“I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is.”
—L. Ron Hubbard
In his introduction to Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, his devastating history of the last of the great, strange American self-improvement cults, Lawrence Wright notes that he has spent much of his career as a writer exploring the effects that religion has on people. It’s one of the great questions for a writer to examine, particularly in an era that has given us the twinned phenomena of increasing acceptance of atheism in Western societies and the backlash of anti-scientific Christian fundamentalism and the mass homicides of Muslim extremists. (Wright also wrote one of the definitive books on Al-Qaeda: The Looming Tower.)
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
(Alfred A. Knopf; US: Jan 2013)
The book that follows will be seen by many Scientologists as an attack. But Wright has made clear that he sees no point in penning a takedown of Scientology (he told the New York Times: “Why would I bother to do that? Scientology is probably the most stigmatized religion in America already”). He goes on to write in the book’s introduction that what’s fascinating about Scientology are the same things that fascinate about any religion:
“What do its adherents get out of it? How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible? Why do popular personalities associate themselves with a faith that is likely to create a kind of public relations martyrdom?”
These are the same questions many non-Scientologists have asked about the group whenever the behavior of some more popular adherents have been lit up by the media. While the third question is a particularly Scientology-focused query (no other modern faith has so assiduously courted and touted its celebrity followers), the first two should be asked of any religion.
Wright is at pains to show how many of the tenets of Scientology are, on their surface, no more absurd to non-believers than those of ancient and established religions, whose beliefs are littered with mystical tales of virgin births and magical transmutations of matter. The tangled mythology of Scientology, with its intergalactic battles between good and evil, shares an epic, apocalyptic quality with religious texts from the Hindu Mahabharata and the Book of Revelations to the Book of Mormon.
The “Church” of Scientology shown in Wright’s book, however, is a curious creature that makes it particularly fertile ground for study of what Wright calls “the process of belief”:
“Few Scientologists have had a conversion experience—a sudden, radical reorientation of one’s life; more common is a gradual, wholehearted acceptance of propositions that might have been regarded as unacceptable or absurd at the outset, as well as the incremental surrender of will over the part of people who have been promised enhanced power and authority. One can see by this example the motor that propels all great social movements, for good or ill.”
The gripping, enraging book that follows contains much more evidence of Scientology’s motor propelling its followers toward behavior and beliefs far more socially destructive than constructive.
The Carnival Begins
“To keep a person on the Scientology path, feed him a mystery sandwich.”
—L. Ron Hubbard
Every new religion needs more than a great myth and belief structure, it also requires a charismatic popularizer. The L. Ron Hubbard who emerges from Wright’s book is a man apparently programmed to attract followers like scattered matter to a black hole. Hubbard was born in Nebraska in 1911 and proved early on to be made for the life of the renaissance man. Mercurial and personable, with a hotwired mind and a knack for deciphering the vulnerabilities and desires of others, Hubbard was made for the restless life. Like many with his temperament, he rarely stayed in one place, with one profession, or with one partner for long (he would father seven children with three women). As a born storyteller, he also had a knack for embroidering the truth; a tendency his followers would take to extremes normally reserved for carnival barkers.
By his early 20s, Hubbard was actually making a living telling stories. At a time when writers like Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner were filling the “gigantic maw” of pulp magazines crowding newsstands, Hubbard was cranking out stories about cowboys, submarines, zombies; whatever would sell. He worked at a furious pace, using up to 20 pen names. Between 1934 and 1936, he produced 100,000 words of fiction (roughly two novels’ worth) each month, typing on a roll of butcher paper to save time. It was good work while it lasted; and excellent training for somebody who would start a religion obsessed with melodrama, shadowy enemies, secret rituals, and ancient but ongoing wars. (According to Wright, “Some of the most closely guarded secrets of Scientology were originally published in other guises in Hubbard’s science fiction.”)
Thus was created one of Scientology’s great myths: L. Ron Hubbard was one of the greatest writers who ever lived.
A second myth came with World War II, a conflict some Scientologists might be forgiven for believing their founder won by himself. After spending a few years in New York, hobnobbing with writers and womanizing, Hubbard joined the Navy. In Scientologist lore, Hubbard’s war years were like something dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter with a taste for the fantastic.
