A Recipe for Religion

Lawrence Wright, Droga do wyzwolenia. Scjentologia, Hollywood i pułapki wiary, Czarne 2015

“I would like to establish a religion. This is where the real money is.” In the 1940s such a remark was reportedly made on several occasions by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. However incredible it sounds, he succeeded. The product of his fantasies (as well as of smart practical sense) now has crowds of followers around the world, with plenty of celebrities in its ranks, including Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and the musician Chick Corea, and its assets are counted in millions of dollars. But it is also famed for something else: accusations of defrauding its members, intimidation, physical and psychological abuse, and even causing death; in other words, it is accused of all that is characteristic for a full-blown cult. So what is this thriving religious group? What is the secret of its magic attraction, which would seem to go against common sense? How could one man, a second rate science-fiction writer, find a recipe for embodying the fundamental dreams and aspirations of Western man, offering him something which the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls the essence of religion? And how is it that—in spite of repeated scandals capable of ruining much older religions—this religion is still so successful almost 25 years after the death of its charismatic founder?

These questions, and others, occurred to the American journalist from The New Yorker, Lawrence Wright, when he started to work on his monumental analysis of the phenomenon of this mysterious Church. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief certainly belongs to the best non-fiction works published in Poland this year. Wright looks at the Church of Scientology with more perspicacity than other authors who have written on this subject. On the basis of vast archival materials and more than two hundred interviews with current and former members of the organization, he presents the remarkable biographies of its two heads—the founder L. Ron Hubbard and his successor David Miscavige. But above all he attempts to fathom the essence of this controversial institution, protected by the American Constitution.

Creating your own religion is not such a simple matter. One of the numerous talents the founder should possess is the ability to explain the contradictions or absurdities of the doctrine and turning them to his advantage. This certainly characterized Ron L. Hubbard. On hearing such words: “Well, plenty of people would like me to hover in the sky somewhere above New York just to bring the world to its knees. But if I did that, many people would feel overwhelmed—and I am not here to overwhelm anyone,” you would not have any doubts that this man could sell any idea, including the idea of salvation.

L. Ron Hubbard really was a remarkable figure. To understand his phenomenon, however, you have to understand America of the 1940s and 1950s. This was an America immersed in spiritual crisis, recovering from the shock administered by the war to the entire world, disaffected with science that led to the construction of civilization-threatening bombs, looking for ways of coping with difficult emotions and craving spiritual development, but at the same time skeptical of the emergent psychoanalysis, perceived as a time-consuming and costly fashion imported from Europe (and promoted by Jews), and also increasingly afraid of psychiatry, which declared that the path to mental health led through very invasive medical procedures such as the notorious lobotomy.

Such a social and mental landscape begs for a prophet, someone who will pass over all the shallows lurking for people craving spiritual liberation, and proclaim a new, resistant truth, capable of rebuilding the individual and social system of values.

That someone was L. Ron Hubbard. The red-haired future messiah was thirty-four in 1945, when (with the help of his friend Jack Parsons, rocket fuel specialist), using magical rituals, sexual orgies, works of the English scandal- monger Alister Crowley and above all his own unrestrained imagination, he began working on creating a new religion. Five years later he published the famous Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which he himself regarded as nothing less than a scientific work of the highest caliber, explaining the mysteries of the human mind. It turned out that millions of people had been waiting to explore these mysteries—the book was rapidly climbing the bestseller lists. Perhaps the secret of its popularity was that despite using technological jargon and a hodgepodge of psychoanalytical conceptions, it in fact proclaimed a simple truth which everybody had been waiting for: you can achieve power and peace, for everything is in your own hands.

The clearly formulated message of the book was: it is enough if you buy the costly package of the auditing sessions. In the Scientological jargon, “auditing” is a somewhat bizarre psychotherapy session.

Hubbard quickly realized that such “treatment” of society was not quite what he had meant, because once the patient was “cured,” the source of revenue would vanish. And as a religious leader he could not only enjoy tax privileges, but also offer a product for which there is always a demand: salvation.

