This has been a tough month to be a Scientologist [ed note: originally posted in Oct 2009, but applies just as much to July 2012]. From the public renunciation by one of its senior members–screenwriter Paul Haggis—, to the interview-gone-wrong viral sensation by its spokesperson Tommy Davis, it seems that the Psychlos are carrying the day; however, Scientology has weathered many storms in its relatively brief existence and there is no reason to think that these will be any different. Since we here at Mockingbird are fascinated by all things celebrity and theological, Scientology holds a special place in our Mockinghearts. So we were delighted when a good friend who shares our fascination, Jeff Stockett, sent us the following take on its appeal. Needless to say, Jeff’s piece contains some great insights into how Law/Gospel themes–self-creation, identity, hope, etc–are working within this intriguing religion. . .enjoy, and always remember your Happy Premises:)

The Church of Scientology (CoS) is an absolutely fascinating cultural subject (dare I say phenomenon?). Of particular interest, at least in my mind, is how the organization has continued to draw members over the last few years in spite of its controversial doctrines/origins and a seemingly endless supply of negative media attention. In fact, like many of us, my first exposure to the CoS on any sort of large scale came courtesy of Tom Cruise in June 2005, when he was interviewed by Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today Show about his role in the film “War of the Worlds.” Of course, having atypical origins isn’t so unusual among the world’s religions, but the CoS is the only world religion I’m aware of that was founded by an American science fiction writer (L. Ron Hubbard) during the 1950’s—now that’s a pretty unique starting position!

In the case of the CoS it’s also worth noting that the group continues to actively work to PREVENT the spread of much of its higher teachings (specifically its cosmogonical beliefs) within the public domain, mostly through fierce litigation. For comparison purposes, this would be like Christians trying to stop the spread of the Creation account as it’s presented in Genesis. Thanks in large part to a series of tubes called the Internets (or Interwebs, to the layperson) this information is still readily available for public scrutiny. I recommend you first listen to L. Ron Hubbard’s own account, and then head on down to South Park for the visual interpretation.

To exist and thrive despite these notable handicaps is impressive, and it really makes the CoS all the more intriguing to study.But how does this group continue to flourish amidst the viral spread of stories about galactic smackdowns, alien genocide, and a pestilence of ancient parasitical/reincarnated souls (also known as “thetans”)? I would suggest a few things:

1. Scientology appeals to the human desire to connect. This is nothing new among religions. Human beings are intrinsically built for community and relationship, and as a species we have a general desire to gain insight/understanding about our environment and surroundings. The teachings of Scientology provide a way for individuals to evaluate and connect with the world around them in a way that is explainable and measurable.

2. Scientology desires to help individuals confront past (and sometimes present) negative experiences and situations, which is a naturally appealing proposition. The CoS promotes the idea that through L. Ron Hubbard’s self-help counseling technique called Dianetics or “auditing”–see below–one can come to grips with and move on from past traumas (called “engrams”). This idea of self-improvement is key, in my mind, to much of Scientology’s draw. In Scientology YOU are the one in control, and as you learn to siphon off these troublesome past experiences you become a stronger, freer, and more “Clear” being. For Scientologists, the goal is literally to create a new and better reality, which can only be achieved through the identification and elimination of these engrams. This concept, in principle, isn’t foreign among religions either, as using religion as a path to re-birth or enlightenment is an idea that has been around for centuries.

3. Scientology is naturally exclusive, in that the ability to progress within the community is attached closely to financial means. Much like a country club, not everyone has the resources to invest in Scientology, which limits high-ranking membership to the affluent and privileged. I’d venture to guess that this makes the CoS an appealing option to folks who DO have significant financial means, since they have the opportunity to join what one might consider an elite/celebrity community (it’s worth noting that L. Ron Hubbard developed an aggressive campaign specifically targeting celebrities for membership back in the 1950’s).

Essentially, the CoS has a pre-fabricated series of levels that one can reach by completing CoS courses. In this way, an individual’s progression through the ranks of the CoS is similar to how one obtains an academic degree: you pay your tuition, study the course materials, demonstrate subject mastery, and then are allowed to proceed to the next course. In that regard, the CoS appears to operate much like an educational institute, only without the ability to provide an accredited degree of any kind. This concept becomes particularly confounding when one considers that the cost of some individual courses can be in tens of thousands of dollars. Coincidentally, the commercial success of the CoS led to the temporary loss of its non-profit status in the U.S. and has prevented it from being recognized as a religious body in many other parts of the world.

The Celebrity Center in LA

4. Scientologists have a built-in means by which to gauge their progress and success within the CoS. Success is dictated by each individual, and generally is restricted only by financial means (as noted above). The existence of measurable levels of achievement is contrary to many other faiths, and serves as an additional draw as it offers prestige, status, and measurable outcomes that an individual can control.

5. Scientology incorporates the idea that one can secure “secret knowledge” about reality by progressing through the faith (not too dissimilar from Gnosticism). Again, much of the “higher level” teachings are held in strict confidence until one reaches a certain level/rank within the CoS. This makes obtaining that information more desirable for individuals.

One last note: my personal intrigue with the Church of Scientology is generated not from the organization’s religious precepts, but because I am a bona fide science fiction nerd. Regardless, Scientology remains an engaging and fascinating area of study. If you have additional thoughts about why what Scientology has to offer is appealing, please feel free to share. Here are a few snippets from Tom Cruise regarding the organization’s appeal:

*Auditing is a one-on-one session with a Scientology counselor. It bears a superficial similarity to “confession” or pastoral counseling, but the auditor does not dispense forgiveness or advice the way a pastor or priest might do. Instead, the auditor’s task is to help the person discover and understand engrams, and their limiting effects, for themselves. Most auditing requires the use of an “E-meter,” a device that measures minute changes in electrical resistance through the body when a person holds electrodes (metal “cans”), and a small current is passed through them. Scientology asserts that watching for changes in the E-meter’s display helps locate engrams. Once an area of concern has been identified, the auditor asks the individual specific questions about it, in order to help them eliminate the engram, and uses the E-meter to confirm that the engram’s “charge” has been dissipated and the engram has in fact been cleared.

…Just make sure you don’t ever cross the streams…