Hey everyone, this week we are continuing in our noble pursuit to deconstruct academic nonsense about Scientology. So far we’ve covered some pretty interesting ground and last week’s foray into the Xenu myth was a particularly good effort. In fact, it was the only well researched and fully neutral review of Scientology we’ve found so far in this book, which was edited by James R. Lewis and has mostly consisted of academic fluff and apologetics on the subject of new religious movements, destructive cults and Scientology. I wish I could say that this week’s chapter is as good as last week’s but unfortunately we are right back in the apologetics zone.
Carole M. Cusack is our academic contributor for this week. She works at the University of Sydney in Australia and is a historian of religion who specializes in Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, western esotericism and trends in contemporary religion. This foray into Scientology is titled “Celebrity, the Popular Media, and Scientology: Making Familiar the Unfamiliar” and unfortunately, it appears that she was under pretty strict orders to only pay attention to positive media about Scientology celebrities in writing her paper, leaving it with much to be desired in terms of an honest evaluation of how Scientology has taken advantage of its celebrity members to forward its message and goals.
Now to be fair, Cusack actually starts out quite strong with a more general analysis of the phenomenon of celebrity and how that compares in our modern culture with religious attitudes of the past. In fact, I found her introductory sections to be quite fascinating in terms of commentary on the status of celebrities in the 20th century and what that says about us. First she talks about Scientology and celebrities in general terms:
“Scientology has received negative publicity which impacts upon community perceptions. However, there is an important dynamic in modern Western culture that contributes powerfully to rendering Scientology ‘familiar’ and ‘mainstream.’ This is the all-pervasive culture of celebrity, which involves all forms of media (film, television, radio, and print journalism) in the nonstop coverage of the lives of the rich and famous, for enthusiastic consumption by the general public.“Celebrities function in Western consumer society as icons to be worshipped, role models to be emulated, and, most important, as exemplars of the perfected life (through their wealth, beauty, larger-than-life profile, and the fact that their existence is conducted entirely in the spotlight). Scientology is a religion with high-profile celebrity members (the American actors John Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston, Tom Cruise and his wife Katie Holmes, Kirstie Alley and actor-turned-musician Juliette Lewis, and in Australia millionaire James Packer and his wife model-turned-singer Erica Baxter, and pop singer Kate Ceberano, to name but a few). Through constant media coverage Scientology is rendered familiar, and even (despite some bad press) potentially desirable to many, in that it forms a core element of the lives of these celebrities. Further, insofar as they are admired and emulated by the public, the celebrity conscious may develop an interest in Scientology simply because it is a religion professed by Hollywood stars, rock musicians, millionaires, and other famous people.” (p. 390)
Now to anyone familiar with the world of Scientology and the celebrities who endorse it, you know that this material has already dated itself by mentioning Katie Holmes, James Packer and Erika Baxter in the same sentence with John Travolta and Tom Cruise. Based on the references cited within the text, this paper was written in 2007, ten years ago. The perception and membership of Scientology has changed quite a bit in that time due to a number of factors, not the least of which being Tom Cruise’s negative influence through some of his strange behavior in front of the cameras as well as the exposure of less-than-favorable activities that he has been engaged in using Scientologists as a sort of volunteer slave labor force to enhance his personal life and property. We’ll talk more about this later. For now, let’s get into the role of celebrities in society as laid out by Cusack because before I rip her apologetics apart, I’d like to give her some credit for making some insightful statements on this topic. Here she begins a section entitled “The Role of Celebrity in Contemporary Western Society”:
“Although there have always been famous individuals (royalty, saints, and heroes spring to mind), it can be argued that the celebrity is a peculiarly modern phenomenon…. The construction of fame in contemporary Western society is largely dependent on the mass media. Newspapers, audio recordings, photography, radio, and motion pictures were either developed or attained increased prominence in the nineteenth century, and television and the Internet appeared in the twentieth century. Thus, as Daniel Boorstin observes, ‘especially since 1900, we seem to have discovered the processes by which fame is manufactured.’ The media, traditionally associated with the dissemination of information and political critique, has in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries become increasingly dominated by entertainment and diversion, which reflects the increased importance of celebrities (including actors, rock musicians, models, and reality television ‘stars’) for media consumers.” (p. 390)
