At their remoter fringes philosophy and theology have historically tended to degenerate into occultism and magic. Antiquity—with its profusion of engrossing mystery cults, its dogmatic pseudo-philosophical sects—knew this temptation very well. And so do we: witness the New Yorker’s Scientology exposé this week.
For the religious, as well as for secular people with a benign interest in religion, this kind of reading is obviously very troubling. In the first place we are troubled in approximately the same way that a conscientious democrat might be troubled by discovering the word “Democratic” perversely inserted into the official style of the East German or North Korean state. The false imitation offends.
(Full disclosure of my own bias: civilized countries—like France and Russia—prosecute Scientologists for fraud.)
At the same time, however, those who are religious cannot help but feel the implied critique of their position. Just as the Scientologists, we make use of “spiritual technologies”—except that they are prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; we, too, practice hierarchically-ordered rites of initiation—the sacraments or “mysteries”; we, too, occasionally practice “disconnection”—that is, excommunication; we, too, have preferred internal disputes to be settled internally, by ecclesiastical courts or arbitration. The conceptual and real differences between Christianity and Scientology are vast (it should be needless to say); the existence of a superstitious cult should not be deployed as an argument against religion in general (as if Denis the Areopagite or Thomas Aquinas had never lived or thought or written). But the implied critique—let’s call it the critique of naive, tyrannical credulity, the critique of religion as it is often believed and practiced by people who lack the intellectual humility of a Denis or a Thomas—should indeed be taken to heart.
The New Yorker piece profiles Canadian film-maker Paul Haggis, who publicly split with Scientology at the time of California’s Proposition 8, because of a perception that Scientology is homophobic. One of the more interesting stories recounted in the article concerns Haggis’ daughters:
The girls demanded to be sent to boarding school, so Haggis enrolled them at the Delphian School, in rural Oregon, which uses [Scientology-founder L. Ron] Hubbard’s Study Tech methods. The school, Lauren says, is “on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere.” She added, “I lived in a giant bubble. Everyone I knew was a Scientologist.”
For one course, she decided to write a paper about discrimination against various religions, including Scientology. “I wanted to see what the opposition was saying, so I went online,” she says. Another student turned her in to the school’s ethics committee. Information that doesn’t correspond to Scientology teachings is termed “entheta”—meaning confused or destructive thinking. Lauren agreed to stop doing research. “It was really easy not to look,” she says. By the time she graduated from high school, at the age of twenty, she had scarcely ever heard anyone speak ill of Scientology.
Alissa was a top student at Delphian, but she found herself moving away from the church. She still believed in some ideas promoted by Scientology, such as reincarnation, and she liked Hubbard’s educational techniques, but by the time she graduated she no longer defined herself as a Scientologist. Her reasoning was true to Hubbard’s philosophy. “A core concept in Scientology is: ‘Something isn’t true unless you find it true in your own life,’ ” she told me.
Victor de Villa Lapidis