Germans are of course expert on the issue of mind control and institutional enthusiasms, which makes all the recent Anglo-American griping about Germany’s boring politics and foreign policy passivity more than a bit ironic. It is the same German expertise which has caused it to ban Scientology and treat the whole as a fraudulent criminal enterprise. While I have considerable sympathy for such treatment, it has the unfortunate effect of making it too easy to dismiss Scientology as a corporate cult or lunatic fringe having nothing in common with traditional or mainstream religions. This view is surely mistaken. Anyone who seriously studies Scientology will find psychological parallels and structural similarities.
All this and more are evident in Der Spiegel’s recent interview with Lawrence Wright, author of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief:
SPIEGEL: Why are seemingly reasonable people interested in an organization whose goal quite plainly appears to be a particular form of money-making?
Wright: These people are spiritual seekers who have tried to find answers in other religions and have not been satisfied, people with personal problems. Scientology offers so-called personality tests and courses to help find solutions to those problems that were found in the tests. A lot of people have actually subjectively been helped by these courses.
SPIEGEL: It is still difficult to understand the appeal of Scientology.
Wright: Many intelligent, skeptical people become members of Scientology, like Hollywood screenwriter Paul Haggis. I wanted the reader to feel a little scared about the capacity of the human mind and the human personality to be changed by outside forces, because it is possible to direct a person’s thinking and behavior.
While Wright probably overestimates the intelligence and skepticism of certain Scientologists, his serious treatment of Scientology deserves respect. Wright’s “prison of belief” metaphor is particularly apt and nicely illustrated by an installation from this year’s Burning Man Festival: