I used to be a Scientologist. I was raised with it and for 25 years I worked for the organization at its highest levels. Scientology is a destructive cult, a high control group that enforces belief and thought patterns on its members. Scientology is not the only group that does this by far, but it has been stated that there are more specific control mechanisms and abusive psychological processes in Scientology than any other destructive cult and I believe it. Recovery from such an experience is a long and sometimes hard road.
In my book, Scientology: A to Xenu, I’ve told the story of how after I left the Sea Organization, I was treated as a second class citizen by Scientology and how that drove me away from it, ultimately learning the truth about L. Ron Hubbard and its current leader, David Miscavige. What I have not talked about in as much detail is how learning about critical thinking set me on the road to recovery.
Once it was clear to me that Scientology was a sham, the only thing I knew was that I didn’t want to jump from one cult to another. I had no idea where to go or what to think or what to do. And then I hit on this from Carl Sagan: “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” This was a radically new idea for me. I had thought from all my years in Scientology that science was mostly balderdash and conjecture and that everyone had it wrong, that almost all of the modern scientists, physicists and whatnot didn’t know what they were talking about. Of course, I got this from L. Ron Hubbard, who routinely badmouthed anything and everything that could ever contradict his own teachings.
Scientology pitches itself as the “science of certainty” and so my thinking didn’t allow for anything but certainty and positivity.
Critical thinking changed all that.
Now I realize that “I don’t know” are the three most important words in science and in rational thought. Because it’s what we don’t know that makes us strive to find out, that pushes us to extend our thinking and reach out further into the world to discover. When you think you know it all already, you are in the worst place imaginable. That kind of false knowledge is what drives people to kill each other over their beliefs and I think that is madness, not wisdom.
Michael Shermer, the creator and editor of Skeptic magazine said that one of the challenges that skeptics face is when people say “Why should we believe you skeptics? Why should we believe what you say?” and his answer is “You shouldn’t believe anybody based on authority or whatever position they might have. You should check it out yourself.”
But how do you know if what you are checking out is true or not? How can you tell? Well, there are no absolute answers or truths out there for any of us, but there are tools we have available to us that can help ferret out nonsense and baloney. Carl Sagon laid the best of these tools out in his book, ‘The Demon Haunted World’ and he called these the baloney detection kit. I’ll go over the points of it here and comment on how these helped me to free my mind from the Scientology ways of thinking.
1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
In Scientology, there is no independent confirmation of anything. No scientific validation or peer review has ever been done of Hubbard’s works, even Dianetics, which he called the “modern science of mental health.” It turns out it’s pure pseudoscience with no clinical trials or testing or independent verfication of its methods. When I was in Scientology, I didn’t know the difference between science and pseudoscience. Once I learned about this, it was obvious that all of Dianetics was nothing but pseudoscience.
2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
When you are in a destructive cult, there is no debate allowed. There’s this idea espoused in Scientology that what’s true for you is true and what’s not true for you is not true. That’s pretty ridiculous if you simply decide one day that 2 + 2 no longer equals 4 and you’re going to move on with your life thinking that is what is true for you. Truth is not just a matter of subjective thought. It’s totally fine that we all hold our own views and decisions about what to believe, but we should always be open to debate and discussion and new ideas.
3. Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
This was really revolutionary thinking for me because of course in a group like Scientology, it’s all about a central authority figure. You learn that L. Ron Hubbard is not to be questioned in any way. Everything he said is true and if you don’t agree, it’s only because you don’t understand what he said. Any group that relies solely on the word of one man or a small group of people to decide what is or is not truth for everyone in the group is a very dangerous situation to be involved with.
4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
It was interesting to me to learn that Hubbard’s way of testing things was to see if it worked on just one or two people, or only on himself. Almost all of the methods and procedures in Scientology’s counselling were developed this way, which is why it’s not able to live up to any of its promises. Hubbard’s approach to mental and spiritual counselling may actually have some merit but we won’t ever know because he was a horrible scientist who never tried to challenge his own theories or ideas to see if there might be better ones. This of course is how all pseudoscience is done and has led us to homeopathy and crystal healing and all sorts of other nonsense which don’t offer any real evidence or proof that they work better than sugar pills.
5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
Once I started seeing that Hubbard’s way was not the only way, I could start looking into alternatives. For example, I was able to more objectively review mental health, psychology and psychiatry. These were subjects which Hubbard said were nothing but false and overtly destructive. Scientologists actually believe that psychiatry is trying to do nothing but enslave every person in the world. When I looked at it for myself without Hubbard’s influence, I was able to see that there is a ton of good work being done in psychology and psychiatry. I can’t even begin to describe how big a change in thinking this was for me.
6. Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
As I mentioned earlier, a series of one or two people being tested in an experiment is not much of a numerical quantity and gives no real proof or verification of findings or results. Real science involves testing many times under many different conditions and letting others replicate your results before deciding that anything is a fact. Hubbard never did any such thing. In his world, things were true simply because he said they were. And as a result, I discounted a lot of instances where I saw that Hubbard’s methods didn’t work or didn’t produce any improvement. I ignored those instances because I was more devoted to the words he said than to what my own eyes were telling me. It’s all too easy for us to do this but when you take a tally of anything in your life, you can make more honest assessment of whether it’s really good for you or not.
7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
It was interesting to look at this in Scientology and see that Hubbard’s way of thinking was “here’s the problem” or “here’s the symptom” and then he would jump immediately to the cause or reason. There weren’t very many in-between steps. Because I was so used to this from Hubbard, it actually got me thinking this way. One of the things I’ve gotten from critical thinnking is breaking down my own way of reasoning so it does follow a more logical approach of one step leading to another step leading to another step. It makes things a little slower sometimes in coming to conclusions but the conclusions are more reasonable and make more sense.
8. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
This was definitely not the case in a number of circumstances in Scientology. Many times the more complicated or obtuse solutions were implemented and these only served to confuse things. This was not just with the counselling methods but also with very fundamental ideas the whole philosophy was founded on, and also in things like its organizational structure. Most of the time, what we were doing in Scientology didn’t really make a lot of sense to everyone involved, but we kept doing it anyway thinking we would get results simply because Hubbard or Miscavige said we were supposed to.
9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.
The most basic idea in Scientology is that we are spiritual beings called thetans who are responsible for creating everything we see around us in every instant of our lives. Yet despite the claim that Scientology is the “science of certainty”, the existence of a thetan is something you have to take on faith because there is no proof for this idea. It’s a nice idea and I wish it were true, but there is no way to prove it. And once I saw that Hubbard had never really tried to disprove his own assertions or test them in a neutral or clinical way, it became overwhelmingly obvious that all of the things I thought were “scientific facts” in Scientology were no such thing at all.
All of this has helped me lead a more rational life. I may not be as certain or positive about what life is all about or what we are all doing here or where I may end up going when my body dies, but that’s okay. I’d rather have that honest uncertainty than live my life being taken advantage of with lies and nonsense. It’s definitely better to know that you don’t know instead of living in a pretense.
Critical thinking is something that has changed my life. I hope you find these points helpful to you in your own life. Thank you for watching.