It’s undeniable that our media is not just a reflection of our interests but in fact can shape and alter our ideas and attitudes by what it decides to report on. With the rise of motion pictures, radio and television, the personalities we are presented with become icons who, in our minds, represent our values, our goals and our dreams. We as the audience do not just listen and reflect on what these personalities say or do, but we come to emulate them in appearance, attitude and voice. In other words, it’s not good enough that we watch them or are entertained by them; we want to look and sound and act like them. And therein lies not just our fascination or admiration, but a very dangerous blurring of reality where we think we actually want to be them. Is this just a modern phenomenon? Well, yes and no. Cusack goes on:
“One important strand of the argument of this chapter is that celebrities have taken on certain functions and significances that traditionally belong to religious figures. It is therefore important to sketch some of the changes that have affected religion and the role of religious institutions in the West since the late nineteenth century. Secularization, which Peter Berger defined as ‘the process whereby sectors of society and culture are removed from the dominance of religious institutions and symbols,’ has resulted in the retreat of institutional Christianity in Western cultures, but the demise of religion predicted by Marx, Freud, Frazer, and others at the beginning of the twentieth century has not eventuated. Rather, religion in the West has been transformed by the introduction of religions from other cultures (for example, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam) and the emergence of myriad new religions (for example, Wicca, Scientology, the Raelians, the Family of Love, and the Unification Church). When revisiting the secularization paradigm, recent scholarly treatments note the effect of a diminished public role for the Christian churches, which is linked to the emergence of the individual self as the locus of identity and personal choice as the main medium of identity construction. These shifts reinforce the prevalence of consumer capitalism and have resulted in the separation of the ‘sacred’ from traditional religion and its manifestation in many areas of life previously regarded as ‘profane.'” (p. 390)
Now this is insightful stuff in terms of the sociological and cultural changes in Western societies over the past 100 years in religion. Cusack is not tracing this back all the way, because she’d end up having to talk about the influences of Madame Blavatsky and the idea of ascendended masters which became all the rage at the turn of the 20th century and upon which was built all the New Age religions including Scientology. The popularization of this philosophy has permanently altered the course of religious thought. In other words, if you were to get in a time machine and go back to the 1700s or 1800s you would find radically different ideas about Christianity back then from what you see today. The entire focus of what religion was for, what its purpose was in people’s day to day lives and its influence on how they thought was not necessarily better or worse than it is today. It was just very different and those differences are a big reflection on our entire cultural outlook, how we see ourselves and what is important to us. There isn’t any one thing you can point to that created this change – it was a myriad of technological, sociological and cultural changes around the world that have mixed to create what we would call modern Western thinking. The point is that we didn’t always think this way and we didn’t always have celebrities in the same way that we do now. The whole idea of celebrity fame is a uniquely modern construction. Cusack explains some more about this:
“The main concern of spiritual seekers is self-transformation, reflecting the increasingly psychological orientation of the West and affirming Jung’s assertion that ‘individuation’ constituted the primary religious process for modern individuals.” (p. 391)
Now this is funny because the word ‘individuation’ was a term L. Ron Hubbard used as an undesirable concept in Scientology. This term has meant different things to different philosophers, so I can’t say that Hubbard just ripped it off from psychologist Carl Jung, but it is an interesting coincidence. To Jung, individuation was a process of self-actualization or a kind of personal transformation where you are able to differentiate yourself from the thinking and feelings of others. In Scientology, Hubbard describes individuation as setting yourself too much apart from your group, being too much of an independent thinker or too much of an individual. That fits entirely into Hubbard’s Orwellian method of using language as a tool to re-shape the thinking of his followers. He didn’t like people thinking for themselves, so he re-defined words like ‘individuation’ and ‘critical’ to have negative connotations which would discourage his followers from thinking for themselves. There is no way that this was an accident on Hubbard’s part. Now getting back to the text, Cusack goes on to talk about how the stress on individual living has altered religious thinking in the West:
