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Is Scientology a Cult? Is Paul Haggis the Next Martin Luther?

5 years ago
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It's been a tough stretch for Scientology. The church founded by the late science fiction writer (and great prophet/odd duck/complete kook -- take your pick) L. Ron Hubbard in 1953 was dinged nearly a million bucks on Tuesday after a Paris court convicted six leaders of the French branch of Scientology of organized fraud in duping recruits out of lots of money.

Of course, given the number of high-profile celebs the Church of Scientology counts as members -- Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Greta Van Susteren, among others -- and the extent of its high-end real estate holdings, even a million-dollar fine is unlikely to hamper the movement's ongoing quest for converts, and public acceptance.

What may be far more damaging for Scientology, as it always is for lockstep organizations, is the defection of a credible and highly visible member. In this case, the dissenter is Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Paul Haggis ("Crash, "Million Dollar Baby," and many others). Haggis' split with Scientology came in a letter to church spokesman Tommy Davis last August, but his departure was only made public in October when it was obtained by former high-level Scientology official Marty Rathbun, and published on his anti-Scientology Web site.

In the letter, Haggis says his chief reason for leaving after 35 years of affiliation was the church's apparent support for the anti-gay marriage ballot measure in California, Proposition 8, which passed last November. Haggis said he was disturbed that the San Diego branch of the church backed the measure, and that for nearly a year after Haggis first complained to Davis about that support, Davis and other Scientology leaders did not come out in opposition to Prop. 8 despite promising to do so.

"The church's refusal to denounce the actions of these bigots, hypocrites and homophobes is cowardly," Haggis writes to Davis. "I can think of no other word. Silence is consent, Tommy. I refuse to consent."

In one sense, this is nothing unusual. All sorts of churches supported Prop. 8, alienating many of their own flocks, and the defection of even a well-known Mormon or Catholic would merit a media yawn. The difference with the Haggis letter is that it also represents a rare glimpse into a highly secretive church that many consider weird at best, cult-like at worst. And the filmmaker details some of the tactics that seem to bolster the views of Scientology's critics and much of the public.

For example, Haggis discovered that Davis had denied any use of a policy of "disconnection" in which members are ordered to cut off all contact with family members and friends who may question their affiliation. "I was shocked," Haggis writes. "We all know this policy exists. I didn't have to search for verification -- I didn't have to look any further than my own home."

He writes of the church's ordering his wife to shun her own parents -- who were once Scientologists themselves and who introduced her to Scientology -- even though his in-laws never spoke ill of Scientology. "Although it caused her terrible personal pain, my wife broke off all contact with them. I refused to do so. I've never been good at following orders, especially when I find them morally reprehensible...To see you lie so easily, I am afraid I had to ask myself: what else are you lying about?" Haggis went on to cite other instances of retribution against turncoat Scientologists.

Scientology leaders are not known for their passivity, and have a longstanding reputation for aggressively seeking to control what is written and said about them. Last May, Wikipedia's arbitration board determined that Scientologists had been engaged in coordinated and deceptive tactics aimed at editing Scientology-related entries to their advantage. The board blocked editing from "all I.P. addresses owned or operated by the Church of Scientology and its associates, broadly interpreted." And when "South Park" did a send-up of Scientology in 2005 it led to the departure of Isaac Hayes, a Scientologist who voiced the popular character of Chef, because he reportedly did not like the satire. (What did he expect of "South Park"?)

When the Haggis letter emerged, Davis responded quickly and strenuously, telling the Associated Press that the church does not mandate "disconnection" for anyone and that such a break is a completely "self-determined decision." (Regarding the Prop. 8 question, Davis' comment was more vague: he didn't say whether or not the church supported or opposed the measure: "We're all for civil rights and the rights of minorities," Davis told the AP. "We know what it is to be a minority and have your rights curtailed. We're very vocal and consistent in our stance on discrimination against anybody. We take it very seriously.")

