Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Cult Above the Others

full text of the Guardian piece of Sweeney and the Scientologists, and click to get the Guardian link and 100 or so comments, from barking to perspicacious about the Hubbardistas and religion.

The cult of cash

I sympathise with John Sweeney: Scientology is bad. But are other religions better, or just envious of the riches the Scientologists reap?
Ian Williams

May 16, 2007 8:00 PM

The so-called "Church of Scientology" has been flaming BBC journalist John Sweeney all over the Internet for shouting at them during an interview. I don't see the problem: it seems clear that he was doing Sergeant Major imitations in an attempt to get his questions across.

But, either way, he was wasting his time. If there is a point to Scientology training and exercises with the e-meter, it's to disguise any displays of emotion, so everyone has the same simpering smirk that is, for example, church stalwart John Travolta's inevitable on-screen persona.

I have had personal experience with Scientology's response to journalists. In October of 1987 I was driving to Liverpool from Leeds, down the Pennines, and wondering why my trusty little clunker would only do fifty even when going downhill.

I got home and played the answering machine. It had the numerous messages, sung through a voice modulator: "We are Scientologists if you please/ We are Scientologists if you don't please" - or "Dianetics, Jolly Dianetics", sung to the tune of "the Bridge of Avignon". And then, in the middle of the song, it cut dead.

The radio was announcing that Britain's biggest hurricane, which had the peripheral effect of keeping me below the speed limit, had devastated the south of England. A quick call to the editor of the East Grinstead Gazette confirmed that the winds had brought down the power and telephone lines to Scientology's British headquarters, right in the middle of the last harrassing phonecall.

I had published a large article in the Independent about Scientology a few weeks before, accompanied by a wonderful picture of L Ron Hubbard auditing a tomato, and, the editor told me that the morning it appeared there was a private investigator at the office seeking my address. Knowing what I did about Scientology tactics, I called the local police, played the tapes and showed them clippings about the church's habit of bringing false charges against opponents. I was not worried about personal attacks. This was my Liverpool home, where there were plenty of volunteers to deal with attackers.

I maintained my interest over the years and have often covered "cult" stories with input from various ex-members. But I have always been ambivalent about using the word cult, or at least using it exclusively to refer to what are often euphemistically referred to as "New Religions". When listening to "old" churchmen fulminating against them, there was always an element of competitive resentment.

And, since the new ones were designer religions, they had of course incorporated many elements of the competition. Isolation of recruits from family and friends? Get thee to a nunnery! Or indeed a monastery. Charging for services? Try to get a free seat in a popular synagogue on a high holiday - and remember that the Apostles were supposed to give all to Judas Iscariot, the treasurer of the Church of Jesus, Inc. Interfering in politics and recruiting celebrities? What, no spotlight-hungry bishop ever complained to his flock about abortion, communism or gay marriage?

The uniqueness of Scientology can be found in the remarkable frankness of its founder, loopy megalomaniac and pulp sci fi writer L Ron Hubbard, who frequently mentioned to fellow writers who were struggling on a few cents a word that the real way to make money was to found a religion.

Dianetics was a sort of hyped up Freudian psychoanalysis which traced our problems back even before childhood, even before birth. And to be frank, it has about the same scientific credibility. Which is to say minimal.

The outrageous fees that Scientologists charged for "auditing" recruits on their dubious ascent to Operating Thetan level, plus whispers from defectors about the pretty whacky tale of Xenu the alien captured so tellingly in South Park, meant that the IRS refused to give the church tax-exempt status. The credibility of the refusal was somewhat enhanced when Scientologists burgled the IRS offices.

That all changed after Bill Clinton was elected. By an amazing coincidence, not long after the Hollywood Scientologists bundled large donations to his election campaign, the administration ordered the IRS to stop defending the cases the church was bringing and, even more mysteriously, agreed to a sweetheart deal that was kept secret for several years. It allowed Church members to claim their "auditing" sessions for tax purposes, in violation of Supreme Court judgments disallowing similar deductions for other, older religious groups.

Indeed, Clinton met John Travolta, who went on to play him rather kindly in the Hollywood version of a devastating character assassination of a novel, Primary Colors, and agreed to a US government campaign against the Germans for doing exactly what the IRS had been doing for decades - denying Scientology's religious status.

It is in fact almost impossible to legislate against a "cult" in a way that does not also hit mainstream religion. But no religion, cult or otherwise, should be able to claim exemptions and privileges for activities that are otherwise illegal. We would not allow the Church of Moloch to sacrifice infants, nor do we allow female circumcision.

In fact, far from being a sign of the separation between church and state mandated in the US Constitution, religious exemption from taxation is a medieval hangover from the days when the one Church was an arm of the state. The "Church" of Scientology's tax exemption is a reductio ad absurdum of the church/state doctrine and a standing inducement to other evangelical entrepreneurs. Well done, John Sweeney. And keep your answering machine on.


rebelmacaque said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deadline Pundit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deadline Pundit said...

do a search for Mao and you will find my review of the Mao book. Your suggested comparison between Mao and LRH is very interesting, but Mao was operating, ruthlessly in the real world, while LRH was up in orbit. Both showed some signs of believing their own inventions in the end, but LRH's much more far fetched imagination was a bit of a stretch.
Many of the poliitical groups that I came in touch with certainly had a cult like aspect, and peer group pressure to show loyalty, to conform was an essential part of their success, augmented because, in my rule of thumb, around half the membership was short of a life on joining - and the other half would join them if they stayed!

PS I deleted previous version because I saw a few late night typoes

rebelmacaque said...

I'll check out your review on "Mao". I'm enjoying your other posts quite a bit.
Thanks for your reply.