Going Clear by Lawrence Wright
“In 1996, the church sent CDs to members to help them build their own websites, which would then link them to the Scientology site; included in the software was a filter that would block any sites containing material that vilified the church or revealed esoteric doctrines.”
This book is 450 pages long, and filled with horrifying – and fascinating – things. But it wasn’t until page 386 that I actually stopped in my tracks and dog-eared the page with the above sentence. It is just so deeply fucked up to use what should be a nice, innocent gesture (‘here, let us help you build a website’) to do something so underhanded.
I love this book. It is dense but extremely easy to read. It is laid out logically, it is exquisitely researched (his fact-checkers on the New Yorker article that preceded this book had over 900 items they verified), and it is fascinating. I took so much more away from this than just “man, that is a screwed up religion.” Because honestly, I think if we had access to any religion’s leadership within the first few years of its existence, with the investigative resources we have now, someone could write a book like this. I am pretty sure that the leadership of many (most?) organized religions have done some seriously screwed up things (e.g. covering up pedophilia, **cough** Catholicism **cough**), but I don’t think that means that the practitioners are evil, or stupid, or mentally deficient.
This book delves into so much that I could write pages and pages about it. It talks about what makes something a religion – is it spirituality, is it a belief structure, is it a group of practitioners who do similar things – as opposed to a cult. It discusses the dangers of government choosing what is and is not a religion (in the U.S., it’s basically all up to the IRS, which is just weird). It looks at whether this tax exemption designation is really fair, given the fact that it can cover up all manner of hideous human rights abuses (such as those suffered by the Sea Org members of Scientology).
Mr. Wright also looks at the responsibility those who make themselves the face of religious movements have to those who are treated horribly by the church leadership. When I mention Scientology, you all probably picture Tom Cruise first, then John Travolta. If you think on it a bit, you might picture Jenna Elfman, or Kirstie Alley. Given what Mr. Wright so carefully and deliberately lays out as the horrible actions taken by church leadership, and the mountains of evidence available about the violent nature of its current leader, should we hold these people responsible for their willful ignorance?
If that weren’t enough, the book also got me thinking about the nature of belief, and what people are willing to do when they think their life and salvation are on the line. If you are a deep believer yourself, but of a more established religion, some of the things church members go through might not seem so unbelievable if you replace Scientology with a fundamental version of any belief system. If you truly believe that L. Ron Hubbard had some deep connection to the realities of the universe, and the meaning of life, and that the systems he has provided are the best way to make you the best person you can be, then it makes sense that you would stay even when you are scrubbing a dumpster with a toothbrush.
But that gets to the huckster piece of things. Was L. Ron Hubbard mentally ill? Evil? A con man? Much of the first half of the book really focuses on him, and I get the sense that he was a bit of a con man but that he was mostly a deeply troubled person who probably could have seriously benefited from the psychiatry that he built his church to fight against. It’s possible his writing has helped a lot of people. But the Church – that is, the leadership, and those who don’t speak out against and fight back – have done so much harm. And it isn’t so easy to just say ‘why don’t you leave’ – the book outlines so many horrifying ways that the church leadership manipulates people into staying. It’s complicated and an almost textbook example of how to control people with fear.
So what I’m saying, 750 words later, is: read the book. It’s fascinating.