In my late teens, around 1969, I ran into a number of people who seemed to be caught up in the hippie age of self-discovery, new age movements, etc. These people were exploring various spiritual options which for lack of a better word were not mainstream. Some of these people were a tad extreme in their quest for spiritual fulfillment and it made me wonder what was missing in their lives that they seemed to be so hell bent on finding.
My girlfriend at the time liked to drag me out to various groups. I accompanied her to various mainstream churches and even an evangelical church where the service was punctuated with people standing up and yelling out "Praise the lord!" We visited the local Bahá’í group who turned out to be very nice people: I remember our informal discussions usually had Seals & Croft playing in the background, a popular musical group who were also Bahá’í. At the time, I didn’t understand just what my girlfriend was looking for but I went along because… well, she was my girlfriend. Now, I realise that something was missing in her life: her father had died when she was young; she married at the age of 16; she had a child, got divorced at 18 and had to give up her child to her husband. That’s a lot of upset to deal with before the age of 20.
Oddly enough, I remember one boy who became such a fervent follower of the Bahá’í movement that he attempted to convert his family. It got so bad at home that his own family finally had to kick him out. It didn’t stop there, though. The regional council of the church actually took him to task for being too persistent in his proselytising as he was giving the church a bad name. Aside: I know the church; I know the religion and even though I’m not a believer, I found these people to be very nice, not some nefarious cult.
As I watched all this with both bemusement and amusement, I began to see that for some people the need for a spiritual framework in their lives was of the utmost importance. I realized that each one of us has "something", whether it is our church, our family or our job which provides us with a place to hang our hat so to speak. It was our base, our bedrock upon which we built our lives and gave us the stability we needed to weather the storm, to live our lives. I grew up in a solid home with parents who loved one another and never divorced. The boy I mention above came from a family whose parents divorced and whose father eventually committed suicide.
I theorized that I could create a religion. If I provided a structure, rules, guidelines, etc., I could give to people this all important framework they needed. It could provide the foundation upon which they could build their lives and allow them to get along in life. I also conjectured that such followers could be devoted, could be a little gullible and could be a source of revenue. Of course, this was just a theory I came up with while idly cogitating on my experiences and I never acted upon such a possible plan.
The 70’s were my musical decade: sex, drugs and rock and roll. Nothing major, believe me; just an aberrant part of my past in an otherwise average life.
In 1974, I had an opportunity to spend some time at the Berklee College of Music located in Boston, Massachusetts. At this particular point in history, Chick Corea, the jazz pianist was riding a wave of popularity because of his group Return to Forever, a fusion of jazz and rock. Everybody at the school talked about Chick and a television special just about closed down the entire school as everybody in the place stopped to crowd around the nearest available TV set.
Chick Corea was a scientologist and this was very much a question at the school. I had no idea what Scientology was but there was a church of Scientology just down the street and several students at the school claimed to be involved with it including one of my 2 roommates.
Mike, my roommate took the time to explain to me about L. Ron Hubbard, the movement and the church and even got me a copy of the book Dianetics. He took me through the ideas of auditing, the e-meter and becoming clear and went on to explain that he had so far spent $8,000 US in taking various courses in Scientology.
Wow. $8,000. This was 1974. That’s a lot of money. It is even more money when I think that Mike was only in his early twenties was a student and didn’t really have that kind of money to be throwing around. After all, Berklee was an expensive school.
I read some of the literature; I skimmed through some of Dianetics when all of a sudden it hit me: L. Ron Hubbard had done what I had jokingly theorized about. He had created his own religion. The more I looked at scientology itself, the more I discovered about the man, the more I understood what he had previously done, the more I understood that he made up his own church. In fact, as I later discovered, he admitted this to people.
Further discussions with this Mike underlined what I had run across in 1969. Mike was looking for this framework, this spiritual structure to his life and just by utter coincidence, he had run into Scientology. In looking back on these discussions, I have to chuckle. I have to chuckle in the same way I’ve chuckled over the years when I run into somebody who seems to know "the truth". There was Mike talking to me with a great deal of conviction about this Scientology. Had he read the Bible? No. Was he familiar with the Book of Mormon? No. Had he ever looked at the Jewish faith or the Muslim faith or Hinduism or the Bahá’í’s? No. Had Mike ever read "Discourse on the Method" by René Descartes in which he formulated his famous saying, "I think there I am"? No. Did he know that "God is dead" as per Nietzsche’s "Also Sprach Zarathustra"? No.
