This article originally appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of the Australian Humanist - see the original as a pdf here . It has also appeared at the Cult Information and Family Support Group site and also the Anonymous 'Why we Protest' site. I may yet post some reflections I've made since the article - at the time, the article had a to meet the editorial requirements, and I have since thought of some other things to say ...
Scientology might be described as a religion, corporation, cult or movement, depending on who you talk to. For the purposes of Australian law and taxation, it has been deemed a religion.
Scientology grew out of the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction author. Doug Nicholson, an early Sydney SF fan, remembers a time when, as ‘Dianetics’, it was just an interesting set of ideas. The reaction was varied: some people were interested, some were critical but not outright hostile, and some were positively hostile. Nevertheless, in science fiction groups, it was an interesting thing to talk about, and provided a cheaper alternative to psychotherapy; Dianetics may have even helped people.
Over time, however, the original Dianetics became more ‘supernatural’ and ‘dualistic’, turning into ‘new religion which would save the world from atomic war’. It was then that Doug lost interest. Still, some (including Doug) continued to feel there might have been some good ideas which were not just rehashed Freudian ideas. However, what had been a collection of interested people became organised, without any room for critical discussion, and ejected the questioners. Doug sees a parallel to early Christianity.
Religions provide several things: explanations for how the world was created and why it has evil in it, and also how to lead productive ethical lives. Being ethical may be an end it itself, but perhaps you’ll also benefit. Certainly, churches like Hillsong claim to help you lead a productive life.
Scientology claims that you’ll improve, and there’s a whole hierarchy of stages leading towards greater enlightenment. Affie Adagio, counsellor, says that the initial stages of Scientology represent a synthesis of many ‘modalities’ in counselling, and might even be of benefit. However, it may be difficult to stick to the early stages –people speak of attempts to bully and intimidate them into doing the higher stages.
Scientology challenges mainstream therapy, medications and psychology. Mental health is a public health issue, but it not clear how Scientology engages with its challenges. Some groups have their concerns about psychotherapy – but do not want Scientologists as members. Still, many Scientology ideas are reminiscent of Freud’s ideas. Doug wonders if Scientology reacted against the psychological sciences because, after being invited to review it, they were amongst the first to criticise it.
Celebrities and Scientology
Numerous celebrities and high-profile people who have become Scientologists – including Kate Ceberano, and previously James Packer. Why? Partly, because Scientology deliberately tries to recruit celebrities, and provides special facilities for them. While Hillsong validates being rich, Scientology seems to validate the ultra-rich and successful.
From the outside we see actors appearing in a succession of popular films. But from the actor’s point of view, they lead a precarious existence. They may have been in a good film – but when’s their next good film? How do they ensure they’re ‘on the radar’ of those who are making the next good film? It seems Scientology provides celebrities with help in dealing with the world strategically. James Packer did go through some lows – divorce and business failure – and perhaps during that time Scientology was able to help him, though he has since left.
Religions have often had difficulties with apostates (people who leave the religion) and heretics. While James Packer seems to have left Scientology without incident, leaving usually means other Scientologists cut off contact with you. That’s in contrast to more moderate Christian churches, where leaving comes with the comment, ‘gee, that’s really sad it didn’t work out for you.’
In the past churches have tried to deal with heresy through inquisition; Scientology uses copyright law. In fact there’s an ‘alternative’ Scientology movement called the ‘Free Zone’, derided by Scientology – further evidence that if there’s one universal with religion, it will eventually and inevitably fragment.
Scientology endorses a tolerance for religion, but this contradicts how they relate to the ‘Free Zone’. Their support for the freedom of religion does not seem to be the freedom of individuals to worship, but rather the prerogative of an organised religion to control its writings, structures and followers. Perhaps they are trying to enlist the support of other recognised religions to obtain more legitimacy for Scientology and hide their own questionable practices?
One step removed from heresy is criticism. Scientology has used both legal and non-legal means when under challenge, and there are claims of Scientology being involved in many dubious if not illegal activities. The independent Senator Nick Xenophon has drawn attention to them; the NSW Greens John Kaye has criticised the involvement of Scientology in schools, in particular, a Hubbard publication The Way to Happiness (discussed below) used at the Athena high school in Sydney.
Oliver Wendel Holmes (US Supreme Court judge), an advocate for the ‘free market of ideas’, says we should have faith in public debate to show that something is wrong. But it seems that Scientology has never really been willing to leave things be, with a string of lawsuits and harassment for those who write on Scientology. How you relate to people who disagree with you is ethically important. I certainly endorse people’s right to hold differing views. In fact, if you do not have people disagreeing with you, maybe you’re doing something wrong! You need to show people, who you consider to be wrong, how they are wrong – in the free market of ideas – not through trying to suppress or censor them.
Quite apart from harm attributed to Scientology, a lot of the harm caused by Scientology may be through their attempt to undermine people who are drawing attention to that harm – a secondary harm, quite apart from the primary harms Scientology might cause.
