in a single reality.

Hubbard’s novel Typewriter in the Sky, published in 1940, tells the story of Horace Hackett, a writer who turns his best friend into a character in his own novel. Every time Hackett makes a creative decision, his friend’s reality changes: he moves helplessly through scenes, ‘swept along by a force which was wholly invisible and untouchable’. At the end of a long day’s work, Hackett muses, glass of Scotch in hand, that ‘the way you feel about stories sometimes. It’s – well, sort of divine.’ The story ‘comes bubbling out of us like music’. ‘When I go knocking out the wordage and really get interested in my characters,’ he continued, ‘it almost makes me feel like – a god or something.’

Soon Hubbard began interpreting that power literally, and many of his colleagues lost interest in his work. An extract from Dianetics was published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1950 and, according to Judith Merril, a frequent contributor, it became a ‘line of demarcation’. She saw it as marking the end of the magazine’s golden era: instead of using fantasy to pose questions that challenged social norms, it now prescribed fantastic solutions that were increasingly out of touch with the world.

Hubbard’s most devoted readers were absorbed into his fan-fiction empire; as they remembered their past lives, they became characters in his catch-all narrative. At each level of the process they attained new knowledge that enriched the fictional universe for them. The promised denouement was ascension on earth, a prospect that Hubbard regularly elaborated by writing new chapters, or ‘doctrine’. The religion would create a supremely rational species capable of all sorts of amazing feats – healing the sick, communicating with plants, levitating.

Hubbard gradually came to terms with years spent writing science fiction. It had once been a liability, not to be much discussed, but as he began to consider himself a religious leader he came to see his writing years as a productive phase of ‘research’. Thanks to science fiction, he had discovered an age when men could transcend the boundaries of the physical universe. ‘It … concerns actual incidents,’ Hubbard wrote. The only problem was that in his novels he had the timeline wrong: ‘The science fiction writer’s memory is faulty, and he gets himself all restimulated and so forth, and he doesn’t remember straight. Some of them remember it quite well, but then they reverse their time … and put it all into the future.’

Scientology might be dismissed as an overgrown vanity project, were it not for its 26-year battle with the Internal Revenue Service. The organisation filed more than 2200 suits against the IRS (claiming harassment and violation of First Amendment rights, among other things). Eventually, in 1993, in a $12.5 million settlement, the IRS, worn down by lawyers’ fees, granted Scientology tax-exempt status. The tax authorities have become a litmus test for whether a religion in America is authentic. ‘The complex legal and extra-legal battles between the church and the IRS,’ Urban writes, ‘have been central to the shifting definition of religion itself.’ In Britain, Scientology is not recognised as a religion or as a charity, but it is a not-for-profit organisation and as such is exempt from VAT. Only the Royal Navy officially designates it a religion.

Urban takes no position on whether or not Scientology should qualify as a religion; he argues that religion is a form of discourse, which Scientology has carefully mastered. In lectures, books, radio broadcasts and promotional movies, Scientology rebranded itself with references to the superhuman and the eternal, though the purpose of the redefinition was material. Tax-exempt status came as a financial boon, and meant the church could exercise tighter control over copyrighted materials. Religion, Hubbard told his colleagues, would attract more ‘customers’. ‘It is a problem in practical business,’ he explained. ‘Psychotherapy treats the past and the brain. We’re treating the present-time beingness. And, brother, that’s religion, not mental science.’

In the course of the 1960s and 1970s, Scientology gradually fashioned itself as a sect of Christianity. Offices were transformed into churches and were required to display ‘visual evidences’ of spirituality, including crosses, altars and creeds. Auditors, renamed ‘ministers’, wore black suits, silver crosses and clerical collars. A minister, Hubbard wrote, ‘should dress in a way that does not upset the accepted stable data of what a minister looks like’. The church also sent out ‘Messianic Surveys’ to identify qualities the public wanted in a messiah, such as honesty, happiness and justice. The shift was resisted by many members, particularly science-fiction fans, but Hubbard assured them he was interpreting religion in broad, humanist terms: ‘Before you say, “Religion, grrrr,” think of that – it is a practical religion and religion is the oldest heritage that Man has.’

Urban does not argue, as other writers have, that it was all a financial ploy, though he agrees that getting rich was a powerful motivating force. He places Hubbard in a line of science-fiction novelists who thought of reality as a ‘collective fiction created by our own continual agreement that it appears to be real’. As Hubbard saw it, the ability to create one’s own reality was a divine kind of freedom; he compared this ‘creation and management of universes’ to ‘a writer sitting at his desk’. ‘He’s pounding a typewriter,’ he said in a 1952 lecture. ‘So what’s he doing? Inventing time and space and energy and matter.’

Hubbard’s romantic vision of artistic creation became the basis for Scientology’s recruitment of Hollywood celebrities – Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Juliette Lewis, Kirstie Alley, Peaches Geldof – who serve as evidence that the religion makes the ‘able more able’. Even William Burroughs, during his brief stint in the church, was featured in Freedom bragging that he’d become a more imaginative writer and dismissing the notion that artists healed of their neuroses and compulsions would be bereft of inspiration. (He later became a prominent critic: ‘Scientology is a model control system, a state in fact with its own courts, police, rewards and penalties. It is based on a tight in-group like the CIA.’)

