AFTER FINISHING ANNA KARENINA IN 1877, Leo Tolstoy turned his attention away from creating worlds on the page to creating something in real life: he wanted to establish a radically new religion. Distilling Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy preached that people ought to give up private property and live by their physical labor. He believed that the state existed through violence, and urged rejection of all institutions associated with it: the Russian Orthodox church, the police, the army, and the law. As William Nickell’s marvelous The Death of Tolstoy (2010) recounts, “Tolstoy became a national conscience, an ethical thorn in the side of the Russian church and state.” His teachings gained a popular, international following. Tolstoyan colonies popped up in Africa and America. When the great author died in 1910, thousands attended his funeral; he was proclaimed a prophet. Luminaries such as Gandhi considered themselves “Tolstoyan.” By the end of his life, Tolstoy’s star could hardly have risen any further.
Compare Tolstoy’s very public passing with that of another novelist turned prophet: L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. By the end of his life, Hubbard lived in a secluded Blue Bird motorhome on a ranch in Creston, California. As Lawrence Wright reports in his excellent new book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, the ranch “was so secret that none of the executives [of the church][…] had ever actually been there.” He reportedly requested that a Scientology member build a suicide machine for him. Hubbard’s declining health was “a secret known to few in the upper levels of the church. Only a handful of his closest followers were allowed to see him.” His wife Mary Sue Hubbard was in jail. A series of international lawsuits and convictions dogged him. Whereas Tolstoy left the world a celebrated cultural hero, Hubbard died a disgraced man, shrouded in mystery.
Yet the religion Hubbard left behind has flourished, while the Church of Tolstoy has nearly disappeared. Other than a few scattered Tolstoyan colonies in the UK and Holland, the Church of Tolstoy barely registers on the religious landscape. Hubbard’s church, on the other hand, is one of the world’s most successful and controversial new religions. Official membership statistics are disputed — claims range from 30,000 to eight million — but the church’s wealth is undoubtedly formidable. Conservative estimates suggest that the Church of Scientology holds about $1 billion in liquid assets, a figure that, according to Wright, “eclipses the holdings of most major world religions.” The church also owns “12 million square feet of property in some of the most valuable real estate areas in the world." Why did L. Ron Hubbard become the founder of an influential religion, while Tolstoy failed? Put differently, why do some religious movements succeed while others don’t?
Perhaps the Church of Tolstoy’s greatest misfortune was that it was not founded in post–World War II America. As Wright illuminates, the 1950s were a time of intense spiritual awakening. The Great Depression and the Second World War had demoralized the American public and destroyed traditional sources of meaning, breaking apart and dislocating families. The terrible possibility of nuclear apocalypse loomed. Amidst this postwar landscape, new religious movements emerged. They found fertile ground in Southern California, a place “filled with migrants who weren’t tied to old creeds and were ready to experiment with new ways of thinking.” Southern California “was swarming with Theosophists, Rosicrucians, Zoroastrians, and Vedantists. Swamis, mystics, and gurus of many different faiths pulled acolytes into their orbits.”
Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, too, emerged from the war shattered — a “very sad case of post-war breakdown,” as his friend put it. Born in 1911 in Tilden, Nebraska, Hubbard was the son of a naval officer. Wright chronicles Hubbard’s early life exceptionally well, evincing meticulous research; his book would be worth reading just for the story of Hubbard’s endlessly fascinating effort to fashion and re-fashion himself. His incarnations ranged from charming philanderer to failed filmmaker to prolific pulp fiction writer to wounded war veteran (official records indicate he was not really wounded) to dabbling occultist to charming philosopher and, finally, cult leader.
The crucial event that transformed Hubbard into a mystic occurred in 1938. During a routine dental operation, he received gas anesthetic and his heart stopped. Hubbard had an out-of-body experience, and as his “spirit form” wandered toward “a huge ornate gate in the distance,” the secrets of the universe were revealed to him. He had unlocked “an intellectual smorgasbord of everything that had ever puzzled the mind of man.” He dashed off a short book, Excalibur, which distilled all of human mystery into one fairly banal maxim:
All life is directed by one command and one command only— SURVIVE.
