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Clarity and Cults

Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief
Clarity and Cults

Lawrence Wright is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, who writes for The New Yorker and is a fellow at the Center for Law and Security at New York University School of Law. He has written extensively on religion, though exclusively on the most spectacular kinds of the abuse of religion. In this book, he tackles the grand-daddy of them all: Scientology.

It is all here—the rise of L. Ron Hubbard from a hack science fiction writer to the messiah of the cult, the focus of Scientology on Hollywood and the cult of celebrity, the machinations of David Miscavige as he solidifies power in the wake of Hubbard’s death and installs Tom Cruise as the public face of Scientology. Here, too, is the bizarre biography of Hubbard with his numerous affairs and marriages—three wives, seven children, numerous affairs—and his lies about his military service, his writings and his insights. Wright describes the various elements of Hubbard’s theory of the mind, gleaned from Dianetics, Hubbard’s 1950 best-seller, and how that theory morphed into the “religion” of Scientology. The book is replete with explanations of the strange terminology of Scientology, and Wright deftly weaves them into the overall story, which frames the book, a story combining the biographies of Hubbard and Miscavige with the stories of some of the most important Scientology members, who have “blown”, i.e. left the cult, or, if they have not left it, have at least left the formal organization and are willing to break the rules of their “billion year contract” and talk about what they experienced on the inside.

Better than any novel, Going Clear is replete with sex, violence, mystery, intrigue, espionage, adventures on the high seas, intrigues with foreign dignitaries—the list could go on and on. Often the story is so outlandish, one has a hard time believing it is true, while nothing is related that is not possible. One of the infuriating things about Wright’s book is that, while much of what he writes is endnoted, much of it is not, but his sources are so various and his presentation so evenhanded that one feels secure that, if asked, the author could produce the source of any story or claim made in the book. At the same time, the work is written not as a scholarly text but as in exposé, and the style is generally easy-going and accessible.

To summarize this strange story borders on the impossible. Not only is the historical detail made difficult because of the church’s denial of almost every point Wright makes, but the religion itself is so complicated and detailed that it resists simplification. Suffice it to say that the stories of Hubbard, Miscavige, Mark Rathbun and Paul Haggis are gripping in their intensity, and the explanation of the complex, verbiage-laden practices and beliefs of the cult are as straightforward as one could hope.

Wright seeks to be as fair to the religion and its leaders as possible, and he largely succeeds, I think. For instance he begins his chapter outlining the biography of Hubbard with these words: “The many discrepancies between Hubbard’s legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man: an explorer, a best-selling author, and the founder of a worldwide religious movement.” Yes, but he never led an expedition that didn’t fail miserably; his one best-seller is the much maligned Dianetics (even though, according to Wright, he is listed in the 2006 edition of  Guinness World Records as holding the record for most published books at 1,084); and the worldwide religious movement is, well, suspect to say the least.

The main problem with Wright’s book is that he really does not differ between religions that are based in reasonable argument from ones that require massive leaps of faith. While he does seem open to the challenge that Scientology is not really a religion in the first place since there is almost never any talk of God or any structure of worship, Wright also says this is a moot point: the IRS, after one of the most famous investigations in history, finally gave in and designated them as one. But that does not absolve him of the wrong of lumping historic religions that have stood the tests of time and the scrutiny of reason, with everything from Christian Science to Scientology.

Wright is quite clear in the preface to his extraordinary exposé why he has written Going Clear:

I was drawn to write this book by the questions that many people have about Scientology: What is it that makes the religion alluring? What do its adherents get out of it? How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible? Why do popular personalities associate themselves with a faith that is likely to create a kind of public relations martyrdom? These questions are not unique to Scientology but they certainly underscore the conversation. In attempting to answer them in this book, I hope we can learn something about what might be called the process of belief.

Throughout the book, Wright returns again and again to these questions, sometimes framing them as if they pertain to any belief or religion and not just Scientology. To be fair, he does in the vast majority of the book stick to asking about Scientology and how people could actually believe in it, linking that process mostly to the meeting of a need for “scientific” solutions in the modern age (Scientology bills itself regularly as based in science, though Hubbard had been completely discredited on that score.) and to a sort of “frog-in-the-kettle” principle whereby the convert gets sucked in, small step by small step, until he or she is in a place of believing the most ridiculous things imaginable.

But Wright does talk about religion more broadly, linking what has happened in Scientology with other faiths without ever, however, condemning those faiths, as he never really “condemns” Scientology. He even ends the book with an Epilogue that implies that Mormonism, Christian Science and the Branch Davidians are all in the same category. Since there are huge links in origin, practice and belief between these three cults and Scientology, reading this as an orthodox, evangelical Christian would not have caused me a problem were it not for a fourth “cult” stuck in the middle of this list: the Amish.

Believe what you may about their practices, the Amish affirm the Trinity, salvation by grace through faith, the authority of Scripture, the deity and humanity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Jesus and a host of other beliefs that most Christians share world-wide. But Wright describes them as if they are all about their practices, leading into a discussion of the Branch Davidians by saying about the Amish: “As adorable as the Amish appear to strangers, such isolated and intellectually deprived religious communities can become self-destructive, especially when they revolve around the whims of a single tyrannical leader.” Of course the Branch Davidians are a cult made up largely of ex-communicants from yet another fringe group of Christians, the Seventh Day Adventists. While the Davidians seem to have many beliefs in common with most Christians, some of their additional “revelations” (e.g. the Holy Spirit is feminine in gender) move them far from the mainstream of historic Christianity.

Not only because American Christianity faces in every corner of our land the challenge of powerful cults like Scientology, Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses but also because the formidable religions of the world are increasingly finding a home in our globalized country, Christians need to be clear on the actual content of their faith, how their beliefs differ from those of their challengers, and especially the reasons they believe what they do instead of anything else—atheism included. Without this clarity, which comes only through constant and rigorous comparison of our beliefs to Scripture and doing so in communities open to the challenges of the unbeliever, we are indeed open to the frightful machinations of a leader like L. Ron Hubbard.

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