“This has special relevance as the Enlightenment project had as one of its aims the disenchantment of nature and the privileging of rational and scientific discourse. However, recent decades have seen a reenchantment emerge, with, as Campbell observes, ‘significant sections of the educated middle-class…turn[ing] to magic, mystery and exotic religion, manifesting a marked alienation from the culture of rationality and a determined anti-puritanism.” (p. 391)
In other words, back in the days of the Enlightenment, there was a fascination with science and rationality and there were great forward strides made in philosophy, science and technology as a result. As time marched forward, we then saw the inevitable backlash against rational thinking because cultural attitudes about what is good and bad tend to flip back and forth. Thus we now see a fascination with magic and magical thinking such as crystal healing, homeopathy, or Dr Oz & Deepak Chopra’s nonsense ramblings about miracle cures and one-size-fits-all nutritional remedies which promise the stars but unfortunately rarely deliver so much as a pizza. So what does this have to do with celebrities? Cusack goes on:
“It is in this context that the religious dimensions of celebrity are best investigated. Within traditional Christianity the role models offered by the Church to the believing populace were the saints. These exceptional Christians had throughout history achieved heroic levels of holiness, piety, self-denial, and other virtues. This made them worthy of emulation, and exemplars of the closest that human beings might hope to come to perfection. Within Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity they acquired the function of intermediaries between God and the faithful: They were human, but their holiness participated in the perfection of God (bringing them closer to Jesus Christ, the incarnate god-man whose death and resurrection made salvation possible). The doctrine of the ‘treasury of merit’ meant that sinful humans could receive spiritual benefits through praying to the saints and thus advance toward salvation by having their sins forgiven. Fascinatingly, a majority of medieval Christian saints were aristocratic, which may have intensified both the perception of their piety and their potential to be emulated. Christians sought to emulate the saints and because the values espoused by Christianity included poverty, asceticism, chastity, and unwavering devotion to God, these were the qualities that were esteemed as worthy and desirable. This remained the case after the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, when the Puritan ethic ‘one of the most powerful anti-hedonistic forces which the world has known’ encouraged the suppression of desires and heroic self-denial.” (p. 392)
Now if nothing else, this is interesting stuff and it’s what I was talking about earlier in terms of what a different conversation you’d be having if you went back to the 1800s and talked to what is important to a Christian then versus what you may find now. While I’m sure many Christians certainly take their religion seriously these days, I don’t think you would find many who would describe themselves as “pious” or “chaste.” Heroic self-denial and poverty certainly aren’t qualities that people in Western societies are aspiring to today. This is no hit on Christians; it’s merely a commentary on the fact that values have changed. To carry on here:
“Even those academic commentators who disapprove of the contemporary culture of celebrity frequently acknowledge that its roots lie in Christianity, and that celebrities function as contemporary saints, idols, and/or demigods of the post-Christian world. For example, Boorstin caustically observes that in the past ‘when a great man appeared, people looked for God’s purpose in him; today we look for his press agent,’ and Chris Rojek more neutrally notes that the relation of fans to celebrities ‘has inescapable parallels to religious worship…reinforced by the attribution by fans of magical or extraordinary powers to the celebrity. Celebrities are thought to possess God-like qualities…others — experiencing the power of the celebrity to arouse deep emotions — recognize the spirit of the shaman.” (p. 392)
So today’s celebrities really are simply yesterday’s religious icons re-packaged for mass consumption. And in regards to what I was saying earlier about how we seek to emulate celebrities, Cusack also comments on their relationship to our identities:
“Prior to the twentieth century, identity was largely a matter of family, religion, and local and national community, resulting in an individual who was understood interdependently. Each level of society placed obligations upon the individual, and inherited tradition (familial, religious, social — in terms of class — and political) was a dominant factor. Consequently, identity was a relatively stable concept. Contemporary society is radically detraditionalized, and the sources upon which significantly isolated individuals draw upon to construct their identity are secular, consumerist, and media-driven, and result in fluctuating and shifting identities. The ubiquity of consumerism diverts attention from character to personality, from inner virtues to external image. The sources for constructing identity are drawn from the media, in addition to the influence of friends and family, and Graeme Turner notes that in relation to celebrities, individuals have ‘a multiplicity of choices available — identities through which they might construct their own.'” (p. 392)
