The Apostate and Me

The Apostate and Me February 18, 2011

I've finally finished reading "The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology," Lawrence Wright's extensive, exhaustive profile in The New Yorker. It's a fascinating, provocative and revealing look at both the Academy Award-winning screenwriter and the religious empire created by the late L. Ron Hubbard.

One comes away with a less-than-flattering sense of Haggis, but the portrait of Scientology is devastating. Wright's searching, even-handed approach provides ample evidence for the conclusion that this relatively new religious movement is secretive, mendacious, abusive and corrupt. Representatives of Scientology counter and deny all the claims and the multiple corroborating testimonies made against them, but they don't back up those denials with anything more than emphatic assertions.

I urge you to read the whole thing — and in this case, that's a lot, because this is a looong article — consider all the evidence and decide for yourself which side of this dispute seems more credible.

It doesn't enhance the credibility of Scientology that "read the whole thing … consider all the evidence and decide for yourself" is something that their church does not encourage, or allow, its members to do. That raises the obvious question of what are they so afraid of? And it suggests an obvious answer to that obvious question.

Reading Wright's careful, thoughtful profile, I couldn't help but reflect on the many similarities and differences I noted between Haggis' spiritual quest and my own, and between his former religion and my current one. Let's consider some of those here:

1. Secrecy.

The Church of Scientology doesn't want outsiders to know what it is that they believe. Outsiders are not permitted access to their scriptures, and even for most insiders access is strictly restricted.

"The church," Wright writes, "considers it sacrilegious for the uninitiated to read its confidential scriptures" and defends this secrecy with a fierce litigiousness.

This is the strangest, most alien aspect of Scientology for me as an evangelical Christian. We're rather famous (or infamous) for wanting and trying to share what it is we believe with anyone not spry enough to get away from us. We'll tell you what we believe whether you want to hear it or not. Our scriptures are widely available — don't have a copy? We'll give you one. We'll even put one in every hotel room and hospital waiting area, just in case.

I appreciate that our enthusiasm for sharing our scriptures and the content of our belief with others can sometimes be a bit much, but I think this openness, transparency and effusive sharing speaks better of a religious tradition than a fearful, litigious secrecy does.

2. Weird beliefs.

In 1985, Wright reports, The Los Angeles Times got access to some of Scientology's scriptures and published a summary:

"A major cause of mankind's problems began 75 million years ago," the Times wrote, when the planet Earth, then called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of 90 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."

As an outsider to Scientology, I have to say that this is just bizarre. It sounds deeply, deeply weird. But then I'm a Christian and we also believe some really weird things.

For instance, we Christians believe that "God" — an infinitely powerful, benign, eternal entity whom we regard as creator of the universe — became a human, and that this fully God, fully human person lived here on Teegeeack earth, thousands of years ago, in a fringe province of the Roman Empire, where he wandered as an itinerant peasant-teacher until eventually he was executed as a criminal.

That's weird, but maybe not even the weirdest thing we Christians believe. We regard poor people as particularly "blessed." We believe, all evidence to the contrary, that justice will ultimately triumph over injustice and that this triumph of justice is something we humans will somehow survive.

So, yeah, OK, a federation of 90 planets millions of years ago that was still primitive enough to regard genocide as a more logical response to overpopulation than, say, finding a 91st planet … that's extremely weird. But is it as weird as "love your enemies"? As someone personally invested in Christianity's weird, weird story, I'm not really in a position to say.

3. Systematic exploitation and abuse of children.

Wright's article provides multiple compelling accounts of this in the Church of Scientology. Truly awful, awful stuff. Nearly as bad as the multiple compelling accounts of this in the Christian church that are now being litigated throughout America and the world.

So that one doesn't make either church look very good.

4. Promises of success and happiness.

From Wright's article:

The Church of Scientology says that its purpose is to transform individual lives and the world. “A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where man is free to rise to greater heights, are the aims of Scientology,” Hubbard wrote. Scientology postulates that every person is a Thetan — an immortal spiritual being that lives through countless lifetimes. Scientologists believe that Hubbard discovered the fundamental truths of existence, and they revere him as “the source” of the religion. Hubbard’s writings offer a “technology” of spiritual advancement and self-betterment that provides “the means to attain true spiritual freedom and immortality.” A church publication declares, “Scientology works 100 percent of the time when it is properly applied to a person who sincerely desires to improve his life.” Proof of this efficacy, the church says, can be measured by the accomplishments of its adherents. “As Scientologists in all walks of life will attest, they have enjoyed greater success in their relationships, family life, jobs and professions. They take an active, vital role in life and leading roles in their communities. And participation in Scientology brings to many a broader social consciousness, manifested through meaningful contribution to charitable and social reform activities.”

