Recently, I read Lawrence Wright’s incisive and highly provocative essay entitled “The Apostate,” which was originally published in The New Yorker in 2011. Wright’s essay, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the rise of new religions, takes a look at the practices of the Church of Scientology – and in so doing, forces us to consider the early origins and evolution of all religious or ideological institutions. In his essay, Wright offers evidence that Scientologists may be actively engaged in a calculated and controlled form of ideological inculcation by way of a variety of traditionally disparaged methods, some of which are discussed below, but all of which lend to the creation of an environment in which critical and independent thought fail to thrive. Although the practices of the Church of Scientology have been subject to worldwide ridicule, they do not differ so much from the early historical practices of several now established world religions. When examined together, these practices help us to better understand the workings of many organized religions, ideologies, and world views.
In many cults and religions, whether old or new, dissent is only tolerated in varying degrees, and in some cases, not at all. Dissent may be passively discouraged by established religions, but in cults and in new religions, it may be actively suppressed. Non-believers or those who are critical of the established order may be ostracized in one way or another. At one extreme, dissenters may be tolerated or simply ignored. At the other extreme, defectors or “heretics” may be manipulated, bullied, physically abused, and/or separated from their friends and family. According to Wright, Scientologists engage in a common practice called “disconnection” in which believers are encouraged or forced to suspend communications or contact with friends and family members who don’t believe, or who have otherwise offended the church.
Depending on the religion or cult in question, social pressure – also in varying degrees - may be brought to bear on its members to ensure conformity with acceptable standards of behavior. To minimize dissent, members may be inducted into the religion or cult at an early age by way of an education system that is either funded or supported by the organization itself. All members, children and adults alike, may find themselves immersed in a social environment where most – if not all – of their friends, family members, and co-workers are of the same faith. Because children are often brought up in religious schools and are surrounded by friends and family of the same faith, they are inevitably isolated from any opportunity to exercise dissent. In fact, entering a cult or religion is often done with a parent’s consent, blessing, and even encouragement – and in some cases, by force.
Many religions and cults unite their membership through allegiance to a set of scriptures, an originating tale or creation myth, and/or a sacred text that contains the founding principles of a religion. No matter how ridiculous or illogical the myth, which often involves tales of reincarnation, revival from death, and other supernatural stories, there is a tremendously high incentive to believe that the “sacred text” or originating tale represents the truth, since logic dictates that otherwise, the entire belief system must fall. In many cases, adherents naturally find it easier and more convenient to believe the originating tale or to make any necessary logical or intellectual accommodations – regardless of the fact that the organization itself might make some truly spectacular claims.
In October 1985, former members of the Church of Scientology, as part of two separate actions against the church, filed materials in court that purportedly contained the organization’s secret originating myth. Despite attempts by Scientologists to block access to these materials, the Los Angeles Times obtained a copy and printed a summary, which Wright described as follows:
““A major cause of mankind’s problems began 75 million years ago,” the Times wrote, when the planet Earth, then called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of ninety planets under the leadership of a despotic ruler named Xenu. “Then, as now, the materials state, the chief problem was overpopulation.” Xenu decided “to take radical measures.” The documents explained that surplus beings were transported to volcanoes on Earth. “The documents state that H-bombs far more powerful than any in existence today were dropped on these volcanoes, destroying the people but freeing their spirits – called thetans – which attached themselves to one another in clusters.” Those spirits were “trapped in a compound of frozen alcohol and glycol,” then “implanted” with the “seed of aberrant behavior.” The Times account concluded, “When people die, these clusters attach to other humans and keep perpetuating themselves.”” (p.55)
Many religions and cults promote and cling to a literal interpretation and application of originating principles or tenets, and may – at their discretion – manipulate these originating principles to their advantage, despite the intentions of the religion’s original founders. Often, adherents do not read or fully grasp the meaning of the original text, believing that others higher up understand things better than they do. In some cases, adherents also display a lack of knowledge regarding the originating principles themselves, in which case they choose to subscribe to another person’s interpretation – a person who is reputed to be smarter, more talented, more credible, more enlightened, more educated, or more “special” than anyone else. Sometimes, this person may be the organization’s charismatic, intelligent, and much loved leader, about whom stories are told of a mythical - and sometimes questionable - past. As such, his ascent to power or popularity takes on legendary proportions. Subsequent generations may invest considerable efforts towards creating a myth around this leader – that he or she is infallible. And they may protect this myth at all costs.
In many cases, and especially at the very beginning of a religious organization’s life, a church’s ideology will contain some legitimately inspiring guiding principles. According to Wright, science fiction writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, for example, said that individuals have a duty to act when they know the truth. (Not a bad principle to live by, since this statement appears to actively encourage dissent.) But like most historical attempts to codify human behavior against a changing backdrop of mores and values, subsequent generations are likely to re-interpret these positive guidelines to serve their own purposes, to say “he didn’t mean to say that dissent should be allowed.”
