Hey everybody, we are going to continue in this video to go through the book Scientology, edited by James R. Lewis which has chapters written by various religious scholars, psychologists and sociologists all talking about Scientology. Thanks for carrying on with me in this.
As I’ve said before, if you haven’t watched my first couple videos in this series, you should do so and the link to the first episode is in the notes section below. I also want to reiterate just in case you didn’t see those earlier videos that I am not making any claims to be unbiased or objective in my views on Scientology.
Alright, so this week we are taking up Chapter 3 by Douglas Cowan, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Social Development Studies at Renison College at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Now the good news about this chapter is that it’s the least biased of any I’ve read so far and talks frankly about the difficulties in studying Scientology as an academic scholar. Cowan has testified on behalf of Scientology insofar as he has apparently stated on record that Scientologists believe that they are part of a religious group but based on what I could find of his work, he’s not someone that has ever crossed a line into overt pro-Scientology bias. In fact, in this chapter he helps clarify what position an academic should and shouldn’t take about new religious movements and I appreciated a lot of what Cowan had to say. I also found some points I think he totally misses on, so let’s go through this in some detail.
This chapter is called Researching Scientology: Perceptions, Premises, Promises and Problematics. Most of it was first written in 2004 and Cowan just updated it for when this book was published in 2009.
He starts by telling a story of sitting around in a bar with three other academics and someone from the Church of Scientology, who asked why academics don’t write more about Scientology.
“With neither hesitation, nor consultation, we all answered virtually in the same breath, ‘Because you threaten to sue us if we say things you don’t like!’ (p. 53)
He goes on:
“Among academics there is the perception, at least, that research into the Church of Scientology does not come without costs, and that for many scholars those costs appear simply prohibitive. Media stories about the difficulties encountered by journalists who write about the Church, clear if relatively isolated incidences of attempted interference in the academic process, and watercooler conversations about different experiences colleagues have had all contribute to this perception. And this is extremely unfortunate, because the Church of Scientology is an important new religious movement for a number of reasons, and one that is deserving of the kind of careful social scientific investigation that has been conducted in other groups.” (p. 53)
Cowan is actually making a very good point here. I’ve never thought or said in this video series that any academics have to come away with a negative opinion about Scientology in order for me to give them a pass on their analysis. What I have been hoping to find in books such as this are honest and complete looks at the subject using all the information to hand, rather than the whitewash apologetics that we found from academics such as Melton or Lewis.
Cowan is right that Scientology would offer a wealth of psychological and sociological information to someone who was looking at it objectively. But as we’ll go over, Scientology actually makes it all but impossible to carry out such an objective study. Some academics have responded to this by simply forwarding what information the Church provides them and ignoring any other sources of information, such as former memebers or non-academic media. Instead of doing that, Cowan chose to write an article about the difficulties of doing such a study and what he’d like to do if given the opportunity.
His first section is called “Perceptions: The Church of Scientology.” Cowan lays out how L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology have made a number of claims over the years, both falsifiable and unfalsifiable and how both are useful to sociological research of such groups.
“Both falsifiable and nonfalsifiable claims are valuable to social scientists, providing rich resources for research into the Church of Scientology itself and other new religious movements to which insights gained from the study of Scientology might be applied. It is important, of course, both to differentiate these types of claims and to recognize that something of a gray area exists between them. Falsifiable claims such as membership statistics, growth rates and historical statements help establish a picture of the religious group as it is (or as it perceives and presents itself) organizationally, whereas nonfalsifiable, often hyperbolic claims based on the religious experiences reported by adherents – or on Church claims to the character of Scientology and the benefits of Scientological practice – contribute to an understanding of the worldview through which group members perceive the world around them, and on which they base their actions in the world. Given my own interest in the ability of religious believers to maintain belief in the face of disconfirming evidence – a lower order management of cognitive dissonance, as it were – it is this kind of claim that I regard as the most significant.” (p. 54)
Now this is interesting because Cowan is saying a lot here. First, without taking anything at face value or believing it’s true simply because Scientology says it, instead Cowan points out that it is the kind of claims Scientology makes and how it makes them that gives insight to where Scientologists’ heads are at. And that when they believe things that can actually be disproved with evidence, that itself tells you something about what effects Scientology has on their thinking processes and the nature and strength of their belief.
