The Scientologist in All of Us

J. D. Pigott. May 14th, 2023

In one of his many lives, L. Ron Hubbard ran a factory making steel humanoids which he sold to Thetans, offering hire purchase terms if they couldn’t pay in cash. In another, he was the daring racing driver, Green Dragon, who set a speed record before he was killed in an accident. Hubbard subsequently returned as Red Devil and smashed all of Green Dragon’s records. Then he came back as Blue Streak before getting bored of racing (since the version of Hubbard most familiar to us was born in 1911 shortly after the introduction of the motor car, these events presumably took place on another planet). In his 20th century earthly manifestation Hubbard was, he claimed, a war hero, an explorer, a nuclear scientist, and most importantly the saviour of mankind as an operating Thetan level VIII. Neither Buddha nor Jesus, Hubbard taught his followers, would have rated level I.

Hubbard’s capacity for fabrication was simply breathtaking, and the story of his life set forth in the British journalist Russell Millers’ posthumous biography of the founder of Scientology, Bare-faced Messiah, makes for an exhilarating read. But the most important implication of Hubbard and the organization he created is left to the reader’s contemplation, namely, what do they tell us about human nature and society?

Scientology is a particular manifestation of a general phenomenon. It offers its followers what many of us seek: an explanation of how the world works, and an authority figure to help us navigate life. We may scoff at the doctrine, but we are all vulnerable to the influence of propaganda, myths, and heroes. The philosopher Jacque Ellul put it in stronger terms: in a mass society, the vast majority of people simply cannot function without propaganda:

Cast out of the disintegrating micro groups of the past, such as family, church, or village, the individual is plunged into mass society and thrown back upon his own inadequate resources, his isolation, his loneliness, his ineffectuality. Propaganda then hands him in veritable abundance what he needs: a raison d’etre. Personal involvement and participation in important events, an outlet and excuse for some of his more doubtful impulses, righteousness—all factitious, to be sure, all more or less spurious; But he drinks it all in and asks for more.

Propaganda, Ellul wrote, makes a man religious as justice enters into his actions as part of the organization of which he is a part. He identified four great collective sociological presuppositions in the modern world—each of them far more powerful, writ large, than Hubbard’s esoteric offerings: that the aim of life is happiness, that man is naturally good, that society progresses, and that everything can be understood in material terms.

To most of us the fantastical nature of Scientology seems obvious. There is a reason that its doctrine was a closely guarded secret to be revealed only to those deeply invested, figuratively and financially, those who can be trusted to adhere to it, and most importantly of all, those who were ready for it. The growing list of members who have abandoned the church, combined with the growth of the Internet, has resulted in these secrets being divulged to an unintended audience, the general public, and the aggressive legal and intimidatory measures Scientology adopts in order to stem the flood are ineffectual. Hubbard’s ultimate aim was purportedly world domination, but even in Scientology’ s heyday there was no danger of this happening, because its potential pool of adherents would never amount to more a small group exhibiting a particular brand of credulity and vulnerability.

My single encounter with Scientology was in university. I was walking through the city center, likely hungover, when I was approached by an attractive young woman who, after some small talk about stress and life challenges invited me into a nearby building for an audit. As I held the handles of the e-meter I noticed that if I squeezed the handles, the needle jumped. I brought this to the auditor’s attention, and shortly thereafter the audit ended. I failed the credulity test and there was no point wasting any more time on me.

We are all vulnerable to seduction by charisma, power, and propaganda. Most of us prefer to be given answers rather than be asked questions. This is why Socrates was so unpopular with the authorities. As the X-Files slogan goes, we want to believe, to submit ourselves to a doctrine or person, and to place our hopes in them. The traditional, and perhaps the only appropriate target of this desire, is an omnipotent God. If God is absent, secular substitutes fill the void, be it environmentalism, science, technological progress, political idealism, feminism, fighting for minorities, or life improvement. Many of these ideologies are accompanied by figureheads “in whom everyone finds himself, in whom everyone hopes and projects himself, and for whom everything is possible and permissible”: Greta Thunberg, Anthony Fauci, Elon Musk, Donald Trump, Tony Robbins, this or that pop star or athlete. In each and every case we would be wise to prepare for disappointment, for they are not gods but people, and they can never live up to the quasi-religious devotion that they and their followers either deliberately or inadvertently cultivate.