What Cusack is pointing out is that the way we go about deciding who we are, what is important to us and how we are going to approach living our life is very much dependent upon the media we are exposed to throughout our lives. There’s no value judgement here as to whether this is a good or a bad thing; it’s simply notable that how we look at ourselves, present ourselves to the world and how we interact is heavily influenced by the media in ways we rarely think about but maybe we should. In fact, Cusack comments on this point here:
“One final question that must be noted is that academic commentators are divided as to whether the contemporary West’s focus on the acquisition of wealth and consumer gratification, and identification with or emulation of celebrity, should be interpreted in broadly positive or negative terms. Boorstin believes the celebrity ‘is morally neutral’ but Christopher Lasch claims that, ‘the media give substance to and thus intensify narcissistic dreams of fame and glory, encourage the common man to identify himself with the stars and to hate the ‘herd’ and make it more difficult for him to accept the banality of everyday existence.’ In contrast to Lasch’s negative assessment, many media writers argue trenchantly that celebrity neither trivializes the media nor dupes the public. Rather, it is asserted that major political issues are no longer being determined by elites but are democratically constructed through popular media, including the Internet and talk shows. Fans are also more discriminating than is usually recognized.” (p. 393)
So there’s a lot more to the idea of celebrity than simply people who are popular because of what they do for a living and our emulation and identification with them is something that deserves our attention. I’m curious what your take is on this. Tell me in the comments what you think.
Now Cusack goes in to talking about Scientology specifically. Unfortunately, this is where her article goes from a serious meditation on the power of celebrity to a fluff piece about Scientology. I was very disappointed by this. First she gives a standard rendition of the history of Dianetics and Scientology, which we’ve already covered ad nauseum in earlier works and to which Cusack brings nothing really new except for this bit of context about the time period:
“Dianetics was very successful, and Hubbard acquired celebrity followers early on, including actress Gloria Swanson and jazz musician Dave Brubeck. Moreover, although the 1960s is the decade most often associated with the formation of new religions and the breakdown of traditional Christian authority in Western countries, it is possible to argue that the 1950s functioned as an important incubator of these trends. Several new religions were founded in the 1950s, including Scientology in 1954, Wicca (heralded by the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today in 1954), George King’s Aetherius Society in 1955, Mark L. Prophet’s Summit Lighthouse (later the Church Universal and Triumphant) in 1958, and Discordianism (founded by Malaclypse the Younger and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst in 1959). Intellectuals and bohemians also experimented with Buddhism and Hinduism.” (p. 395)
She goes on to comment that Scientology was not the only religion to go after celebrities, for what should be very obvious reasons given the celebrities’ value to the general population:
“L. Ron Hubbard was fascinated by Hollywood, and actively pursued ‘stars’ by promoting the Church of Scientology among the rich and famous. That celebrities joined the Church became a powerful draw card for Scientology, in that it rendered membership desirable…. Sundry new religious movements apart from Scientology have also sought celebrity members; these include Anton La Vey’s Church of Satan (Jayne Mansfield, Sammy Davis Jr., and, of late, Goth rocker Marilyn Manson), Transcendental Meditation (the Beatles, radio shock jock Howard Stern, and film director David Lynch), the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (George Harrison, Boy George, and English rock musician Crispian Mills of Kula Shaker) and more recently, the Kabbalah Centers.” (p. 397)
Cusack then goes in to how Scientology has been accepted as a religion in forward-thinking countries such as the US and Australia while Great Britain lags behind despite the best work of scholars to enlighten people about its good and valuable qualities and social betterment programs. I had to roll my eyes at this blatant pro-Scientology propaganda, but at this point we’re pretty used to it in this book. Where Cusack really takes it to an extreme is in the next section. Called “Scientology Celebrities: Scandals, Weddings and the Effect of Constant Coverage,” Cusack does not bother to offer any critical analysis or even pretend a neutral view about the portrayal of Scientology celebrities in the media. She doesn’t just gloss over negative coverage of say, Tom Cruise and his couch jumping or the viral video of his ravings about how Scientology is the only hope for mankind. She ignores all of that completely. There is no mention of anything but gushing celebrity media about John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Juliette Lewis, Kate Cebrano and James Packer. In fact, I actually thought I turned the page on this academic paper and somehow ended up in People magazine.
