Imagine reading the following press release:
Hello, Jews. We are anonymous. Over the years, we have been watching you. Your campaigns of misinformation; suppression of dissent; your litigious nature, all of these things have caught our eye… Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed. For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind — for the laughs — we shall expel you … and systematically dismantle Judaism in its present form…
The rantings of crazed neo-Nazis, right? No. Substitute “Jews” and “Judaism” with “Scientologists” and “Church of Scientology” and you are reading from a statement issued by a group of anti-Scientologists calling themselves “Anonymous.” This statement was released Jan. 21 (read in a YouTube video by a Stephen Hawking-like computerized voice). It was followed by another on Sunday Feb. 10 that coincided with demonstrations at Scientology centers around the world at which protesters donned masks (the Guy Fawkes variety from the movie “V for Vendetta”) and waved posters that read, among other things, “Honk if you hate Scientology.”
Again, imagine if that sign read “Honk if you hate Jews.” How innocuous would such a protest be in that case?
And yet this latest turn against the organization founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard has an air of farcical comedy to it. Why? Why aren’t civil-rights organizations and antihate-speech activists pouncing on these protesters? The reason, I suspect, is that most of us do not consider Scientology a religion, at least not a religion that resembles in the slightest the world’s major faiths.
One clue to this interpretation can be seen in other protesters’ signs: “Religion is Free, Scientology is Not” and “Trade Secrets are for Business, Not Religion.” I’m a scientist who studies belief systems for a living, so take it from me: Scientology is unlike any other religion in history. Although the Church of Scientology is recognized by the IRS as a tax-exempt religion (despite years of litigation by the IRS to collect taxes on its income), no other religion I know of considers theological doctrines and core religious tenets to be intellectual property accessible only for a fee.
Envision converting to Judaism but having to pay to learn the story of Abraham and Isaac, Noah and the flood, or Moses and the Ten Commandments. Or imagine joining the Catholic Church but not being told about the crucifixion and the resurrection until you have reached Operating Theological Level III, which takes many years and many tens of thousands of dollars.
That is, in essence, how the Church of Scientology dispenses its theology, leading ex-members, critics and journalists to divulge Scientology’s sacred myth all over the internet, and in such national publications as the New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine, and even on the animated TV series “South Park.” The story centers on Xenu the galactic warlord, who 75 million years ago was in charge of 76 overpopulated planets. Xenu brought trillions of these alien beings to Earth (called Teegeeack) on spaceships that resembled DC-9 planes, and placed them in select volcanoes. He then vaporized them with hydrogen bombs, scattering to the winds their souls, called thetans, which were then rounded up in electronic traps and implanted with false ideas. These corrupted thetans attach themselves to people today, leading to drug and alcohol abuse, addiction, depression and other psychological and social ailments that only Scientology classes and “auditing” employing “e-meters” can cure. Paying customers, by the way, do not get to hear this story until they reach Operating Thetan Level III.
This peculiar story helps explain, in part, the often inexplicable Tom Cruise, whom we’ve all seen renouncing the evils of psychiatry and the drug industry on the Today show and more recently in a viral YouTube video. There’s nothing wrong with being skeptical of psychiatry — I publish Skeptic magazine, which recently included an article by a psychiatrist who took his colleagues to task for overmedication and for overlabeling as diseases what may just be unusual behavior. As well, self-help gurus such as Anthony Robbins have developed techniques that may very well surpass psychiatry in helping people. But psychiatrists, drug companies and motivational speakers pay taxes on their products and services; they do not masquerade as religious leaders. This is yet another aspect of Scientology that provokes the type of animosity we are seeing in these recent attacks.
Humans are by nature tribal and xenophobic. We evolved a natural tendency to look askance at those who are different from us, and especially to be suspicious of activities beyond our purview. Transparency and fairness are the key to trust, and trust is the social glue that binds a diverse society such as ours. This is why we insist on so many checks and balances in government, so many rules and regulations in markets, and equal treatment under the law.
The reason people are suspicious of Scientology is because of its cult-like secrecy, its overly aggressive response to and legal attacks against critics, and especially the hypocrisy of comporting itself as a faux religion in a society willing to reward corporate success but not religious greed.
This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times.