Make no mistake, Scientologists take a lot of things on faith simply because L. Ron Hubbard said so. They think that they are doing this because Hubbard scientifically discovered the things he talks about, but they’ve actually been carefully and slowly indoctrinated into a new way of thinking. If they run into something they don’t agree with, they think the only reason they don’t agree is because they don’t fully understand it or they have mental blocks preventing them from seeing how Hubbard is right.
Cowan then talks about nonfalsifiable claims Scientology makes such as “Scientology is the most vital movement on Earth today” or “We are the only group on Earth that does have a workable solution” or “To the degree Scientology progresses in an area, the environment becomes calmer and calmer.” These are not statements you can really nail down with enough detail to prove or disprove – they are just broad generalizations that make Scientologists feel good when they hear them. Cowan’s take on them is this:
“Although some might argue that some of these claims are, in fact, empirically falsifiable, it is important to recognize them as theological constructions, statements of faith no different from those made by any number of other religious leaders and organizations throughout history. Indeed, it is in the nature of religion to make hyperbolic claims based upon the belief in an exclusive or superior access to the divine mind or will.” (p. 55)
I can’t really find fault with this statement. One can look at these Church statements as hype or PR bullshit that Hubbard and David Miscavige throw out to their followers, but in fact what they are really, are statements of faith which Scientologists grab and hold onto tightly so that they don’t have to think about the empty class rooms and vacant offices in their local churches. These are statements that provide Scientologists with reassurance that they have made the right choice by being Scientologists and that everything is working out for the best. Is this really so different from faith-based statements of reassurance that Christians cling to in their times of need, such as “God has a plan” or “The Lord will provide?”
Cowan then tackles the claim made by Scientology about its tens of millions of members. Instead of simply taking this at face value, he calls this “…a prime example of the zone of ambiguity that lies between the strict poles of falsifiability and nonfalsifiability. On the surface, it seems preposterous, but, if accurate, would go a long way to validating some of Scientology’s more hyperbolic claims. It would place Scientology, for example, alongside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an emerging world religion. How, though, is the concept of membership constructed in Scientology, and how is it deployed as a mechanism of legitimation?” (p. 56)
Cown describes how the definition of what a “member” is could simply include anyone who has ever bought a book or taken a personality test, and that making this sort of thing clear has a lot to do with figuring out how Scientology sees itself. Yet he acknowledges that something like this can’t really be nailed down because empirical information, that is, verifiable proof, is not ever provided by the Church about its membership numbers so there is not a lot academics can do with this claim.
Carrying on in this vein, Cowan discusses how “A number of other significant new religious movements have been closely studied by social scientists, and important, often groundbreaking results obtained…. Although they may not have been universally thrilled with the end products, each of these groups opened themselves up to scholarly observation in ways that the Church of Scientology, unfortunately, has not.” (p. 56)
Of course, the reason for that is because the Church of Scientology does have skeletons in their closet and they have been naughty boys and girls. I’ve detailed at length in my original series on What is Wrong with Scientology that the usual practice of Scientology’s fair game and intelligence policies are at the rotten core of what drives it and even though I think Cowan is the most objective academic I’ve seen talk about the Church, he still seems to miss the point that this Church has an entire division of its organization that does nothing but overt and covert intelligence to protect the flow of money going into Scientology’s coffers. Because of the interest that academics like Cowan have in Scientology’s beliefs and its status as a religious organization, I think they sometimes don’t give enough credit to the purely money making activities which take up so much of Scientologists’ time and effort. And of course, because Scientology is focused on money as its core purpose for existence and not spreading its faith or dogma or the “good word of Hubbard”, Scientology doesn’t act like most other religious groups.
