Times reports absurd difficulty of leaving Scientology

Protestors outside a Scientology center in the UK. According to the church, Xenu was the leader of the Galactic Confederacy, who brought billions of his subjects to Earth in order to kill them with hydrogen bombs; their lingering essences collect on modern-day humans, causing psychological and physical illnesses. Dude, I know.

The New York Times ran a fascinating article about the Church of Scientology this weekend, detailing accusations of abusive practices by church officials and, more interestingly, the “kafkaesque” difficulty of leaving the organization. The article focuses on Chris and Christie Collbran, a married couple who were both raised as Scientologists and subsequently joined Sea Org, the religious order responsible for administering the church. The Collbrans’ personal struggles are illuminating, as is the revelation that—despite a spokesman’s assurance that church membership numbers “millions” in the US and “millions” abroad—the American Religious Identification Survey estimates there are only 25,000 Scientologists in the country. What is perhaps most striking about the article, though, is the realization that the Collbrans were raised in the faith. Scientology markets itself as “the only major religion founded in the 20th century,” and we tend to think of it as a fad that people get into in Los Angeles, like Trader Joe’s or hard drugs. The Collbrans and others like them are a reminder that Scientology is now in its second generation, and a portion of its adherents were raised in the truth of L. Ron Hubbard since childhood. After being paid $17 a week, forced to sign confessions, ostracized by her family and presented with a “freeloader bill” for $90,000, Christie Collbran still believes in Scientology. It’s just the church that’s corrupt, she says. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a religion takes hold.

The Church of Scientology is notoriously litigious, and maintains a documented policy of aggressively attacking its critics. That’s weird, because from an outsider’s perspective, their belief system seems totally reasonable. While things like thetans, e-meters and the general progression of the “bridge to total freedom” are fairly well-known, the details of Scientology are vigorously protected, often by copyright lawsuits and other recourses to intellectual property law. Unlike most textually based religions, Scientology is not in the public domain. In order to learn more about it, you have to pay.

This peculiarity sets Scientology apart from other religions, and was at least partly for responsible for the church’s being investigated and ultimately denied religious standing in Australia, although that decision has subsequently been overturned. The question of whether Scientology is a religion—as in, does it offer a plausible explanation of the origin of the universe, of human life, and of the forces governing both?—is, for most of us, easily answered by three facts. A) It was founded by a science fiction writer, and involves a lot of aliens. B) You have to give the church an enormous amount of money in order to advance spiritually. C) Everyone involved in actually running the church and collecting this money is rich. Element (A) is just funny, but elements (B) and (C) suggest that Scientology is more like pilates than Protestantism.

The other question of whether Scientology is a religion—as in, do people genuinely believe in it?—is just as easily answered, though. Tom Cruise sure seems to, as do people like Christie Collbran. But there’s a fundamental difference between the way Cruise and Collbran believe, and it raises a troubling issue. Tom Cruise is an adult—a possibly crazy adult who is not necessarily equipped to approach the organizational expression of an ethical-cosmological system with a critical mind, but an adult nonetheless. He got into Scientology and he likes it, and if it’s a crazy scam religion designed to trick you into exchanging your money for the assurance that your immortal thetan is progressing toward omnipotence—well, we didn’t stop him from making Interview With the Vampire, either. Tom Cruise is an adult and he can believe in Scientology if it makes him happy.

Christie Collbran, on the other hand, was not an adult when she got into Scientology. Her parents told her that it was the truth about the entire world when they were her only contact with that world, and believing in Scientology has not made her happy. After spending years working for $17 a week, after witnessing beatings and getting billed for leaving and being shunned by friends and family, she still believes in the teachings of Mr. Hubbard—so much so that she is divorcing her husband over his apostasy. Christie Collbran was born a Scientologist, and she’ll live a Scientologist—broke, divorced and a single parent, with no contact with her family besides an email from her mother that calls her “a snake in the grass.”

All of which begs a question. Could we have done something for Christie Collbran? Obviously, we don’t want to live in a society in that protects children from their parents’ deeply held beliefs. That being said, Scientology is currently making the transition from Thing That You Get Into to Thing That You’re Born With. The question of whether it’s a bona fide religion will not rest on whether it makes sense or pressures its members to stay in or takes money from them. The differences between Scientology and the big three western religions in those regards are ones of degree, not kind. The real difference between Scientology and religion, for the time being, is that not too many people are born with Scientology, and therefore not too many people are exempted from the obligation to think about it. Christie and Chris Collbran are proof that that is changing, and in another couple of generations we will have to politely accept Scientology as a way of viewing the universe and your local school board that is above argument, like any religion. Maybe, like any religion, we should think about Scientology while we still can.

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  1. The more I read about Scientology, the more it reminds me of any other religious cult.

    First, let’s define cult. Dictionary.com says it’s basically a religious group with shared beliefs which could be considered extreme or strange. Therefore, the definition of a cult is relative, as it’s presaged on outsiders’ beliefs about the target group. By that very generic description, Scientology qualifies as a cult because the majority of people, religious or otherwise, think they’re batshit crazy.

    Similarly, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) is a cult because most people, including “normal” Mormons consider them polygamist wackos.

    The reason I bring this up is because of Dan’s closing paragraph about the existence of a second generation or Scientologist weirdos. The FLDS was in the news almost 2 years ago when Texas Child Protective Services raided their compound, the YFZ Ranch, in west Texas. The TV coverage showed hundreds of children, dressed like the cast of Little House on the Prairie, pouring forth like a vampire extermination. The children were later returned to the loony-compound because the original tip was revealed to be false, and the children were determined to be very, very weird, but in good physical and mental health, all things considered. Until they’re married at age 12 to a skeezy old man. But you can’t prove that!