Members may find that they are drawn to a cult or religious organization after experiencing personal or emotional challenges. After adopting the religion’s guiding principles, they may feel that they have experienced a revelation, or a substantial positive change in their lives. These revelations may take the form of testimonials that are shared within the organization, and that are eventually used to attract new members. When an individual is facing personal challenges of his own and is in a vulnerable state, the organization is quick to offer various forms of support, including affection, friendship, community, and guided therapy, meditation, or course work to help the member on his path towards enlightenment.
In many religions and cults, a path to spiritual enlightenment is offered to its adherents, at the end of which there is the promise of some kind of divination, revelation, or “secret” that will be divulged only to those who have demonstrated a commitment to the organization for an extended period of time. This path to enlightenment, however, requires the investment of considerable time, effort, money, or resources. In the case of the Church of Scientology, Wright informs us that members commonly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for course work, “auditing,” and other services – through which, they are told, they will eventually have access to “the bridge to total freedom.” As such, the incentive to believe among members is high. Whereas the path to spiritual enlightenment leads to some form of divination or revelation – usually towards the end of one’s lifetime – exclusion or ex-communication from this path results in some form of eternal suffering, damnation, or spiritual hell – to which most, if not all, non-adherents are doomed.
Although, depending on the maturity of a cult or religion, there are varying levels of tolerance for dissent, in some cases, there is no room for dissent at all. Dissenters and defectors face expulsion from the church for so-called moral transgressions, or for behavior that is in any way critical of the organization. Often, there is a tradition of “confessing,” which requires that adherents disclose their transgressions to another higher placed member of the organization. In the case of the Church of Scientology, despite the leaders’ reassurances that these confessions are confidential, it is tacitly understood that the Church may wield this unspoken power of disclosure over you.
As witnessed in Communist China and in other controlling, absolutist regimes, religious adherents may be required to write “success stories” in which the believer attests to the veracity of the success of the organization’s teachings. These success stories are then read aloud, disseminated, or otherwise published for the benefit of others so that all members have an incentive to celebrate, whether artificially or not, the successes that have been made possible by the religious organization. Despite an adherent’s intuitive belief that “things may not be as they seem,” the incentive to embellish or fabricate to confirm the organization’s version of events is high – since the adherent has invested so heavily in the organization, and since his or her social circle is made up almost exclusively of fellow adherents. The barrier to entry into an organization may be low, but the barrier to exit is very high.
While the organization may say that it values egalitarianism, democracy, freedom, and human rights, its interior structure shows favoritism for the wealthy and successful, with considerable privileges bestowed on those who are obviously more valued than the others, creating a bizarre, yet overt kind of elitism. There is often some kind of hierarchy in the cult or religion, which through many years of devotion and practice, one can ascend. Success usually awaits those who manage to navigate through a list of challenges, trials, and ordeals while adhering to a code of conduct required of all of the organization’s members. Within this membership hierarchy, the lowest ranking members may obtain very little benefit – financial, emotional, or otherwise – from their sacrifice or loyalty, but are told that they are working for the betterment of humanity or in pursuit of some larger purpose. Despite the organization’s claims, its leaders may lead luxurious lifestyles - or its historical leaders may have led luxurious lifestyles in the past - despite legal or moral provisions against inurement.
Successful cults and religions tend to demonstrate impressive marketing skill, especially in their ability to recruit adherents – sometimes even celebrities - who are intelligent, articulate, and ambitious - and who are happy to communicate the religion’s benefits to others by way of testimonials: “When I found God, my whole life changed…” New recruits and long-time adherents come together around a repressive historical event that creates a tight, almost unbreakable emotional and psychological bond among the organization’s membership. Adherents are united by these historical events, raising their voices in a rallying cry against oppression and injustice. Members may feel that they are siding with the marginalized and the oppressed, that they are clearly on the “right” side – despite the presentation of evidence that shows that the organization itself may have, at some point in its own history, participated in the marginalizaton and oppression of others.
In the case of the Church of Scientology, a 1985 court challenge was brought by former member Julie Christofferson-Titchbourne “who argued that the church had falsely claimed that Scientology would improve her intelligence and even her eyesight.” (p.55) This case attracted Scientologists from around the country who “carried banners advocating religious freedom and sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Scientology celebrities, including John Travolta showed up; Chick Corea played a concert in a public park.” When a mistrial was declared, this event became “one of the greatest triumphs in Scientology’s history, and the church members who had gone to Portland felt an enduring sense of kinship.” (p.56)
United by a homogeneous set of values, a rallying cry against oppression, a cohesive vocabulary, a common originating myth, a charismatic leader, and a set of policies and practices that have the effect of sublimating, if not suppressing dissent altogether, some cults and religions manage to become self-sustaining organizations that can withstand the test of time. As the organization matures even further, and finds a way to generate funding on its own, it begins to amass wealth. Over time, it may even develop a system that encourages and rewards substantial donations to the cause. With so much amassed wealth, the organization has the ability to suppress the truth and to manipulate the facts to its advantage. If these organizations, for example, engage in civil rights violations or support individuals or organizations that breach the civil rights of others, these are often cloaked or excused based on a purported right to “freedom of religion.”
