In one of her many bewildering encounters with the madcap inhabitants of the world through the looking-glass, Lewis Carroll’s young Alice famously tells the White Queen that it doesn’t matter how hard you try, “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” the Queen responds sympathetically. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
To many, the White Queen’s cheery approach to fact and belief perfectly captures the intellectual contortions required to persist in any sort of religious faith in the modern world. If anything, the more ludicrous the object of belief, the more impressive the faith of the person who manages to hold it fast in the teeth of reason, evidence or common sense.
Watching the new documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief – open-mouthed, I might add, for the whole two utterly appalling hours – has given me a new appreciation for this perspective on religious belief.
You couldn’t make this stuff up. Or, if you’re L. Ron Hubbard, prolific sci-fi novelist, shrewd and charismatic showman, classic megalomaniac, and revered founder of Scientology, that’s exactly what you could do.
The doco is built on extensive interviews with former Scientology members – several of them from the executive, the organisation’s inner circle – as well as archival footage of decades of stagy Scientology conferences, interviews with Hubbard himself and with superstar Scientologists Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and even (because my jaw hadn’t quite made it all the way to the floor yet) a music video from 1990 that alone merits the price of admission.
Scientology is infamous for its mercenary structure, courting of celebrities and wacky dogma, but this no-holds-barred exposé consistently astounds.
It’s the details that are most telling. There’s a contract signed by “Sea Organisation” employees (the name survives from the days Scientology consisted of a group of devotees sailing the Mediterranean with LRH, apparently looking for lost treasure??) that commits them “for the next billion years”. “Secret materials”, handwritten by LRH and kept in a locked briefcase reveal Scientology’s creation myth, but only to adherents who (pay enough money to) attain the level of “Operating Thetan III”. The creation story lays out a tale of distant planets, overpopulation, cryogenics and volcanoes, and an overlord called Xenu (who, notably, had featured in the science fiction of Hubbard’s younger days). The alleged abuse of senior members who had fallen under suspicion and were consequently locked in a trailer known as “the hole” for months on end and made to carry out tasks like cleaning the bathroom floor with their tongues.
The church of Scientology has denied many of the film’s claims, and sought to discredit the “apostates” who dish most of the dirt on their experiences as members of ten, fifteen, some more than twenty years’ standing. These kinds of films do often pack a good proportion of their punch by reporting the worst stories from the most embittered ex-members; but this one certainly gives a convincing impression of corrupt power laid bare and cruelties done in darkness being brought into the light.
Yet for the Christian viewer, there’s a sense of unease as well. While Scientology’s talk of alien invaders or the traumas of past lives may strike me as patently absurd, at the same time I’m reminded of the comments readers make when I write publicly about my own faith – jibes about “sky gods” and “flying spaghetti monsters” and unicorns, products of a rationalism that automatically puts the resurrection or the Genesis creation story in the same category as Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.
I’m horrified and outraged by the manipulation and abuse portrayed in Going Clear. But have Christian leaders never committed comparable acts – never sought to control those in their power, or suppress dissenting voices?
Sitting in the cinema, inside my glass house, stone in hand, I thought: no wonder some people have effectively been inoculated against any and all religious claims. No wonder that they find it easier to simply dismiss any hint of the supernatural and view the attempt to distinguish between one religion and another as on par with arguing for the plausibility of, say, the werewolf over the centaur.
Of course, nobody’s as absolute an empiricist as they may like to think. Very few of the choices we make can be based on anything like scientific fact: the news or history we accept as accurate, the people we allow to fix our cars or mind our kids, the doctors whose advice we follow, the friends or family we let in on our secrets and hidden selves – these are calls we make by a very different process of trial and error to what happens in a lab. We are deeply reliant on authority; our lives are shot through with trust, of varying force and firmness.
Watching Going Clear and pondering trust, I thought about L. Ron Hubbard, and about Jesus, and started to feel on more solid ground. The film offers a portrait of a man who lied about his war service – whose claim to have sunk submarines was pure fantasy, and who was relieved from his command after accidentally shelling a Mexican island. A man who blackmailed his wife into marrying him, beat and threatened her, kidnapped their daughter and then called home from Cuba to tell her he’d cut the child into small pieces. A man who is quoted as saying that the only way to make any real money was to start a religion (and never pay tax again).
Jesus, in glaring contrast, was the man who had no place to lay his head; who counselled a rich man to give away all his money – to the poor; who severely rebuked his disciples when they treated children as an inconvenience, or sought power for themselves, or resorted to violence to defend him or his movement. Who called his followers to care for the needy and dispossessed, to love and pray for their enemies, to forgive as God forgave them and love their neighbour as themselves. And who gave up his life for those who had rejected and despised him.
The documentary calls for the church of Scientology’s tax exemption to be revoked. The reason such laws exist, it notes, are because the religions that benefit from them are expected to use their resources for the public good – a goal it suggests is in no way served by Scientology’s hoarded billions.
It’s an accusation often flung at Christians in Australia as well – with much less justice, as anyone aware of the church’s record in education, aged care, and relief work across the country will concede. The more closely Christians resemble their founder, the less traction such complaints can muster. May the quiet, faithful, far-reaching service of the church make our faith look less like a blinkered determination to believe the impossible, and more like a deeper, truer reality.