When you start to look at the main things that are wrong with dangerous cults, or any kind of mass movement in general, you quickly find your attention going to the nature of belief itself and what is real versus what is fantasy. What I’m talking about doesn’t just apply to religion, although that’s one of the easiest things for most people to see. This also works out in politics, economics, consumerism and even civil rights and gender issues.
How many times have you been caught out trying to fake knowing all about something which you really knew very little or nothing of? How many times in life do we pretend in order to impress, to try to entertain or at least not appear foolish? It happens all the time. We delight in catching people out when they do this, but hate it when we meet someone smarter or more experienced or who can just see through our shenanigans.
Now imagine doing that all the time. Habitually pretending you know all about everything –
especially all of the “important” things like what is the meaning of life, why everyone acts the way they do, where we all came from and where we are all going with our lives. If you were to live under this pretense for long enough, you would likely forget any real questions you yourself still had and would develop a certainty that you have all the answers to everything that matters.
That is what life is like in a dangerous cult like Scientology. But to one degree or another, that can also apply to any mass movement.
The Psychology of Certainty
Certainty. Decisiveness. Conviction. Positiveness.
These are traits we look for and appreciate in leaders in any field including politicians, teachers,
ministers, news reporters, parents and even our boss at work. When the stakes are down and things are looking grim, it is natural for people to look for someone who knows what they are talking about to lead them to safety, security and a longer life. No one wants to follow or even listen to wishy-washy, uncertain people who are constantly second guessing themselves. Our natural tendency is to look down on such individuals, so it’s not for nothing that we value certainty and emulate those who have it. You could say that certainty is one of the defining characteristics of a leader.
Yet, after living life in the big wide world for a few years and learning how vast and complex it
is, most of us realize that we are never going to know everything we’d like. We learn socially, very early in our childhood, that people who don’t know what they are talking about or don’t know what they are doing get laughed at, ridiculed or worse. So we learn to hide our uncertainties and fake our way through.
Given that it is part of our make-up to do this, is it really so surprising that something like
Scientology, for example, would have some appeal? Not only does it promise happiness, success and spiritual freedom but above all else, its founder L. Ron Hubbard actually defined the word Scientology as “knowing how to know” and described it as the “Science of Certainty”. Those are buttons that hit every human being at a gut level.
But let’s face it: that promise of certainty is an illusion. The truth is that after millions of years of existence, and at least six thousand years of civilization recorded to one degree or another, there is hardly anything we are truly certain of about ourselves, our planet and the universe. Endless debates rage daily on social forums about almost any social, scientific or political issue. We can’t even get everyone to agree that the Earth is round or that we actually put men on the moon. It seems to me the only thing we could all come to an agreement on is that we are
never going to ALL agree about anything!
So where does that leave us when it comes to sorting out what is true and what isn’t?
Science and Reason
When you are a follower of a mass movement, by definition you are convinced of the veracity of your position and that you have found some form of Absolute Truth and are quite certain about it. Thus we have almost all religions, political pundits, fanatical terrorists, etc. It’s easy to see this in the extreme forms of religious, political and social intolerances that splash across media headlines every day. Yet don’t we all have shades of this to one degree or another? It’s in our nature.
When our personal truths are shattered for whatever reason, we are left adrift and often will search for some new truths to cling to. This happened to me when my certainty about Scientology was broken. Once I started unraveling the lies inherent in much of Scientology’s teachings and availed myself of all the resources available on the subject, it was painfully obvious that I had been being deceived and manipulated for decades. That was a hard truth to accept.
I had been so sure that I had all the answers. For years, I had been assuring others that they could have that same certainty if they would just learn and practice Scientology. Never mind all the things that didn’t quite make sense or the gray areas we all didn’t talk about. We just brushed those little questions aside. If something in Scientology didn’t seem to work, it was my fault, never the subject itself.
Once something like that is cracked, it’s only natural to start looking for new truths and new ideas to hold onto which will give some kind of life support. It was clear to me that I was going to have to re-evaluate everything I’d been taught. I was going to have to look at all of my personal beliefs and see if they were based on what I truly knew to be the case from my own experience and knowledge, or were they just based on what I was told to believe.
The one thing I did not want to do was swap one cult for another, one totalitarian thought control system for another. I wanted to be able to examine evidence and facts and in short, live in the real world and not some cult leader’s fantasy.
I was lucky at that moment to hit upon science and critical thinking. Specifically, these two
concepts totally rocked my world:
“…Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at
the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain. In fact, not only
is it not certain, but it’s the lack of certainty that grounds it. Scientific ideas are credible not
because they are sure but because they’re the ones that have survived all the possible past
critiques and they’re the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s
“The very expression ‘scientifically proven’ is a contradiction in terms. There’s nothing that is
scientifically proven. The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas, we have prejudices. We have ingrained prejudices. In our conceptual structure for grasping reality, there might be something not appropriate, something we may have to revise to understand better. So at any moment we have a vision of reality that is effective, it’s good, it’s the best we have found so far.” – Carlo Rovelli (Italian theoretical physicist)
“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” – Carl Sagan (US
astrophysicist and author)
I had thought that science was all about sure and absolute knowledge of ourselves and the world. I could not have been more wrong and it was learning how I was wrong that really convinced me that critical thinking was the key to a happy life.
The Certainty Lie
A key principle in critical thinking is to not make assumptions or think you know what the
conclusion is before you get there. Good science is founded on observation, research,
experimentation and using the knowledge gained to then come to a conclusion, from which more testing and more evidence gathering is then done. It’s a never-ending process.
A scientist does not start with a conclusion and then try to prove it. He starts with an educated
guess which he thinks may explain something. This guess is called a hypothesis. A hypothesis is only valid or useful if it can be subjected to testing. If you can’t test something then you aren’t
dealing with science, you are dealing with faith and belief. That’s the difference between fact and fantasy and the primary difference between science and religion.
You can believe anything you want, but you don’t get to say that those beliefs are the same as facts or truths because that’s not what they are. They are just ideas you have about how things might be. If you can’t test or prove them, then you have no business obnoxiously insisting that other people accept them as true, and you certainly don’t have any right to go committing violence or killing anyone else because of your beliefs. That’s about as irrational as you can possibly get.
No scientific principle is guaranteed by anybody to be 100% Absolute Truth, no matter how many times it’s been tested. It may be that there are exceptions to any of the scientific principles we are all familiar with, like gravity or Einstein’s famous E=mc2, but those exceptions just haven’t been discovered yet.
In good science and in rational thinking, there is always an element of uncertainty or doubt. No
matter how far fetched or inconceivable an idea may be, it might just turn out to be true. To dismiss it out of hand, with no evidence or facts to support that dismissal, is not critical thinking but arrogance. For example, there may well be UFOs visiting Earth on a regular basis and Atlantis may really have sunk under the ocean three millenia ago. We can always keep our eyes and ears open for evidence of these things. If such should appear, then we are that much closer to understanding more about the world in which we live.
Of course, as Carl Sagan advised: “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.” Once an idea has been disproven, it’s silly to continue to cling to it. A person has got to be willing to change their mind and a critical thinker will when the evidence is clearly not supporting his position.
To a cult member or someone in a mass movement, they cannot afford to be uncertain. They build up walls in their thinking and won’t let facts or evidence get through to challenge any of those certainties. By doing so they limit their OWN thinking and, really, close themselves off to a lot of what the world has to offer. You don’t have to be a member of a dangerous cult to fall into this pattern. We all can do it and it is a wise person who can not only accept new information but also admit he’s been wrong and change his mind.
The certainty that groups like Scientology offer is not just an illusion but is actually a kind of trap. It’s a way of shutting out observation and closing off thinking. There is not one subject known to Man that can offer total certainty of life, the universe and everything. That level of
knowledge simply doesn’t exist.
There’s nothing wrong with knowing things. Anyone can have well-founded ideas, can form new opinions from them and get by in the world. We all do just that every day.
What we don’t do and what would be a beneficial change for everyone is to adopt that idea that it’s just as important to know what you don’t know, and to be okay with that too. In fact, the
recognition that one does not know, and beginning the quest to learn, is actually the point where all wisdom begins.
I’d like to see a lot more of THAT on social media and in the news. Maybe then the world wouldn’t seem like such a crazy place.
Thank you for watching.