Wright proposes that the central document to understanding Hubbard’s psyche is his so-called “secret memoir,” composed around 1947, otherwise referred to as Hubbard’s “Affirmations” or “Admissions.” The document itself has an interesting history: it was found by a former archivist for the Church of Scientology, Gerald Armstrong, who had been tasked with organizing the founder’s personal papers. The more Armstrong read, the less he believed. Convinced that Hubbard was a huckster, Armstrong copied the documents that he discovered in the archives and delivered them to his lawyer. He was thereafter sued by the Church of Scientology. During the trial, Armstrong tried to get on record portions of Hubbard’s “Affirmations,” under the vehement protests of the Church’s lawyers. . Among Hubbard’s Affirmations:
“I can write.”
“My mind is still brilliant.”
“That masturbation was no sin or crime.”
“That I do not need to have ulcers any more.”
“That I believe in my gods and spiritual things.”
“That my magical work is powerful and effective.”
“That the numbers 7, 25, and 16 are not unlucky or evil for me.”
“That I am not bad to look upon.”
“That I am not susceptible to colds.”
“That these words and commands are like fire and will sear themselves into every corner of my being, making me happy and well and confident forever!”
Hubbard emerges, in Wright’s account, as a pitiable figure, driven by relentless ambition yet also stalked by an enduring fear of irrelevance. Flawed, prone to tyranny and abusive behavior, he sought to conquer his insecurities by achieving an outsized grandeur. “If one looks behind the Affirmations to the conditions they are meant to correct,” Wright concludes, “one sees a man who is ashamed of his tendency to fabricate personal stories, who is conflicted about his sexual needs, and who worries about his mortality. He has a predatory view of women but at the same time fears their power to humiliate him.”
In other books, Hubbard has been portrayed in a more forgiving light: not as a perversion of postwar social norms, but rather as the quintessential embodiment of the American entrepreneurial spirit. Hugh Urban’s academic study, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion, convincingly argues that Hubbard was a bricoleur, an “eclectic and ingenious cultural entrepreneur,” who “assembled a wide array of diverse philosophical, psychological, occult, scientific, and science fiction elements, cobbling them together into a unique, new, and surprisingly successful synthesis.” Hubbard’s masterwork of bricolage was Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, a smashing success that sat atop The New York Times best-seller list for 28 weeks in 1950. Part psychoanalysis, part science fiction, part self-help, Dianetics claimed to offer a “new science of the mind.” (Portions of the book had originally been published in an issue of Astounding Science Fiction.) The central claim of Dianetics was that the human mind has two parts: the analytical and reactive. The reactive mind contains a sort of reservoir of trauma, which holds all fears and insecurities and blocks the analytical mind. A process called “auditing,” aided by a contraption called the “E-meter,” recovers “engrams,” the sources of trauma. Auditing thus rescues the original trauma and rids the entire mind of all obstacles. To achieve such a state is to go “clear” (hence Wright’s title).
In addition to its popular success, Dianetics garnered support from famous writers, ranging from William S. Burroughs, Aldous Huxley, and the influential science fiction writer John Campbell. Hundreds of reading and auditing clubs appeared throughout the United States and the United Kingdom. On the other hand, the book’s popularity attracted nothing but bemused dismay from the scientific community. The Nobel Prize winning physicist I. I. Rabi quipped, “This volume probably contains more promises and less evidence per page than has any publication since the invention of printing.”
It was a short step from psychic confabulation to metaphysics. Within two years of the publication of Dianetics, Hubbard expanded on his basic theories. The root of the engrams was no longer in some portion of the mind, but in past lives. Drawing on Hindu and Buddhist ideas, Hubbard claimed that each person had an immortal, reincarnatable soul, which he called the “thetan.” Trauma, like the soul, is eternal; it follows the thetan throughout its various incarnations — haunting it, as it were. “Free of the limitations of his body, the thetan can roam the universe,” Wright explains,
circling stars, strolling on Mars, or even creating entirely new universes. Reality expands far beyond what the individual had originally perceived it to be. The ultimate goal of auditing is not just to liberate a person from destructive mental phenomena; it is to emancipate him from the laws of matter, energy, space, and time — or MEST, as Hubbard termed them.
The goal of auditing was to destroy the shadows lurking in one’s thetan being. Many Scientologists describe “returns,” during the course of audits, to previous life events. One of Hubbard’s top executives, Helen O’Brien, reported that during auditing she saw herself as a young Irish woman in the early 19th century:
She could feel the coarse texture of her full-skirted dress as she walked down a narrow country lane, hearing the birds and feeling the warm country air. But when she turned a corner of her house, she saw a British soldier bayoneting her fourteen-year-old son in the yard […] When the soldier threw her to the ground and tried to rape her, she spit in his face. He crushed her skull with a cobblestone.
O’Brien’s narrative shows how quickly, during the auditing process, cheerful reflections took a dark and violent turn — a tendency that may have been encouraged by Hubbard’s own strong emphasis on personal trauma.
Wright and Urban both intimate that there was a fundamental tendency within Hubbard that attracted him towards religious leadership. Deeply charming and charismatic, Hubbard also exhibited autocratic propensities. They also both point to evidence that Hubbard was not a dogmatist, and that he had an improvisational streak: he was motivated, for instance, by financial concerns to turn Scientology into a religion. Wright uncovers correspondence between Hubbard and his fellow colleagues on the “religion question,” testing names for the new religion, including the Church of American Science and the Church of Spiritual Engineering.
In 1954, L. Ron Hubbard created the first Church of Scientology of California; another chapter followed in Washington, DC, soon thereafter.
How Scientology transformed itself from a loosely based, decentralized self-help movement to a hierarchical, secretive religious institution is the subject of Urban’s account. He grippingly documents Hubbard’s obsession with secrecy and esoteric knowledge. Hubbard was particularly interested in forming a relationship with the federal government: he was convinced that Communists were trying to infiltrate the Church, and he struck up a voluminous correspondence with the FBI, painting close friends and even family members as communists. The FBI did not at first take Hubbard and the church seriously, but, starting in the 1960s, government agencies ranging from the FDA to the IRS commenced a series of raids on the church. In 1963, the FDA initiated its first raid, seizing more than a hundred E-meters from Washington. In 1967, the IRS began a tax audit. Beyond the United States, governments worldwide, including the UK and Australia, began to turn Hubbard and his followers away. In response, Hubbard turned to his first love: the sea. In 1967, the same year that the IRS stripped Scientology of its tax-exempt status, Hubbard set sail. He called his crew members the “Sea Organization,” or “Sea Org” for short. Searching for a safe landing ground for Scientology, Hubbard traveled to Corfu, Tangiers, Rhodesia, Corsica, Gibraltar, and Marrakesh. (A particularly riveting passage in Wright’s narrative deals with Hubbard’s fantasy of taking over Morocco, and his involvement in the coup that deposed King Hassan II).
It was during these years at sea that Scientology adopted the malevolent, secretive character for which it is now infamous. The period left a “legacy of […] belittling behavior toward subordinates and […] paranoia about the government,” Wright writes. “Such traits stamped the religion as an extremely secretive and sometimes hostile organization that saw enemies on every corner.” During this time, Hubbard expanded his theories and instituted a new system of punishments to address disciplinary issues (including crew members who questioned his command or relationships of which he disapproved). When a Sea Org executive was unable to connect a steel cable on the dock during a storm, Hubbard ordered him thrown into the sea. After that, Wright reports, “overboardings became routine.”
Hubbard’s makeshift system of discipline gradually evolved into the controversial Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF). Members of the Sea Org suspected of insubordination were subjected to degrading working conditions and forbidden to see their families. Here Wright aptly compares the Church of Scientology to the Chinese Communist Party. Both employ brainwashing measures, enforced through violence; both enforce rigid birth control (Sea Org members were not permitted to procreate); both created labor camps where children were required to do hard labor.
