Inspired by, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
by Lawrence Wright
I’ve been on a reading kick lately and I just finished Going Clear by Lawrence Wright today. The book examines the history of Scientology from L. Ron Hubbard, first name Lafayette actually, to Tom Cruise going crazy on Oprah and everything in-between. Going Clear is a reference to the state of mind, a sort of Scientological enlightenment, called being Clear. The book is full of fascinating tidbits about the tumultuous history of Scientology and the role of Scientology in Hollywood, but the last section of the subtitle is the most interesting to me, the prison of belief. To me that’s the most interesting subject Wright considers in the book. There’s allegedly a building that essentially serves as a prison or re-education camp for Scientologists that have gone astray, so that’s a literal prison of belief, but the interesting part is that usually Scientology’s enforcers don’t have to resort to force to keep people in this ‘prison.’ People chose, due to their belief in the doctrine and other external pressures, to remain in Scientology after being beaten and forced to do menial labor, even to the point of some, admittedly disgruntled, former Scientologists saying they were forced to go things like scrub a dumpsters with a toothbrush or clean a floor with their tongue. The prison of belief is the idea that their belief in the truth of Scientology imprisons them in an organization that seems incredibly fickle and harsh. Beyond believing in Scientology, members of sea-org, the sort of inner circle or clergy of Scientology, sign a billion year contract of service to the church, service that pays $50 a week, and are often kept away from their families. Isolation and a lack of funds keep the Scientologists in place, they have no where to go and can’t afford to go anywhere. If you leave Scientology on bad terms you’re often, usually, presented with a giant bill for all of the services Scientology offered you for free, things like auditing, and members of your family that are Scientologists are forced to avoid you as a Suppressive Person. There’s no easy out. There appears to be three aspects to the prison of belief; belief itself, physical restraint and imprisonment, and psychological coercion.
The prison of belief isn’t unique to Scientology. Arguably, the prison of belief is what separates a cult from a religion, or if you’re generous, a new religious movement from a religion. This isn’t a black and white situation though, even if you’re Catholic or Jewish there’s still plenty of psychological pressures coercing you to continue believing. Your family is all of that religion, usually, and the social network that a church provides proves invaluable for a lot of people. The difference, as I see it, is that when you leave Catholicism or stop practicing as Jew there’s no one there forcing your family to isolate you, like there is for Scientologists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Similarly, most Catholics and Jews aren’t forced into re-education ‘prisons.’ The one similarity is that all these groups, religions if you like, are centered on believing that the teachings of said group are the best, often believed to be only, way to reach heaven or a state of enlightenment. Belief, as seems obvious from the name, is the most important aspect of the prison of belief. If you knew the path to salvation or enlightenment wouldn’t you suffer for it? It’s seems obvious that you would, that’s seems to be a completely rational response. That’s belief. It’s rational for believers to suffer for their beliefs. Staying in the prison of belief relies on belief first and psychological coercion second, with physical restraint as a last resort for some movements.
Reading Going Clear was an interesting experience for me, as is reading all books about cults and fevered religious groups, because so many aspects reminded me of my Mormon upbringing. There are a lot of similarities between the religions and L. Ron Hubbard and Joseph Smith; which is nice for me as my favorite game while reading about people like Smith, Hubbard, Jones, and Koresh is to try and diagnose them, inaccurately no doubt. The first similarity between Hubbard and Smith that I noticed was something that I think is pretty obvious when you consider who is probably capable of starting a religion. They’re incredibly good with people. They read people well, they’re good at making people feel exceptionally good about themselves, but this trait always seems to come with a nasty side. Hubbard reportedly beat his wife and seems to have been as vindictive toward apostates as Smith was. Smith famously had the printing press of an apostate newspaper destroyed which eventually led to his martyrdom. That’s only one example of Smith’s darker side, there are plenty of others. Hubbard had members of sea org, back when it was actually on the sea, thrown off the ship from a height equivalent to a fourth story. That in itself isn’t that interesting, but it does seem like there absolutely is a personality type that is perfect for religious leadership. Somewhere between an insane, egomanical story teller, both men seem supremely capable of weaving entrancing narratives, and a humble, if angrily humble, and charitable lover of mankind. There’s just a balance that seems to be emitted from them both. I suppose that most people have a good side and a bad side, but these men seem like exaggerations of normal combined with a unique, possibly psychosis induced, ability to tell a story.
