Hey everyone. This video is a continuation of my ongoing series in deconstructing this book Scientology, edited by James R. Lewis with each chapter written by different religious scholars and academics which analyze Scientology from different angles.
Perhaps in the world of academia, Scientology apologetics is an unusual and rare study, so some of the statements I make in this and the other videos in this series about academia in general should not be taken literally or as though I’m including all academics from all disciplines. However, I’ve been getting some great feedback, including hearing from some academics who have let me know more about how things in that world really work. Here’s some of what I’ve been told which I thought might help put all of this into context in the real world outside of the Halls of Higher Learning:
“Academia is all about finding your unique niche. No one is getting a teaching job if their Ph.D. dissertation is ‘George Washington: Wow, He Sure was Awesome!’ But if you convince people that you can prove Thomas Jefferson had Asperger’s and loved dressing in lady’s undergarments, then you’re on the fast track to tenure.
“Traditional, older religions are boring and dry. Often, serious study of each denomination is limited to schools with ties to that denomination (e.g. Georgetown or Brigham Young University). New Religious Movements are new (obviously) and sexy. Every religious studies department needs an NRM ‘expert.’
“Also, there are no rules against ‘pay-for-play’ deals: a random ‘foundation’ with some generic, innocent-sounding name (‘Eastern Tennessee Commission for Religious Research’ or ‘John Doe Memorial Fund for Scholastic Inquiry’) can give a professor a grant to write a paper. The grant looks good on a resume, and the paper gets added to your CV.
“Trust me, if some academically-minded Scientology millionaire dropped a few million to establish an LRH Chair of Applied Religious Technologies, plenty of universities would line up for that dinero, and dozens of untenured professors would crawl on broken glass to get that position.
“I’ll admit it, we academics are whores.”
I am relating this with my tongue in my cheek, so don’t think that I’m not so uninformed that I think all academics are money-grubbing jerks who don’t contribute anything to the world at large. I know that is not the case for a great many of you and I respect the hell out of a lot of you. In fact, I interviwed an academic for my podcast this week who has done some championship research and writing on technology and science which definitely should be heard by a lot more people. However, what I read above certainly does apply to our video subject today.
Here we have Chapter 5 by Dorthe Refslund Christensen called “Scientology and Self-Narrativity: Theology and Soteriology as Resource and Strategy.” Dorthe is an associate professor and professional researcher at the School of Communication and Culture in Denmark. She’s actually written two chapters in this book, this being the first, and she wrote two other papers about Scientology back in 2005.
Now this week’s is a doozie. Remember that in all likelihood, this week’s essay was never meant to be read out loud to us regular folks and perhaps not ever read at all. It’s difficult stuff to decipher and understand, but we won’t let that stop us.
First off, the word soteriology means the doctrine of salvation. Dorthe uses this word A LOT. According to my friends at Wikipedia, “In the academic field of religious studies, soteriology is understood by scholars as representing a key theme in a number of different religions and is often studied in a comparative context; that is, comparing various ideas about what salvation is and how it is obtained.”
In this chapter, Dorthe builds a case to make three very simple points about Scientology, first referring at the beginning to other academic works in order to create the foundation for what she is discussing. Like the paper we looked at last week, there’s some very dry academic language used to make some of her points but overall the concepts she communicates are almost kindergarten simple. Let’s see how she does this and how accurate of a case she makes. She starts off with this:
“Many religious groups, whether we choose to refer to them as New Age or new religions or new religiosity, seem to be organized around ideas and practices that aim at organizing the self of the individual practitioner. Here, religious individuals blend with many secularly oriented individuals following individual practices for self-development. Scientology is no exception.” (p. 103)
In other words, there’s a lot of self-help groups out there and some of them claim to be religious in nature, including Scientology.
“Although it may be said – and many have pointed to this fact – that the social and soteriological organization of Scientology is rigid and – apparently – without space for individual interpretation and decision making, it might be more correct to say that Scientology, as a religion and religious organization, offers a mythological and ritual framework that leaves a big open space within which individuals can develop their own narratives of their lives and selves, and that this open space seems very suited to meet the challenges of postmodern, Western culture. In this chapter I will argue that a rigid soteriological organization does not necessarily lead to uniformity in the representations made by the individuals engaged in that particular system.” (p. 103)
So what’s all this saying? Basically, here we have another academic thoroughly acknowledging Scientology as a valid religious belief system, one which rightly has a reputation of being highly structured and dogmatic. Christensen is asserting that at the ground level, with the individual followers, though, there is a great deal of room for individual interpretation and expression.
Now what’s interesting and unfortunate about this particular paper is that Christensen is basically arguing a case where there is no argument for a case that never existed. L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology PRs would be the first to tell you and almost every Scientologist would readily agree that they are free to express the gains, or what they call wins, in whatever words or expressions they want to. In fact, it is the individual expression of those wins which gives Scientology its only real public relations fodder from its parishoners.