At the same time that Hubbard was disciplining his own organization members, he planned a series of attacks against enemies of Scientology. It is frankly astonishing to consider that Hubbard and his followers managed to pull off even a fraction of his hare-brained plans. One comical attempt to take over the World Federation for Mental Health in Switzerland featured a fake office, phony certificates, wigs, and makeup. Hubbard ordered several of his followers to sabotage the World Federation by posing as an American reformist group to gain influence within the organization. The plan almost worked, but Hubbard, paranoid that the Swiss had actually laid a trap, aborted the mission at the last minute.
Most notorious was “Operation Snow White,” an ambitious campaign launched in 1973 to infiltrate governments around the world, including Germany, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, and the UK. Each maneuver was named after story elements from the fairy tale: “Project Grumpy,” for example, was designed to “accuse German critics of the church of committing genocide.” In America, Hubbard launched “Project Hunter,” deploying his followers to invade the IRS, the Justice, Treasury, and Labor Departments, the Federal Trade Commission, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and foreign embassies and consulates. Hubbard also targeted newspapers that had been critical of Scientology, such as the St. Petersburg Times, the Clearwater Sun, and The Washington Post. The church stole the IRS’s intelligence files on celebrities and political figures, including California governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, and Frank Sinatra. “Nothing in American history,” Wright writes, “can compare with the scale of the domestic espionage of Operation Snow White.”
Meanwhile, the battle between Scientology and the US government escalated. The FBI carried out a dramatic raid in 1977, searching and seizing documents in the church’s offices in Los Angeles and Washington, DC. In LA, the agents encountered Sea Org members who had been punished by being placed in the RPF:
They found a warren of small cubicles, each occupied by half a dozen people dressed in black boiler suits and wearing filthy rags around their arms to indicate their degraded status. Altogether, about 120 people were huddled in the pitch-black basement, serving time in the Rehabilitation Project Force. The ranks of the RPF had expanded along with the church’s need for cheap labor to renovate its recently purchased buildings in Hollywood. The federal agents had no idea what they were seeing.
The Feds also uncovered a series of incriminating documents and wiretap equipment. Hubbard’s wife, Mary Sue, was convicted of conspiracy. For the last 10 years of his life, Hubbard, dogged by a conviction in the French court, retreated from public life, eventually settling in a ranch near Creston, California.
Hubbard’s withdrawal allowed for the emergence of David Miscavige, a second-generation Scientologist who rose quickly through the ranks of the Commodore Messenger’s Organization as a teenager. Wright’s account of Miscavige’s ascent recalls Josef Stalin’s purge of his political rivals after the death of Lenin: Miscavige controlled access to Hubbard, became his mouthpiece, and soon manipulated the ouster of his competitors to power. The biggest threat to Miscavige’s authority was Mary Sue Hubbard, who he forced to confess to a series of crimes in exchange for a house and a financial settlement. Mary Sue went to prison in 1983; she never saw her husband again. All of her devoted followers were purged from the organization.
After completing his coup, Miscavige solidified the foundation that Hubbard had built. In 1973, Hubbard had decided that the church should not pay its back taxes. Twenty years later, the church was $1 billion in arrears. The church would sink without regaining its tax-exemption status. Launching a frontal attack, the church deluged the IRS with 200 lawsuits on behalf of the church and filed more than 2,300 suits on behalf of individuals. As Urban’s study shows, this conflict forced the IRS to provide a more concrete definition of what they considered “religious,” making a list of 13 points public in 1977. But the church’s assault on the IRS was relentless. According to Wright, Miscavige bragged that the church had drained the entire legal budget of the IRS: “They didn’t even have money to attend the annual American Bar Association conference of lawyers — which they were supposed to speak at!” There were alleged extra-legal threats, too: private investigators hired by Scientology dug up dirt on government workers in order to blackmail them. Government workers received anonymous calls in the middle of the night; pets disappeared. The IRS eventually capitulated, reinstating the church’s tax-exemption status in 1993.
Miscavige also intensified the church’s shameless pursuit of celebrity endorsement, which had begun with the popular success of Dianetics but fallen off during the Sea Org years. In 1986, the church hit the jackpot when Tom Cruise, who had catapulted into the Hollywood stratosphere because of Top Gun, became attracted to Scientology. According to Wright, Miscavige pounced on Cruise, inviting him to secret Scientology functions and assigning his best people to audit and serve the star.
