Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Cults

Here is a bit from a New Yorker magazine article about Paul Haggis, a Hollywood director who rose high in the Scientology cult. These bits show how bizarrely seductive these cults can be...

First, they suck the blood out of you by operating on your pocketbook:
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. (The church says that there are no fixed fees, adding, “Donations requested for ‘courses’ at Church of Scientology begin at $50 and could never possibly reach the amount suggested.”)
Second, they sell your the idea that they are going to give you something wonderful. These claims can be ludicrous as, for example, this:
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.
All these cults have their mumbo-jumbo:
Haggis was spending much of his time and money taking advanced courses and being audited, which involved the use of an electropsychometer, or E-Meter. The device, often compared in the press to a polygraph, measures the bodily changes in electrical resistance that occur when a person answers questions posed by an auditor. (“Thoughts have a small amount of mass,” the church contends in a statement. “These are the changes measured.”) In 1952, Hubbard said of the E-Meter, “It gives Man his first keen look into the heads and hearts of his fellows.” The Food and Drug Administration has compelled the church to declare that the instrument has no curative powers and is ineffective in diagnosing or treating disease.

During auditing, Haggis grasped a cylindrical electrode in each hand; when he first joined Scientology, the electrodes were empty soup cans. An imperceptible electrical charge ran from the meter through his body. The auditor asked systematic questions aimed at detecting sources of “spiritual distress.” Whenever Haggis gave an answer that prompted the E-Meter’s needle to jump, that subject became an area of concentration until the auditor was satisfied that Haggis was free of the emotional consequences of the troubling experience.

Haggis found the E-Meter surprisingly responsive. It seemed to gauge the kinds of thoughts he was having—whether they were angry or happy, or if he was hiding something. The auditor often probed for what Scientologists call “earlier similars.” Haggis explained, “If you’re having a fight with your girlfriend, the auditor will ask, ‘Can you remember an earlier time when something like this happened?’ And if you do then he’ll ask, ‘What about a time before that? And a time before that?’ ” Often, the process leads participants to recall past lives. The goal is to uncover and neutralize the emotional memories that are plaguing one’s behavior.

Although Haggis never believed in reincarnation, he says, “I did experience gains. I would feel relief from arguments I’d had with my dad, things I’d done as a teen-ager that I didn’t feel good about. I think I did, in some ways, become a better person. I did develop more empathy for others.” Then again, he admitted, “I tried to find ways to be a better husband, but I never really did. I was still the selfish bastard I always was.”
And here is the real heart of the cult, the "stickum" that turns a sane person into a devotee:
“The process of induction is so long and slow that you really do convince yourself of the truth of some of these things that don’t make sense,” Haggis told me. Although he refused to specify the contents of O.T. materials, on the ground that it offended Scientologists, he said, “If they’d sprung this stuff on me when I first walked in the door, I just would have laughed and left right away.” But by the time Haggis approached the O.T. III material he’d already been through several years of auditing. His wife was deeply involved in the church, as was his sister Kathy. Moreover, his first writing jobs had come through Scientology connections. He was now entrenched in the community. Success stories in the Scientology magazine Advance! added an aura of reality to the church’s claims. Haggis admits, “I was looking forward to enhanced abilities.” Moreover, he had invested a lot of money in the program. The incentive to believe was high.
In short: they seduce you in small steps, that require you to commit time & money, they snare you into relationships, and they suck your friends and family in with you. They feed you outrageous beliefs that will separate you from normal humans but they do it slowly so that you aren't scared away before you have committed too deeply to easily abandon your sunk costs in this "religion".

The article has an interesting review of L. Ron Hubbard's life and the development of his "religion" of Scientology. From an outsider's perspective, it is all madness purpose-built by a con man to milk people for his own benefit. In short, it is a cult. And here is their innermost "secret" belief:
“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.”
And the final "revelation" of their Dear Leader through his last mortal act:
In 1986, Hubbard died, of a stroke, in his motor home. He was seventy-four. Two weeks later, Scientologists gathered in the Hollywood Palladium for a special announcement. A young man, David Miscavige, stepped onto the stage. Short, trim, and muscular, with brown hair and sharp features, Miscavige announced to the assembled Scientologists that, for the past six years, Hubbard had been investigating new, higher O.T. levels. “He has now moved on to the next level,” Miscavige said. “It’s a level beyond anything any of us ever imagined. This level is, in fact, done in an exterior state. Meaning that it is done completely exterior from the body. Thus, at twenty-hundred hours, the twenty-fourth of January, A.D. 36”—that is, thirty-six years after the publication of “Dianetics”—“L. Ron Hubbard discarded the body he had used in this lifetime.” Miscavige began clapping, and led the crowd in an ovation, shouting, “Hip hip hooray!”
Totally wacko stuff.

