Although past installments of “Do You Really Believe That?” have skewered absurd beliefs from other sects, I doubt any religion has doctrines as laughably ridiculous as Scientology’s beliefs about “space opera”. Today’s post will explore the most infamous of those.
According to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Xenu was an alien overlord who, 75 million years ago, was in charge of a “Galactic Confederacy” consisting of 76 planets, including Earth (which, according to Hubbard, was then called “Teegeeack”). This planetary confederation was desperately overcrowded, and to solve this problem, Xenu devised a genocidal plan. Luring billions of citizens to government offices under the pretense of tax inspection, he dosed them with paralyzing drugs, flew them to Earth, then unloaded their bodies around the bases of volcanoes and detonated hydrogen bombs inside the volcanoes, killing them all. (It’s been speculated that this story was the inspiration for the cover art of Hubbard’s Dianetics.)
The dead aliens’ souls, which Hubbard referred to as “thetans”, were then captured using an “electronic ribbon” and taken to “implant stations”, where they were forced to watch a movie containing various misleading beliefs about the existence of God, the Devil, Jesus, and so on. After this process of brainwashing, the thetans were released and took up residence inside the bodies of living beings on Earth. According to Scientology, these “body thetans” still exist in each of us, causing all the physical and mental illnesses that human beings suffer from. (You can read this story in Hubbard’s own handwriting at Operation Clambake; see also this mirror.) Naturally, Scientology claims to be able to exorcise these wayward alien ghosts – for a price.
Due to Scientology’s pervasive secrecy, it’s difficult to be certain how widespread the knowledge of this doctrine is within the church. Outside reports agree that the story of Xenu and body thetans is only told to high-ranking Scientologists, and church spokesmen have publicly denied that Scientology believes or teaches any such thing. However, when ex-Scientologist Steven Fishman submitted this material as part of his affidavit in a 1993 lawsuit against the church, Scientology lawyers claimed that it was a trade secret and protected by copyright – impossible, of course, unless it was genuine. In a rather different line of defense, L. Ron Hubbard himself claimed that anyone who read the Xenu story without the preparation of Scientology auditing would get pneumonia or some other fatal disease. (Readers are invited to judge the truth of that claim for themselves.)
Scientology’s public denial of this story potentially serves any number of different purposes. Like many ancient religions, the church depends on its possession of alleged secret knowledge to reinforce the distinction between believers and outsiders. The leak of these stories threatens to break down these barriers, and to expose for mass consumption the holy secrets that are supposed to be revealed only to trusted initiates. (Ancient Gnosticism might not have done so well if we had had an Internet back then.)
But another reason, perhaps equally important, is that Scientology higher-ups are aware of how sheerly ridiculous these stories sound to a person not thoroughly enmeshed in the church’s teachings. It’s difficult, I would imagine, to maintain an aura of imposing mystery when everyone on the street knows you believe that the Earth was once called Teegeeack and was inhabited by hundreds of billions of alien beings who dressed exactly like humans in the 1950s. The similarity of this doctrine to laughably bad D-grade science fiction is just too apparent. Perhaps only a person who’s already heavily invested in Scientology, who’s spent too much and has too much to lose by walking away, can be trusted to hear these secrets without reacting in amusement and ridicule. But that makes it all the more important that lay Scientologists hear the story of Xenu, and that’s why I ask: Do you really believe that?
Other posts in this series: