Tag Archives: Scientology

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.


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Scientology Church Trap

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:


“Church Trap” by Cory Doctorow

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Squatting Monkeys

A friend sent me this the other day on the assumption that I would find it funny, which I do:

Other than the fact that Dana Carvey has a humor gene, what makes it funny? I suspect because it is polyvalent and can speak humorously to diverse viewpoints. Atheists will like it because they think all religions are weird. Believers will like it because they think most religions, other than their own, are weird. And everyone other than the world’s 25,000 Scientologists will like it because Scientology is really weird.

But Scientology is weird in a special kind of way. The sociologist Rodney Stark has done a fair amount of work on the factors that account for any given religion’s success or failure. He has found that, “other things being equal” (which as a matter of history, economy, politics, and power they never are), new religious movements succeed to the degree that:

1. They retain cultural continuity with the conventional faiths of the societies within which they seek converts.
2. Their doctrines are non-empirical.
3. They maintain a medium level of tension with their surrounding environment – are strict, but not too strict.
4. They have legitimate leaders with adequate authority to be effective.
    (4a) Adequate authority requires clear doctrinal justifications for an effective and legitimate leadership.
    (4b) Authority is regarded as more legitimate and gains in effectiveness to the degree that members perceive themselves as participants in the system of authority.
5. They can generate a highly motivated, volunteer, religious labour force, including many willing to proselytize.

6. They maintain a level of fertility sufficient to at least offset member mortality.
7. They compete against weak, local conventional religious organizations within a relatively unregulated religious economy.
8. They sustain strong internal attachments, while remaining an open social network, able to maintain and form ties to outsiders.
9. They continue to maintain sufficient tension with their environment – remain sufficiently strict.
10. They socialize the young sufficiently well as to minimize both defection and the appeal of reduced strictness.

In translation and practice, this means that most new religious movements fail and those few which succeed are nearly always closely-related offshoots of existing traditions. Those who would start a new movement can innovate but they cannot deviate too far from some existing tradition.

Scientology is weird not just because it’s doctrines are really weird, but because it apparently has succeeded despite not meeting many of these criteria. This success, however, is more superficial than real. It has always been a money-making and money-obsessed outfit that targets the gullible rich (i.e., Hollywood stars) and ostentatiously displays wealth. California is probably the only place in the world where such nonsense could have gained any traction, however small. What Scientology lacks in Stark’s criteria for success it attempts to make up for by being loud and visible. But it is not growing and has very few members. It will always be fringe or niche.

By these same criteria the Squatting Monkeys religion would surely fail, but only after some troubled souls had given it an earnest shot. Are you the lemon?

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Scientology & Penis Sucking Ritual

I want to clear some links from my cue, so let’s begin with this review of Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief (2013). This is the best review (out of three) that I’ve yet read; it prompted me finally to order the book. It should make a good (if depressing) summer read.

One aspect of the story that stood out is Scientology’s notorious litigiousness and abuse of our already abusive legal system. It caused me to wonder about the attorneys who represent Scientology. While I suspect that some of them are “church” members and don’t have that going for them as an excuse, it’s hard for me to understand how any non-Scientologist attorney could represent Scientology (nearly always as a plaintiff) in good faith or with a clear conscience.

As a former attorney, I’m familiar with the rationalizing bullshit stories we tell ourselves about representing dubious and fraudulent clients, but this seems a client too far. In this Business Insider piece on Scientology’s attorneys, we meet some of the scum. But the most disturbing aspect of the review is Scientology’s vicious campaign for tax-exempt status as a “religion,” which it eventually obtained after waging all out war on the government. It’s disgusting and the decision is shameful. The fact that Wright had to be so cautious about what he wrote and how he wrote it is an indictment of the system and scum.


David Miscaviage, CEO and “High Priest” of Scientology

From the merely disgusting to the positively criminal, we have two more infants in New York who have been mutilated and assaulted by ultra-Orthodox Jews in the name of an ancient (but “religious”) penis-sucking ritual. Courtesy of ABC, we have this insanity:

Two infants in the last three months in New York City’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community have been infected with herpes following a ritual circumcision, according to the health department. The boys were not identified.

In the most controversial part of this version of the Jewish ritual, known as metzitzah b’peh, the practitioner, or mohel, places his mouth around the baby’s penis to suck the blood to “cleanse” the wound.

One of the two infected babies developed a fever and lesion on its scrotum seven days after the circumcision, and tests for HSV-1 were positive, according to the health department.

Last year, the New York City Board of Health voted to require parents to sign a written consent that warns them of the risks of this practice.

They “voted” to require a consent form? How magnanimous. So-called “cleansing” is a perverse practice that should be a felony criminal offense. It would be if we weren’t so concerned about protecting myths. This horror story only gets more surreal in its defense:

Some rabbis told ABCNews.com last year that they opposed on religious grounds the law requiring parents to sign a waiver, insisting it has been performed “tens of thousands of times a year” worldwide. They say safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles.

“This is the government forcing a rabbi practicing a religious ritual to tell his congregants it could hurt their child,” Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the Hasidic United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, told ABCNews.com.

Honestly? So much for living in a civilized society or rational age. This hoary religion is (like Scientology) tax-exempt. I understand not wanting to protect adults from their own stupidity, but when we can’t protect infants something is seriously wrong. Though imaginative-literary hell can be either hot or cold, according to this recent piece in the New Yorker, it seems like a good place for the perpetrators.

Over at the New Statesman, Alain de Botton carries on with his campaign to mystify or “religionize” our secular or atheist lives. While I have some small sympathy for this sort of thing, I’d execute it less obviously and mechanically. This isn’t all that much different from what Emerson and Thoreau were saying, except they said it much better. Goethe got it too.

Finally, in this look at the “lost” and relatively un-contacted tribes of the Amazon, we learn that they were weren’t simply left behind. They have actively resisted modernity, development, and “progress” — retreating deep into the forest in order to escape these myriad forces and effects. This seriously disrupts the standard (and normative) narrative about “primitive” tribes.

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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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Xenu Meets Yakub

Over at The New Republic, Eliza Gray covers the bizarre dalliance between Scientology and Nation of Islam. At first blush, Louis Farrakhan and David Miscavige might seem like strange bed partners. But as Gray explains, it makes some theo-galactic sense:

[T]here are some striking theological overlaps that might help explain how Farrakhan came to adopt a religion invented by a white man. There is, of course, the attachment to science fiction: Scientologists believe in an alien dictator, Xenu; the Nation holds that the white race was created by a mad scientist named Yakub. More significantly, though, at the core of both religions is a never-ending pursuit of a better self. In the case of Scientology, that best self is “clear” of residual traumas buried in the subconscious. In the Nation, that self is free of the hang-ups of white culture that black people have internalized to their detriment. Scientology, Farrakhan seems to believe, provides a new path toward black empowerment. “I’ve found something in the teaching of Dianetics, of Mr. L. Ron Hubbard, that I saw could bring up from the depth of our subconscious mind things that we would prefer to lie dormant,” he said to his Chicago congregation in early summer. “How could I see something that valuable and know the hurt and sickness of my people and not offer it to them?”

While it’s easy to dismiss these ideas and organizations as fringe-whack, we should seriously consider the kinds of psychological, social, and historical conditions that make them possible. In the meanwhile, I’m considering the possibility that Venus harbors alien life:

I’m also wondering whether Barbarella would make for a good deity — her credits are impressive:

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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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