Today we are continuing my analysis of the book Scientology, edited by James R. Lewis with chapters contributed by various religious scholars, sociologists and psychologists all centered around, surprise!, the topic of Scientology. Thanks for carrying on with me in this.
Today, we have Chapter 4 by David G. Bromley, professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia entitled “Making Sense of Scientology: Prophetic, Contractual Religion.”
Bromley was known in the anti-cult world as an apologist of the worst kind for new religious movements, having gone on record as accepting money from Scientology and other groups and giving favorable testimony in court against the concept of brainwashing or cult mind control techniques. While I certainly agree that the day-to-day experiences of your average Scientologist do not compare to what Robert Lifton described in his book about Chinese re-education and brainwashing facilities, I don’t see any way that an objective observer could possibly suggest that Scientology does not engage in undue or covert influence methods on potential and converted members.
However, after writing this chapter, I’m quite sure that Bromley is dead to Scientology forever, because this is the first (and maybe only) chapter in this book that describes in detail Scientology’s confidential upper level OT III materials including a summary of Xenu and body thetans. That would be tantamount to heresy to Scientology and there’s no way that they are ever going to pay him or use anything he writes or says in the future.
So what is this chapter all about? Well basically, it’s a description of Scientology in academic terms. He calls it a contractual religion and I should clarify right from the outset that he’s not referring just to the fact that Scientology uses legal contracts at every stage of their services. If you are not familiar with what I’m talking about, Jeffrey Augustine has done a bang-up job describing Scientology’s extensive use of legal agreements and contract law. I’ve included a link below to his Scientology Money Project site. They use binding contracts to ensure that no parishioners can ever sue Scientology for criminal activities and that everything Scientology organizations do is fully and explicitly protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, or whatever the equivalent laws would be in other countries. You could very easily call Scientology a contractual religion because of this, but that’s not what Bromley is talking about. So what does he mean?
Well, Bromley offers a theory about why new religious movements take hold in a society. Using what is definitely the esoteric language of academia, he starts off with this:
“Many scholars analyzing the cohort of new religious movements (NRMs) that appeared or gained popularity during the 1960s and 1970s have linked their growth to a major sociocultural dislocation in the United States and western Europe. As Robbins (1988: 60) puts the matter, there is ‘some acute and distinctively modern dislocation which is said to be producing some mode of alienation, anomie or deprivation’ that in turn leads to individuals ‘responding by searching for new structures of meaning and community.’ Some of these analyses have emphasized the cultural and others the social structural dimensions of this dislocation. Bellah (1976) and Tipton (1982) argue that the moral crisis during this era involved a repudiation of the two dominant elements of American culture through which individuals constructed moral meaning, utilitarian individualism, and biblical religion.” (p. 83)
Okay, so what the hell is all that supposed to mean? Basically, that some people feel out of place and unsatisfied with finding meaning in their life through money and the whole get-a-good-job-and-have-a-great-life model, or in trying to find meaning and purpose through organized, Bible-based religion, whether that is Judaism, Christianity, Catholicism or any of their offshoots. This growing minority of the population don’t fit the mold, so to speak, and look to other sources to make sense of where they think their lives should be going and what they should be doing with themselves. They are disillusioned with all the standard memes and cliches and think that the society as a whole needs a re-boot or at least a major shift of some kind. Many of these people end up in these new religious movements, including Scientology.
Bromley goes on to say that understanding these new religious movements means seeing the big picture role that NRMs play in the culture as a whole, as well as the various types and classifications of NRMs and how these work. As he puts it, “NRM scholars have also noted that there have been diverse responses to the sociocultural dislocation. Wallis (1984) distinguishes between world-affirming and world-rejecting movements and Bromley (1997) distinguishes between adaptive and transformitive NRMs (see also Tipton 1982). This means that understanding specific NRMs involves understanding both the qualities they share with the NRM cohort as a set and the distinctive qualities of the particular NRM that they represent.” (p. 84)
Yes, Bromley is writing in such deep academic terms that it is very hard to understand what the hell he is saying and yes, he did just refer to himself in the third person. I can tell you that this chapter was without a doubt the hardest one in this book to read so far.
Bromley gets to Scientology specifically in the next paragraph, outlining what he is trying to do in this chapter.