Among other exploits, Hubbard claimed he was the sole survivor of a US destroyer sunk off the coast of Java, then barely escaping a Japanese patrol before sailing a raft to Australia. His actual war record is less impressive. As the commander of a sub chaser, he spent almost three days battling a Japanese sub that wasn’t actually there. He later shelled South Coronados Island, “a dry atoll that he apparently failed to realize was a part of Mexico.”
After being relieved of command, he spent months in the hospital with ulcers. But in a letter to his family, he put the stay down to being injured after “pick[ing] up an unexploded enemy shell that had landed on deck and had blown up in midair when he tried to throw it overboard.” And so on. According to Wright, Hubbard later admitted—in a long-secret document (revealed in a 1984 lawsuit) that Wright terms Hubbard’s “secret memoir” but is called a forgery by the Church—that his service record was “none too glorious.” But that didn’t stop Hubbard from dining out on his stories of glamorous danger.
A well-timed visit by Hubbard to the hospital in 1945 came one month before he was to ship out for Okinawa, site of some of the war’s most savage fighting; he had stomach pains. Later the Church of Scientology turned this stay into a climactic fight for survival. Although his records showed no sign of any wounds received during the war, Hubbard claimed to have cured himself using techniques later preached about in Dianetics. “The legend of the heroic Navy officer who had been blinded and crippled by the war” became not just one of the Church’s formative stories, but also formed the kernel of its core beliefs.
The Billion-Year Contract with Ron
Like most non-religious movements of the post-war period, Scientology was primarily concerned with self-improvement. For people feeling lost in a rapidly modernizing and urbanizing society, overshadowed by the threat of nuclear annihilation, Scientology held out the promise of being able to self-perfect and control one’s mind, body, life, and surroundings. Just like Hubbard supposedly did in that Naval hospital.
How precisely Hubbard came up with the beliefs that formed Scientology is ultimately as vague as the source of any inspiration. The scene in the postwar years that Wright presents is one of a troubled man searching. Beset by waves of paranoia and self-doubt, Hubbard floated. He set himself up in Hollywood as what Wright calls a “freelance guru”. He worried about his sanity. He lived with some people in a Pasadena mansion where the menu of interests included copious amounts of drugs, Aleister Crowley-inspired paganist rituals, and fencing matches in the living room. He begged the Veterans Administration for more money.
Then, Hubbard wrote to his friend Robert Heinlein (another sci-fi writer enthralled with fantasies of omnipotence) about a book he was working on “which details in full the mathematics of the human mind, solves all the problems of the ages, and gives six recipes for aphrodisiacs and plays the mouth organ with the left foot.” The book was Dianetics. Published in 1950, it’s known in Scientology as simply Book One.
The theory that Hubbard lays out in its pages is that the mind has two parts. The good half is the analytical or conscious mind, which serves as the “storehouse of all past perceptions” and is basically rational. The other half is the “reactive mind”, where reside all painful emotions, which he thought were physically recorded in the cellular structure. Those recordings, or “engrams”, were the source of most human woes. Most of Scientology’s teachings can be boiled down to ways of eliminating engrams and the reactive mind, at the end of which a person can finally be termed a “Clear”.
This belief system proved helpful for Hubbard and what became the Church of Scientology in establishing a system of so-called “auditors” who kept believers coming back for successive treatments that created a self-reinforcing loop of insecurity and generated massive amounts of revenue; two key elements to any successful cult. No serious scientific study of Hubbard’s therapeutic process (which appears to have started out as little more than guided hypnosis aided by some good showmanship) has shown it to have any lasting psychological value.
As nonsensical as it seems, Dianetics was on the bestseller list for six months and eventually sold millions of copies. It served as the seed of the pseudo-self-improvement cult that would grow up around a successful author and unsuccessful sailor and call itself a church. The promise of attaining near God-like powers (which, according to Wright, is very close to what Scientology’s claims about Clears sound like) was apparently quite intoxicating to a war-traumatized population.