Cowan’s next section is called “Researching Scientology: Premises.” Here Cowan lays out some fundamental rules or ideas upon which he bases his research. First amongst these is that listening to those both in and out of the organization, members and former members, is important. The second is that it is not necessarily the role of an academic to authenticate the subject of his study. In other words, the academic’s role is not proving that Scientology is what it says it is or that it does what it says it will do. In fact, he goes further in applying advice from French sociologist and philosopher Emile Durkheim from the beginning of the 20th century:
“When one undertakes to explain a social phenomenon, the efficient cause which produces it and the function it fulfills must be investigated separately.” (The Rules of Sociological Method (1895))
Now this was particularly interesting because here Cowan is invalidating a common strategy of anti-cultists and secularists when criticizing or challenging religious belief. He explains here:
“Explaining (or explaining away, whether sociologically or psychologically) the origins of a religious tradition – even if such origins are found to be entirely fabricated or drawn from distinctly questionable sources – does nothing to diminish the cultural force those facts carry for participants today. In fact, I would suggest that this is one of the most fundamental mistakes made by many in the Christian counterculture and secular anti-cult movements – trying to invalidate a target religious tradition by exposing the alleged flaws in its social origin or foundational mythistory.” (p. 57)
He goes on to point out that fellow academics Stephen Kent and Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi have both supported the idea that Scientology is not really a religion but is instead a multinational commercial enterprise which uses religious cloaking to gain unfair tax advantages and legal protections that enable it to much more easily bilk people out of millions of dollars. And this is the position I myself have taken to this day. However, Cowan makes the interesting point, and shows that Kent agrees, that while this proposition may be objectively true, it doesn’t change the fact that many if not most Scientologists actually do believe that Scientology is a religion and therefore it’s not such a black-and-white issue.
As Cowan puts it:
“…let us assume that Kent and Beit-Hallahmi are correct, that whatever its claims, Scientology is not a religion, or at least was not in its beginning. Further, for the sake of argument let us assume that Hubbard was a complete, conscious, and utter fraud who, whether through megalomaniacal hubris or simply an interest in avoiding his fair share of the tax burden, created the ‘Scientology religion’ as a thoroughgoing hoax. How much more do we know? How have we substantially increased our understanding of those adherents – especially the rank-and-file – who call themselves ‘Scientologists’ and base their religiously motivated behavior on that identification?” (p. 58)
As Cowan goes on to explain, for him this is an unimportant point because he’s not interested in authenticating Scientology but instead says:
“From my perspective, I would much rather learn how those who are happy, healthy Scientologists account for themselves as religious actors, how those who are no longer affiliated with the organization account for their departure, and what internal and external factors contributed to the difference.” (p. 58)
I see Cowan’s point of cause and effect and how if the effect that has been created in Hubbard’s followers is that Scientology is truly a religion, then they are going to act and behave accordingly and that is something he wants to study. If he wants to focus on only what the day-to-day public Scientologist thinks and how they act because of their religious beliefs, he will come away with certain conclusions but I happen to know that they will be incomplete at best. Public Scientologists serve a few very important roles in the overall structure of Scientology, but they are not representative of the whole picture as a religious entity.
Scientology’s core membership is the Sea Organization, a near fanatical group of people who for the most part also believe in the idea that Scientology works, that it’s a religion because Hubbard says it is and who are willing to do anything including break laws if that’s what it takes to bring about Scientology’s success in the world. Studying that level of dedication or fanaticism would also give you an interesting and more intense view of what Scientology can do to a person’s ability to think rationally and critically. However, it would also be incomplete in that you would not have the wider context of why Scientology is so focused around putting people into this fanatical frame of mind and why they have to be kept in such a state in order for Scientology to continue to exist at all. Were it not for the Sea Organization, Scientology without question would have ceased to exist decades ago.