Under Miscavige’s leadership, three tiers of believers now undergird Scientology’s structure. There are “public” Scientologists, the dabblers who constitute the majority of Scientology’s membership and pay for auditing courses. Second is the celebrity tier, which today includes Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Jenna Elfman, and the late Isaac Hayes. Treated obsequiously by Miscavige, they are shielded from, and apparently oblivious to, the worst of the church’s abuses. Finally, there is the Sea Org. As Miscavige bent over backwards to mollify and accommodate the likes of Tom Cruise, he tightened his grip over the people most devoted to the church. Members of the Sea Org sign a “billion-year” contract, receiving free housing and a pitiful weekly allowance in return. Jenna Miscavige Hill, an ex-Scientologist and niece of David Miscavige, offers a firsthand account of this lifestyle in Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape. Children of the Sea Org are raised communally, separated from their parents, and do hard labor from the age of 12. When she was 16, Hill’s parents left the Church; she was prohibited from contacting them, and her letters were intercepted. She eventually managed to escape, along with her husband, and an open forum for others like her.
But even Hill’s story is tame compared to the accounts of abuse that proliferate in Going Clear. One of the most notorious is the death of Lisa McPherson. McPherson had gone through almost 10 years of courses and auditing and had been declared Clear; David Miscavige was her case supervisor. She suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized. In 1995, Scientologists convinced her to check out of the hospital, against the doctor’s recommendation, and ordered her to undergo an “Introspection Rundown,” a procedure Hubbard had developed two decades earlier. McPherson was placed in solitary confinement. She was not permitted to speak; communication could only be written. “McPherson stopped eating,” Wright recounts:
She screamed, she clawed her attendants, she spoke in gibberish, she fouled herself, she banged her head against the wall. Staff members strapped her down and tried to feed her with a turkey baster. On December 5, McPherson slipped into a coma. When church members decided to take her to the hospital that night, they bypassed the Morton Plant Hospital, just down the street, where McPherson had originally been seen, and drove her forty-five minutes away, passing four other hospitals, to the Columbia New Port Richey Hospital, where there was a doctor affiliated with the church. The woman they finally wheeled into the emergency room was skeletally thin and covered with scratches, bruises, and dark brown lesions. She was also dead. She had suffered a pulmonary embolism on the way to the hospital. In the eyes of the world press, Scientology had murdered Lisa McPherson. She was one of nine Scientologists who had died under mysterious circumstances at the Clearwater facility.
The state of Florida sued the Church of Scientology on criminal charges. Joan Wood, the medical examiner in the case, stated that McPherson’s health had deteriorated over a long period during which she had lived without liquids for at least five days. Wood concluded, “This is the most severe case of dehydration I’ve ever seen.” During the investigation, “embarrassing details emerged,” including “the fact that McPherson had spent $176,700 on Scientology services in her last five years, but she had died with only $11 in her savings account.”
In response to the lawsuit, the church hired expensive and top-notch lawyers, as well as their own medical examiners to refute Joan Wood’s conclusion. The church repeatedly threatened to sue Wood “into the Stone Age.” At the same time, Wright accounts, the church apparently destroyed or hid logs that were kept by caretakers during the Introspection Rundown. One caretaker had written in the log that McPherson needed to see a doctor. One Scientology member allegedly handed several of the most incriminating logs to a church executive, saying, “Lose ’em.”
The church, of course, prevailed: Joan Wood ultimately changed her medical testimony to say that McPherson’s death was “accidental.” Charges against the church were dropped. Wright pointedly ends his horrific narrative by noting the unmistakable toll taken on Wood, who “retired and became a recluse,” “suffered panic attacks and insomnia,” and eventually died of a stroke.