In fact, Scientology endorses freedom of speech, as a part of their support for the UN charter of Human Rights. However, their support does not seem to have any intellectual depth, and seems strange in the light of their other beliefs. This support does not seem to be inspired by either libertarian sentiments or true notions of free speech. UN Human Right 27 talks about ‘the ability to freely participate in cultural, scientific and intellectual life while preserving the moral right (I think that means acknowledgement / citation), and material interests (copyright / royalties)’.
However, rather than engaging with the intellectual depth behind this right, Scientologists reduce all this to just one idea: Copyright. In their DVD introducing Scientology, they include a short segment where someone tries to circulate a pirated DVD. This ‘moral tale’ focuses on the infringement of copyright of a corporate DVD, rather than an individual being cheated by the system. We might wonder about whether bands or other performers are getting their ‘fair share’, or whether corporations are sidelining the public interest in intellectual property law – but Scientologists seem to see the validity of corporate copyright as trumping all other concerns.
Scientology seems to have a single-minded determination that it is right and therefore justified in doing everything it can to defend and promote itself. What is ‘legal’ is not necessarily ‘ethical’, but I wonder if the distinction means anything to them. It is reminiscent of the Catholic Church, which has been willing to ignore the abuse of children by priests on the ground, that merely having priests in the community is a moral good which trumps all other issues (Deliver Us from Evil, Amy Berg, 2006).
Apart from journalists and authors, one group challenging Scientology have been ‘Anonymous’ – you may have seen them protesting in their Guy Fawkes masks. Anonymous are like the soldier termites of the nest, defending the ‘nest’ – the Internet – from what they see as its enemies. For sure, apart from the real world machinations of Scientology, their machinations and abuses on the internet have surpassed that of all other religions and corporations.
Still, the author Peter Watts sees Christians and Catholics as abusing the legal system in a far broader and systematic way than Scientologists, with the promotion of Creationism adding to bargain. For all the lives touched and abused by Scientology, he sees Christianity / Catholicism / Creationism as a greater concern (http://rifters.com/real/2008/02/in-defense-ofscientology.html.).
I’m not sure how you’d measure this impact against that of Scientology, but I do not think that a greater threat automatically invalidates efforts against lesser threats. It makes sense to try to make the world a better place in some way you connect with, while there may certainly be other greater threats. Anonymous can focus on internet related threats if they choose to. Further, a claim made by Anonymous is that Scientology might become a much greater threat if they are not stopped at present.
Theology and ethics of Scientology
They claim, ‘We are not our body, we are not our minds, we are thetans’. To me, this seems to rely too much on the way we use language, rather than getting at any underlying reality, and is further non-naturalistic – depending on how we define ‘thetan’.
While said to be separate from Scientology, there is a Hubbard publication called The Way to Happiness, which outlines an ethics (More detail is available in a talk I gave at the Sydney Philorum group – see http://www.philorum.org/ ... JohnAugustWayToHappiness.html ). This book borrows a lot of good ideas from mainstream faiths, Christianity and Buddhism for example. However, it is not clear why it is a particularly superior synthesis. It seems to fly in the face of a lot of ideas in mainstream ethical philosophy, and it slides over a lot of difficulties contained in its sweeping generalisations; some ideas seem downright prudish and reactionary. For example, it rails against promiscuity. Now, maybe you need to be careful about promiscuity to avoid harm, but it’s not appropriate to dismiss it out of hand.
The Way to Happiness focuses on STDs as the major harm coming from promiscuity, without ever acknowledging the use of condoms. And further, it talks about doing what is ‘natural’. That’s very problematic; in philosophy we have the ‘naturalistic fallacy’.
It also rails against doing anything illegal. However, we know that there have been legal prohibitions against homosexuality; sure, you should not break the law recklessly, but it is equally problematic to give the law an automatic and assumed authority.
There is a great divide between The Way to Happiness and mainstream philosophy. It does not consider truth to be ‘justified false belief’; its slant does not really develop understanding. In contrast, there has been cross-fertilisation between Buddhism and ethical philosophy.
In many ways, this seems to describe most of Scientology – there has been little influence from Scientology on any outside speciality, be it ethical philosophy, political theory, psychology, neurology, public health or anything else. Of course, it might well be that Scientology is right while all these professions are wrong. Still, there has been some limited influence from Buddhism on other specialities, and ethical theory has reviewed religious systems of ethics. ‘Just war theory’, originating in Christianity, now has a secular currency. But the position of Scientology with respect to outside disciplines seems to be more like that of creationism as compared to say, biology and geology.
Some religions are just a matter of personal belief, and pretty innocuous in their way; people have the right to believe falsehoods if they really want to. But Scientology seems a lot worse than that. In its early times, the ones Doug remembers, perhaps it was closer to that benign ideal; but it has since changed into something of much greater concern.
John August, president Humanist Society of NSW