“I shall argue that prophetic groups develop through a process of constructing a prophetic figure whose persona symbolizes the proposed alternative to prevailing logic, a mythic narrative that offers a new and contestive version of cosmic history, a novel ritual system that allows adherents to connect with the transcendent power source and validate the myth, and a new organizational and relational system that models the envisioned social order. The prophetic form occurs in specific socio-historical contexts. In this instance, I shall argue, the dislocation associated with the contemporary NRM cohort may be described as tension between contractual and covenantal forms of social relations. This means that NRMs responding to the dislocation will exhibit both prophetic characteristics and some novel combination of contractual/covenantal characteristics that address the nature of the sociocultural dislocation.” (p. 84)
Now if you are totally lost, don’t worry. I was too and I honestly believe that Bromley did not expect anyone outside of academia to even try to decipher his gibberish. This paper was obviously never meant to be read by any of us common mortals and I’m giving you this nonsense not so you can plough through and decipher it but just so you can see how esoteric and exclusive this academic club can get.
In the passage above, Bromley is basically saying that groups who focus or center around a prophet-figure, such as L. Ron Hubbard, re-write their prophet’s life story and history to fit the narrative or story of their religion. They further structure their religious system in such a way that not only do the members achieve a similar level of enlightenment as the prophet, but that by doing so they will accept the prophet’s re-written life story. Finally, these movements set themselves up organizationally in a way that they envision the whole society should be structured, sort of demonstrating by example the utopian vision they want everyone to agree with and follow.
So what is this contractual stuff? Well, of course, it’s pretty complicated and in order to get Bromley’s whole message, I’d have to read you everything he wrote in here which I’m not going to do because I am absolutely positive it would put 99.9% of the population to sleep in seconds. He’s really hitting it with both barrels in this paper, but here’s a summary of where he’s going with his sociological theory.
First, in an earlier paper, Bromley has proposed that there are two ways that religions associate with both their members and the world at large. These models are (1) “priestly” or (2) “prophetic.” Priestly methods are used in settled areas where things are going fine and the church members merely need guidance and direction along a set and well-understood path. There’s no big changes demanded, people are generally satisified with the system as it is, and it flows from one priest or generation to the next easily enough.
Prophetic religions, on the other hand, come into being when people are dis-satisfied with the existing order, when they feel or are put out of the norm. In these circumstances, the role of new religious leaders or prophets is more important, preaching new gospels and bringing new ideas to replace the old, out-moded concepts of the past. Part of the prophet’s message is that things have degraded and have to be replaced and the prophet offers a new vision which people can rally around. To those who feel out of step or who can’t accept the way things have been, the prophet’s words fill a void. They “make sense” and can get people very excited to create not only change within themselves but for the society as a whole.
“Individuals gain new identities and membership in the vanguard of a new social order. Ritual experiences provide adherents with confirmatory experiences and movement organizations model the shape of the dawning social order.” (p. 85)
He then describes the contractual model, by which he is referring to how the individuals in a group agree to be part of the group. “Put simply, the social contract consists of an agreement by participants to give up some rights to a sovereign in order to promote social order….In the contractual tradition it is thus assumed that collective good is the product of individual actions in furtherance of personal interest.” (p. 86)
Here we see Bromley talking about the way in which Scientologists view their membership and obligations to their group. Basically, he’s describing the agreement individuals make when they enter in to these groups as a kind of contract they are signing to follow the rules and give up some of their rights in order to attain personal spiritual freedom.
This first section we just went over is by far the most esoteric and difficult part of the essay and it is easier to understand following all this sociological theorizing.
Having established the theory that Scientology is a “contractually oriented group,” Bromley then asserts that:
“The creation of prophetic authority in a contractually oriented group involves reshaping the prophetic founder/leader’s history from biography to hagiography, with the emphasis on individual empowerment. The result is a persona that transcends the biographical person and that exemplifies the ultimate, spiritually self-actualized person.” (p. 87)
Now this is easy to understand. What Bromley is saying here is that groups like Scientology literally re-write the history of their leader to deify him or her so they have saint-like status. In the last video in this series, this concept was also covered under the term “hagiography” and it happens in pretty much every single religion where there is a prophet figure, including Christianity and even certain sects of Buddhism. The real life story of the prophet doesn’t matter. All that matters is the re-written history which has to fit the overall message and model of the religious movement itself.