Christianity, on the other hand, does not promise that it will "work 100 percent of the time," or that it will "improve" one's life in the way that Scientology promises such improvements. Christianity, instead, tells adherents that they must "take up the cross" — that faithfulness will likely preclude much of what others regard as success and happiness.

Where Scientology promises connections, access to and aid from the powerful, Christianity says that the powerful are in big trouble — that it might be possible, by some divine miracle, for a rich man to escape damnation, but it seems only as likely as a camel somehow squeezing through the eye of a needle. Thus Christianity doesn't promise connections to the powerful, it requires connections to the powerless, the poor, the weak, despised, unclean and unwanted.

Want to ride vintage motorcycles with Tom Cruise? Go with Scientology. Want to hang out with Lazarus as the dogs lick his sores? Christianity is for you.

This seems like a huge difference between the two traditions, though I have to admit that these days it's mainly just a theoretical difference. American Christianity tends to think that riding vintage motorcycles with Mel Gibson or Kirk Cameron would be really cool — maybe even a sign of divine favor.

5. Ruled by a megalomaniacal hierarchy.

Wright's article compiles a great deal of disturbing testimony about David Miscavige, the unchallenged authority in the Church of Scientology. He is described by multiple witnesses as a violent, abusive man who rules the church with absolute authority and capricious vindictiveness.

We Christians have had our share of such leaders too. In our defense, this was an aberration — a mistake and a contradiction of our core principles. The Christian church was not set up to be hierarchical or to bestow any human with such authority, and it managed to stick with its intended anarchical, charismatic, egalitarian structure for more than a century before some of us made up the idea of "bishops" and things went downhil from there. Also in our defense, I would point out that none of our self-appointed absolute authorities has ever held sway over the entire unruly bunch of us. But for centuries at a time, over huge swathes of the globe, we have had "rulers" every bit as power-mad and self-servingly awful as the worst descriptions of Miscavige.

So again, neither religion comes out looking very good on this score.

6. Regard for power.

According to Wright:

Scientology employs "techniques based on what Hubbard labeled 'Ethics Conditions.' These range from Confusion at the bottom and ascend through Treason, Enemy, Doubt, Liability and Emergency, eventually leading to Power."

I don't really know what to make of this strange scale, but it seems — like so much of Scientology as described to Wright by both current and former adherents — to commend the goal of attaining and amassing power.

On this point Scientology and Christianity would seem to be wholly incompatible and in total disagreement. The whole point of our weird story about God giving up God-ness to become human and then allowing Godself to be executed is that power, ultimately, is nowhere near as powerful as its opposite: Love.

Scientology's obsession with Power seems to me, as a Christian, to be at the root of its Confusion and an extreme Liability. I suppose that response might lead the authorities of the Church of Scientology to regard me as an Enemy. And by their standards, that's probably accurate. By my standards, too.

That means, of course, that I am — weirdly — compelled to love these people. I will try to do so. But loving them doesn't rule out, and may even require, agreeing with Paul Haggis that it would be a Good Thing if the exploitative, cruelly manipulative and deeply dishonest institution described in Wright's article were "taken down."

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  • Kristin

    Kristin – I don’t have all the details handy, but there’s been serious discussion in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how graduate school and academia in general are cult-like. I had a good discussion with my academic adviser over this when it came out!
    Thanks for the link. I got deeply involved in ex-Quiverfull groups after I got out because… My grad school experience triggered the same kinds of emotions and reactions as fringe Christianity had 15 years ago. I’ve been in three different grad schools (My choices were never very…safe in terms of job security, so I moved around a bit. I have MA degrees in International Relations, Political Science, and Philosophy.). Last degree was Philosophy.
    I was supposed to do a PhD, only it was a cult, and I wanted to die while I was there. In my previous programs, I’m been well-respected and well-treated, and it didn’t occur to me before I jumped in that women in the humanities get hazed/assaulted/intimidated/harassed… Well, maybe not all humanities. But I will say this: In my previous programs, we weren’t beholden to great thinkers and forced to treat texts as religious experiences. But Continental philosophy is a breeding ground for hero worship. I would guess that theological study could be like that too.
    I should’ve just gone to law school before I started any of it. Stable employment and all that.

