Over the years, I’ve read many horror stories, some fictional and some not. In truth, the most terrifying of these have been those that were not fictional. For example, several years ago I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, one of the most horrifying stories I’ve ever encountered. Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright, is another frightening tale that is made all the worse because it is a continuing story, one of cultism, manipulation, coercion, deception, and the willingness of people to believe uncritically in, and to commit their lives to, a religion so preposterous that it would be laughable if the reality of its penetration into society were not so shocking. Going Clear is the story of Scientology, as reported by a reputable and scrupulous journalist.
At the outset, I should state my bias. Those who read my blog on a regular basis know that I’m an atheist and humanist. While I love reading science fiction and fantasy stories and have even written a published collection of such stories, I know that such tales do not represent reality. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the poor souls who accept the bizarre fundamentals of Scientology, large among them being the existence of the galactic overlord Xenu and of individuals’ bodies being inhabited by multiple “thetans” that must be expelled in order to “go clear”.
Society tends to view all new religions as cults, and where the label of cult ends and that of true religion begins is a somewhat arbitrary matter. Arguably, all religion, no matter how mature, is really cultism and characterized generally by belief in some element of the supernatural, acceptance of a defined body of orthodox thought, group identity, and intolerance of apostasy. What, really, is the difference between believing in the Christian resurrection of Jesus and Joseph Smith founding the Church of Latter Day Saints based upon his use of “seer stones” to read golden plates to which he was directed by the angel Moroni? Between the virgin birth and Heaven’s Gate believers’ faith in extraterrestrials in a spaceship trailing behind comet Hale-Bopp? I could go on, but you get the idea: religion requires some element of belief in the supernatural or objectively unfounded and generally is not subject to arguments of science or reason.
Wright’s book explores the origins of Scientology, beginning with the extraordinary life of L. Ron Hubbard, the man who started it all with his book, Dianetics. The tale goes into his early life, admittedly remarkable and characterized by a number of worldly adventures, each of which ended largely in failure, his becoming a science fiction writer, and then elaborating the germinal ideas that led to dianetics, which eventually became the religion of Scientology.
Hubbard became progressively unhinged over a period of years, paranoid, irrational, and fanatical. In the end, he was quite out of control and isolated by the church he founded, which was taken over by a second, less bright but arguably more organized, autocratic, and allegedly brutal individual, David Miscavige.
Wright details a number of church endeavors, prime among them being its battle with the IRS tor tax exempt status in which it beat the agency into submission with endless legal challenges, forcing a settlement that taxpayers now have to live with. On the PR front, he details how the church has aggressively courted the entertainment industry, notably latching onto and cynically manipulating John Travolta and Tom Cruise into being the church’s most prominent exponents. He sheds light on the circumstances surrounding the death of Travolta’s son, and describes in detail how the church actively sought out and groomed a female consort for Cruise. The litany of stories involving harassment, confinement and physical abuse of church members for various and often trivial transgressions, and the aggressive activities of the church in trying to retain certain of its defectors, paints a picture of an organization with little respect for human rights or dignity even more troubling than its crazy core beliefs.
One may well ask after reading Wright’s account whether it can all be true. The church denies much of it, but Wright’s documentation appears sound, with extensive citing of existing materials and interviews with many witnesses and church defectors. In the end, it is left to the reader to decide whether to believe it all, but if even some of what is recounted is true, questions must be asked, including how people can be so pathetically ignorant and vulnerable as to be sucked into such an organization, and how the church hierarchy can get away with what it apparently does.
Again, it should be stressed that much of what Wright has documented is denied by the church, but the weight of the evidence is not in its favor. As an atheist and humanist, I recoil at religious cultism, and so whether Wright’s account is valid in all of its respects is less an issue for me than that it is a cautionary tale about religion and what it can do to people in general. Even if none of the abuses and cynical manipulations alleged (and well supported) in the book actually took place, the central beliefs of the church are preposterous enough to warrant our total amazement that anyone could take them seriously.
This is a truly terrifying story, but one that should be widely read and seen as a cautionary tale about the irrationality and, in the case of Scientology, the dangers of uncritical religious faith and commitment.