So it is here that I don’t totally agree with Durkheim’s principle of separating “efficient cause” because I think we do benefit by knowing in what state and for what purpose L. Ron Hubbard created Scientology. From a research perspective, it gives context to much of Hubbard’s policies and the methods he chose to instill discipline as well as develop auditing procedures. It also helps to understand why Scientology’s very nature is to be so secretive and how it seems to prefer to do things in shady and cloaked ways rather than be transparent and open. At its core, Scientology is about making money and if that is not understood, then much of the day-to-day activities of diehard Scientologists will be a total mystery to anyone observing them.
However, I don’t fault Cowan for this because he’s following generally good advice. It’s still entirely possible that he could do this kind of research on individual or low-level Scientologsts and come away with some really interesting and valid research findings. I believe he’s more capable of doing this than the three previous authors I’ve read from so far in this book, not the least of which because of what Cowan says in the next section.
Here, he discusses the contention between members and former members, what he calls Emics and Etics. He starts by making the very clear point that the Church of Scientology runs interference with academics and others because “they want what they regard as the truth about their religion to be on the agenda.” (p. 59)
Actually, he understates the case enormously. What Scientology wants, in fact demands, is total control of any message going out publicly about them. If they can’t get that, then they will not cooperate and will do their best to hinder any investigation or insight into their activities. However, Cowan merely chalks this up to the power of their belief and to a degree he’s right. As he says, “…if believers are not willing to stand up in defense of what they believe, one has to wonder just how strong their commitment is or how compelling the belief system to which they are committed.” (p. 59)
Cowan suggests that the voices of true believers, the emics, be given credibility because “As a social scientist, I certainly don’t have the right to tell someone, ‘Your faith isn’t real; it isn’t authentic” – which is often one of the hardest concepts for my students, both undergraduate and graduate, to grasp…. On the other hand, etic voices – whether they are obviously disgruntled or merely disinterested – are not any more or less reliable necessarily….as many of these different and disparate voices as possible must be included in a comprehensive research program. Anything less, it seems, especially in the case of an emotionally charged topic such as Scientology, simply perpetuates the problem of vested interest influencing the process and product of research.” (p. 59)
Compared to Melton and Lewis’ blatant bias against former members, this is a refreshingly objective stance and one that I support fully. It certainly should be the case that any scholar who is going to look into Scientology should listen to all sides of the story.
The next section is called “But Are They Really Religious?” and this is where Cowan tackles head-on his earlier assertion that it is not the place of academia to authenticate the claims of a religious group or even stand in judgement as to whether or not they are a religion. He says “More important to the sociology of new religious movements is why religious adherents believe what they believe, how that belief informs their social action, and how they maintain their belief in the face of challenge or disconfirmation.” (p. 59)
In fact, he makes it abundantly clear that he does not care what they believe because his personal opinion about such things has nothing to do with the kinds of research questions he wants answers to.
“I am not invested in proving or disproving the content of their belief insofar as they believe it. A religious group could suddenly proclaim that the moon is made of foam rubber…and I could not care less. What I do care about, what I am intensely interested in, and what I take very seriously, is that they believe it. I’m interested in how those beliefs have evolved and developed, what social practices have grown up around them and what social function they serve in terms of the religious group, and how religious groups maintain belief in the face of challenge, opprobrium, and the occasional conclusive disconfirmation of their particular religious claims.” (p. 60)
As a Church critic, my purpose in talking about Scientology is quite different from Cowan’s, almost a polar opposite view in that I am very invested in showing how Scientology takes advantage of people so as to discourage anyone from going anywhere near it. To me this is a moral position, one that I really have almost no choice but to take because I know firsthand about Scientology’s parasitic and destructive nature and what a fraud the entire thing is.