“The thrust of the church hagiography is that LRH was a particularly gifted individual who from an early age ‘possessed exactly the orientation and the personal characterstics necessary to one day discover and communicate a special knowledge to others.’ (Christensen 1999:161). LRH foresaw his own potential to live an extraordinary life, possessed exceptional personal talents, recognized that he was on a path to making a major impact on history, and was received by other notable individuals because they, too, perceived his unique gifts. He recognized the inadequacies of existing cultural explanations for the problems of humankind, and in the process of his research he discovered knowledge that transcended the existing stock of cultural wisdom available in any culture (Christiensen 1999: 151-172)….The result is that LRH’s life and work are depicted seamlessly, as if they were a continuous set of predetermined events and discoveries that unfolded through his lifelong research. His death has been treated in the same fashion. The church announced that Hubbard had ‘dropped his body’ and moved to another planet to pursue higher levels of research that were not possible while he was encumbered by his body.” (p. 89)
Now in discussing this, it’s clear that Bromley is not agreeing with the Church’s account being true. In fact, just the opposite, he’s pointing out as a sociologist that religious movements purposefully alter the real life biographies of their saints all the time and that Scientology is no exception.
Critics such as myself object to Scientology doing this because we know that the truth is so far removed from any of this nonsense that it is actually offensive. Hubbard worked during his own lifetime to create his own hagiography and the Church willingly colluded with him in this and continues to do this all the way to now.
We can’t say with any real degree of certainty what the life of Christ or Muhammed or Buddha was really like, at least not in the kind of detail that we can with someone from the 20th century such as L. Ron Hubbard. Should these people have been raised on pedastals and were their lives anything like the legends and stories we have now? I’d answer “no” to both of those questions, but that is a whole different discussion than the one about L. Ron Hubbard, because with him we know with certainly exactly what kind of man he was, what kind of life he led and the lies that he told as an almost daily occurrence.
Bromley is not so close to the subject that he takes any of it personally and he grants that Scientology is a valid religious movement so he takes it in stride that Scientologists will of course create a saint from a sinner in their spiritual leader. This is not apologism so much as just remarking on the plain fact of what Scientologists are doing.
As Bromley puts it “The successful process of constructing LRH as a prophetic leader has involved establishing the reality of LRH over Lafayette Ronald Hubbard.” (p. 89)
Bromley then goes into Scientology mythology. This section is an almost 100% accurate breakdown of the entire philosophy of Scientology and Bromley proves without question that he understands this subject at a level I suspect very few academics have bothered to find out. He describes the essentials of Dianetics including the reactive mind and engrams and how these evolved into Hubbard claiming to discover evidence of past lives and creating Scientology. Here he describes how spiritual beings, called thetans in Scientology, operate.
“It was thetans who created the material world, whch is composed of four elements – matter, energy, space and time (MEST). Because MEST is the creation of thetans, it possesses only the reality they attribute to it. This means that the material universe actually is an illusion that becomes reality only through the action of thetans. However, once thetans had created the MEST universe, they began experimenting with taking on a corporeal human form. In the process, thetans gradually lost knowledge of their higher origins and became trapped in the bodies of humans (referred to as beings) and in the material universe. When the mortal being that a thetan inhabited died, the thetan simply entered another body around the time of its birth. Scientologists refer to this succession of lifetimes as a thetan’s ‘time track.’ Having lost an understanding of their true identities, thetans came to accept the illusion that they are simply human.” (p. 91)
In a similar vein, Bromley goes on to describe Incident 2, which is the other name for the Xenu narrative which anyone who has watched South Park is fully familiar with. In describing this in detail, I am quite sure that Bromley sealed his fate with the Church of Scientology in that they are without question never going to contact or use him again. There are a lot of things I’m very sure that academics could get away with in objectively analyzing or discussing Scientology, but publishing the details of the confidential upper level scriptures so precious to Scientology’s cash flow, is not one of those things.
Understanding Scientology in the detail that he does, I’m not sure what motivated Bromley to write this. He very easily could have left this bit out or been more circumspect about the details of the Xenu incident and still made the points he makes in this paper. For whatever reason, I was happy to see this, although throughout the whole of Bromley’s essay, he never makes any real value judgements about the believability or accuracy of any of Scientology’s beliefs. Criticizing the beliefs is not part of Bromley’s mission with this essay and that’s okay.
