Science, fiction, faith: do we still need colorful stories?
There’s nothing new about science fiction religions. Our traditional faiths were informed by celestial phenomena in an age before UFOs: flaming chariots and boats on the Milky Way. We look up and see our technology reflected.
Religion has always taken advantage of the technology of its age. The earliest printing presses were put to work making Bibles. Today evangelists declaim on TV, solicit donations by credit card, and ministries have moved from physical temples to cyberspace.
It’s no surprise, too, that religious believers in the age of reason try to use science to rationalize their faith. The star of Bethlehem was a comet, and Christ an ancient astronaut. Why not? It’s just new clothes for an old prophet. The message doesn’t change, so whatever makes it acceptable to the present generation is fine.
What’s new is the idea that you can base your religion itself on a piece of technology. Two 20th century religions are notable for doing just this.
Timothy Leary’s League For Spiritual Discovery, founded in 1966, holds the manmade hallucinogen LSD as its sacrament. Leary thought that use of LSD might provide a form of psychotherapy. L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, founded in 1953, guides its initiates toward mental health through the use of the E-Meter, a device much like a lie detector.
There are interesting parallels between the two men. Both were intelligent, educated, and charismatic communicators. Both had a background in the military, though only Hubbard saw active duty. Both dabbled in Aleister Crowley. Both courted middle class kids and celebrities in Hollywood. Both spent the last years of their lives on the run, and both were forced into unsavory political marriages in Africa as they bounced ahead of US justice.
But there are also fundamental differences. While Leary’s psychedelic sacrament is unpredictable, Hubbard’s auditing sessions are all about control. Scientology opens the minds of volunteers slowly and systematically, the technology is kept entirely within the church, and it appears to produce at least some of the beneficial results Hubbard promised.
Why did both men inflate their psychotherapy into religion? In Leary’s case, he hoped to keep LSD legal as an exemption for his patients, much as peyote was for the Native American Church. Hubbard knew recognition as a religion would provide enormous tax benefits and put his assertions above and beyond scientific criticism under American law.
The unfortunate outcome of Scientology’s declaration as a religion was that it buried whatever genuine breakthroughs Hubbard had made under a morass of bad associations.
In the eyes of outsiders, adherents are not just members of a tight-knit community, they’re brainwashed. Infractions are dealt with harshly by a punishing, authoritarian priestly class. Far from the facilitator of personal growth, the E-Meter is a means of rooting out thought crime. The church impoverishes its members, and then has the gall to bill them enormous sums if they dare try to leave. Worse still, Scientology is just another cult.
America is right to fear its cults. Nine hundred followers of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple Of The Disciples Of Christ committed mass suicide in Guyana in 1978. In 1993 a group of Branch Davidians led by David Koresh came under siege in Waco, Texas, a mismanagement on both sides that killed 74.
But the Peoples Temple and the Koreshians were just Christian radicals. God help them if they’d believed in, let’s say, salvation by UFO.
A year after Waco, just such a science fiction religion made world headlines when 38 members of the Order Of The Solar Temple were found ritually murdered in Switzerland. More continued to die into 1997 — in total, 74 were killed by their own church or committed suicide. Their leader Joseph Di Mambro had assured his flock that when they died they would be transported to a paradise planet orbiting Sirius.
That year another mass suicide claimed 39 members of Heaven’s Gate. They also believed in rapture by spaceship. Their leader, Marshall Applewhite, convinced them he had received wisdom from aliens through watching the TV show Star Trek.
It’s easy to laugh at the beliefs of cults like these, but they’re no weirder than those of our established religions. Suicide under the promise of cosmic salvation is horrifying, but worse is the murder of outsiders under exactly the same premise, such as the suicide bombers who kill in the name of Islam.
And in some ways, a thoroughly modern, rationalized, science-based religion is just what we need — one that doesn’t demand the mutilation of children, impose dietary restrictions on its followers, deny them education and basic human rights, pronounce racial or sexual superiority, wage war on unbelievers, and execute those who choose to leave.
The problem is that a religious cult of any kind — from National Socialism to North Korea — puts adherents under a system of permission by which any atrocity is possible.
In Japan, where the state religion Shinto had already sent killer-suicides to their death as kamikaze pilots in the Pacific War, we saw this for ourselves in 1995. In March that year, Aum Shinrikyo attempted to commit mass murder on the Tokyo subway using home-made sarin gas. Aum Shinrikyo was yet another science fiction religion. Its leader Shoko Asahara based his beliefs on the novels of Isaac Asimov.
Aum Shinrikyo should be deeply troubling for Scientology. Like Aum Shinrikyo, Scientology targets educated, affluent adherents. Like Aum Shinrikyo, it feeds its followers a potent mix of magic and science fiction. Like Aum Shinrikyo, it is ruled by a secretive, authoritarian clergy, issuing proclamations from afar. Like Aum Shinrikyo, it has amassed stupendous amounts of money and property, giving it all but carte blanche to do what it wants to whoever it wants.
But there’s no reason to suppose that Scientology even understands the problem. Only last month (August 2015), with great pomp and celebration, it opened its first church in Japan, a gaudy edifice in the center of an affluent area of Tokyo.
The Japanese government doesn’t seem sensitive to the issue either. The inauguration included speeches by dazzled politicians who praised the religion for its help muscling out qualified therapists in Tohoku, its assistance in getting “legal herbs” banned in Japan, and its tireless campaign against the evils of psychiatry.
To be fair, there are many fringe groups in Japan, some of them deeply scary. But you might think the Diet would have considered the First Maas Perversion of Clarke’s Law before embracing another so publicly: “Any sufficiently advanced cult is indistinguishable from religion.”
Whatever you may believe about Scientology, it is not the worst belief system out there. It is, after all, largely self-imposed. Though the rest of us may be “wogs” in Hubbard’s view (a corruption of the Imperialist British “golliwog” or nigger), we’re not quite damned, we’re not quite subhuman, and we’re not forced to participate.
And if, here in suicide-riddled Japan, Scientology can improve our well-being just a little, without putting sufferers on a regimen of drugs, that can’t be a bad thing.
Does it matter, then, that the secret basis of Scientology, as befitting a religion invented by a pulp age space opera writer, is a pulp age space opera?
That cat’s out of the bag now. New recruits have no reason not to walk into the religion with open eyes. If they still choose to do so, it’s because they’ve realized that the cosmology is simply a colorful story wrapped around a process that might have genuine benefits for them.
But you might argue, if they can reason that out for themselves, they probably don’t need the auditing.
If Scientology is to survive, it should look closely at the rationale behind perpetuating Hubbard’s more fanciful proclamations. Disengaging from its religion will, at the very least, curtail the power of the church’s leader, whose every whim is divine law. And since when did any sane religion live or die depending on its tax status?
If auditing really works, if the E-Meter really works, if becoming clear really works, then the Crowley-inspired OT levels, the supposed recall of past lives, and the entire out-demons-out SF mythology are superfluous. Clinging on to them is the illogic that brings the process itself into disrepute.