If you have the time—or even if you think you don’t—to read a 26 page article in the New Yorker, please spend it reading this one about Paul Haggis and the Church of Scientology. It’s a real argument for the beauty of long form journalism, and came very close to convincing me to adding the New Yorker into my already-growing pile of magazine subscriptions. (Between those, books, and blogs, I’m perpetually overwhelmed.)
It’s not only fascinating, but important, too. I’m usually not one to bash Scientology especially. Oh, I bash it, but I also have, in the past, defended it on the grounds that its claims are no wackier than the claims made by most religions. I’m usually skeptical of religious people attacking other religions, because I smell a whiff of, “My bullshit is less bullshit because I can compare it positively to some other bullshit!” I’m also unconvinced by arguments that point to how Scientology started off as a cult. Most religions do, after all. I’m definitely not convinced Scientology screws people up more than, say, Catholicism. The money exchanging hands has always been the most worrisome aspect of the faith, but I always figured it was just a little more direct than the tithing expected of believers in Christian churches.
But this article made me realize that the problem with Scientology is that it’s getting more cult-like as it ages, and that’s incredibly worrisome. There’s physical abuse, alarming reports of peole disappearing, mind control and brainwashing, and the amount of money they’re prying from people is incredibly high, way into the cult levels. Plus, there’s the worst marker of a cult, which is insisting that adherents cut off contact with anyone in their lives who is skeptical of Scientology, which is a clear sign they’re afraid that anyone asking questions will pull people from the church. I’m more sympathetic now towards those who treat Scientology like it’s a cult instead of a religion; the difference is really spelled out in the article.
That said, the best and most interesting aspect is that the journalist Lawrence Wright is actually sympathetic to why someone might be drawn to Scientology. He doesn’t dismiss L. Ron Hubbard as quickly as some do, and he gets Paul Haggis and others to explain what it was that they actually got out of the religion, and it’s really convincing. (Plus, for Hollywood types, there’s a lot of professional connections created.) I felt that it has a lot in common with modern day evangelical Christianity. Both religions have moved towards embracing self-help and psychology as models of what they do, instead of former models where personal assistance was part of the faith, but definitely took a backseat to community and theological questions. Nowadays, evangelical Christianity is pushed as a very individualistic thing, like a “Be A Better You Through Jesus!” kind of thing. Rick Warren is the master of this, and the blog Stuff Christian Culture Likes is an excellent examination of how this mentality creates a conformist, rules-obsessed culture where actual community is more an illusion than a reality. Scientology does all this and adds a bunch of New Age mumbo-jumbo that makes it feel very modern. I can definitely see the appeal now, though it’s absolutely a scary cult.