Inside Scientology

By Janet Reitman

“I like to watch a good four-flusher work, but not when he starts people puking and calling for the doctors.
I like a man that’s got nerve and can pull off a great original performance, but you – you’re only a bug-house peddler of second-hand gospel . . .” – Carl Sandburg, “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter”

It’s a sad fact about religion today that one rarely gets to watch a good four-flusher work, or witness a great original performance. If the televangelists and pastors at America’s biggest mega-churches are any indication, success in the bunkshooting trade seems to have no relation to the quality of the product being pitched, or the skill with which the message is delivered. But we shouldn’t be surprised. Think, for example, of Joseph Smith, the irrepressibly idle con-man, serial adulterer, political rabble-rouser and megalomaniac who improbably went on to found the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Glancing through the Book of Mormon (the full text gets to be unreadable after the two thousandth “And then it came to pass”) it’s hard to see what, in all of this, anyone ever found convincing or inspiring. Perhaps the idea that those feet in ancient times actually walked about America’s green and pleasant lands was enough. Then turn from this to the third-rate Sci-Fi hack-work, crude borrowings from Freud, and other camp bullshit that characterize the prodigious output of L. Ron Hubbard. The book of Genesis in his scripture would be a secret history involving one Xenu, the leader of the Galactic Confederation, who, 95 billion years ago, imprisoned the thetans (souls) of his rebellious subjects in volcanoes on the planet Teegeeack (Earth).

Well, inventing a religion does make a kind of sense for wannabes with delusions of grandeur who can’t think of any other way to attract an audience (and Hubbard was never a great success as a writer, for what should be obvious reasons). And it may well be that if we were living in the first or second centuries CE we would feel much the same way about the writings of the early Christians (a lot of people at the time did). Still, one wishes our pop religion could meet a higher standard than, say, our pop literature.

Given its success, the question of whether Scientology is a cult or a religion becomes beside the point, rather like arguing whether the efforts of Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling constitute “literature.” What Scientology is, and this is what places it firmly in the American grain, is a profit-driven corporate enterprise. Hubbard recognized this from the get-go, seeing “the religion angle” as “a matter of practical business.” Scientology was imagined as a sort of Spirituality, Inc., with a sales plan that could be franchised like McDonald’s.

That’s an analogy author Janet Reitman makes on a couple of occasions, and it’s fair on the evidence. “Ron” himself was never in doubt about the point of the exercise. “This has more selling and publicity angles than any book of which I have ever heard,” he said of his foundational Science of the Mind. In a later policy letter to the faithful he emphasized the goal: “MAKE MONEY. MAKE MORE MONEY. MAKE OTHERS PRODUCE AS TO MAKE MONEY.” Elvis Presley, one early celebrity target, saw through the soft sell immediately: “Fuck those people! All they want is my money!” Upon his taking over the church, Chairman of the Board (his actual title) David Miscavige carried on this “unvarnished demand for money” in even more ruthless ways. One professional enforcer, Don Larson, describes a trip to a San Francisco mission:

It was a beat-’em-up kind of meeting . . . this has nothing to do with religion anymore, right? This is, “Where’s the money, Jack – I want the money! Where did you put the money?” When the man insisted he didn’t have any money, in Larson’s words, “David Miscavige comes up, grabs him by the tie, and starts bashing him into the filing cabinet.”

But then there was all that business of the Roman Church selling indulgences to build St. Peter’s in the sixteenth century. So, again, perhaps we shouldn’t rush to judgment. Unless, of course, your love of Renaissance art and architecture has spoiled your aesthetic tastes to the point of making the high kitsch of Scientology, with its special-edition E-meters plated in 24-karat gold, unpalatable. (Building highlights include L.A.’s Celebrity Centre: “In the lobby, decorated in Louis XIV style, a bronze bust of L. Ron Hubbard stood opposite a white piano that would have made Liberace feel at home”; and the secretive Gold Base: “Gold did look a lot like Disneyland. Driving in through the main gate, Claire saw a beige estate house, known as the Castle, which looked like an actual castle. . . . Nearby was a stone carriage house called the Tavern, which was where visiting VIPs often ate their meals. It was decorated in the style of King Arthur’s court, complete with a sizable round table and even a stone with a sword embedded in it, like Excalibur. Across the road, rising up from the hills, was the Star of California clipper ship, which was done up in “Pirates of the Caribbean” style, with mermaid figurines and plastic crabs.” All this is enough to make the Crystal Cathedral seem classy.)

Taste and restraint are not Scientological virtues. From its inception Dianetics hailed itself as “a milestone for Man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his invention of the wheel and the arch.” Along with the over-the-top promotional hype and advertising came other elements typical of the modern corporation, carried beyond a point of absurdity. A managerial bureaucracy, for example, so redundant and overlain with acronyms as to be incomprehensible (which may indeed be part of the point). And then there are billion-year contracts, and the sailor uniforms from Ron’s days as the Commodore . . . but I’ve already discussed kitsch.

I have to say it doesn’t seem as though Scientology is a lot of fun. But perhaps its nasty side, dividing the world into strict hierarchies of the elect and the damned (“wogs”), is part of the appeal. Otherwise, the picture Reitman draws in this valuable (and brave) exposé makes the whole thing look like a kind of expensive boot camp.

Not my thing, but then I’ve never been a churchgoer myself. And I don’t eat at McDonald’s.

Review first published online August 15, 2011.

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