  • Kristin

    Correction: “I’d been well-respected,” etc. Sorry, typo.

  • K.Chen

    I’ve never thought of “blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” as a value judgment. It’s a reassurance. Inequality, on an individual level, is inherently impermanent: the one who dies with the most toys still dies. (On an institutional level, we’re all screwed, but sooner or later nobody around right now will remain around to care.) And God is either nonexistent or remarkably hands-off. (Or kyriarchical, in which case, God can love us to the godly heart’s content but screw God.)

    I read that as speaking of the present, not that the poor will obtain the Kingdom, but that they have it. Thats a bit beside the main point, and I don’t understand Greek grammar, ancient or otherwise. What I mean by a value judgment is that the claim is that the poor are better off in some important way, they are blessed that is far greater than the apparent benefits of material wealth. What the details of this declaration are is a matter of intense debate of course, but the answer to J’s question may be, because making the poor not poor would inherently make them worse off.
    In modern parlance, you could think of it as “that guy? struggling to get by, no job security, sometimes has to go without meals to feed his kids, treated crappy by his boss? A lot better off than you think, and definitely better off than the guy drinking single malt scotch.”
    It is a deeply paradoxical, weird idea.

  • If you doubt yourself, then indeed you stand on shaky11 ground.

  • I like my reading much better, K.Chen. My reading says “eventually everyone will be in a place where there is no kyriarchy”. Yours says “people lower in the kyriarchy are better off than people higher in the kyriarchy”, which works out to “accept your place in the kyriarchy”.

  • But, K.Chen, confusing that with mysticism is flat wrong. Some of what you’re talking about is mysticism – loosely, that’s the idea that there’s a deeper truth that cannot be comprehended by the intellect or communicated logically. And I think most mystery cults would justify their use of secrecy as a way to protect the mysticism at the heart of the mystery.
    That’s part of it, yes. The other part is that not every spiritual experience is (immediately) pleasant or uplifting, and some mystery cults are sensitive to unleashing some of those experiences on the unprepared and unaccompanied.
    I had the opportunity to see this on a small scale in my own coven last November. I led a guided meditation as part of our full moon ritual. The moment the meditation was over, I glanced at one of my coven-mates and realized that the meditation had involved disconcerting and shocking experience for her and she was troubled by it. I ended up contacting her later in private to talk to her about it. In the grand scheme of things, it turned out to be no big deal. But I was glad I had the opportunity to follow up with her rather than leaving her hanging on her own.
    I write up and publish some of my guided meditations online. I don’t share that particular meditation simply because it can have that kind of effect on people. Quite frankly, I don’t want to be responsible for some random person stirring up something they don’t know how to deal with.
    Having said that, I’ll talk about what I believe day in and day out.

  • K.Chen

    I like my reading much better, K.Chen. My reading says “eventually everyone will be in a place where there is no kyriarchy”. Yours says “people lower in the kyriarchy are better off than people higher in the kyriarchy”, which works out to “accept your place in the kyriarchy”.

    Why would necessarily say that, especially compared to your reading?
    If it is a promise, and not a present sense impression, that is to say, “the poor are blessed because they’ve got a better ticket to heaven than rich people” or “the poor are blessed because the rich are going to get whats coming to them” then why bother doing anything here on earth, except to get your golden ticket to heaven? Then it really is, and has been abused as, “accept your place poor people. You’re going to heaven anyway, your suffering doesn’t matter.”
    Forgive me, but I’m not impressed by religion that devolves down to a judo flip of rich and poor after crossing the river Styx, nor satisfied by the idea that the kyriarchy, or whatever you want to call it, will go away somehow.
    But, imagine for a moment, that despite what you see with your eyes, that wealth isn’t all its cracked up to be (and not in that, oh noes, higher taxes sense), and poverty has hidden benefits. What if wealth, and frankly my guess is that Jesus thinks that middle class Westerners are wealthy in a non trivial sort of way, is harmful? Something about the culture, what you say, what you hear, what you do, and what you end up believing corrodes your soul?
    What if the corrosion of your soul isn’t an issue of what afterlife you “earn” after death, but something that is making you and everyone you know, worse off, right now? And, what if poverty – things you say, you hear, you do, does the converse? What if everything that all the powers of this world tell us about the value of wealth: not only the stuff, but the power – is wrong?
    I don’t think I’m stepping out of Christian orthodoxy to pose the question that way, although it is an uncomfortable spot: because instead of a way of telling the poor to stay poor, I think its really a way of saying to the poor “it not only is going to get better, is better, right now” and a way of telling everyone else “it not only is going to get worse, it is worse, right now?” If you take that idea seriously, you can’t accept anything the way it is, because you’re taking seriously the idea you don’t actually know what the way anything is.
    Saying the poor are going to heaven and rich people are not? Small potatoes.

