Inside the mind of Scientology's Messiah
Twenty-five years after his death, Michael Bywater revisits the sacred texts of the pulp science writer turned prophet L Ron Hubbard
I once knew a man who sat next to a couple of guys in a Los Angeles diner and overheard them starting a religion. “So. We’ll need a saviour,” said one, “and a prophet.” “Well,” said the other, “I don’t know about the saviour. Muslims just have a prophet, and they seem to do fine.” And on they went, discussing strategy and PR, marketing campaigns and the necessary steps for charitable status, a hierarchy (and indeed a demos of the faithful, this being America). You’d think it would have been easier if they’d had the internet back then.
But you would be wrong.
Out on the inter-web, the coffee-shop guys’ new religion would have had to compete for our attention with all that other stuff like International Talk Like A Pirate Day and NaNoWriMo and Failblog.org (before it started becoming unwatchable with all those damned ads).
The last really successful religion – the only successful one for 1,340 years, since Islam kicked off with the Qur’an – was started way before the online Distraction Machine. One article in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction started the whole thing going. The author was a red-headed pulp sci-fi writer with a sideline in Westerns and fantasy who to the astonishment of his colleagues churned out about a million words a year at 70 words a minute. Clearly he hadn’t just been cooling his heels for the remaining 46 weeks of the year, but thinking up something spectacular. The new religion (or at least its core idea) was no flash in the pan; its author, writes sociologist Stephen Kent, “had been discussing and developing his ideas at least as far back as the previous summer”. Assuming he could think twice as fast as he could type, that’s roughly 18 million words of thinking before he went into print. No wonder the idea caught on.
“The author” was, of course, L Ron Hubbard, the idea was called “dianetics”, the book that followed in 1950 was called Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the religion, Scientology, and the whole story was both remarkable and utterly improbable.
It being 25 years since L Ron croaked (or abandoned his body to continue his researches on a planet in a distant galaxy, which is what Tom Cruise and John Travolta believe, and Jerry Seinfeld, Van Morrison and Sharon Stone used to believe, or at least are believed to believe or have believed) it seemed only fair to read Dianetics and a bit of L Ron’s other stuff – Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 and the Ole Doc Methuselah stories from Astounding magazine – to see how he might have done it.
And the answer is: it’s a complete bloody mystery, and not just because Dianetics is obviously nonsense. Everything is obviously nonsense. What are you telling me? When the gentleman loves the lady very very much, he climbs on top and is excused into her? And she lets him? And then there’s a baby? Excuse me? It’s ridiculous. All of it. God, Allah, Elohim, Mithras, Zeus, atoms, quarks, the Higgs boson, genes, gravity, germs: all bollocks. All, to put it another way, stories. We may think that supersymmetry or, even more scarily, M-theory are somehow truer or more real but that’s because most of us can’t see that mathematics is another language for telling stories in – indeed, stories in which the most important thing, just as in Athenian tragedy, is not that they are necessarily true but that they are internally coherent.
So what’s egregious about Dianetics? Never mind that it’s bollocks. We’ve dealt with that. Why is it more bollocks than Christianity? Why is it such a mad idea that we are actually the – I’ve probably got this wrong but it’s late and because of reading Dianetics I think I may have gone mad – invisible spirits of Thetans from a different galaxy, struggling with an accretion of spiritual vegetative matter which needs to be removed with constant application of money and a thing called an e-meter which doesn’t actually do anything except cost over $4,000, which is a pretty good return on a sort of Wheatstone bridge made from around £20-worth of components you could get from Maplin? And when that’s all done, you’re in the clear and can go on to some kind of new life.
Which of course is far more peculiar than the idea that if you tell a man in a box wearing a special magic scarf – a man who has been touched by another man in a special hat who has been rubbed with magic oil – about climbing on top of the lady and being excused into her, a special alien in the sky who is his own father AND utterly unimaginable AND just like us will be very, very sorry for you and then you’re in the clear and can go on to some kind of new life (which, as a partly Catholic atheist, I entirely believe. Though as also a partly Jewish atheist, I regard as bollocks). Or the idea that if you listen very carefully to a special man who will read to you from a magic book which was dictated to a man in the desert by exactly the same special alien except this time he wasn’t his own father, and do exactly what the book says, you will be in the clear and go on to some kind of new life. Or another almost identical idea except this time you have to put explosives up your bottom and blow yourself up in order to kill, or even really, really seriously inconvenience, other people who believe almost exactly the same thing, except that they have better stuff, and then you will be in the clear and go on to an almost identical kind of new life except you get to be excused into lots of ladies without having to love them very, very much or even at all.
So after wading – for once, it’s the right word – through Dianetics and failing to understand what it was on about (though understanding enough to realise it was bollocks) I found myself posing this question: what’s so egregious about Scientology?
L Ron can write. It may not be to your taste but while it would take a poor and paltry imagination to be gripped by Battlefield Earth (brutal alien invaders, heroic boy earthling, alien called Zzt, someone gulping down a “saucepan of Kerbango”, a home base imaginatively named “Planet 1, Galaxy 1” and a Planetary Director of Earth called Numph), Ole Doc Methuselah is a different matter. Excellent pulp SF, a good lead character – highly respected member of the Universal Medical Society – exactly what the readers of Astounding (count me in, although really I was always a Creepy Worlds man myself) want. In terms of literary competence, L Ron is streets ahead of the lamentable Book of Mormon, a feeble pastiche of the miraculous language of the translators who produced the King James Bible.
Nor, indeed, does Scientology’s “belief system” – it’s the “system” bit that bothers me, not the “belief” – go as far as the others. L Ron’s Thetans don’t claim responsibility for the whole show. They didn’t make the cosmos. They’re just part of the cosmos, and since it’s fairly mainstream rationality now to say that the cosmos must contain all possible iterations of itself, one has to conclude: fair enough.
So what is the great gulf between Scientology and pretty much all other reasonably popular insanely improbable belief systems?
My conclusion is that it’s L Ron. Not just his keenness on the business aspects of religion. Not just the thorough nastiness of some of his administrative bruisers. Not just the allegations of black ops and dodgy dealings or the notorious hair-trigger litigiousness of the organisation (it’s so litigious it’ll probably sue me for calling it so litigious it’ll probably sue me). Nor even L Ron’s history as a civil engineer, a pretty flaky WW2 military career (kicking off a two-day battle involving his own submarine-chaser, four other ships, two blimps but no actual enemy submarine) or his tall stories about geology, Freud, atomic physics (he failed), being a lama, exploring, documentaries and the rest. No; my theory is it’s L Ron. I mean, literally, “L Ron”. Jesus: fine. Muhammad: fine. Moses: tickety-boo. Peace be upon them all. But L Ron? Excuse me? If its founder had been “L Ron Christ” would Christianity ever have got going? It’s a harsh world and I think the answer is “no”.
But as for why Scientology did get going ... well: first, Dianetics hits the perfect pitch of laying out mumbo-jumbo in just clear enough terms for people who think they’re terribly significant but who aren’t that bright (there are a lot of movie stars in the lists, wouldn’t you say?) to think that they’re grasping something terribly important which actually makes sense. And, secondly, it doesn’t pose a Creator. Just a bunch of clever aliens. Whom we can turn back into if we have enough money.
Apotheosis without the Theos. Only a science fiction writer could come up with that idea. A religion. It’s got to be better than a poxy old New York Times bestseller. Ask any Thetan.