“Psychotherapy focuses on the past and the functions of the brain, while we are more interested in human immersion in the present—so it is rather a religion, and not a science of the mind,” he concluded. It is difficult to believe that transforming his specious cosmological theories into a coherent system of beliefs went so smoothly and brought him so many followers. In fact, Hubbard only saw through our desires, embarrassing, but common. Which one of us would not want to be an “operating thetan,” that is someone who “is able to control reality and function without physical support and help?” Which one of us would not want to combine business with pleasure, that is to meet Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and at the same time be guaranteed to achieve salvation after death? Scientology really means putting such very simple truths into an unusual wrapping.

The promise to acquire the skills of controlling yourself, and in a while also the entire world (Scientology promises its followers the acquisition of miraculous abilities, such as influencing the thoughts and actions of other people—as the famous motto has it, “Scientology makes the capable more capable”), was combined by Hubbard with the modern madness, that is the celebrity culture and aspirations of ordinary mortals to it. Thus, Scientology is divided into three levels: between the first level, composed of ordinary people recruited in the street, and the third level of the clergy, the so-called Sea Organization (Sea Org), there is also an intermediate level—a small number of famous followers. They work on their spiritual development, as well as on techniques allowing them to successfully invade Hollywood, in special Celebrity Centers in Los Angeles and other places important for the entertainment industry. Mere mortals are tempted with the prospect of meeting them during joint sessions (which in practice happens only to generous donors of the Church).

The recipe for successful religion—as Hubbard was well aware—also assumed the presence of a mystery that could be graded, allowing the followers to climb the successive steps towards enlightenment. And he offered it to them too. As the content of these “initiations” is top secret, we have to rely on the words of the director Paul Haggis, a longtime scientologist who went through all of them. When he achieved a high level of initiation OT III and received secret materials handwritten by Hubbard, his reaction was: “This is madness.”

But there was a method to this madness—a new religion known as the Church of Scientology was registered in California on February 18, 1954.

Today, after the death of its founder, who died in 1986 (using the language of Scientology, we should say that “he moved to a higher OT level, totally external to the body”), the Church is still doing very well under the guidance of its new leader—the sociopathic David Miscavige. He led the institution into the new millennium, brilliantly managing the repeated crises and scandals which threatened its cohesiveness.

Wright’s fascinating book, the gist of which is presented here, goes much beyond simple investigative journalism. It is in fact a reflection on the mysterious process of adopting faith. As the author himself stresses, very few believers experience a sudden, profound revelation. Arriving at faith usually is a process of opening oneself to beliefs which once may have seemed unacceptable, regardless of whether the question concerns the cosmic tyrant Xenu once ruling over an intergalactic empire, or Immaculate Conception. Tracing this process seems to be a very important task in the era of fundamentalisms and the rise of various social movements—both constructive and destructive. But that is not all. From Going Clear one can draw a conclusion about the abolishment of religion as such—a pessimistic conclusion for all people adhering to some coherent system of beliefs. In his book You Must Change Your Life the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes: “Is religion such a big deal, if the guys from the neighborhood can found it?” This question hovers above the pages of Wright’s book like the promise of salvation over the members of the Church.

Despite the growing abuses in the Church, of which more and more is heard, and which could in fact be described as violating labor law or even as human trafficking, there is still no shortage of people wanting to join its ranks and sign a contract “for a billion years.” Wright attempts to get to the bottom of what constitutes its irresistible charm and makes so many people opt for loyalty to this institution, in defiance of common sense—namely that we are dealing with an institution defrauding its members. In effect, he creates a portrait of the contemporary Western man, easily seduced by psychotherapeutic language, wanting to exorcise the dark side of himself, narcissistic and dreaming about divine control over every aspect of life.

Perhaps, last but not least, this excellent book will prove capable of cooling down such aspirations just a bit? We may hope that besides literary value it has a certain practical advantage. Maybe after reading this book, we will think twice before we decide to trust a nice individual who accosts us in the underground or a supermarket and asks us to participate in a free “stress test” or to fill out a personality test, and then announces with a persuasive voice that he has a solution to all the problems bothering us.

Patrycja Pustkowiak

is a writer and journalist, author of the novel Nocne zwierzęta (Night Animals), shortlisted for the Nike Literary Prize and nominated for the Gdynia Literary Prize. 

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