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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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