The clearest themes that emerge from Wright’s account of the church is its use of money, celebrity, brute threat, and subterfuge. But if one were to quibble with Wright’s brave and transfixing account, it is that he equates all theological content as equally fantastical. The only valid measure by which to judge a faith, for him, appears to be whether human rights abuses stem from it. The Amish are peaceful, he notes; so we give them a pass. On the other hand, tyrannical religious leaders such as David Koresh and Jim Jones led their communities down a path of isolated self-destruction.
“[S]cience fiction and theology have much in common,” Wright writes. The claim is provocative, pleasing in its symmetry, and only partly true. The science fiction writer is a utopian thinker; the theologian, a utopian believer. Both create imaginary worlds; both require dispossession of our objective world. Wright continues:
In addition to tax advantages, religion supplies a commodity that is always in demand: salvation. Hubbard ingeniously developed Scientology into a series of veiled revelations, each of which promised greater abilities and increased spiritual power. “To keep a person on the Scientology path,” Hubbard once told one of his associates, “feed him a mystery sandwich.”
The implication is that this is what not only Scientology but all religion amounts to: a mystery sandwich. Ironically, Wright adopts Hubbard’s own breezy, reductive view of religion. It’s easy to ridicule Hubbard’s stories of thetans roaming the intergalactic highways, but Wright argues that “every religion features bizarre and uncanny elements,” and he parallels the doctrines and teachings of Scientology with those of older religious traditions: “the concept of expelling body thetans […] is akin to casting out demons [in Christianity],” for instance. “Like every new religion,” Wright continues, “Scientology is handicapped by the frailties of its founder and the absence of venerable traditions that enshrine it in the culture.” The only thing that distinguishes Scientology from the older faiths, Wright posits, is the lack of an established artistic tradition: “Older faiths have a body of literature, music, ceremony, and iconography that infuses the doctrinal aspects of the religion with mystery and importance.” While Scientology has created churches throughout the world, Wright writes, “they are not redolent palaces of art.” Like many a post-Weberian religious historian, he appears to evaluate religions by their form — charismatic leader, rituals, organizational structure — rather than by their theological content. All belief is equally fantastical. The difference is in the packaging.
Urban pushes Wright’s argument still further, suggesting that we discard all religious comparisons. For Urban, the question “Is Scientology a religion?” is neither a useful nor an interesting one. Drawing on the pioneering work of the religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith, Urban points out that “our definitions of religion are also historically variable, constantly shifting in relation to complex social, cultural, and political dynamics.” Since the definition of “religion” itself is unstable, the attempt to categorize Scientology as a religion is a futile affair, a source for endless polemic. Urban urges us to examine how religion is defined: by which people and what institutions, and through what processes, are certain groups constructed as religions? Examining institutions and actors who engage in such struggles grounds our analysis of religion in flesh-and-blood, rather than in abstract, disassociated ideas. Urban is thus far less interested in theology than he is in uncovering loci of power: by studying these processes we can further uncover who is defining religion, and who benefits from these definitions.
Urban’s larger point is that these nodes of power are distributed everywhere within secular and religious institutions alike. Until now, studies of Scientology have only apportioned blame to Hubbard and the Scientologists for the church’s obsession with secrecy, but Urban provocatively argues that the government is equally culpable. He locates the root of Scientologists’ paranoia in the over-zealous and persecutory nature of the US government: “The FBI and other government agencies were as paranoid about Hubbard as he was about them, and their mutual suspicions created an escalating spiral of secrecy, invasive government assaults, and increasingly audacious counterresponses from the church.” Urging a stance of “respectful suspicion” towards the Church of Scientology’s “long history of problematic, unethical, and illegal activities,” Urban asks us to exert equal scrutiny of government agencies that increasingly possess “greater powers of surveillance and ever more invasive ways to monitor their citizens,” and that have, after 9/11, consistently targeted religious groups, from Muslim organizations to Christian peace activists. “[W]e seem to have entered a new kind of cold war era of secrecy and paranoia in the wake of 9/11,” Urban writes, and his even-handed account of the rise of Scientology reminds us that we should hold the church and the state equally accountable for their transgressions; none should be exempt from criticism.