Is this revelation, then, conclusive proof that Scientology is the cult that many claim? It all depends on what is meant by "cult."

The word really has two meanings. One is the original sense of any regular practice of faith and body of beliefs. But since the middle of the last century and the rise of what are now generically termed "New Religious Movements," or NRMs -- such as Scientology -- the word "cult" has been used as a pejorative label slapped on anything that seemed odd or evil. (Or from California.) Charles Manson's cabal was called a cult, as were the followers of Jim Jones, who committed mass suicide at their community in Guyana in 1978. The Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, who perished in an FBI siege in Waco in 1993 were considered a cult, as is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) led by the now-jailed Warren Jeffs, who promoted polygamy and sex with underage girls.

Given such associations, it's no surprise that no one wants to be known as a cult, and that the term has become so loaded that experts in religion caution against using it. So is there any such thing as a cult? The commonly accepted definition of a cult today is anything that is "weird" or new or well out of the mainstream. (Scientology claims 10 million members worldwide. Others say the global figure is closer to 100,000, and a large-scale national survey in 2001 put the number of U.S. followers at 55,000.)

Under those parameters, Scientology is an easy target. Not only is it new (circa 1953) but it has a complex and obscure set of beliefs and practices that sound exotic. For example, L. Ron Hubbard taught that people are at their core spiritual beings called thetans whose existence spans many human lifetimes. People are supposed to move closer to their true spiritual nature through extensive "audits" that seek to put them in a "Clear" state. As they move higher up in the church echelons (and make regular payments) further revelations about the extraterrestrial origins of the universe and other mysteries are disclosed to adherents. Many of these have not been made public, though the disclosure of the belief that an alien ruler named Xenu brought people to earth 75 million years ago in jet planes and planted them around volcanoes is one of the more unusual tenets that have come to light.

The sofa-surfing antics of prominent Scientologist Tom Cruise -- whose internal video boosting Scientology became a huge hit on YouTube when it was leaked in 2008 -- have not exactly burnished the church's mainstream image. Scientology is also very antagonistic towards psychiatry -- hence Cruise's clash with actress Brooke Shields, whom he slammed for using Paxil to battle postpartum depression. (Shields fired back in a New York Times op-ed.)

But viewed from certain perspectives, almost any religion can seem "weird," and it's generally not fair to hold a belief system responsible for the offbeat antics of its adherents.

What can legitimately be considered hallmarks of a cult are, to name a few: a devotion to secrecy as regards beliefs and membership; a belief system that is so esoteric as to be incomprehensible or so derivative as to be patently false; financial requirements that can become onerous; practices or requirements that isolate members from loved ones or bar contact with anyone outside the religion; an obsession with a particular leader who may be charismatic and authoritarian; and of course any systematic physical or sexual abuse. The end result is an emotional and spiritual dependency that is harmful to a person's well-being.

People can and will disagree as to whether Scientology qualifies under any or all of these categories. Ultimately, determining whether a group is a cult comes down to Justice Potter Stewart's famous threshold for defining obscenity: "I know it when I see it." But another intriguing aspect of Haggis' dissent is that he does not seem to be a classic apostate or angry exile -- someone who has wholly renounced his former beliefs and co-religionists and now means to do them harm.

Indeed, Haggis takes pains to say that "The great majority of Scientologists I know are good people who are genuinely interested in improving conditions on this planet and helping others. I have to believe that if they knew what I now know, they too would be horrified." In that sense, Haggis may be more of a reformer who wishes to see his former church live up to its true calling rather than a defector who wants to pulls the temple down around him.

We'll see what happens to Scientology. One mark of a "real" religion is its ability to reform or adapt. Some religions could be said to begin as cults and over time transform into religions. Similarly, religious traditions, or parts of them, can also degenerate into cults. But cults generally don't last long because they are so obsessive and rigid that they cannot change in the face of challenges.

Perhaps Haggis needs to start his own branch of Scientology. It's a model that has worked before.
Filed Under: Disputations, Religion
Tagged: scientology

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