Since learning more about destructive cults and how similar they are from one to the next, I’ve seen how groups such as Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven’s Gate and the like should be actively investigated and policed because they are not just perpetrating financial fraud but are in fact powder kegs of insanity that too often blow up in people’s faces in sometimes violent ways. In the US and abroad, these groups are afforded protections they should not have under religious freedom laws because the leaders of these groups are taking advantage of those laws for their own personal aggrandizement and gratification.
However, and this is important, there is no way to determine if a group like Heaven’s Gate or Scientology are destructive cults without objective, fair minded investigation. I’m not a proponent of kangaroo courts or persecuting people simply because they have beliefs that don’t agree with mine. Our history shows that we as a species are far too prone to destroying things we don’t understand and unjustly hurting people because they’re different from us. So I’m not encouraging any such behavior when it comes to dealing with destructive cult leaders or their followers.
If people like Douglas Cowan can play their part as impartial investigators, I’m 100% for it. Of course, I say that knowing that everyone has their own personal views and biases and there is no such thing as anyone who is fully objective about anything. However, given the proper educational background and an even temperment, there’s not a lot more we could ask for in someone who would impartially investigate groups such as these.
Getting back to Cowan’s essay, his next section is called “Researching Scientology: Promises” where he lays out some of the potential benefits of researching Scientology. Here he basically laments not having a tremendous amount of information which only the Church of Scientology could provide and what good that information could be used for in analyzing the efficacy, beliefs and benefits of Scientology to individuals and society in general. Cowan is interested in such things as “How many of those who take the Oxford Capacity Analysis test online make personal contact with the a local org? How many of these actually take courses? How far do those who begin auditing tend to go on the Bridge and what are the various rates of attrition and further commitment? How have these rates changed over time, if they have, and how has the institution responded to those changes organizationally? What factors facilitate the transition from an auditing client to a full-fledged member of the Church of Scientology, especially in a high investment branch like the Sea Org? How do rank-and-file Scientologists feel about such organizations as the Inspectors General or the Rehabilitation Project Force? Generationally, in what ways do Scientologists who have been raised in the Church differ from converts?” (p. 60)
It would actually be quite fascinating to see honest answers and analysis done of the questions Cowan asks. Of course, as a former insider, I know quite a bit about the answers to these questions but I am not someone who could provide specific numbers or statistics over time nor could I give more than what is my own direct experience. However, what I do know for an absolute fact is that answers to questions such as Cowan is asking are verboten outside of the highest levels of Church management because such answers would disprove the lies that David Miscavige tells every single time he goes on a stage and addresses Scientologists. Miscavige’s leadership, as far as he’s concerned, relies on keeping Scientologists pumped up with statements of faith and success, as we talked about earlier in this video. For him to acknowledge in any way that Scientology is not a brilliant success in everything it does would be to call himself a liar and that is simply never going to happen.
Cowan then discusses what he calls Scientology’s “closed source model” where he likens Scientology’s dogma to that of a computer program whose source code you cannot change or modify. Hubbard laid down the law in policies like “Keeping Scientology Working” that Scientolgy only works when it is applied without variation or change to his specific directions and that he alone is the one who determined what did or did not work after thousands of hours of research and development. The one thing that is not permitted in Scientology is for anyone to dare suggest that Hubbard did not get it right or try to change Scientology to make it better. Cowan thinks that studying this in detail “could yield important socio-historical data on how this situation arose, how closed source traditions form and endure through generational transmission, and how they respond to cultural change, institutional evolution, and an almost inevitable degree of cognitive dissonance.” (p. 62)
I’m sure it would be a fascinating study to track the real evolution of Scientology and trace down the actual sources of information Hubbard used over the years. I’ve called him out for plagiarism of earlier sources and there are many stories from ex-members of key parts of Scientology having been developed by other Scientologists such as the communication training drills and the bulk of the Study Technology. To see how Hubbard pulled this off and then locked it down and convinced everyone that he was the single source of all of Dianetics and Scientology would truly be interesting.
