Yesterday I went to see the documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. I thought it would be a good opportunity to investigate the question: why do people come to believe odd beliefs, and what makes them keep believing, in the face of trials and disconfirming evidence?
What follows are some thoughts and initial impressions. A more coherent consideration of the film would require a second viewing, but yesterday’s screening was the last one, at my local (and preferred) cinema, anyway. So a higher quality assessment will have to wait till it is produced for general release, or I get access to a pirate copy (just kidding, Senator Brandis, just kidding!). Going from the patrons who attended with me (few in number, and mainly older, so likely taking advantage of the cut-price tickets in order to wile away the long days of retirement) it didn’t strike a chord with the general population, which is a shame, but that’s to be expected in a town as shallow and, let’s face it, anti-intellectual as Sydney.
- A money-making scheme that lost its way
Scientology started out as a way for its founder, Lafayette Ronald (‘L. Ron’) Hubbard, to make money without having to pay tax on his income. With gimmicks (stripped down lie-detectors that he pretended could ‘weigh’ people’s thoughts and that he used in ‘auditing’ sessions, clunky ideas that he took from his days as a sci-fi author and bolted together into a pulp philosophy called ‘Dianetics’), he soon had a large following of unfortunates and desperadoes who believed Dianetics offered a quick solution to their woes and problems.
Over time, the success of the organisation and the need to avoid the US Internal Revenue Service saw ‘LRH’ create a religion around Dianetics called Scientology, and move to live offshore onto a boat, staffed by disciples who strongly believed in the religion and its message of universal salvation and joined the religion’s ‘Sea Organisation’ better to serve the religion and its founder. The religion also became more sophisticated. To offer its adherents the possibility of spiritual growth (and possibly also better to milk them of cash and increase their commitment to the religion) LRH created a graded course through which an adherent could progress, all the way through to ‘Operating Thetan Grade VIII’. At the grade of ‘Operating Thetan Grade III’, adherents were given access to highly protected notes, hand-written by LRH, about the history of the universe, how humans are today plagued by the souls of dead Thetans from across the galaxies, and how Scientology is about freeing people from these lost souls. Again, LRH drew on his sci-fi pulp-fiction experience to draft this up.
At some point, two things happened:
- LRH began ‘drinking his own bathwater’. Having created a psychological improvement programme from gimmicks and pulp fiction concepts, and extended that into a religion by tacking on further pulp fiction stuff, the phenomenal success of his programme appears to have convinced LRH that he was onto something. In his last years, he was one of the most dedicated adherents to auditing, spending thousands of hours on the ‘cans’ of his stripped-down lie detectors aiming to free himself of what he thought was a particularly hardy and tenacious Thetan living in his body.
- The religion began displaying all the classic signs of a dysfunctional organisation: power-hungry sociopaths worked their way into positions of power and influence, power accumulated into the hands of a single person who was served by dedicated acolytes (all dressed in military uniforms!) dedicated adherents’ loyalty was questioned, resulting in them being sequestered in headquarters and subjected to vile, humiliating degradations, adherents were discouraged, on pain of excommunication, from associating with non-believers, those who questioned or spoke out against the religion were subjected to slanders and harassment. The culmination was all senior acolytes being sequestered in a place called ‘The Hole’ and subjected, for years, to degrading treatment by the religion’s leader.
It started as a money-making gimmick, and ended with people existing in a nightmare world created by the whims of a man drunk with absolute, unrestricted power.
- Early adherents didn’t know exactly what they were getting themselves in for
The people who joined up for Dianetics and Scientology thought they were engaging in a self-help programme. Only later, as they progressed through the programme, were they made aware of the sci-fi pulp-fiction basis of their religion. It came as a shock to some of them (I suspect to all of them, but I can’t say). The choice they were faced with was to say ‘Jesus, this is bullshit, I’m out’, and cut their losses, or to double-down on their investment, strengthen their commitment and keep going (cf. ‘sunk cost fallacy’). And there was strong pressure from the religion to remain committed.
- Dianetics creates a strongly self-reinforcing mindset which traps adherents within the belief system
The methods of Dianetics – questioning people about their past and their emotions – causes people to reflect on their lives in ways that they may never have done before. It also offers them answers, a coherent framework for thinking about the world, the possibility of self-improvement, and the possibility of becoming part of something greater than themselves.
So complete, so closed, is the system, that adherents are willing to bear heavy burdens, work unrewarded, and subject themselves and others to vile degradations, in order to deepen their association with the religion and further its goals. The mindset is such that any doubts that they have about the religion and its behaviour are met with classic belief preservation and out-group stereotyping, but this time with these responses directed not at external persons but at the adherent herself – if she has doubts about Scientology, or finds herself being degraded, she concludes that it must be because of something she has done contrary to the religion, or because of some imperfection in herself.
This self-reinforcement of the mindset is so immensely strong that it takes a sudden shock or moment of realisation for its hold over the adherent’s mind to be broken. For some, it was being shown LRH’s hand-written notes about Xenu and the Thetan souls when they achieved Operating Thetan Grade III and were admitted to the religion’s secrets. For others it was when they spent time outside the physical and associational confines of the religion and had a chance to reflect on their experiences and beliefs, or saw something so shocking within the religion that they realised they had to leave.
For most, the steady, gradual, ‘frog in the boiling pot’-type accumulation of knowledge and removal of outside influences means they don’t get these shocks or moments of freedom, and so don’t have a chance to break the mindset.
‘Prison of Belief’ – a most appropriate title.
4. Is Dianetics that bad, as religions go?
Notwithstanding all of the above, Dianetics isn’t anywhere near the worst religion, or belief system, ever devised or imposed on the world.
First, it doesn’t create problems for non-believers. Non-believers are either encouraged to join or are ignored and left to their own devices. This is much better than christianity, islam, communism and nazism, which at various times treated (and, for islam, still treat) non-believers and other outsiders as persons to be outlawed, punished, and in some cases murdered (including en masse). Dianetics does none of those things.
And the problems that it does suffer, with regard to inappropriate people (read: psychopaths) taking positions of power and exercising that power to humiliate and torture believers under its control are not specific to Dianectics itself, but rather seem to be the natural evolution of human groups i which those in charge aren’t held accountable for their actions.
It’s unpleasant, but it could be worse. Steer clear of it and you should be ok.