I’m sorry, Mike. You know the "truth"? You have fallen into the trap I had seen many people fall into: the first thing you ever bother to look at becomes your answer. You don’t continue looking, you don’t continue any research, and you just accept the very first thing you find as being your big discovery of the truth. How narrow minded, how convenient, how simplistic. I’m not saying I’m some big scholar, I’m not saying I know the "truth" any more than the next guy but I am saying that people who stumble onto something as Mike did as others I know in my life did, does not constitute for me justifiable grounds for anybody to be telling me they have discovered the "truth".
But here’s the odd issue that goes along with Mike’s conversion to Scientology; did L. Ron Hubbard know this and did it deliberately or was this just dumb luck? Mike had shelled out $8,000 to get where he was and was going to have to spend so much more to arrive at what is labelled "clear". Thinking of the psychological condition of cognitive dissonance, the inability of holding onto two conflicting believes at the same time, Mike would never be able to admit to himself that Scientology was wrong because to do so would require him to come to understand that all the money he had spent was wasted, that he had been duped. Nobody likes being duped so who’s going to admit that Scientology may be wrong?
I found out later that apparently Hubbard had deliberately set up a fee structure for his courses because he knew that people do not value something if it’s free. Charge for it and you give the impression that what you’re offering is valuable.
In a nutshell, Scientologists believe that 75 million years ago a galactic warlord brought billions of his people to planet Earth in DC-8 like spacecraft, stacked them around volcanoes then killed them using hydrogen bombs. The "spirits" of these beings, thetans, float around and attach themselves to us causing harm. The auditing process attempts to remove thetans from us so we become "clear" or psychologically sound.
When I first found out about this, I admittedly rolled my eyes. In thinking about it though, can I say this is any wilder than the various things I’ve heard connected to religion? Nevertheless, Ron was a science fiction writer and when I look at this, I merely see science fiction. He made this all up. It isn’t true; this isn’t factual. Right now I’m chuckling because I’m sure somebody in reading this would say that I can’t prove that Xenu is false; belief involves a leap of faith. Let me add that this "leap of faith" seems to cost over $100,000 US and I return to the idea of cognitive dissonance. After shelling out a hundred grand, what do you think the chances are that you are going to wake up one day and say to yourself, "I’ve been duped"?
My Own Religion
Hats off to Ron. He did what I theorized about; it is possible to make your own religion. He knew what I had experienced myself: people need a spiritual framework for their lives. Give them structure; give them rules; give them guidance and they will follow you. I’m sure Tom is a nice guy; he makes entertaining movies but I’m guessing he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I’m sure he’s never read Descartes; he knows nothing about Nietzsche and his familiarity with the major religious teachings of the world is very limited. Like Mike, Tom was looking for something and by sheer coincidence, runs across Scientology. He could have run across anything. After all, Prince (the musician) became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2001 at the age of 43.
In the end
John Lennon wrote "Whatever gets you through the night" and the lyrics continue with "It’s alright; it’s alright." We all need something: some structure, some framework, and some spiritual foundation upon which we can build our own personal faith system. That may be a religion; that may be agnosticism; that may be atheism. However, we also have to admit that sometimes mixed up in a belief system may be something that one considers bad. Scientology costs a lot of money and Jehovah’s Witnesses do not accept in blood transfusions but let’s not forget that even mainstream faiths are not without fault. How many people have been killed in the name of God?
I have recounted my own experiences with Ron and in so doing; I have tried to be fair. Let me add, however, in case it’s not obvious, just where I stand myself: I found the South Park episode on Scientology to be hilarious.
Scientology has a dark side and this dark side certainly gives credence to the idea that it is a cult. The organization has been ruthless with its detractors; employing a battery of lawyers to sue the pants off of anybody who says anything negative about it. Anyone who leaves the church warrants "disconnection", a supposedly nonexistent policy whereby other members shun the person which may break up friends, spouses and even parents and children. There are several well documented cases where the church has employed illegal means to further its causes and been prosecuted for it such as Operation Snow White. While the Southpark episode about Scientology may have been funny, the dark side of the church is anything but.
Click HERE to read more columns by William Belle.
Wired: Wikipedia Bans Church of Scientology – May 2009
South Park: Trapped in the Closet; Episode 912 (Original Air Date: Nov 16, 2005)
Church of Scientology: World=8 million; U.S.=25,000 (2008); Canada=1,525 (2001)
Operation Snow White