One of Scientology’s claims in order to entice new members who may have other religious beliefs is that Scientology is non-denominational, meaning that you can be a Scientologist and a Christian or Catholic or whatever and there will not be any conflict. Ex-members and critics know this is PR fluff but Bromley academically skewers the entire idea in one of the most effective statements on the subject I’ve ever seen:
“Scientology offers a prophetic challenge to traditional religion, and particularly Christian theology. Contrary to Christian doctrine, individuals as theta beings are themselves Creators. The fall of humankind involved not a separation from God but from the essential self, not sinfulness but misinformation. Much of the degraded state of the world and its accompanying human misery is attributable to this historic separation of thetans from their native state. What Hubbard has discovered, then, is the ultimate source of human misery, an insight that has eluded all previous religious knowledge systems and renders them basically irrelevant. Scientology offers the only sure path to salvation both for individuals and for humanity collectively.” (p. 93)
The next section is called Scientology Ritual and is where Bromley describes auditing and other Scientology methods of indoctrination. Critics have talked extensively about the personality shifts and modifications that occur when Scientology is standardly practiced on them. How people’s ideas and attitudes change to more parallel the thinking of L. Ron Hubbard and how Scientologists strive to even become him. His take on it is interesting because, as he puts it:
“One of the challenges facing prophetic NRMs is demonstrating the existence of the alternative reality that is depicted in their mythic systems. Ritual observances are constructed so as to provide practitioners with direct, personal experience of this reality, and are particularly likely to be found where status or identity transformations are being created. The ritual process follows a destructuring-restructing sequence as practitioners shed their prior status/identity and assume the new one. During this process there are breakthrough moments when practitioners experience the new reality.” (p. 93)
This is chilling stuff when stated so clinically, but Bromley is basically making the same point that Jon Atack, Steve Hassan and others have made about how destructive cults break down a person’s identity and replace it with that of the cult directives, usually interpreted as being the same as the cult leader himself. In Scientology, this is not just accomplished through the auditing procedures, testing and training methods, but also with thought-stopping cliches and maxims such as “What would Ron do in this situation?”
Later, Bromley summarizes auditing as a ritual by saying this:
“Scientology ritual takes a prophetic turn by merging secular therapy from the public sphere and religion from the private sphere. Therapy becomes religion and religion becomes therapy. In contrast to secular therapy, which seeks to fold a functioning individual back into the conventional social order, Scientology seeks to empower practitioners to experience themselves as standing outside of and independent of that order. Indeed, they are ultimately Creators of whatever order exists.” (p. 96)
He is right and wrong at the same time. Yes, Scientology claims that it is making a person better and stronger and more himself, more able to be the causative agent of his life. Yet, the Church’s social structure demands more and more obedience and subservience to the demands placed on the parishioner in whatever the Church needs from them: very much including endless demands for more and more money or time or devotion. This apparent and rather obvious contradiction is something that Bromley must be aware of but fails to mention at all in his study, which is where his apologetic roots unfortunately come to the surface. His need to be objective or neutral make him anything but when it comes to really analyzing what Scientology is actually doing to a person when it is standardly practiced on them.
The next section is called Scientology Organization and it’s where Bromley looks at the economic factors built in to Scientology’s very structure, how it is a religion but also a business. He takes the time to very accurately break down the structure of Scientology’s various types of organizations, including its social betterment groups as well as the churches and missions. He then talks turkey about finances:
“Scientology has adopted a prophetic turn in its reorganization of the public-private sphere relationship. Rather than maintaining the separation of the public and private spheres, Scientology has merged and unified the economic and religious. For Scientology, the business is a church and the church is a business. Although the various church affiliated entities are formally constituted as not-for-profit organizations, their corporate, capitalist characteristics are nonetheless paramount.” (p. 98)
In a way that I have never seen any outside or non-member break down, Bromley describes exactly how Scientology is structured with trademarks and copyrights, licensing and franchies as well as high-intensity weekly production demands at all levels of its operation including the Sea Organization, to focus its efforts on maximum productivity and financial gain.
Again, he doesn’t make any value judgements or conclusions about this structure, he merely breaks it down and leaves the reader to ponder what kind of religious organization would constitute and run itself in such a fashion.
His final statement is this:
“The irony is that the innovations that Scientology has made by merging therapy, business and religion has at once been the source of practitioner’s attraction to the movement and the source of the intense opposition it has evoked.” (p. 100)
A fair closing statement from an academic who has just signed off from ever being trusted or included in any pro-Scientology activities ever again.
And that concludes our look at Chapter 4. I hope you found this interesting and informative. I’d love to hear your feedback and comments, good or bad, and whether you think I missed on anything here. As I said before, I am not pretending to be objective in my analysis of this book, but I do want to be fair.
In our next part, we’ll look at Chapter 5 by Dorthe Refslund Christensen entitled “Scientology and Self-Narrativity: Theology and Soteriology as Resource and Strategy.” I have no idea what any of that means. Come back next week and let’s find out together.
Thank you for watching.