True believers feel an intense love for their authority figure of choice; those outside the sect feel indifference. But if a particular movement or figurehead is perceived to impinge on the lives of non-believers, this indifference quickly turns to a revulsion and hatred inversely proportionate to the believers’ love. An obvious case study is Donald Trump. Perhaps nobody in history has been as loved and as hated simultaneously (despite, by historical standards, failing to do anything markedly revolutionary for better or worse). Opposition may be formulated in terms of passion for democracy, science, justice, truth (etc.). But in the end, until his opponents can come up with a charismatic figurehead of their own, it is all about Trump.

One doesn’t seduce through reason or rationality. It is an art that plays on emotions and reacts aggressively against efforts at rational control. Take sexual seduction as an example, in which can be observed ‘nice guy syndrome’. According to the cliché, nice boy likes girl but girl is attracted to the womanizing bad boy. Out of self-interest—or so he thinks—nice boy decides to adopt a rational approach, explaining to the girl the various shortcomings of bad boy. To his horror, this piques her interest. She approaches bad boy and, unlike nice boy he treats her with a certain amount of indifference. Now her interest is really piqued! And so on. To nice boys this is all very infuriating, in the same way that the democratic establishment finds Trump supporters’ enjoyment of his ‘unpresidential’ behavior exasperating. But it is also fascinating, and an appreciation for seduction in politics is vitally necessary to understanding it.

Art and rationality in politics should ideally be balanced. Seduction is necessary to bind people together and bring change, but seducers in all walks of life can rarely live up to the mystique they cultivate. Womanizers do not make good boyfriends, and the charismatic politician can cause great harm. Hitler destroyed Europe, Stalin and Mao enslaved and murdered millions, Obama failed to bring peace to the world, and Trump couldn’t even build his wall. On the other hand, a naïve pseudo-belief in rationality results in the abrogation of responsibility for decision-making, which is outsourced increasingly to credentialled experts, bureaucracies, and secretive governmental agencies. Remember what these PhD-laden brainboxes told us about the US president being a secretive Russian operative, inflation being transitory, or how an experimental gene therapy (the ability of which to stop transmission was never even tested in the first place) would put a stop to the COVID pandemic? Both seducers and ‘rationalists’ face the danger of believing in the façades they present to the world. As for the seducer himself, seducing feels good, as anybody who has experienced it even momentarily—for example by successfully addressing a large room of people—knows. But it is addictive and can bring out the worst in people. As one of Hubbard ‘s ex-wives noted:

He was a magical, delightful man, a great raconteur, very bright, and drank excessively and talked in proportion to his intake. Grotesque tales about his family mostly and his hatred of his mother, who he said was a lesbian and a whore. He is a deeply unhappy man.

In an increasingly Godless West, we are growing less aware than ever before of the degree to which we are seduced by the secular. Journalists ought in principle to draw our attention to our predicament, but do they exhibit those characteristics that Ellul considered the best weapons against propaganda: high intelligence, a broad culture, a constant exercise of the critical faculty, and access to full and objective information? Or, convinced of their own superiority, are they more vulnerable than anyone to the false belief that propaganda is ineffectual and not very clever, and affects only the credulous?

Those of us at a remove from Scientology can enjoy the preposterous antics in Bare-faced Messiah while retaining empathy for its adherents and reflecting on our own vulnerabilities. Yet, how easily we forget that others may find our own emotionally-rooted, deep-seated convictions an equally tragic source of cringe-inducing mirth. Perhaps an alien civilization reading about the West in the 21st century would have a similar experience to the reader of Bare-faced Messiah.