In addressing basic human needs, many cults and religions have been very successful at providing comforting answers to the larger questions of human existence. They have provided a community or support network to their adherents, as well as sufficient incentives to remain within the organization, and to fundraise on its behalf. They have ensured that their adherents’ children remain faithful to the cause by building religious schools or by inducting members into the religion at an early age. In an effort to survive and prosper, the organization will, in many cases, discredit other faiths and religions, claiming to be the one true religion – and encouraging its members to believe that they are somehow superior to those who do not subscribe to the “right” religion.
Although the organization may be historically riddled with allegations of physical and psychological abuse, and sometimes by stories of grossly disturbing and abusive behavior, it handles these allegations well – often by attacking the credibility of those who attempt to speak up against it. It begins to gain a certain expertise at denying credibility to anything or anyone that is external to the religion or cult itself, or that is critical of the organization’s world view. Members may display a reluctance to seriously consider those who are critical of the church’s practices, and may even be offended by evidence of any kind that questions the organization’s founding principles, thereby creating a propaganda machine that, by necessity, believes and reinforces its own lies.
In the case of cults, the leader’s word becomes increasingly absolute, and followers may begin to display a desire to impress their superiors. The cult leader does not tolerate challenges to his or her authority. Followers are required to be deferential. In an effort to renounce all doubt among its still precarious membership, the organization takes itself very seriously, and is characterized by an inability to laugh at itself – presenting a straight-on, unambiguous, unambivalent world view, in which adherents march triumphantly towards enlightenment and salvation. Defectors may express that they have experienced a phenomenon akin to brainwashing, in which they felt that someone else’s thoughts had been superimposed upon their own. Defectors may even report that they had been subjected to a justice system which applied laws created by the religious institution or cult itself.
In the case of cults and new religions, organizations may derive considerable support from “orders” like “Sea Org,” which – according to Wright’s essay - performs the mundane tasks of keeping the Church of Scientology alive. In this religious order, sexual behavior and marital affairs are regulated to ensure that members are devoted to the cause. Members may be inducted into the order at an early age, with the parent’s consent and encouragement. Given that early inductees are deprived of formal education and training as children, they may not have viable employment options when they reach adulthood. They become dependent on the cult or new religion for all things, including financial and emotional support.
In an effort to ensure dedication and long term loyalty, the Church of Scientology, for example, requires child members of Sea Org to sign “billion year contracts” in what amounts to indentured servitude to the organization. According to Wright, defectors have stated that they were made subject to a practice equivalent to extortion, in which religious course work and benefits that were supposedly provided free of charge to the child inductee were suddenly charged to the inductee when he or she expressed a desire to leave the order. Defectors have attested to the fact that emotional, spiritual, psychological or physical force have been used to reclaim Sea Org members, and that Scientologists resort to a procedure called a “blow drill,” thanks to which former head of security, Gary Morehead, estimated that he and his security team “brought more than a hundred Sea Org members back to the base.” According to Morehead, when emotional, spiritual, or psychological pressure failed to work, “physical force was sometimes used to bring escapees back.” (p.84)
As in many absolutist organizations, defectors have explained that control was brought to bear on the reproductive rights of female members. There also appears to be evidence that cults rely on a finger-pointing system that requires others to turn in dissenters and non-conformists for non-sanctioned behavior, and that encourages its members to make public declarations of error. In the case of the Church of Scientology, individuals who are considered troublemakers are labeled “Potential Trouble Sources” (PTS) or “Suppressive Persons” (SPs), and friends and family members are required to dissociate themselves from such publicly maligned individuals. Anyone critical of the organization is immediately denounced. Dissenters and defectors are discredited. Cult followers may find that their thoughts and behavior are being closely monitored. In the case of the Church of Scientology, it has been reported that an instrument called an “e-meter” – often compared to a polygraph - is used to monitor members’ thoughts and emotions during “auditing” sessions. The cult holds the key to the individual’s salvation, and wields the power of eternal life and death over its members. Any betrayal of the cult is considered treasonous.
(To be continued…)
Image Credit: Istockphoto
Image Caption: The red pawn, representing dissent, takes the queen
Lawrence Wright. “The Apostate.” Published in “The Best American Magazine Writing 2012,” Edited by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Originally published in The New Yorker in 2011. Retrieved on October 22, 2013 at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_wright