Tag Archives: L. Ron Hubbard

Xenu Bunnies & Pagan Easter

While I am not a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s brand of popular science, I can certainly appreciate his good, and no doubt lucrative, works. These works sometimes require him to critique religion, which he does in a such an easygoing and avuncular manner that it barely registers. If the goal is persuasion, this seems a more effective approach than throwing atheist firebombs and telling religionists they are delusional. Gentle corrosion is, over the long term, more effective than aggressive confrontation. Consider this contrast as it applies to cars: oxidation is barely noticeable but will eventually result in disappearance. The aphorism here might be steel to rust and rust to dust. Crashes, on the other hand, just result in cars that limp along or sit in the salvage yard without disappearing. Although deGrasse Tyson has suggested something along these lines to Richard Dawkins, the latter still prefers the thrill of demolition derbies.

There are times, however, when even deGrasse Tyson cannot resist. Consider this response to a question from The Daily Beast:

Interviewer: I’m curious what your take on Scientology is, because the intergalactic story of Xenu does encroach on your territory a bit.

deGrasse Tyson: So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy?

True though this may be, it is a bit out of character for deGrasse Tyson. What follows at this later point in the interview is more characteristic:

Interviewer: The HBO documentary “Going Clear” essentially argues that Scientology shouldn’t be granted tax-exempt status as a religion.

deGrasse Tyson: But why aren’t they a religion? What is it that makes them [not] a religion and others are religions? If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen. But religions, if you analyze them, who is to say that one religion is rational and another isn’t? It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult. That’s how people want to divide the kingdom. Religions have edited themselves over the years to fit the times, so I’m not going to sit here and say Scientology is an illegitimate religion and other religions are legitimate religions. They’re all based on belief systems. Look at Mormonism! There are ideas that are as space-exotic within Mormonism as there are within Scientology, and it’s more accepted because it’s a little older than Scientology is, so are we just more accepting of something that’s older?

As the sociologist Rodney Stark often observes in his work on what makes some religions successful and others not, this is only partially correct. It is not just antiquity or age that determines whether a new religion is accepted. While time depth certainly enables selective forgetting and remembering, both of which contribute to mythmaking, the key is that the new religion must be an offshoot of something older: it should build on that which has gone before. If the originators handle things properly, they will construct their religion on an already accepted tradition and then transform it. This is precisely what happened within the Abrahamic line: Judaism begat Christianity which begat Mormonism. Joseph Smith, in stark contrast to L. Ron Hubbard, intuitively understood the need not to start from scratch and craft a religion from whole new cloth, or Xenu scrap paper. This explains why today there are over 6,000,000 Mormons and less than 50,000 Scientologists. It also explains why the former is sometimes called a “sect” and the latter is often labeled a “cult.”

Christianity, for its antiquarian part, is not just or merely an offshoot of Judaism. During the centuries long course of its early development, Christianity assimilated various aspects of Greek philosophy and adopted all manner of pagan rituals. While Saturnalia-Christmas is the most famous example of this (a fact, by the way, which caused the Puritans to ban Christmas celebrations between 1659 and 1681), Easter is in a similar egg basket. Over at The Conversation, Professor Rod Blackhurst observes:

For a start, the word itself, “Easter”, is usually regarded as being derived from Anglo-Saxon forms such as “Estara” or “Ostara” (and cognates) associated with a dawn goddess and common spring festivals celebrated in the British Isles and Northern Europe long before Christianity. According to some, those associations extend back to the Babylonian deity Astarte.

More obviously, the ubiquitous egg given as a gift (or munched as a chocolate indulgence) at Easter is a widely employed fertility symbol that signals the rebirth of vegetation and the end of animal hibernation after the northern hemisphere’s winter. (If you tend backyard chickens, as I do, you’d understand.)

There is certainly nothing Christian about the Easter egg; it is pre-Christian and, more to the point, pagan in its history and its associations. That the Easter festival has pre-Christian, pagan layers of symbolism, therefore, I regard as an incontestable fact, but it seems that even such a “given” can be contested and can upset some people; such is the nature of religion, a field of cherished certainties.

There are many who revel in these sorts of facts and associations because they apparently undermine the alleged originality and purity of Christianity. This is certainly one way of looking at things (and I confess to so looking at them when the argumentative need arises), but there is another way of looking which relates to my earlier point about pragmatism in constructing a religion. Professor Blackhurst explains:

[These pagan elements do not] detract from Christianity – on the contrary, [they] can and should be seen as a part of the accumulated richness of the Christian tradition. When Christianity moved into pagan regions – especially in Europe – it would sometimes adopt the tactic of ruthlessly eradicating the existing religious culture. More often, though, it took the more pragmatic and compassionate approach of absorbing and adapting pagan rites, sites and institutions wherever they were not entirely inimical to the Christian spirit.