Many of us ex-members have also spent quite a bit of time documenting and discussing the hundreds if not thousands of changes that have been made to Hubbard’s policies and technology over the years at the order of David Miscavige. I’m sure if Cowan was given unfettered access to the LRH Archives, he would have a field day documenting how and why all that happened and how it served David Miscavige’s interests to do so. It might even be interesting to see whether Miscavige’s actions have prolonged Scientology’s eventual demise or if through his bungling and incompetence, he has actually sped up Scientology’s implosion. I tend to think it’s more the latter but that’s just a gut feeling I have and not something I could prove. I’d love to see what someone like Cowan could find if they could get a look behind the curtain.
Cowan’s next sections get into his interest in how Scientology has created and continues to create its own mythistory, including re-writing L. Ron Hubbard’s life so that he fits the role of a divine saint. Here Cowan really does make it clear that he is perfectly capable of viewing Scientology with a critical eye. While being taken on a tour of the Big Blue complex in 2002, he noted the numerous reminders of L. Ron Hubbard throughout the building.
“At one point as we were being shown around, our guide pointed to one of the Hubbard busts that are prominent in the orgs, and cautioned us, ‘Now we don’t worship Mr. Hubbard as a god.’ My immediate thought was,’Not yet you don’t, but give it a hundred years or so.'” (p. 63)
When talking about the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition museum, which is a mine field of false and bloated information about Hubbard that has very little to do with reality, Cowan sees the factual distortions that Scientology engages in and finds these distortions themselves a point of academic study.
“As a sociologist I would suggest that its value lies less in the insight it provides into [Hubbard’s] life than the ways in which the Church constructs that life and continues the process of hagiography.
“Indeed, try to imagine for a moment a Church of Scientology without L. Ron Hubbard. It’s unthinkable. It makes no more sense than trying to imagine Christianity without Jesus. In Scientology, Hubbard is the founder of the practice, the author of the scriptures, the touchstone of belief, and the guarantor of salvation. What I suggest a more comprehensive research program would reveal is the manner in which…for example, Hubbard’s charisma is being routinized, instituionalized, and sacralized.” (p. 63)
In other words, the way that Scientology is creating a completely fictional account of L. Ron Hubbard’s life, his motives and purposes and activities, is a chance to study firsthand how religious groups make gods out of their idols.
Cowan’s next section goes into backing up his earlier claim that just because you can debunk the source materials or people responsible for a religous movement doesn’t mean that this will in any way change the minds of its adherents. Psychologically, this is a fascinating point and one that I as an atheist have certainly run smack up against.
Cowan uses other religious groups such as the Mormons as an example. “…if an undisputed document in Joseph Smith’s own handwriting declared the whole thing an elaborate hoax, does that mean that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as we know it today would simply collapse? Unlikely.” (p. 65)
And he has a good point. People are reluctant to give up their beliefs once they are formed, even when you can muster up volumes of real world evidence and very rational arguments against those beliefs. For Cowan, this too is a source of inexhaustible study which he thinks would do the world good to know more about but I think he really is kind of losing the plot here.
Specifically, he talks next about how religious institutions can incorporate different interpretations of the truth into their belief or thought system, even when those interpretations are plainly based on outright lies. For some reason, Cowan has a hard time simply calling this what it is: information manipulation purposefully executed to keep religous adherents in the dark about what is really going on so they will continue to believe in the innate goodness and righteousness of their group.
Cowan cites an example where former President of the Church of Scientology, Heber Jentzch, said in 2002 that “L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology were on the notorious Nixon White House ‘enemies list,’ and that congressional hearings following the Watergate scandal ‘revealed previously secret and illegal IRS programs against individuals and organizations, including the Church of Scientology. Of the 213 names on the Nixon list, 211 were left bankrupt, collapsed, disbanded, or dead. Indeed, of the individuals and organizations on that infamous ‘enemies list,’ only two survived intact: Hubbard and the Church of Scientology.” (Heber Jentzch, New Religious Movements and Religous Liberty in America)
Cowan then goes on to detail how this claim is utterly false, giving names and details of people who were on Nixon’s enemies list who survived just fine and are doing quite well in the world today. He goes on to show that L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology were never on Nixon’s list in the first place and that Heber Jentzch actually fabricated the entire story.