  • Xavier

    If it is a promise, and not a present sense impression, that is to say, “the poor are blessed because they’ve got a better ticket to heaven than rich people” or “the poor are blessed because the rich are going to get whats coming to them” then why bother doing anything here on earth, except to get your golden ticket to heaven? Then it really is, and has been abused as, “accept your place poor people. You’re going to heaven anyway, your suffering doesn’t matter.”

    I might be wrong, but when MercuryBlue says “eventually everyone will be in a place where there is no kyriarchy”, I don’t think she means heaven.

  • What if the corrosion of your soul isn’t an issue of what afterlife you “earn” after death, but something that is making you and everyone you know, worse off, right now? And, what if poverty – things you say, you hear, you do, does the converse? What if everything that all the powers of this world tell us about the value of wealth: not only the stuff, but the power – is wrong?
    Doesn’t work like that. Poor people are more likely to be bigoted, insular, and tribalistic because WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING YOU TAKE CARE OF YOUR PEOPLE AND FUCK EVERYONE ELSE.
    Oh and all of this? I make six thousand a year over the poverty line. I am not even impoverished by the US govts definition.
    Lord- I suppose if you set out to be poor like St. Francis, there might be spiritual benifits, but I am poor. I am very poor. I-can’t-afford-a-car-poor. I-have-2.85-to-last-me-two-weeks poor. And it hasn’t made me more spirtual, or happier. Its made me mean. Its made me the sort of person who gets mine and fuck yours. It makes me the kind of person who doesn’t return money you dropped on the street. I had to wrestle with myself for five minutes before I turned in the wallet I found in the 7-11 parking lot. Do you know what 120 bucks means to me? Not to mention that I could sell the ID and credit cards for a LOT more than that? Do you know what it feels like to hold a few decent meals in your hand, and have to decide if you’d rather be the sort of person you want to be, or eat something besides three-day-old-rice and beans?
    It doesn’t make you nice. It doesn’t do wonders for your soul. It makes you look out for you and yours, and fuck anyone else who gets more than me, because what did they do to deserve it?
    AND I have the benefits of a lovely, successful family who worries about me and lends me money, and many awesome friends who will do the same at a moments notice. And even with a bunch of safety nets, its still made me a meaner, more judgmental, less kind, and less caring person. Which in some ways is good- I was sort of a wussy little ponce who believed every song and dance I heard. Its toughened me up. But whatever it did, it did not make me a better man. And its probably made me a worse one.

  • Bryan Feir

    Actually, I might note that there was a writeup I read which indicated that in Jesus’s day, the word now translated as a “needle” meant a kind of very small arch through which a camel would not have easily gotten through, as it was sized for humans only.

    The version I heard was that the ‘Eye of the Needle’ was the night gate into the city, only big enough for a single man to walk through. To get a camel through it required removing any bags or wares from the camel, and getting it to crouch down and shuffle along through the gate.
    Thus, a rich man would enter the Kingdom of Heaven like a camel through the Eye of the Needle: shorn of all worldly possessions, and on his knees.
    I have no idea how much actual historical backing is behind that interpretation, but it did have a more flowery interpretation than just ‘something difficult to do’.