The article is very long and covers lots of people beyond Paul Haggis. It is full of wretched details about brutal treatment and the awful submission that many undergo in hopes of some "spiritual" experience or validation or redemption. It is all very nutty. Tragically nutty.

The article closes by letting Paul Haggis reflect on his life in a cult:
I asked him if he felt that he had finally left Scientology. “I feel much more myself, but there’s a sadness,” he admitted. “If you identify yourself with something for so long, and suddenly you think of yourself as not that thing, it leaves a bit of space.” He went on, “It’s not really the sense of a loss of community. Those people who walked away from me were never really my friends.” He understood how they felt about him, and why. “In Scientology, in the Ethics Conditions, as you go down from Normal through Doubt, then you get to Enemy, and, finally, near the bottom, there is Treason. What I did was a treasonous act.”

I once asked Haggis about the future of his relationship with Scientology. “These people have long memories,” he told me. “My bet is that, within two years, you’re going to read something about me in a scandal that looks like it has nothing to do with the church.” He thought for a moment, then said, “I was in a cult for thirty-four years. Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.”

Update 2011feb14: There is an interesting Masters thesis on Scientology and its roots in science fiction that is available from Canada's McMaster University at this site. It is a 1981 thesis in anthropolgy by Hugh A.D. Spencer and is entitled The Transcendental Engineers: The Fictional Origins of a Modern Religion.

Also, here is an example of a billion year contract for Scientology adepts to sign as a "religious commitment" in order to get into the Sea Organization. This is posted by Cory Doctorow on the BoingBoing blog along with other posts about Scientology.

2 comments:

thomas said...

RY;

I was in a "cult" for many years and put a lot of money into it in the form of tithes. My dad and others would comment now and then, but I was convinced. What I was in wasn't as bad as Scientology; it was more like a church ( a normal church). I can understand the need to belong to something like a community and know special truths that no one else knows or believes and share these with others in a group or community (us against the world). These Scientology people are quite mean spirited when it comes to leaving or speaking out against them and that part of it makes it even harder to leave. Most groups professing to be Christian or of a higher calling are less vindictive toward disfellowshipped members.

All religion is a drug that should be resisted if at all possible.

Interesting article and subject. I was reading a site dedicated to people who were a part of the church or cult that I was part of... I will see if I can find the link again (kind of lost interest in reading the stories)..

RYviewpoint said...

Thomas: I've seen people sucked into cults. They usually get suckered because they are at a vulnerable point in their life and the local leader of the cult knows which of your buttons to push. It is sad to see people get suckered into stuff that they later regret.

I was/still am idealistic so I was vulnerable to religion. But I had a grandfather who innoculated me to it. He was a very effective preacher. He could really play on your emotions. I saw a lot of people let him take advantage of them. That wised me up to how people use organizations like cults to get power over you and take advantage of you.

My experience leaves me leery of anybody who professes to have "answers". And it has left me with my "muddle in the middle" philosophy of life, i.e. there are no easy answers, most things are not black or white but gray with all kinds of exceptions and special cases, and that you need to stay with the herd because if you get off on a tangent (alone or in a cult) you are making yourself vulnerable to exploitation.

It would be wonderful if everybody was generous, thoughtful, and truly concerned about others. But I'm convinced that those are in the minority. Most of us aren't mean or indifferent, just busy and don't take the time to see. (I have a buddy that puts me to shame with his generosity and kindness, and the time he takes to help others. I couldn't be him. But he reminds me of how good some people can be.)

The good news is that our nature is to help, so when a tragedy occurs you see the wonderful side of human nature where people jump in and risk their lives to save others.

On the other hand, I'm very aware that there are sociopaths out there who have no empathy and can be very dangerous because they simply don't care what harm they do people. Most people won't harm you. But a sociopath will. Luckily they make up less than 2% of the population.

I didn't like Reagan's politics, but I did like his motto: trust but verify. Be sociable and helpful and empathic, but always question and make sure somebody isn't taking you for a ride.

I must admit I've never known a Scientologist, but I ran into pushing their pamphlets and the books in downtown Vancouver. I'm amazed that they seem to have built a base for themselves inside Hollywood.

One rule of thumb I have: if somebody is selling you something, then be suspicious. The good things in life are self-advertising, i.e. they are so good that you don't have to stand on a street corner and convince people it is good for them. If somebody is selling something to you, then the stuff can't be that good and they want something from you.