Rather than being manically hostile to all things pre-Christian, many of the wisest figures in Christian ideas – St Augustine is a conspicuous example – took the view that the pagan religions had, in their way, prepared the ground for Christ and that Christianity was not so much a replacement for paganism but a fulfilment of it. In this way local pagan deities became Christian saints and Christian churches were built on pagan sacred sites. It was not so much a matter of invasion and eradication as a matter of adoption and conversion.

The same held true for festivals and holy days. Christmas and Easter are obvious instances. Both are cases where Christ has been assimilated to aspects of pre-Christian solar worship and the mythos of the dying and reborn sun that is a guiding reality in the life of any agricultural people.

Christmas was assimilated with Yule and related festivals at mid-winter and Easter was assimilated with festivals celebrating the rebirth of sun in the spring. In doing this Christianity showed itself to be not some new, freakish creed from the Middle-East, but rather the fulfilment of great spiritual traditions extending back to the dawn of history. Appreciating the pagan assimilations of Christianity enriches the Christian tradition; denying them impoverishes it.

To show that Easter or some other aspect of the Christian tradition has pagan or pre-Christian roots only demonstrates the wealth of the tradition. Living traditions are always like that. They soak up what came before them. Buddhism did much the same in its spread through Asia. Even Islam, for all its official hostility to pagan idolatry, soaked up, absorbed and assimilated, much of pre-Islamic Arab customs. The sacred month of Ramadan was celebrated long before Muhammad.

We should not be surprised that this is the case. Religious traditions never enjoy a tabula rasa. They are at their most destructive and self-defeating when they deny all that came before them.

These points are well-taken, though another should be added to Blackhurst’s somewhat celebratory essay. Religions are also destructive when, having assimilated that which came before, they declare an end or closure to the tradition. When they deny or exclude everything that comes after (as nearly all of them do), they tend to get aggressive, destructive, and downright ugly, sort of like Donnie Darko.

donnie_darko-frank

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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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Taking Scientology Seriously?

Over at The Chronicle, Seth Perry reviews two recent books on Scientology, Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion (2011) and Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion (2011). This assertion grabbed my attention: “Hubbard’s teachings contain fascinating religious content that demands serious study—by those interested in religion writ large, and by those, like me, who study its American iterations.”

Although I have done a fair amount of reading on Scientology, a mysteriously lacking effect is that I’ve never taken the “religious content” seriously, or even seriously considered it. I’ve always had the idea that Scientology rather belatedly styled itself a “religion” when the organization realized the tax and other benefits that flow from the government’s decision that a particular set of beliefs do in fact amount to a “religion.”

Lafayette Ronald Hubbard may or may not have had such benefits in mind when (in 1953) he was reconstituting Scientology based on what he specifically identified as “the religion angle.” We may never know whether Hubbard was being sincere, cynical, or pragmatic, though it wouldn’t surprise me if Hubbard was being all three at once. He was complex that way and clearly understood that religion can captivate (or capture) people in ways that self-help therapies cannot. He also recognized that founding a “religion” was a great way to make lots of money.

I will confess to being ambivalent about taking Scientology’s “religious content” seriously. I’m not sure what that content is. If it is Xenu, Thetans, and Clear, I’m not buying it. However fuzzy, there is in my mind some kind of dividing line between the kinds of supernaturalisms associated with historic “religions” and straight up science fiction. I am inclined to agree with governments around the world that see official Scientology as a scam and pseudo-religion.

If there is in fact Scientology content that deserves serious study as “religious,” I haven’t seen it. As Perry’s review suggests, this may be because Scientology keeps it secret. Then again, it may be kept secret because the content doesn’t look, smell, or feel much like “religion.”

There is a difference between acknowledging something as a “religion” legally and considering something as a “religion” academically. Juridical recognition doesn’t compel intellectual recognition. I have yet to be convinced that Scientology deserves serious study as a “religion” rather than something else altogether more bizarre and difficult to categorize.

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Axial Aspects of Scientology

Over at Slate Jessica Grose has posted an interview with Rolling Stone writer Janet Reitman and author of Inside Scientology. For those who have yet to learn how Xenu messed up the entire cosmos, Reitman’s article is essential reading.

These comments from Reitman caught my attention:

Scientology can be very expensive. If your goal is total spiritual freedom—a type of Nirvana—you have to do auditing (which is what Scientology counseling is called).

