1 Mar 2011

Intentional ignorance and willful blindness keep members trapped in cults like Scientology



National Post - Canada

The definitive work on Scientology's cult


Robert Fulford  | National Post Columnist



Ayoung woman, selling advertising for the magazine I edited some decades ago, asked one morning for a private meeting. It developed that she was a Scientologist, aiming to recruit me.

She explained that working with a Scientology practitioner had greatly enhanced her self-esteem. Moreover, she would later learn how to cure the common cold. She acknowledged that Scientology had critics, but they could be dismissed. One journalist had written an attack but Scientology had exposed him as a former member, spiteful over rejection.

Ever since then I've followed the relationship between the media and this famously loony cult (which at certain times has included friends or colleagues of mine). I thought about my would-be recruiter when reading "The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology," a 25,000-word article by Lawrence Wright in the current New Yorker. [see links below]

Wright mentions just once the story that high-level Scientologists avoid getting colds but he describes at length Scientology's intense secrecy and its anger over frank discussion by outsiders. Just like the journalist described by my colleague long ago, every critic is denounced by official Scientology for sinister motives.

In my experience Scientologists yearn to be intellectuals but never get around to acquiring anything resembling a critical mind. They are often talented but seldom educated. They rarely show much interest in reading. They swallow from their instructors unlimited amounts of claptrap.

Paul Haggis fits this description. His brave public struggle with the faith has provided the keystone of Wright's article while costing Haggis many old friends. He's a gifted filmmaker, best known for his superb 2004 movie, Crash. He was a loyal Scientologist for decades and donated hundreds of thousands to support its work.

Yet he somehow neglected to learn anything much about its structure and its history. He couldn't handle the reading. Dianetics, a key text of the movement, defeated him. "I read about 30 pages," he says.

"I thought it was impenetrable." When he was allowed to study one of the secret doctrines, it struck him as pure madness. But he remained within the fold.

A few years ago he disagreed with what he considered an anti-gay policy of Scientology (he has two lesbian daughters). He began studying what others, including ex-Scientologists, had written. Soon he withdrew his membership and became a sharp critic of the church.

His great failure, the article makes clear, was blindness. "I was in a cult for 34 years," he told Wright. "Everyone else could see it. I don't know why I couldn't."

Members of cults often take refuge in a willed ignorance. This was another shared characteristic of the Scientologists I've met: They avoided learning what they didn't want to find out. They decided that their best chance of quietening their turbulent souls was to embrace the doctrines of a science-fiction novelist who invented his own religion and appointed himself pope.

L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986), the founder of Scientology and the author of its scriptures, gets relatively gentle treatment from Wright. The article says Hubbard falsified his war record, thereby invalidating crucial elements in Scientology's official history, but Wright argues that this sort of discrepancy shouldn't obscure the fact that he was a fascinating man; after all, he founded one of the few 20th century religious movements that have survived into the 21st: "Hubbard was certainly grandiose, but to label him merely a fraud is to ignore the complexity of his character."

He was indeed complex. He blamed many human troubles on an inter-galactic event 75 million years in the past. He said a despotic dictator ruling 90 planets dealt with overpopulation by killing a great multitude on Earth. The spirits of the dead lived on and eventually placed "the seed of aberrant behaviour" in humans. Hubbard created Scientology to solve this problem.

Scientology has often been criticized by journalists but never before with the authority Lawrence Wright brings to the task. The winner of a 2007 Pulitzer for The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Wright has the most formidable magazine in the world behind him.

Scientology being famously litigious, the New Yorker editors wisely assigned a squad of four researchers to check Wright's facts. The article, which will soon become a book, contains so many details that checking took months and involved asking Scientology's representatives 971 factual questions. The Scientologists and their four lawyers replied with 47 volumes of material supporting their position, in binders that ran seven linear feet.

But can Scientology survive this unprecedented critique? Probably. Like any religion, it's a matter of faith.


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