When dealing with overt factual misrepresentations of this kind, I don’t find the intellectual value in studying how such lies incorporate into a belief system or hagiography of L. Ron Hubbard. I look at facts such as that and my conclusion is much simpler: the Church of Scientology’s senior executives and leaders will say or do anything to keep their flock of followers believing that Scientology has been unjustly persecuted and that such persecution continues to this day, necessitating that they continue pouring money into Scientology’s coffers so as to defend it against enemies who do not exist. This is called fraud and I don’t think any academic should be afraid to name it for what it is.
However, I’m apparently naive in thinking this because Cowan then goes into the next section, entitled “Conspiracism as Religious Culture” with this:
“One of the theoretical and methodological dicta that I urge my students to take to heart when considering any religious tradition is Berger and Luckmann’s observation that we are dealing with ‘whatever passes for knowledge’ in that tradition, ‘regardless of the ultimate validity or invalidity (by whatever critera) of such knowledge.’ Scientology’s place as the sole survivor of Nixon’s ‘enemies list’ is part of what passes for knowledge in their particular religious culture. Further, I believe that it is a good example of how conspiracism has come to play an important role in the emerging salvation history of the Church, and represents another aspect of Scientolgy’s development that is well worth further exploration – not to disprove it, but to understand how it is integrated into and deployed in the service of an evolving religious worldview.” (p. 67)
Cowan talks in more detail about the conspiracy-minded foundations of Scientology and how Hubbard created a sort of “persecution complex” amongst his followers by talking endlessly about the various government and financial forces arrayed against Scientology from its very beginning in 1950. He’s right in citing this as a motivating force behind Scientology’s reluctance to share information about itself and why it feels the need to lash out against critics and academics.
Hubbard and Miscavige know the value of the underdog narrative and getting Scientologist believing they are fighting the good fight against the forces of darkenss and tyranny. Cowan wants to study this in more detail, but I really don’t see the point. It’s pretty clear that when a shady individual such as L. Ron Hubbard is spinning unfounded stories of conspiracy and international intrigue, he’s doing so for obvious reasons and the psychological effects of such stories on his followers can be nothing but damaging if not paranoia-inducing. There are negative psychological consequences to a lot of this behavior which I think Cowan is ignoring or glossing over in favor of maintaining a neutral view and I think he takes it too far.
It’s like this: It might be interesting to know what kinds of rifles and ammunition ISIS is using or the brand of machette they employ to cut the heads off people they consider heretics or sinners, but murder is murder no matter what words you use to dress it up or how many hours you spend studying it. If you don’t recognize that its murder and call it what it is, I think you can take the quest for objectivity too far.
Cowan’s final section is called “Researching Scientology: Problematics” and he details three primary problems with getting into Scientology research: “(1) lack of access to relevant Scientological data and materials; (2) lack of understanding on the part of the Church about the social function of scholarship; and (3) lack of trust on the part of academics that research into the Church will not put them or their institutions in jeopardy.” (p. 68)
Here Cowan again laments the lack of unfettered access to Scientology’s inside information: statistics, membership records, recruiting practices and the like. As I said before, he’s never going to have that access for obvious reasons.
He then talks about how Scientology doesn’t fully understand the role of academic review and independent study of its organizations and practices. This is true, they really do not.
