Briefly Noted: Diane Johnson on Scientology

Scientology is one of the most significant new religions in the world. Poor world. Or, so says Diane Johnson, in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books. Johnson reviews Lawrence Wright’s recent book on Scientiology, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Knopf). She remarks that Wright’s book is “not to be read home alone on a stormy night” because it is a “true horror story” (p. 48). In her view, Going Clear is an intricate, careful, and ultimately damning journalistic analysis of the “religion” that is Scientology.

Johnson also incorporates into her review a recent memoir by Jenna Miscavige Hill, Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape (William Morrow). Ms. Miscavige Hill is the niece of David Miscavige, the mysterious and controversial leader of the Church of Scientology. Drawing upon Wright’s and Hill’s book, Johnson considers the story of Scientology to be a horror of a religion, being as dangerous as it is rich.

And rich it is. Johnson found that “according to Wright [the Church of Scientology] has at least $1 billion in liquid assets . . . and property estimated at about the same amount, making it among the richer world religions . . .” (p. 48). This is astonishing considering that the exact number of Scientologists (thus donors) is unknown, and, more significantly, that L. Ron Hubbard may have actually “founded” the religion on a bet (see Johnson, p. 48). Hubbard was a prominent sci-fi author whose book Dianetics suddenly made him a sort of new age prophet.

Hubbard was born in 1911 in Nebraska and developed into an adventurous, talented writer who devolved “as charismatic leaders do” into a man who was “sleezy, manipulative, cynical, and alcoholic” (p. 48). Aside from his personal character, his ideas have no doubt impacted many people. Johnson notes that Wright’s outline of Scientology or the contents of Hubbard’s Dianetics (1950), which spawned the religion, are not “particularly alarming or enlightening either.” In general, Hubbard appeared to be simply mixing the intellectual cards around, “devising an ontology from scratch, with the help of Will and Ariel Durant and the entries for Newton, Buddha, and John Stuart Mill in an old edition of Encyclopedia Britannica” (p. 48).

Scientology first gained interest and increased in appeal because of its novel approach to psychotherapy. It is, in sum, a “speeded-up process of psychotherapy by which a follower or ‘preclear,’ ‘audited’ by another, ‘trained Scientologist’ moves toward an eventual goal of becoming ‘clear’ of hangups by digging up traumatic events of the past, abetted by holding a ‘cylindrical electrode’ in each hand through which the preclear’s reactions register on a meter (called an ‘E-meter’)” (p. 48) The vocabulary is unique. But the process is akin to intense, prolonged, provocative hypnosis. Hubbard is cited (p. 49) as noting, “it takes about fifteen hours to bring a person into a completely relaxed and Self-Determined state of mind regarding orders.”

This approach to psychotherapy is built upon an elaborate, mythical theory of human origins. For the purpose of “going clear” involves first reaching one’s operating thetan (OT I) level. “Thetans are what we are in essence, independent of our present bodies according to an elaborate sci-fi mythology of human origins,” writes Johnson. One can later move on to levels OT II, III, IV on a “bridge toward enlightenment” (p. 49). Yet this is not a system based only on one’s hard work. It is also based on the client’s financial contributions. Members get bonuses for recruiting others and many have bankrupted themselves financing their walk across the bridge. “Beside conviction,” Johnson writes, “there’s a financial incentive to serve the group” (p. 49). One of the other purported incentives is career advancement and success in one’s personal life: “clearness is supposed to lead to professional success as well as personal contentment” (p. 50). A scientologist such as Cruise can, one supposes, get a couch jump on one’s peers by adhering to the religion’s tenets.

Wright further notes that Scientology creates a totalistic and totalitarian environment, not unlike Chinese and Russian communism. Scientologists have used techniques such as solitary confinement, enforced loyalty, sleep deprivation, and confession” in order to help their members advance. Wright tells of an FBI raid in 1977 of Scientology’s “punishment quarters,” of higher-up Scientologists beating lower members, of myriad counts of physical and mental breakdown, and of suicides among members and former members” (p. 50). Wright also tells of support groups which exist to help ex-Scientologists heal and of the fact that ex-Scientologists rarely hide their bitterness toward leader David Miscavige. Johnson refers to the Hill memoir, among others of the same ilk (p. 50), for corroboration.

And yet, Wright avers, the Church of Scientology seeks to polish its own reputation with Machiavellian vigor. “Lawsuits, in Wright’s account, are Scientology’s principal weapons against its outside critics, designed to ‘harass and discourage rather than win’” (p. 51; Wright’s careful research, always substantiated or hedged, may indicate the litigious character of this religion). Take, for example, Scientology’s lawsuit against the IRS. After the IRS in 1993 sent a bill to Scientology for $1 billion in back taxes, Scientology fired back with over “two thousand legal actions” and thus got its bill reduced to $12.5 million and won, through more intimidation, its long-standing request for recognition as an officially tax-exempt religion. Scientology’s power-plays extend to government agencies such as the American Medical Association and the Better Business Bureau (p. 51). Thus the horror story told by Wright is not only one of personal intimidation and sorrow but also of institutional infiltration and legal harassment. Such is the ethic and polity of the religion called Scientology.

In response, let us note that the United States (with its fondness for individual autonomy, consumerism, and religious relativism) provides a lush environment for newly minted religions and cults. In light of this teeming ecosystem of false religions, and of Scientology in particular, we will also note a few of Scientology’s false beliefs, and providing the briefest of biblical rejoinders.