  • Bryan: there is none at all.
    Fred has a wonderful post on it here:
    http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2006/03/filtered_camels.html

  • Yakamoz

    @ hapax
    No problem. Actually the kind of telepathy I am talking about is part of official Scientology doctrine. Wikipedia has a page on it as well as citations to our ‘scriptures.’
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supernatural_abilities_in_Scientology_doctrine
    Telepathy ‘s one of the many “OT” powers that you gain the more auditing you receive. There’s even a Super Power Rundown. If you are a Thetan, you can leave your body at will. Remote viewing and communicating in the theta universe follow from that. Even telekinesis is encouraged. I was encouraged to believe I had these powers
    If I lost something, looked for it and couldn’t find it, then I was told I had actually made it disappear – in Scieno jargon, I “as-is’d” it . If I found it again later, it’s because I brought it back into existence. I “alter-is’d” it. Reality is not stable – and I had to avoid negative thoughts lest I inadvertently postulate something awful.
    However I am not convinced that this is inherently weirder than being encouraged to believe that your ‘faith’ (whatever that is) can move mountains, or that whatever two people ask God for in Jesus’ name, he will grant. It’s the same activity: imagining what you want, and pretending that makes it more likely.

  • K.Chen

    @CaryB
    First off, I am sorry about your circumstances, and I didn’t and don’t mean to slight them, and I think you’re right, about the effects that poverty have on people. But there is a reason that religion scholars, Christian theologians and preachers are fond of the terms “mystery” and “paradox” when referring to the teachings of Jesus.
    And I pose my questions as questions and not statements because I don’t have the answer. Even accepting all of my questions as “yes” the follow up is “and then what?” And I don’t know. I’m certainly not going to try to raise a family on pennies a day, or fly off to a war torn country shorn of all worldly possessions to try to grasp whatever blessing the poor have. I’m really quite fond of my worldly possessions in fact. I’m no Peter, I couldn’t abandon my father to his family business with his staff to follow a preacher, no matter how many miracles he performed.
    But, I still think its worth taking seriously the idea that Jesus doesn’t want us to be suspicious just of the wealthy and powerful, he wants us to be suspicious of wealth and power. Where you go from there, I don’t know.

  • I’m personally of the opinion that most people are pretty much just assholes: give ’em money and they’ll be rich assholes, take it away and they’ll be poor assholes. 90% of everything is crap- it holds true for just about everything else, I don’t see why it shouldn’t for human beings.
    Wealth and power corrupt you one way, poverty another- I think it might be less to do with wealth, and more to do with the corruptible nature of mankind.

  • I might be wrong, but when MercuryBlue says “eventually everyone will be in a place where there is no kyriarchy”, I don’t think she means heaven.
    Yes and no. I don’t think there’s an afterlife, but we’re talking about what Jesus said, and Jesus clearly did believe in an afterlife, and if heaven still has kyriarchy what the hell is the point of heaven?

  • swbarnes2

    I took the “first shall be last and the last shall be first” to mean that that authors thought, yes, there will be a hierarchy in Heaven, just a different one than we have here. I figure that the authors couldn’t imagine a world that didn’t have one.

  • Bryan Feir

    @CaryB:
    I figured as much. It made for a decent parable done that way, anyway. When discussing Aesop’s Fables, the morals are more important about whether or not the fox actually cares about grapes.

  • Andrew Glasgow

    @MercuryBlue

    Yes and no. I don’t think there’s an afterlife, but we’re talking about what Jesus said, and Jesus clearly did believe in an afterlife, and if heaven still has kyriarchy what the hell is the point of heaven?

    One could imagine a place called Heaven in which the souls of the dead are given new heavenly bodies, but in which angels run everything and humans are the (well-treated, safe, living better than 99% of all humans for 99% of our existence as a sapient species) slaves of the angelic elite. In which case the primary difference between Heaven and Hell would be the climate, and who was in charge. Of course, that would assume a Heaven that was not created by God as a perfect place of eternal reward after a virtuous life, but one that existed as a natural place, part of another universe or this one. In other words, like the earth and the rest of the universe, it would have no “point”. It simply would be. (It would also be the Heaven of the universe of The Salvation War [Book 1 Book 2] — warning: blasphemy, near-pornographic description of military tech, and lots of possibly-triggering violence and gore.)

  • I tend to imagine it as the present social hierarchy no longer having any meaning. It’s supposed to be good news for the poor, because in the present they’re punished by society for being on the wrong end of it. It’s bad news for the wealthy, because the power and influence and material gains they built their lives around is taken away from them.