“How do we communicate to new religious movements that the social function and responsibility of scholarship is considerably broader than simple due diligence to their beliefs and organization? Especially when there is a fine line between reporting and interpreting phenomena in ways that are intellectually credible and academically valuable, and maintaining access to those among whom we carry out our research? Although I am delighted to speak in defense of religious movements when I believe they have been inaccurately portrayed or wrongfully accused – and I have done so on behalf of a number of groups, including the Church of Scientology – that willingness does not include serving as a court stenographer or facilitating particular movement agendas. That is, among other things, scholarly responsibility requires that I satisfy myself that “X” group has been inaccurately portrayed in these situations, and simply taking the word of the group in question is often not enough. Occasionally, academics are asked to validate groups in ways that to me, at least, fall clearly outside the boundaries of responsible scholarship.” (p. 69)
The decision makers at the highest levels of Scientology not only don’t understand academia, they actually view it with contempt. We’ll see if I’m proved wrong about this, but I don’t think any of the academics who penned essays for Lewis’ book actually realize the degree of arrogance and disdain with which their work is viewed by Church leaders. Perhaps to academia this sort of thing doesn’t matter, but it would help them to understand why there is so little cooperation from Scientology towards their efforts.
Part of any destructive cult system, including Scientology, is inculcating black and white, us vs them thinking. As a person progresses in Scientology, they come more and more to believe that they are the enlightened ones and the rest of the world is suffering from a kind of self-imposed ignorance. Because of what Hubbard tells them, Scientologists come to believe that they were not just blessed by good fortune, but that there is something about themselves that deserves this special knowledge because of their keen insight or actions they took in past lives which assured that they would find Scientology now.
Because they believe they are on a mission to salvage the entire world, and yet view the world as a bungle of misbegotten idiots, they generally look at people who are not Scientologists as either potential converts or useful tools to help them convert more people to Scientology’s cause. To David Miscavige, Heber Jentsch and all the rest of the Sea Org management, academics are either learned mouthpieces who will validate Scientology as a viable and powerful force for world change, or they are useless to Scientology’s purposes.
It really shouldn’t be any surprise to anyone to learn this considering how many times and in how many places L. Ron Hubbard expressed his own contempt for higher institutions of learning, scientists and academia in general. He is the one responsible for what Scientologists think about academics and yes, this does even include Scientologists who have academic backgrounds and degrees.
Finally, Cowan discusses the problems academics have in trusting Scientology. “Put bluntly, the Church of Scientology has something of an image problem. From Tom Cruise going ‘off message’ while trying to promote The War of the Worlds and dressing down Matt Lauer on the evils of psychiatry to Scientology officials in confrontation with a British journalist over an interview for a recent BBC Panorama program… the Church of Scientology has been fighting an uphill battle for public sympathy for nearly half a century. That battle extends to its interactions with sociologists and historians of religion, some of whom are among the most sympathetic to new religions in the entire academy.” (p. 70)
Cowan then details specific instances where Scientology has taken extraordinary actions to silence or stop what they perceived as criticism of their activities in academic circles, including Heber Jentzch trying to pull such a stunt directly on Cowan himself with the original 2004 essay which this chapter of Scientology is based on. Which leads him to conclude that studying Scientology in an academic forum is a somewhat hopeless effort that will be hampered by Scientology itself through litigious nonsense or other means. This leaves most academics feeling like they’d really rather just go study something else.
Of course, what Cowan doesn’t seem to get is that Scientology is perfectly happy wtih this result. If given the choice between having nothing written about them or potentially having something negative written, believe me, Scientology will go with nothing every time. Even someone like J. Gordon Melton eventually acknowledged this in a <i>New York Times</i> interview Cowan quotes:
“Scientology has probably recieved the most persistent criticism of any church in America in recent years. But [Melton] said the Scientologists bear some of the responsibility. ‘They don’t get mad, they get even,’ Melton said. ‘They turn critics into enemies and enemies into dedicated warriors for a lifetime.'” (p. 73)
I don’t think Melton has ever said anything more true in his whole life.
So that concludes our look at Chapter 3. 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 4 by David G. Bromley, entitled “Making Sense of Scientology: Prophetic, Contractual Religion”. Well I’d certainly like to make sense of this mess, so join me next week.
Thank you for watching.