    The reason I point this out is that cults are legal, providing they do nothing patently illegal. If they choose to raise their children as total freakazoids, they’re allowed to do that so long as they feed them and don’t beat them too much. State regulations differ on home and private schooling, but in many places you’re allowed to teach ridiculous things if you want to, like strict creationism.

    The Constitution provides freedom of speech and worship, even if you espouse a religion based on aliens and $$$$. However, it also protects the freedoms of the members of those cults. They have the right to speak out about their experiences, freedoms these cults do their best to prohibit or discourage. The age of information is catching up to them.

    We must not attempt to use the law to control freakishness. We’d all run afoul of that statute, one way or another. However, we must use information to show that joining or staying in one of these cults is a bad idea. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”–U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

    However, cults do some good every once in a while. We get breakfast cereal from a bunch of flakes (I couldn’t resist) who believed that your colon housed your soul, more or less. And who doesn’t like Honeycomb?

  2. (Tim: Please tell me more about that Honeycomb/colon thing.)

    One great definition of a “religious fanatic” is “someone who believes more than I do”. Still, it’s hard to ignore a lot of the things done in the name of “religion”. Fortunately, our court system has addressed issues of where parental rights run up against state interest. (Think Amish; think Christian Scientists, for starters.) More attention to who bears the “nonprofit” designation would ferret out a few more charlatans. (Can you say “The Family”, class?)

    Still, contemplating a determination by collective society of what is or isn’t religion, and what is or isn’t “good/healthy” religion is a glass shod foot on a slippery slope. Our government–including the public schools, federal moneys for health care here and abroad, laws protecting reproductive freedom, to name a few areas–is already under attack by those who want to impose their religion (and the power that might accrue with such imposition) on the rest of us.

    I’m a practitioner of the majority religion in America and the concept STILL scares me to death. (I’d have said “scares the hell out of me”, but I don’t believe in it. Take THAT!!)

  3. Dan’s mom: just click on the word “flakes” in the last paragraph of my comment. I can hyperlink just like little Danny! :)

    Or, just go here: http://blogs.static.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/20822.html

    I oversimplified the believed connection between digestive and spiritual health, for the sake of humor, but not by much.

    And, I agree that we need to fight those who try to legislate morality or religion, and we also should try to fight those who try to completely outlaw it. The “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution, but it has years of legel precedent. It doesn’t mean that the “church” should be legal, or illegal. It should be extralegal. Where it needs to cross over, we’ll argue about it.

    The most important thing is openness and truth. It’s one thing to say: “We believe in X, Y, and Z. Believe it, or don’t. Want to leave? We’ll guilt trip you about it, but it’s your (after)life.”
    It’s another thing to say “We believe in X. Y and Z? You gotta earn/buy that knowledge. Oh, and we’ll do everything in our power to make your life hell if you cross the line.” That seems to be a distinction between “mainstream” religions and cults.

  4. I think Tim is getting at a useful distinction, here, in the way that cults and quote-unquote legitimate religions approach nonbelievers, particularly former believers. Scientology, for example, has cultivated an aggressive us-versus-them mentality, and “them” includes people who want to leave the church. Where Christians actively try to pull former believers back in, Scientology—and Branch Davidianism, and whatever Jim Jones had going, and presumably that snake religion in Conan the Barbarian—try to make the consequences of leaving so terrible as to enforce belief. The spokesman in the article pointed to the Amish practice of shunning as an analogue for what Scientologists do, but if you’re looking to convince me that you’ve got a non-insane religion, the Amish should not be your go-to comparison.

    It’s possible I’m minimizing the consequences of apostasy in mainstream religion, though. It’s my understanding that sharia law is especially hard on former Muslims who convert to other faiths, and the Old Testament specifically instructs you to kill anyone who suggests you worship other gods. When I say that we should think hard about how Scientology functions in our society, I’m saying we should treat it as a religion, not a cult. I think we should consider how other religions function in our society, too.

  5. This just in: Fulani muslims in Nigeria have killed 500 Christians, hacking men, women, and children to death with machetes after allegedly warning fellow muslims in the area, two days in advance.
    They estimate it took three hours to get the job done.

    “Acting President Goodluck Johnson” (I’m not making this up) has fired his chief security advisor over the incident and Hillary Clinton is urging “restraint”. To that I say, “Goodluck, Hillary”.

    Makes L. Ron Hubbard look pretty good, doesn’t it?

  6. I absolutely agree with you, Dan, that we need to fundamentally rethink how religions are allowed to function in our societies, and that we should treat Scientology as just one them.

    The Pope scams huge amounts of money from its followers, the Mormons hound for years anyone trying to escape, and the things these people believe (cannibalistic transubstantiation, virgin birth) would seem just as hilarious as scientology’s sticky alien spirits if we weren’t already desensitized to them.

    It’s been interesting to watch how France tries to confront scientology and define it as a cult that can be outlawed and persecuted, while differentiating it from the Catholic church. It’s a rather tortured intellectual dance…

  7. Take a close look at Mormonism and you’ll find the same crackpot, whack-a-doodle, nut-job precepts… perhaps Scientology is just the Mormonism of the future – with aliens instead of golden plates.

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