The path to spiritual enlightenment in Scientology is called the Bridge to Total Freedom, and you can climb it like a ladder, ostensibly acquiring more and more ability or enhancement or whatever it may be you’re going for, as you go.

The first big goal is to reach the level known as “clear,” where you’re supposed to be free of your psychological issues and psychosomatic physical issues. Free of the problems of current time, present time, this life (because they believe you’ve had many lives)—they believe all those issues are supposed to be gone.

This is a clever formula that should sound familiar to those who have studied the Axial Age. It was during this era that several sages, prophets, and thinkers responded to the obvious fact that the world can be cruel and life filled with suffering.

Seeking ways to escape and cope with these conditions, Axial thinkers variously espoused ideas proclaiming this world is not the real world and there is something better (either in another place or life). This world rejecting Weltanschauung laid the foundation for several modern “world” religions, including the monotheistic movements and Buddhism.

While I doubt that L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology “theologians” deliberately patterned their movement after Axial Age philosophies, at some level they realized the tremendous appeal such ideas have for people who are suffering from mental, physical, or social distress and are looking for solace in outer space.

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Credulity Knows No Bounds

For evolutionary scholars of supernaturalism and religion, Scientology is the gift that keeps on giving. It is almost as if the purpose of Scientology is to prove that the human brain-mind is wired in such a way that belief in the supernatural is virtually assured — all it takes is some kind of cultural prime and people will believe.

The most recent gift comes by way of the Atlantic, which reports on Scientology’s most famous former member, Oscar winning director Paul Haggis. Elspeth Reeve’s article includes this gem, taken from Scientology’s top secret origin story:

“A major cause of mankind’s problems began 75 million years ago,” the [Los Angeles] Times wrote [after obtaining secret Scientology documents in the 80s], when the planet Earth, then called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of ninety planets under the leadership of a despotic ruler named Xenu. “Then, as now, the materials state, the chief problem was overpopulation.” Xenu decided “to take radical measures.” The documents explained that surplus beings were transported to volcanoes on Earth. “The documents state that H-bombs far more powerful than any in existence today were dropped on these volcanoes, destroying the people but freeing their spirits—called thetans—which attached themselves to one another in clusters.” Those spirits were “trapped in a compound of frozen alcohol and glycol,” then “implanted” with “the seed of aberrant behavior.” The Times account concluded, “When people die, these clusters attach to other humans and keep perpetuating themselves.”

The neurobiological substrate on which all supernaturalisms ride shall not be denied.

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Does God Write Fiction?

Over at HuffPo Religion, Pete Enns wonders whether God speaks to him and others through fiction.  Although Enns is discussing “a non-literal interpretation of the bible,” which raises critical and unresolved issues of reader-responses and interpretive communities, my guess would be that if he did write, evidence for it can be found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

I once remarked to a friend that if Tolkien had claimed religious status for his works or that he was founding a new religion because a god had spoken to him, there surely would be a substantial religion today known as Tolkienism.  Or would it be the Church of Rings?  It would certainly make more sense than L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, which is based on some truly horrid (and kooky) fictional writing.

Gandalf would make for an excellent prophet and The Silmarillion provides everything needed for a mystical cosmology.

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Multiple Christianities and Christs

Over at WorldNews, Dallas Darling (love that name) has posted a nice story asking “What Kind of Christianity Should Texas Teach?”  There are, of course, many kinds of Christianities, though the Texas School Board apparently believes Christianity is an essential unity and their perception of this fictitious unity (and false history) should be taught in public schools.

Darling begins by recounting the fascinating history of the Paiute shaman named Wovoka who inspired the Native American Ghost Dance, which was in part influenced by Christian ideas.  But calling the Ghost Dance (and the beliefs-rituals surrounding it) “Christian” is probably pushing things a bit far.  Unsurprisingly, white American Christians slaughtered the Native Americans who engaged in the Ghost Dance and assassinated Sitting Bull for supporting it.  Yet one more episode in the genocide and imperialism inspired by the Christian belief that the United States was God’s chosen nation.

I recommend the story; it is a nice rejoinder to the Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin types who mistakenly believe the United States is a Christian nation built on the Ten Commandments and an evangelical understanding of the bible.  Unfortunately, these types — including the Texas School Board — can’t be bothered with history or facts.

And over at Slate, Vaughan Bell has posted an article titled “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti: What Happens When Three Men Who Identify as Jesus Are Forced to Live Together?”  This true story has a cuckoo’s nest feel to it and would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic.  Too bad we couldn’t have locked Jim Jones, David Koresh, L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, and Joseph Smith in a room together and videotaped for a year.

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