Friday, July 29, 2011

Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion, by Janet Reitman

This is a fascinating book, an expose of Scientology with detailed references behind every assertion.   The net-net:  Scientology comes across as not only a business exploiting tax laws to increase profitability by claiming religious exemptions, but also as fundamentally evil at the top.

The predecessor of Scientology, Dianetics, doesn't seem that bad a notion:   by identifying conflicts in your past (though a structured conversation called an audit), you bring those conflicts to the surface, resolve them, and more forward with greater mental health.    Seems no worse than Freudian psychoanalysis.

The religion's narrative is a bit tougher to swallow.    We (people) are the vessels of thetans, entities trillions of years old, that, a brief time prior to one's inception, select which human embryo to inhabit.  Where do thetans come from?   It turns out there was a galactic ruler named Xenu who was in charge of 76 planets in our galaxy.  He had a population problem, as each planet had an average of 178 billion people.  So he transformed his people (aliens) into thetans (aka souls), trapped them and packed them off to Earth, then called Teegeeack.

So my immediate response to this is something like, "huh?"

But in fairness, isn't is the case that the narratives of all religions read like science fiction or fantasy novels?   Noah, with two of every creature stuffed into his ark.   Joseph Smith learns about the transatlantic journeys of Christ through the translations of the Angel Moroni of gold plates found in his New York fields.   The Hindu god Yama, previously in disguise as a dog, takes the virtuous Yudhisthira to the underworld en route to heaven.   The resurrection of Jesus.   Moses parting the Red Sea.  

So how to get past the admonition that folks living in glass houses oughtn't throw rocks?   (Probably you're allowed to throw rocks if you're a follower of one of the more logical Buddhist sects, but doing so wouldn't be right action.)

There's a believability issue.   Perhaps because so much is known about L Ron Hubbard (the inventor of Scientology), it is easier to dismiss Scientology as just a tax dodge religion gone wild.    He was more or less a screw up, a known liar, a failure as a US Navy officer, a pulp fiction writer later specializing in science fiction, and was widely quoted as pointing out that the best path to business profitability is to invent your own religion.

Sure doesn't sound like the resume of Moses, or of the Prophet Muhammed pbuh, now does it?   But who really knows -- maybe the alien emperor Xenu really liked the stories that L Ron Hubbard was churning out and decided to make Hubbard his equivalent of Joseph Smith.

Okay, so although I've tried really hard to cast the nonsense of Scientology as no less valid than any other major religion, you can tell that it is at the lower end of my plausibility spectrum.

Also, many other religions try to do good at the same time they attempt to not do harm.   They advance charity or love in the world while not organizationally promoting death to non-believers (or apostates); they don't engage in a crusade of torture against those of other beliefs, and they don't start wars about their belief set.   Examples include Baha'i, BuddhismJudaism, and of course FSM, and no doubt some others.   Scientology doesn't do too well on this dimension either, according to Ms Reitman, as it thinks nothing of destroying the lives of anyone who gets in the way of its fundamental goals (tax exempt revenue growth and expansion).

Funny that folks sign up for this stuff.   Then again, as a species we seem to be really good at ignoring inconvenient facts that get in the way of our favorite beliefs.   And besides, cool actors like Tom Cruise are doing it.

If reading about scams like this make you ill, avoid this excellent book.

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