Clear as Mud: Scientology

When you are asked to do a piece for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, I can only assume it’s an honor that pays. So when Michael Kinsley was asked to review Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, I assume he took the assignment seriously. Kinsley does not, however, take Wright’s book seriously. Rarely do reviews damn so effectively as this.

Kinsley doesn’t have much to say about the book’s contents. The brevity of the review speaks volumes, not only about Wright’s apparently lackluster effort but also about Scientology status as a “religion.” Like me, Kinsley is interested in simple questions: How could a person possibly believe that any of what Hubbard said had even minimal contact with reality or is, to use a quaint word, true?

This is a question that Wright never bothers to ask, let alone answer. Understandably, this drives Kinsley to distraction:

“The planet Earth, formerly called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of planets under the leadership of a despot ruler named Xenu,” said Hubbard, who was a best-selling science fiction writer before he became the prophet of a new religion. To suppress a rebellion, Xenu tricked the confederations into coming in for fake income tax investigations. Billions of thetans were taken to Teegeeack (you remember: Earth), “where they were dropped into volcanoes and then blown up with hydrogen bombs.”

Hubbard apparently could go on for hours — or pages — with this stuff. Wright informs us, as if it were just an oversight, that “Hubbard never really explained how he came by these revelations,” but elsewhere he says they came to him at the dentist’s office.

I’ve known a few Scientologists who, when asked this question, usually just stare at me like I’m crazy, or indicate — with unencumbered and limitless credulity — that the question had never occurred to them.

hawaiian volcanoes

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4 thoughts on “Clear as Mud: Scientology

  1. Lillian Cannon

    I was fascinated by Scientologists for awhile. I read a lot about them and especially about the people who died under their care. It’s pretty awful to see people believing something so ridiculous, and to be honest, I try not to think too much about it. Anyway, I read in another review that this new book is interesting for its discussion of the nature of belief. Will you read it? I am contemplating it. I want to know what he thinks of his former belief now.

  2. obitsman

    “Rarely do reviews damn so effectively as this.”

    Huh? Did we read the same review? Kinsley labels the book’s indictment “powerful.” He lauds Wright as prestigious member of the long-form journalism movement and writes, “With this book, he’s certainly paid his dues for a few years.”

    Kinsley makes a few reasonable criticisms of Wright – most importantly that he’s too close to a key informant, movie director Paul Haggis. But the review has plenty of detail about the shocking events in the book – plenty.

    What you call the “brevity of the review” is in fact its “longevity.” It’s 1800 words. That is a long review by any American newspaper’s standards. It’s also long by Kinsley’s standards. He is a master of short-form opinion journalism who only occasionally writes anything longer, for instance his remarkable memoir of brain surgery, for the New Yorker.

    As for what you take to be Kinsley’s most devastating criticism, that Wright never explains why Scientologists believe this claptrap, isn’t that lacking in most scholarship of religion? How can Mormons believe their obvious and changing doctrinal confections? How can anybody who studies the matter take the Assumption of the Virgin Mary seriously?

    But that’s not the point of a book like Wright’s. He wants to document the atrocious behavior of people here and now, people who use their religion as an excuse for immorality. Like most people studying religion he asks “What do you believe,” but not, “How can you prove it?”

    Why or how people believe what they do may be important questions. But it’s not fair to damn Wright for writing a book about something else and it’s a misreading of Kinsley, I think, to say he damns Wright for not asking it. He writes:

    “Wright is well advised to be calm and seem neutral in his presentation of the Scientology story”

    Finally, catch Kinsley’s fun kicker: “”Going Clear” is essential reading for thetans of all ­lifetimes.” As Kinsley reminds us at the top, according to L. Ron Hubbard, “We are all thetans, spirits, trapped temporarily in our current particular lives.”

  3. Cris Post author

    It’s strange how we read the review so differently. I got the distinct impression that Kinsley was unimpressed by the book, so he didn’t bother even addressing its contents. It appeared to me that Kinsley was striving to be polite (perhaps because Wright is a nice guy who has earned some chops), but that it was difficult for him to praise or endorse the book. In several places it seemed that Kinsley was playing coy with his opinions, almost to the point of understated sarcasm.

    As for the main critique — why would anyone believe this claptrap (because it isn’t really different from religious beliefs) — this is of course an issue. To the extent that we can make a principled distinction here it probably has to reside in the source (Hubbard) and the contents (science fiction).

    I’m rarely comfortable making these kinds of distinctions because there comes a point at which belief in fantasy is belief in fantasy. But as Nietzsche often observed, some fantasies are more plausible or believable than others. I try to avoid all of them.

  4. Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    I must say, I too have had the impression that the review was far from scathing. But if anything shouldn’t the author’s effort to treat Scientology on its own terms and leaving us to infer moral judgements be lauded rather than derided?

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