Propaganda is a necessary tool for any hopeful religious leader. Before you can fix someone, you have to make them believe they’re broken. What and how they’re broken is what gives each religion its particular flavor. Ingredients vary, but the recipe is always the same.
L. Ron Hubbard knew that his charisma and charm were powerful commodities. In Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary, Going Clear, Hubbard embarked on an international tour as what today we’d call a self-help/life coach. His sermonizing about the fantastical yarn he spun as a science-fiction writer materialized in the enormous popularity of his book, Dianetics.
After initially cashing in on the speaker’s circuit, Hubbard found himself nearly broke. His former wife informs us of his bright idea to recover the sweet taste of success: He’d start a religion. Scientology was born.
In the early days, it probably felt like any new endeavor. You have a clear vision of what life could be; you’re part of a special group gifted with piercing eyes. There is so much more to the world just around the corner. Your hard work, faith, and elbow grease are all that’s needed to bring it forward.
And yet, as happens with every religion, reality sets in. The vision isn’t as clear as it once was. Compromises have to be made; force has to be used in conjuring peace. Unsurprisingly, religion starts sounding like politics — they were once united, dealing in property and resource management. The best way to manage resources is to control them.
Hubbard held sway over those who listened. This is undeniable. In the documentary he hypnotizes you, even if the content of his rambling is mostly incoherent. In late medieval prose they called this technique amplificatio. Robert Graves describes it in the introduction to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur as:
"... the embroidering of a simple statement to the point where it almost ceased to make sense […] the practice of lulling the ear with hypnotic rhythms. The story was regarded as of lesser importance."
In order to escape federal jurisdictions (and, as it turns out, to avoid taxes), Hubbard created the Sea Org, an old ship outfitted for a few dozen weary souls seeking out... well, Hubbard claimed he was studying ancient civilizations. Former Scientologists describe his nighttime orations under the stars as mystical, enrapturing. The rhythm, the cadence, the lulling. The story mattered less.
Which is why so many felt duped upon ascending the pay-as-you-go staircase of Scientology. Upon reaching Operating Thetan Level 3, they’re introduced to the creation myth. By this point they’ve dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars in attempting to go "clear" — eviscerating the thousands of annoying devils that have gathered inside your flesh. In this perpetual race of horse-chases-carrot, the weary traveler is finally introduced to Xenu.
As Joe Rogan recently stated, if someone tried to sell you the story of Christianity today, you’d regard them as insane. At least its creation myth is on page one, however; you can simply ignore the nonsense and walk away. Yet some cults have the force to become religions, as did that one, as Scientology has spent the last half-century attempting. To do so, they rely on us to suspend our disbelief.
Perhaps that’s why a handful of disgruntled Scientologists fled after reaching OT III, whereupon they were treated to this tale: 75 million years ago, in a land that looked exactly like America in the 1950s, the great and un-merciful Xenu ruled the galaxy through tax audits. If you weren’t paying up, you’d be imprisoned and brought to Teegeeack — Earth — and dumped into a volcano. After a hydrogen bomb was dropped on top of you, you’d dissolve and, as a massless being, enter human bodies.
As one would expect, the Church of Scientology is irate, claiming it repeatedly reached out to Gibney to offer members to speak on its behalf. It’s well-known that in hostage situations prisoners often empathize with their captors. Some even take up their cause, believing it to be their own. They’ve been seduced by the rhythm and can’t find their way out of the song.
Scientology is fascinating, although not new. Tales of deceit, power, ego, wealth — such stories have been told by every major religion humans have dreamed up. There are many good people in the world; it is possible to enjoy a spiritually fulfilling life. But when you hand over your power to a seducer, you’re going to get charmed. Then disarmed. Finally, harmed.
Reports of torture and imprisonment in Scientology camps have been circulating for decades. Gibney’s fantastic documentary takes an in-depth look at only some of the disturbing topics plaguing this church. Given that it’s HBO’s highest-rated documentary in nearly a decade, people are curious about the Oz behind one of Los Angeles’s largest real estate holders. Curious, in a rubbernecking sort of way.
While it’s easy to laugh off a pseudo-religion that battles cosmic tax auditors and exorcises invisible atomic volcanic gremlins, that’s merely the hypnotic gibberish hiding the organization’s true intention: amassing capital and property worldwide. And like many other religions, they’re wildly successful.
Conscientious citizens have been calling for higher corporate tax rates and the ending of loopholes for decades. One of the biggest loopholes in clear sight is the free pass given to religious corporations, which know exactly what both the right and left hand are doing. Unfortunately, as long as some of us keep buying, there’s no way they’re not going to sell.
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