Scientology stands a chance
Skeptic Michael Shermer exposes hate speech against the Church of Scientology and strangely concludes that its “cult-like secrecy” and “hypocrisy” merit suspicion. He also calls it a “faux religion.”
Speaking as a scholar who has analyzed new religions for over 20 years, I deplore critics who pose as experts. Scientology is a new religion, and unlike most, it may become an established religion whether the rest of us like it or not.
All religions have origin myths, and all religions keep secrets from the uninitiated. If a nonbeliever were to tell the origin myth of Christianity, it would sound no less fantastic than the Thetan myth of L. Ron Hubbard: A spirit present as God before the creation of the universe splits off from Godhead after billions of years of Earth time and is born again as a flesh-and-blood person to a Jewish woman. The son gathers adherents, casts out demons from afflicted people, works miracles and finally confronts the evil king in the Jewish capital city. The evil empire’s soldiers try, convict and kill him in a public execution. He then is resurrected before his disciples and tells them to spread his kingdom throughout the world. He promises to appear again and save those who believe in his message and condemn to eternal punishment those who do not. All of his followers will be resurrected after our Earth is destroyed by seven years of heaven-sent catastrophes that kill off most of the human race.
Does this tale sound more convincing than Scientology’s beliefs?
Myths are symbolic expressions of existential truths; they are not literal accounts of historical events. Their truth religious truth is not subject to experimental verification. Religious truth sustains and organizes human societies and gives identity and thus, sanity to human beings. Expressing oneself religiously and symbolically is an essential ingredient of being human. Myth will always be with us, whether created by cosmologists, as the Big Bang theory, or by poets and prophets as alternative accounts of world creation.
Cults also exist in every established religion. Cults are subgroups that express worship of a deity in a particular ritual, such as a cult of Mary that prays the rosary, or a cult of temple sacrifice that features a banquet. A cult is not a “faux religion.”
Since the shocking deaths of more than 900 people belonging to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in 1978 followed by Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin gas attack and the immolation of about 80 Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, in the 1990s behavioral scientists, associated with security agencies, have developed cult theory to account for such extremely rare and violent incidents. Unfortunately, cult theory is an oversimplified, one-size-fits-all list of characteristics that would apply to most religions in their infancy and only serves to label a new religion as a potential threat. Cult theory is not based on long-term data about religions, unlike the scholarship on history of religions that should be taught in every American university.
Seldom does a new religious movement survive its founder’s death, as Scientology has, and take root during subsequent generations, gain followers and become established as a church. But those movements that do succeed are vilified at the beginning, when they have no advocates and no power. President Buchanan sent the U.S. Army to try to take control of the Mormon colony in Utah; Seventh-day Adventists (“Millerites”) were ridiculed for falsely predicting the date of the apocalypse twice; Pentecostals were regarded as devil-worshipers and “holy rollers” because of their ritual encounters with the Holy Spirit. Today all are established mainstream religions.
Scientologists are discriminated against and forbidden to practice in some European nations where freedom of religion is subordinated to the dominance of state churches. Only in the United States are new religions legally free to develop and grow, but they must first endure the gantlet of public hate speech by those with little or no understanding of religion as a dynamic, diverse and intrinsic enterprise.
One need not be a Scientologist as I emphatically am not to advocate for Scientologists’ 1st Amendment right to believe their myths, practice their rituals and promulgate their message to others. One may be a skeptic as I am and still marvel at the creative ways in which human societies attain and maintain a collective identity and sense of meaning.
Let Scientology be. It will stand or fall on its own merits.
Jean E. Rosenfeld is a historian of religions at the UCLA Center for the Study of Religions.
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