For "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief," Lawrence Wright borrows the title of his new book directly from the terminology of Scientology. "Going clear" means to achieve a state of mental purity and clarity as a result of the "auditing" process; it represents the first plateau in a long and arduous series of steps ultimately leading, if Scientology's claims are to be believed, to spiritual enlightenment and superhuman powers.
Nonetheless, it is hard to see the title as anything but ironic. Almost nothing having to do with Scientology, it seems, is straightforward or clear. As a result of decades of external criticism and internal power struggles, it is difficult to find a claim made by, on behalf of, or about the Church of Scientology that isn't contested by some church representative, unaffiliated critic or disaffected former member.
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"Going Clear" is an attempt to cut through the morass of obscurity and misinformation, to provide an accurate account of Scientology's history and a fair assessment of its claims. This is not an easy task, in large part because Scientologists themselves — particularly those at the top of the Church's hierarchy — have long made it their policy to discourage open inquiry, both by members and by outsiders. This policy is by no means new. It dates back to Scientology's famous and famously eccentric founder, L. Ron Hubbard, author of more than 1,000 books, including "Dianetics." According to Wright:
"Even as Hubbard was inventing the doctrine, each of his decisions and actions would become enshrined in Scientology lore as something to be emulated — his cigarette smoking, for instance, which is still a feature of the church's culture at the upper levels, as are his 1950s habits of speech, his casual misogyny, his aversion to perfume and scented deodorants, and his love of cars and motorcycles and Rolex watches. More significant is the legacy of his belittling behavior toward subordinates and his paranoia about the government. Such traits stamped the religion as an extremely secretive and sometimes hostile organization that saw enemies on every corner."
Of course, Hubbard's feelings of persecution were not entirely groundless. As Wright notes, "if Hubbard was paranoid, it was also true that he really was often pursued, first by creditors and later by grand juries and government investigators." And there were other reasons for Hubbard and the executives who took over the church after his death to be secretive. Scientology, after all, was conceived largely as a money-making venture. Whereas some religions struggle to disseminate their doctrines as widely as possible, the Church of Scientology has from the start walked a fine line between the need for expansion and the desire to cater primarily to converts who would pay what frequently turned out to be substantial sums for their progress toward enlightenment.
A further complication is that, at least for as long as Hubbard lived, Scientology never stopped being a work in progress. The movement was originally conceived as a set of techniques for increasing mental hygiene; its very name is meant to suggest a scientific approach, and in the beginning, it was largely conceived as a way to clear one's head, based on and inspired by Hubbard's own relentless self-examination. During this early period, Hubbard resisted casting himself as a prophet or divinity. Yet he ended up claiming to possess superhuman powers; endorsing reincarnation; promulgating an outlandish mythology including space aliens, "thetans" and the evil Xenu; and promising that he would survive his own death and return to his followers. (When he did die, church officials claimed that he had simply decided to "drop his body" and assume another form.) That said, it should be noted that Hubbard did not claim to be special in any deep way: All humans were immortal, according to his teachings, and all were in principle capable of attaining the same powers he claimed to possess.
Though some say that Hubbard was just a con man, Wright's view is that he was surely something considerably more complex: To some extent, at least, he believed what he said and wrote. His hostility toward psychiatry — a resistance that ended up becoming a fundamental element of Scientology's teachings — was almost certainly sincere, as was his belief that he had the ability to contribute something substantial and perhaps profound to human well-being. Moreover, many of those who personally encountered him were struck by his intelligence and the sheer force of his personality.
Along the way, though, the Church of Scientology seemed to some to have lost its sense of benign purpose. Some have alleged that the church mistreats its members, particularly the staff who constitute the church's so-called "Sea Org" wing and who sign contracts pledging to serve Scientology for a billion years in return for minuscule wages. (The church has claimed that the billion-year contracts are symbolic, not literal.) Many of the church's executives have also been said to have been subjected to various abuses. Nor, according to Wright, has the church restricted itself to victimizing its own members. Many of the more disturbing parts of "Going Clear" describe campaigns of harassment directed at those who have criticized it or attempted to expose its inner workings. This includes "Operation Snow White," an attempt, spearheaded by Hubbard himself, to infiltrate government organizations with church operatives, in part to gather blackmail material for possible future use against church opponents. "Nothing in American history," Wright writes, "can compare with the scale of the domestic espionage of Operation Snow White."
Wright's account of the church's history and struggles is helpful, admirably fair-minded and, at times, absorbing. People who are aware of Scientology's prominence in Hollywood will not be surprised that the book's cast of characters includes a number of well-known celebrities, including director Paul Haggis, who became a critic of the church after spending decades within it, and Tom Cruise, who is not only its most visible but one of its most powerful members. Wright describes Cruise as "the embodiment of Hubbard's vision of a church with temples dedicated to celebrity rather than God."
The book's most intriguing aspect, though, is not its treatment of Scientology, in particular, but its raising of general questions about the nature of faith and reason and the role of religion in American life. Many members of more established mainstream faiths view Scientology with disdain and worry that it will encourage scorn or ridicule directed at religion in general. But "Going Clear" strongly suggests that there is no way to brand some religions as real or legitimate while excluding others. Scientology's methods of establishing its claims are in principle no better, but also no worse, than those of any other religion.
This is not to say that Wright regards Scientology as plausible or defensible. Early on, Hubbard claimed to have been severely injured during his military service in World War II and to have healed himself of these injuries using Scientology's methods. On examining Hubbard's military records, however, Wright discovered they had almost certainly been forged. But Wright does not argue that Scientology's claim to being a religion should be rejected, and he does not regard it as inherently more implausible than other religions. "The stories that invite ridicule or disbelief," Wright acknowledges, "such as Xenu and the Galactic Confederacy, may be fanciful ... but every religion features bizarre and uncanny elements." Elsewhere he states that "no religion can prove that it is 'true.' There are myths and miracles at the core of every great belief system that, if held up to the harsh light of a scholar or an investigative reporter, could easily be passed off as lies."
This is not to commend the "prison of belief" that Scientology creates for its followers. If Wright is correct, the church works hard to encourage a culture of unreflecting acceptance, dissuading its members from considering objections to its dogma or investigating accusations of impropriety. "[F]ew prominent figures attached to the Church of Scientology have actually looked into the charges that have surrounded their institution for many years," he notes. "The church discourages such examination, telling its members that negative articles are 'entheta' and will only cause spiritual upset." In one striking example, Hollywood composer Mark Isham, who worked with Haggis before the latter's apostasy, justified his refusal to read newspaper articles critical of the church by stating that in his view, "it was like reading Mein Kampf if you wanted to know something about the Jewish religion."
But every religion constructs some species of "prison of belief" for its followers, and most, in their fundamentalist forms, are just as dedicated as is Scientology to explaining away, or else simply denying, evidence that undermines their claims to authority. "There is no point in questioning Scientology's standing as a religion," Wright concludes. "In the United States, the only opinion that really counts is that of the IRS; moreover, people do believe in the principles of Scientology and live within a community of faith — what else is required to accept it as such?" What is most disturbing about Scientology is not what distinguishes it from other religions, but the resistance to criticism and objective evidence that it seems to share with them.
Scientology's critics, Wright seems to suggest, are not wrong to be deeply concerned, but they are mistaken if they refuse to extend their criticisms and concerns to other faiths as well — including those faiths that have long been incorporated into mainstream American life.
Troy Jollimore is the author of two books of poetry,"Tom Thomson in Purgatory" and "At Lake Scugog," as well as of two philosophical books, "Love's Vision" and "On Loyalty."
By Lawrence Wright, Knopf, 432 pages, $28.95Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun