An article in The New Yorker perpetuates my pondering on the propensity of peeps to group themselves according to religion, even otherwise freethinking, competent types you might guess would have little need to join such clubs to feel worthy.
The piece is about screenwriter and director Paul Haggis and his recent break with Scientology, a habit he wore for some 35 years.
Haggis was prominent in both Scientology and Hollywood, two communities that often converge. Although he is less famous than certain other Scientologists, such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, he had been in the organization for nearly thirty-five years. Haggis wrote the screenplay for “Million Dollar Baby,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2004, and he wrote and directed “Crash,” which won Best Picture the next year—the only time in Academy history that that has happened.
I know I’m far from alone in spending some time wondering wtf the attraction could possibly be to such a whacky system of beliefs, and after 26 pages of New Yorker’s look at Scientology I’m even more confused.
Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not opposed to whacky beliefs, the idea that we’re descended from aliens, have immortal souls that recycle, can up our smartness and effect our health. Sounds good to me, and I’m all for anyone believing whatever the fuck they want to believe. What doesn’t compute is the apparent compulsion to form circle jerks in efforts to somehow make it feel real.
“There was a feeling of camaraderie that was something I’d never experienced—all these atheists looking for something to believe in, and all these loners looking for a club to join.”
For fuck sake, dude, join a bowling league. It would be a whole lot cheaper and you’d get matching shirts!
David S. Touretzky, a computer-science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has done extensive research on Scientology. (He is not a defector.) He estimates that the coursework alone now costs nearly three hundred thousand dollars, and, with the additional auditing and contributions expected of upper-level members, the cumulative cost of the coursework may exceed half a million dollars.
Of course, a bowling league doesn’t usually exert mind control over anything other than a 16 pound ball and some pins, where Scientology makes greater claims:
Recruits had a sense of boundless possibility. Mystical powers were forecast; out-of-body experiences were to be expected; fundamental secrets were to be revealed. Hubbard had boasted that Scientology had raised some people’s I.Q. one point for every hour of auditing. “Our most spectacular feat was raising a boy from 83 I.Q. to 212,” he told the Saturday Evening Post, in 1964.
There’s no question about why such claims are made, and every religion expounds long and hard on the benefits of membership. It matters little if bonus points add up to a higher I.Q., a pearly gate pass or 37 virgins-for-the-ravishing-of, it’s the promise of payoff that gets folks to pay up.
Business is business, and those based in amorphous commodities like eternal salvation or “Clear” need to inflate rewards to infinity to get the attention they need for a queue to form at the door.
A person who becomes Clear is “adaptable to and able to change his environment,” Hubbard writes. “His ethical and moral standards are high, his ability to seek and experience pleasure is great. His personality is heightened and he is creative and constructive.” Someone who is Clear is less susceptible to disease and is free of neuroses, compulsions, repressions, and psychosomatic illnesses. “The dianetic Clear is to a current normal individual as the current normal is to the severely insane.”
And that will be $350,000, thank you, but worth every penny. Maybe.
Going Clear “was not life-changing,” Haggis says. “It wasn’t, like, ‘Oh, my God, I can fly!’ ” At every level of advancement, he was encouraged to write a “success story” saying how effective his training had been. He had read many such stories by other Scientologists, and they felt “overly effusive, done in part to convince yourself, but also slanted toward giving somebody upstairs approval for you to go on to the next level.”
Ah, yes … the ever-present promise that your next fix will be the ultimate high, and once hooked it’s not easy to dislodge a monkey, especially when all your friends are so proudly packing theirs around.
Not unlike most religions, Scientology discourages followers from mixing much with the monkey-less, or those sporting a different species. The chance of comparison or contamination is a dangerous prospect to those heavily invested in maintaining a monoculture, and if that means families are to be tossed overboard, so be it.
In fact, redefining “family” to mean those with monkeys that look like yours rather than roots comes in very handy, as dramatically proved by those 909 Kool-Aid drinkers in Jonestown some years back.
Of course, there’s no future in mass suicide, no money to be made if everybody dies at the same time, so most religions discourage such activities amongst followers … although too often many would be quite happy to see the competition down a few glasses of strawberry-flavored sugar water en masse.
In discussing this as I waited for the kettle to boil, Dave asked if I thought the inclination to glom onto the like-minded religion-wise wasn’t some sort of manifestation of a fear of the unknown.
Fear of the unknown I get, and coming up with beliefs to fill in gaps is a human hobby going way back. The sun rises because it’s some guy’s job to hop in his chariot and drive it across the sky every morning. Fine. But did that guy require pricy temples and an army of worshipers, or was all that just a measure to reduce lines at the employment office and set up some in a Zeusified lifestyle here on Earth? Would he not bother showing up for work one dawn unless thousands or millions of people expected him to and agreed on the expectation?
It’s the herding instinct that gets people to agree on the expectation, not the need for answers. Answers to the unanswerable can come one-at-a-time and for free. But you get what you pay for, and free thinking doesn’t come with a crowd and chanting “We are all individuals!” in unison must be comforting for those not sure they really are, like the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear its timber.
We are a social species, and our survival depends upon our need for, and ability to, mix and mingle. It does not, however, rely on us rooting for the same team, supporting the same businesses and thinking the same thoughts.
We should, in fact, rail against being spoon-fed predigested pap, especially pricy pap, and resist the urge to join a pack that requires we swallow. Mass ingestion is a dangerous prospect and far too easy …
Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.
Anyone up for unstrapping the monkey and getting in a couple of frames of bowling? We can … ya know … just hang and talk about shit …