As time passed from the initial founding of Scientology Hubbard appears to have gotten increasingly more paranoid. Smith similarly, though there isn’t as much evidence of increasing paranoia for Smith, faced persecution that made him fear living within normal society. Hubbard set to sea, Smith tried to build Zion on multiple occasions. In their isolated spheres Hubbard and Smith were both the center of attention for their devotees. Smith was known at the time for being a story teller that freely exaggerated for entertainment value, Hubbard has a similar reputation. Ignoring truth, they told vivid stories. Telling tall tales isn’t a problem in itself, I think we all love a good story regardless of truth, but when you have followers who believe your every word, or at least try to find truth in your every word, tall tales soon become doctrine. The most damning cosmological denunciations of Scientology come from what’s called OT III. That’s where Xenu and the space opera comes from. OT III was introduced after the initial formation of Scientology, it’s not really essential doctrine. It seems that gaining more and more followers Hubbard felt obliged to create more and more doctrine. Smith faced a similar problem, though he lived a considerably shorter amount of time as a prophet. Mormonism in 1830, when the religion was first founded, was a Protestant denomination with an extra book. The book answered theological debates in 1830’s New York, but it didn’t really add a lot, it answered. Over time though, Smith began to dive deeper and deeper into theology, religious history, and Hebrew. His education in these topics was far from perfect, but he did learn things and soon he began to fiddle with the theology, as a prophet is free to do. A lot of non-Mormons are probably aware of some relatively strange Mormon doctrines, I recently wrote a piece about Adam-God an old doctrine the Mormon Church abandoned. A few other examples, Mormons believe that God lives on a planet near the star Kolob, God was once a man and we, like him, can become Gods. These are doctrines that Smith didn’t teach until much later, the 1840’s, along with extremely controversial doctrines like polygamy and polyandry. It seems that over time the doctrines of both men got stranger and stranger. I thought of two potential explanations for this; first, their mental illness getting worse, second, there’s constant pressure to create new doctrines so they have to dig deeper into their imaginations. There’s a famous Mormon axiom, milk before meat. The idea is that the simpler doctrines are taught first, then believers are given the meat of the theology. The clearest example of this, for Mormons, is the temples. People are converted to Mormonism by teachings about eternal families and God’s love then after a while, after they proved their faith, they’re taken through the temple ceremony, which is a lot more than simply eternal families; look it up on youtube if you’re interested. This isn’t a new practice, the idea of secret doctrines for the most faithful goes back to the earliest religions, but Mormons and Scientologists are much clearer examples of the practice than are modern Christians. My point is that maybe, if you believe in Mormonism or Scientology, you could argue that God, or whatever, is giving the milk before the meat to his prophets.
Considering the similarities between Scientology and Mormonsim made me consider the Mormon prison of belief. It has same three basic properties as Scientology’s. First belief, then psychological coercion, finally, occasionally, physical coercion. I tried earlier to explain why belief was a prison in itself, but I didn’t do a good job explaining exactly why. A prison of belief, to my mind, is a belief that has internal forces keeping you, imprisoning you, in the belief. If you believe it’s easy to keep believing. So, if you believe, the prison of belief, the thing that’s keeping you within the belief or religion, is your belief. That seems like an obnoxiously complex way of looking at it, but it seems important to explain why believers won’t mind other aspects of the prison of belief. If you believe, then isolating a family member that has a negative affect on others belief makes sense. The belief, especially in a religious context, is more important than anything else; that’s something non-believers struggle to wrap their minds around. If you see harsh punishment being meted out you don’t see an abuse of power, you see a leader helping a struggling believer with their belief. The prison of belief serves two purposes, to keep those with doubts in the faith and keep out forces that encourage doubt. They are essential functions for a religion to survive. To keep a doubter strong in their faith, or stuck in the prison of belief depending on how you look at it, you need to create incentives for staying in or disincentives for leaving, though usually they’re simply different sides of the same coin. Earlier I alluded to Jews and Catholics losing a social network if they stop practicing, this is a light incentive for joining and, for these religions, a light disincentive for leaving. Presumably, most mainstream believers know people that don’t attend their church or synagogue. That’s not true for many Scientologists or Mormons. Sea org members often join sea org while they’re children, so they literally know no one else, other Scientologists disassociate with their families while in the church, so they don’t really know anyone. For Mormons, the situation is kind of in between Scientology and moderate Christianity. As a Mormon I knew non-Mormons, I’m from Oregon it’d be a damn isolated life if I didn’t, but you don’t see Mormons and non-Mormons as equals. Non-Mormons constitute the World. There’s a ubiquitous saying in Mormonism, ‘live in the World but not of the World.’ Non-Mormons are different, so you’re usually not as close to them as you are to your Mormon friends. Separation is reinforced by the busy schedule the Mormon church keeps its members on. Most adult members have jobs, families, and callings in the church, plus home or visiting teaching. I guess the idea is idle hand are the devil’s whatever, but there’s things you need to do for church at least half of the days in every week. This keeps you in regular contact with fellow Mormons, but in less than regular contact with non-Mormons outside of work. The schedule keeps relationships with non-Mormons at a distance by itself, but then there’s the pressure to proselytize to your friends, which seems likely to turn off a decent number of them. Beyond the schedule and proselytizing, there’s the strict Mormon dress and behavior codes. Mormon Women are taught from the time they are girls to dress ‘modestly,’ making them visually distinct from non-Mormons. Mormons aren’t supposed to drink, smoke, or drink coffee; which would leave me without a social life too and did. Mormons don’t usually force people to stop associating with relatives, as the Scientologists do, but they keep Mormons separate from the world in their own way. It’s one thing to stop believing, it’s another to give up all your friends and risk losing your family. That’s not something people chose to do lightly. I haven’t even gone into the tendency of Mormons to cut off their apostate family members because it’s not, strictly speaking, the church doing that, but it happens far more often than it should. The psychological pressure to stay in the Mormon church is high enough to strongly discourage any believer that’s comfortable with their life from leaving.