Shackled by faith

Monday February 4, 2013

Alden Graves

"Probably no other member of the church derives as much material benefit from his religion as (Tom) Cruise does, and consequently none bears a greater moral responsibility for the indignities inflicted on members, sometimes directly because of his membership."

-- Lawrence Wright

Religions are not so different from people. If you don’t look too deeply, they invariably seem quite well-intentioned. Lawrence Wright takes a long hard look at Scientology in "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief" and what he reveals casts any positive aspects of this relatively new faith into very deep shadow. The prospect of a rainbow is little comfort to people whose lives have been destroyed by a devastating storm. Scientology has managed to position itself at the bull’s eye of the target for those who don’t have much use for religion in general, those who embrace a more traditional faith, and for many others who believe that just calling it a religion is as much an insult as it is a misnomer.

You will come away from this meticulously researched and disturbing book with a better understanding of L. Ron Hubbard’s complex legacy to mankind but, if you were attempting to find some rationale for its appeal to its members, you may be left floundering. Given the compulsive secrecy that enshrouds the religion (a validation that was conferred on it by no less an authority than the IRS), Mr. Wright did an admirable job of lifting some of the veils that preserve its mystery while he manages to wreak considerable havoc upon any of its pretenses towards meekness and modesty. To be fair, any religion requires a great deal of faith and faith generally requires a suspension of conventional belief; the believer’s personal issuance of an exemption of rationality to explain the existence of the divine. Christians accept the Virgin Birth and Christ’s resurrection as foundational precepts. Fundamentalists regard the Bible as history more than a collection of metaphorical stories and moral guidelines. That belief encompasses the notion, among others equally improbable, that a pair of every animal on the planet was gathered together in a huge ark to ride out a big flood.

It is easy to hold what millions of people fervently believe up to ridicule.

Even calling upon the most generous standards for empathy, however, Scientology is a tough sell for the uninitiated. Mr. Wright’s not altogether unflattering picture of Ron Hubbard is a study in contradictions: Violent and compassionate, outgoing and secretive, brilliant and murky. Hubbard was, above all, committed to his idea of a system whereby individuals could be put through a rigorous series of exercises (called auditing sessions) and, by identifying their origins, banish the demons ("engrams") that had been dominating their lives. If aspects of it sound like science fiction, it isn’t by coincidence alone. Hubbard was a noted writer in the genre before expanding his perimeters into uncharted territories of the human psyche. Mr. Wright doesn’t gloss over Hubbard’s motives at the start ("There is good money in religion.") and the ugly specter of for-profit faith rears itself again and again throughout the book. Neither does the author dismiss the sincerity with which Hubbard regarded his mission to alleviate the suffering of the masses. If he became increasingly unpredictable, isolated, and spooky as his influence grew, Hubbard never stopped trying to fine tune his philosophy. He died, according to Mr. Wright, convinced that he had failed in that noble quest, but Hubbard always had a flair for the dramatic and any grand exit worth its salt cries out for tragedy.

There were others waiting to grab the reigns when Mr. Hubbard relinquished them. (A sprawling, fully-staffed mansion is maintained in Gilman Hot Springs, Calif., for the founder when he chooses to return.) Much of what Hubbard tried to accomplish in a positive sense has been smothered in the series of lurid scandals and admissions that have rocked Scientology since the ascension of David Miscavage to the post of undisputed leader. And nobody disputes David Miscavage without a price being paid, including, according to Mr. Wright’s sources, physical assaults. To sell Scientology to an understandably wary public, church hierarchy have relied upon a most unusual apostle in matters of faith -- the contemporary celebrity. Catholics might boast Mother Teresa, but Scientology has got the star of "Saturday Night Fever" as a pitchman. But, Mr. Wright reserves a special animus for Tom Cruise, whose elevation within the church, oddly enough, corresponds with his steady decline as a surefire box-office star.

Cruise is much more an asset to Scientology than a revered member. He is fawned over, feted, saluted, deferred to, and, above all, cherished for all the wrong reasons. His erratic behavior is defended and excused. His marriages, according to Wright, have been engineered and subsequently dismantled by the church (with the probable exception of Katie Holmes, whose abrupt departure from wedded bliss to the actor occurred after the book concludes).

Even with the understanding that Scientology does provide a benefit to many of its acolytes, it is difficult to reconcile the word "religion" with the tactics that Miscavage and his minions employ to keep outsiders from peering in too closely and to keep the faithful towing the line. "Going Clear" provides a remarkable insight into the dark heart and the appalling tactics of Scientology. After reading it, you can’t help but shudder at the prospect of what pseudo-divine retributions may await its author.

Alden Graves is a Banner reviewer and columnist.


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