Hubbard had frequently compared life to a game, and he didn’t want to be ‘playing some minor game in Scientology. It isn’t cute or something to do for lack of something better.’ The game hinged on the idea that we can choose what we perceive to be ‘true’, and discard everything else as an illusion. Yet soon Hubbard’s postmodern religion strove to become a ‘real’ one. His followers – among them hippies as well as educated and ambitious young people – surprised him with the intensity of their belief. Hubbard told a group of doctoral students in Philadelphia in 1954 that his followers were more convinced of Scientology’s cosmology than he was. ‘I’m just kidding you mostly,’ he said. ‘I don’t believe any of these things and I don’t want to be agreed with about them … All I’m asking is that we take a look at this information, and … let’s see if we can’t disagree with this universe, just a little bit.’

Hubbard recognised that people’s sense of reality was easily enough undermined, and from there replaced – a process also known as brainwashing. Urban avoids the controversies and crimes that have shaped Scientology’s public image – he doesn’t consider them part of his remit – but in leaving out details about the church’s more sordid traditions, he gives only an incomplete view of the afterlife of Hubbard’s ‘rather postmodern view of the self and of reality’. Numerous reports in the past two decades, especially those in the St Petersburg Times (Scientology has its headquarters near St Petersburg in Florida), have used interviews with defectors to document the way the church became a horror show for some of its members. The reports include allegations by former Scientologists, many of whom signed billion-year contracts with the church, of mental and physical abuse, harassment, kidnapping, forced isolation, manual labour and starvation.

Scientology claims to fulfil modern psychology’s fantasy of direct access to the contents of the mind. Some pervasive deception just beneath the surface – what is commonly thought of as normal life – must constantly be confronted and dispelled. Members prove their devotion by submitting to ‘security checks’ while holding an electro-psychometer:

Have you ever had thoughts you were embarrassed about?
Are you guilty of anything?
Do you collect sexual objects?
Have you ever had any unkind thoughts about L. Ron Hubbard or Scientology?
Do you think there is anything wrong with having your own privacy invaded?
Do you deserve to be free?

Individual expression was streamlined as members adopted a generically scientific lingo. Verbs were ‘pressured into service as nouns’, as Hubbard put it, and new terms brought into being: love was renamed ‘affinity’, an irrational person an ‘aberree’, an evil one an ‘SP’ (for Suppressive Person) and bad PR was now ‘Entheta’. The new language didn’t leave room for ambiguity, so there was little need for adjectives or adverbs.

Urban details Hubbard’s obsession with surveillance, and attributes his paranoia to the influence of the Cold War. ‘Scientology is best understood not as a counter-cultural rejection of mainstream America,’ he writes, ‘but rather as the fulfilment (if perhaps exaggeration) of many American concerns.’ Just as the Protestant ethic emerged naturally from early modern capitalism, he argues, Scientology, with its corporate hierarchy, reflected the preoccupations of a hyper-technological, late capitalist society mourning the loss of privacy.

But Hubbard suffered from paranoia before it became fashionable. In the 1940s and 1950s he sent letters to the FBI, complaining that Communists were going to attack him, that Russians were stealing his work, that a stranger had broken into his apartment and given him a 100-volt electric shock. ‘Appears mental,’ an FBI agent wrote on his file. His paranoia created a world in which nothing was trivial. The paranoid person ‘logically weaves all events, all persons, all chance remarks and happenings, into his system’, a character in Philip K. Dick’s story ‘Shell Game’ explains. Paranoia functioned as a religious worldview, and bound his followers into a community.

The crusade against the IRS soon became the justification for a wide range of crimes, which only intensified the church’s paranoia. Scientologists hired private detectives to spy on IRS agents, in the hope of discovering unsavoury habits – alcoholism, adultery, violation of housing codes – to publicise. In the mid-1970s, members infiltrated IRS offices – one Scientologist had landed a job as a clerk – and stole 30,000 pages of documents relating to the church, including reports critical of Hubbard. One of the stolen memos documented a meeting in which IRS officials discussed changing the agency’s definition of a religion, a court recently having ruled that Scientology met its criteria. The church’s caper was eventually uncovered, and 11 accomplices, including Hubbard’s third wife, were sent to prison. Hubbard, named as an unindicted co-conspirator, spent the rest of his life in hiding.

Urban has written elsewhere that the history of religions in the 20th century is the ‘privileging of the mystical, secret, elitist aspects of religion’, often to the neglect of the mundane. More than any other new religion, Scientology has used secrecy as a source of power. Urban shows that it has been ill-equipped to handle the challenges of the internet age: the ‘haemorrhaging of information online’ is the ‘greatest single threat faced by the church in the 21st century’. Official doctrine, including the revelations formerly available only to those who had reached the highest level of Scientology training (and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to get there), is freely available on the internet to those who have never taken a course. Over the past decade, according to the American Religious Identification Survey, membership has dropped by roughly 20,000. Defectors have chronicled their disenchantment online, and the Xenu story has circulated widely. One of Hubbard’s biographers, an ex-Scientologist, told Urban that this may be the ‘last generation of Scientologists’.

Hubbard anticipated the need to control his religion’s history, making it sensational, rapidly paced and thematically tidy. The only way to handle a journalist is to ‘give him a story that he thinks is a story,’ he wrote. The church, following his lead, now cites the long history of threats to the church (a form of ‘inquisition’) as a proof of the religion’s authenticity. Under the leadership of David Miscavige, Hubbard’s successor, the church has responded aggressively to the online publication of confidential materials, treating hackers as a new enemy, as threatening as psychiatry. It reframes attacks on Scientology’s sealed materials as an assault on the freedom of religion itself. ‘If we get involved in a war where we feel our survival is threatened, we will dedicatedly fight,’ Miscavige said in a rare interview. ‘But I think any dedicated institution, especially a religious organisation, will do that. That is the history of religion.’