In relation to belief in God, L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, asserted that “there are gods above all other gods, and gods beyond the gods of the universes,” but the God of the Scriptures affirms, “besides me there is no other God” (Is 44:6). In relation to Christ, Hubbard further stated that “Neither Lord Buddha nor Jesus Christ were OTs [Operating Thetans, those who form the highest level in Scientology] according to evidence. They were just a shade above clear [a lower level in Scientology,” but Scripture teaches that Christ is Creator and Lord over all things (Col 1:13-23). In relation to repentance and belief, Hubbard also argues that “it is despicable and utterly beneath contempt to tell a man he must repent, that he is evil,” but Scripture makes clear that Christ came to save repentant sinners (Lk 19:10).

In conclusion, Scientology is one of a number of religions invented by self-designated American prophets (e.g. Joseph Smith, Charles Taze Russell, Mary Baker Eddy). Although Christians have not given it the same level of attention as they have other new religions (e.g. Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness-ism, Christian Scientism), the Christian community should consider giving it increased attention in light of its famous Hollywood proponents and some of the concerns listed above.


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Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (14): Christian theology aims for truth.

In the past several decades, certain philosophers, literary theorists, and other intellectuals have put forth intellectual programs that are (more or less) relativist. While metaphysical relativists (there is no such thing as truth) are rare, epistemological relativists (we cannot know truth) are on tap in nearly any department on a given American university campus. The central problem with such relativism is obvious (and has been pointed out repeatedly)-the assertion of relativism is itself a purportedly true assertion. In other words, this assertion is self-referentially absurd (difficult to sneak this one past the epistemology police). If we’ve given up on knowing “truth,” we can’t deign to offer relativism as a “truth.” You can’t have it both ways (or, as my grandfather would say, “Let’s not go peeing down both legs”).

In light of the varying shades of relativism that can be found in our Western intellectual context, Christian theology’s claims to have truth (and even “Truth”) are often met with skepticism or even ridicule. Indeed, for many Westerners, this entire blog series lacks even minimal plausibility because the series has been written under the belief that Scripture is revelation from God which provides the true story of the whole world. As we noted, Christian theologians recognize Scripture, tradition, reason, experience, and culture as sources upon which they draw. They integrate the insights given by historical, biblical, philosophical, systematic, and practical theology in order to build an integrative theology which remains in conversation with philosophy, science, and other fields of knowledge. All of this is done in order to provide a unified and coherent account of the truth about God and the world. “The church’s affirmation,” writes Lesslie Newbigin, “is that the story it tells is the true interpretation of all human and cosmic history and that to understand history otherwise is to misunderstand it, therefore misunderstanding the human situation here and now. . . . From age to age, the church lives under the authority of the story that the Bible tells, interpreted ever anew to new generations and new cultures by the continued leading of the Holy Spirit who alone makes possible the confession that Jesus is Savior and Lord.”[1] But what does it mean to say that something is “true”?

Some philosophers set forth a coherence theory of truth.[2] Under this theory, any coherent system of belief counts as a “true” system of belief. Any belief that coheres with the rest of one’s beliefs counts as “true.” The problem with this theory is that one can construct a coherent set of beliefs that has no connection with reality. While the logical coherence of a belief system is a factor one takes into account when judging whether or not such a belief system is true, coherence is not itself constitutive of truth. Other philosophers set forth a pragmatist theory of truth.[3] Under this theory, whichever beliefs prove to be invaluable instruments of action can be counted as true. However, not all true propositions are immediately useful and not all useful propositions are true. Adolf Hitler’s belief system proved to be a valuable instrument of action for him and for Germany’s economy, but his belief system was built upon deeply inhumane falsehoods. While the pragmatic value of a belief system is a factor one takes into account when judging whether or not such a belief system is true, pragmatism is not itself constitutive of truth. In contrast to these theories, Christian theologians traditionally have espoused a correspondence theory of truth. In this view, truth is what corresponds with reality. Truth is independent of the human mind. Even if the human mind cannot recognize a particular truth, the truth of a matter still stands. This view of truth is pre-theoretic and intuitive, rooted in the human experience. We believe this view tallies with the biblical testimony, which teaches that God is truth and that God speaks truth (e.g., John 14:6).

Related to the question of truth is the question of knowledge (epistemology). Can human knowers access objective reality? Some philosophers have espoused naïve realism. In this view, it is assumed that the human knower can directly access objective reality. Naïve realism is called by this name because it naïvely overlooks the obstacles to knowing truth, obstacles such as human idolatry, and the historical and cultural location of the human knower. Other philosophers have held to epistemological nonrealism. In this view, it is assumed that the human knower does not have access to objective reality. In contrast to these two views, we believe that Christian theology best fits with a view known as critical realism.[4] In this view, human knowers are constrained by the limitations of our rational and empirical faculties and by the historical and cultural locatedness of our attempts to gain knowledge. But Christian theologians recognize a further reason that human knowers are limited and fallible: the distortive, corrosive, and ultimately subversive effect of human sin on the mind’s ability to know. In other words, sin has epistemological consequences. While God’s knowledge of reality is comprehensive, therefore, our human knowledge of reality is partial, inadequate, and dependent upon God. N. T. Wright puts it well when he writes that critical realism “acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence, ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower or the thing known (hence, ‘critical’).”[5] We believe that a critically realist theological method is necessary in order to take full account of the biblical testimony concerning truth and knowledge. What humans can know and say about God is not comprehensive, but it is true, trustworthy, and sufficient for faithful living.[6]

[1] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 77-78.

[2] Brand Blanshard, “Coherence as the Nature of Truth,” in The Nature of Thought, 2 vols. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948), 2:264-269.

[3] William James, Pragmatism (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University, 1975).

[4] Some of the foremost theological proponents of critical realism are David K. Clark, Lesslie Newbigin, and N. T. Wright. See Clark, To Know and Love God; Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995); N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 47-64.

[5] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 35.

[6] This way of putting it is a slight modification of Spykman, Reformational Theology, 74.