Now gushing aside, what was actually disappointing about this is that Cusack had a real opportunity here to talk honestly about the double-edged nature of celebrity involvement in religious groups such as Scientology. By 2007, when Cusack wrote this, it was already being widely commented on that Tom Cruise was not doing Scientology any favors by jumping around on Oprah’s couch or, more importantly, deriding actress Brooke Shields for taking psychotropic medications when discussing his “expertise” about psychiatry with Matt Lauer on the Today show in June 2005. Cruise’s awkward ramblings about this, in fact, were the source of endless numbers of stories about how he had no idea what he was talking about and ended up with Cruise eventually apologizing publicly to Lauer and Shields for his insensitive and unfounded remarks. This was during the time period when Cruise was on a media roll to promote Scientology to anyone who would listen, resulting in Paramount chairman Sumner Redstone cutting ties with Cruise in 2006 and stating to the Wall Street Journal:
“We don’t think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot…His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.” (Sumner Redstone, Wall Street Journal)
Cruise’s popularity was seriously waning and Vanity Fair even published a story in August 2005 called “Has Tom Cruise Lost his Marbles?” It wasn’t until he took on the funny man role of Les Grossman in 2008 that he started re-establishing himself as someone people wanted to actually work with but thankfully no Les Grossman solo movie ever went beyond the idea stage and Cruise has since then been keeping his career going with less than stellar action movies. And with revelations in the documentary Going Clear that Cruise had used Sea Org members like so many cheap slaves to do his bidding in renovating his home, his airplane hanger and his personal vehicles, it was everything Cruise’s publicists could do to make sure no one asked him anything about that when he did his press tour for 2015’s Mission Impossible. In fact, his silence on the matter was deafening.
I could go on about John Travolta, Juliette Lewis or Kate Cebrano, but it’s really just more of the same. These celebrities are all but invisible and totally silent on the subject of Scientology because it’s very much not in their best interest to talk about it at all. Had Cusack done any real research on Scientology, she would know why.
The Church of Scientology is an abusive organization which is doing its best now to maintain a low public profile because there are so many skeletons in their closet, they come pouring out when anyone does even a minimal look into the organization’s history and current practices. Aimed only at making money, Scientology does a very poor job at anything resembling public service, charity or achieving its stated goals of ridding the world of insanity, war or criminality. In fact, it’s been proven time and again that Scientology is better at bringing about insanity, war and criminality than it is at doing away with these things. It feeds fluffy PR stories to its celebrities, inflates its success rates with things like its bogus drug rehab program Narconon or Applied Scholastics literaly projects and makes the Scientology celebrities feel all warm and fuzzy for being part of such a great bunch of people. Yet even the most casual inspection of facts about these groups reveals that Scientologists accomplish almost nothing in the real world.
It’s no surprise why few Scientology celebrities are willing to go on record supporting this nonsense. Their managers and publicists know the deal and they tell them to firmly keep their private lives to themselves when it comes to Scientology for the sake of their careers. This is why you don’t see Laura Preppon, Erika Christensen or even second-generation members like Alanna Masterson or Beck talking much about it. It would have been fascinating if Cusack could have done a more honest academic job by talking about this negative side of celebrity influence and how Tom Cruise’s antics have actually helped to show the world how oddly Scientology can influence people’s behavior. But no – it’s more of the same academic nonsense here. Disappointing but not at all surprising.
And on that note we are done with this chapter. We have one more to go and we will finally complete this project. Next time, it’s more from Carole Cusack, this time with Justine Digance, to tell us about “Pastoral Care and September 11: Scientology’s Nontraditional Religious Contribution.” I can only imagine how that’s going to go down.
Please leave any feedback – good, bad or sideways – in the comments section below. I love hearing from you guys letting me know what you think. As always, please like and share this video around and if you haven’t subscribed to my channel, now is a great time to do so. Thank you for watching.