While Urban’s study is admirably judicious, when paired with Wright’s meticulous investigative accounts of human rights abuses, Urban’s account appears too deferential and generous to Scientology. Yet his book raises the important questions regarding the relationship between a secular state and religious organizations. When, exactly, should the government draw the line when it is faced with clear evidence of abusive and manipulative behavior within a religious organization? Should the government continue to provide these religious organizations with tax breaks? Or should it intervene, violently and tragically — and as some argue, unnecessarily — as it did in Waco, Texas? Urban’s book reminds us that these questions are far from settled.
Urban and Wright’s books raise one further, crucial question: of all the new American religions that have proliferated since the 1950s, why do we care about Scientology, in particular? There are the answers that only scratch the surface: its novelty, the excellent celebrity gossip. Then there’s the investigative lore: the human rights abuses, the secret files of autocratic personalities. More broadly, there’s the light that the story of Scientology shines on American exceptionalism: nowhere else in the world would such an organization not only flourish but receive tax-exempt status. Exponential accumulation of wealth, a cultural obsession with celebrity, a blinkered form of religious toleration, and the freedom to corral the law with money and without mercy: these uniquely postwar American qualities are what enabled a new religious organization on such a massive scale to perpetuate itself.
Wright suggests one final answer to the riddle of Scientology at book’s end, by bringing to fore the gruesome killings that occurred as a result of religious fanaticism. In a poignantly wrought scene with Tim Jones — the son of Jim Jones, who led 900 followers to suicide in 1978 — Wright writes:
It was Tim who had to return to Jonestown to identify the bodies of everyone he knew, including his parents, his siblings, and his own wife and children, his whole world. He was convinced that, if he had been there, he could have prevented the suicides. He told this story, bawling, pounding the table, as the waiter steered away and the other diners stared at their plates. Never have I felt so keenly the danger of new religious movements and the damage that is done to people who are lured into such groups, not out of weakness in character but through their desire to do good and live meaningful lives.
Religion, Wright suggests, uniquely appeals to the best and worst of human desire, and Scientology reveals an intimate portrait of “the natural human yearning for transcendence and submission.”
Yet all religions — like all human institutions — leave behind histories of abuse, coercion, absolute control, terrorizing non-believers. By comparing only the worst horror stories that religions have spawned, they inevitably all appear the same. Shouldn’t we compare the best that religions have to offer? What does Scientology look like in its finest, most distilled form? We will give it a shot: Scientology offers the promise to control the external world — in Hubbard’s words, the “MEST.” It promises liberation from past suffering and trauma. It imagines that one can tame our inner darkness and bring it under control. Yet even this control, Wright argues, originates in Hubbard’s insatiable desire to dominate a world that had rejected him. In contrast, at their best, religions from Buddhism to Christianity to Islam call upon a radical rejection of the world’s lust for power; they teach their followers to discard any pretensions of their own self-importance. Hubbard acquired wealth and celebrity relentlessly; Buddha renounced his worldly possessions and sat by a tree.
Of course, rationalists, Nietzscheans, and other atheists would attack all of these otherworldly religious ascetics as equally absurd. But the comparison of Scientology with other religions suggests that theological content does make a difference, and by refusing to pass judgment on religious belief, Wright and Urban cede valuable critical ground. The best of religious belief allows us the possibility for self-critique, and a space for doubt. It is open and accessible, retaining a sense of awe towards the individual’s place in the universe. It inspires us to acts of selflessness or dignity. Tolstoy’s egalitarian theology inspired him to renounce the copyright to his works. Scientology’s theology of secretive access to the world’s mysteries, by contrast, inspires it to take legal action against people who try to make their ideas public.
At the outset of this essay, we asked why Tolstoy’s religion failed while Hubbard’s succeeded. Certainly, politics and history play a role. But perhaps the answer also lies in doctrine itself. Tolstoy urged people not to believe in church dogmas, but to follow their conscience. He preached not submission to a higher authority but anti-authoritarianism and individual conscience. Viewed in the light of his own doctrine, one might very well say that Tolstoy succeeded. What he lacks in a contemporary following he gains in the integrity of the remaining believers: they are dispersed across the world, without institution.