Scientology’s PR videos feature Scientologists throwing out hyperbolic nonsense and I guarantee you that the words they use are their own. Here’s a sample.
There is no real controversy over the position Christensen takes in this paper, but she presents this as though there is. I honestly wonder if she wrote this simply because she had some deadline she had to meet. In the academic world, you publish or perish and I honestly cannot think of any reason Christensen would push out this nonsense except to meet a quota or perhaps because she was thinking Scientology might through some Danish krone her way.
Regardless, she now begins making her case by building on the earlier work of other scholars. Here’s how she starts:
“In order to establish the cultural setting for today’s religious practitioner I draw on sociologist Andrew Giddens (1990, 1991, 1992) and his idea of self-reflectiveness as one of the most fundamental issues of our times, the concepts religion as a chain of memories and memories in bits offered by sociologist of religion Daniele Hervieu-Leger (1998, 2001) to account for the function of incorporating religious bits and pieces into the postmodern production of identity and self-narrativity, and cultural analyst John Storey (2003a) to explain the inter-relatedness of identity and culture. Furthermore, I point to theories from cognitive anthropoligist Pascal Boyer (1993, 1994a, 1994b) and cognitive psychologist Justin Barrett (1999) in order to suggest why rigidity does not necessarily lead to uniformity in the representations made by individual practitioners of a religion.” (p. 104)
These are the academics that Christensen is going to use to build her case, and she’s doing it exactly like a lawyer would describe to a jury, naming each academic and what part of the picture they are contributing to which will lead her to a conclusion we have already established is completely uncontroversial and unargued. Seeing how she is wasting literally everyone’s time with this pompous nonsense, let’s see if we can struggle on through and find any value in the case she builds.
She titles the first section “Self-Narrativity and Reflexiveness: A Postmodern Perspective.”
“In his analysis of the social and cultural backgrounds of New Age ideas and practices and their appeal to modern individuals, sociologist of religion Paul Heelas has suggested that postmodern spiritual ideas can be considered radicalized versions of themes and values present in postmodern culture. Which values and themes are these? Many a writer, including sociologist Anthony Giddens, has focsed on the self-reflexiveness of our times. In Gidden’s analysis of The Consequences of Modernity (1990) this concept is the point of departure. He does not, of course, imply that individuals have not always, to some extent, reflected on who they are. But people in present-day Western culture are reflecting on every aspect of life to the extent that the individual is seen as a ‘work in progress.'” (p. 104)
Now when you start talking about postmodern anything, you are getting into some tricky a nd arbitrary territory. It serves as a way to sound interesting and enlightened but really all it’s referring to is the inevitable evolutionary pendulum swing away from modernism, which itself was a pendulum swing movement away from Victorian values in cultural standards such as art, music, architecture, technology, communication, etc.
I don’t mean to oversimplify it or make less of sociologists and cultural historians efforts, but when you are talking about postmodern attitudes you could be referring to anything from the Baby Boomer generation to Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in, drop out” to any film ever made by Terrance Mallick. We have seen radical shifts in religious thought and attitudes over the last 60 to 70 years but the idea of religion being a personally transformative experience is something that has been around since well before Christ or Buddha were walking around.
The real meat of the first argument that Christensen is trying to make is in the next paragraph:
“Telling stories of oneself in [cultural analyst John] Storey’s theory is not a question of remembering how things actually happened in order to find the truth about oneself but rather negotiating fruitful bits of stories that seem useful here and now. That is, our personal stories change over time. Memories are storytelling with a purpose in order to produce roots that can explain and put into perspective our self-representation and also by locating routes that can help us transform ourselves according to ambitions, goals and desires.” (p. 104)
Now this feeds right into Scientology auditing because auditing in Scientology is the process of remembering and structuring a past existence. What’s more: in Scientology, this involves going back through many lives earlier than this one, putting together a mythological memory track that is centuries long. I say “mythological” only because no one has ever offered scientifically credible proof of any past life existence. Were anyone to do so, I’d be the first to jump on the past life bandwagon, so it is not for lack of desire or imagination that I deny the existence of past lives. It’s simply that there is no proof of any kind that we have lived before.
Christensen relates this to auditing with this:
“Scientological ideas and practices, one might argue, seem perfectly fit to meet the challenge of the reflective individual: Both the immortal kernel of the individual is represented (as the thetan – see below), and a mythological time track is provided containing every bit of information and stories about the individual’s large-scale history. Thereby the system leaves plenty of space about the individual to experiment with whom he or she has been and wants to be in the future. Roots and routes become mythologizing strategies in personalized transformation stories.” (p. 105)
See that? She called it mythological too!
Christensen is saying that the popularity of therapies like psychoanalysis or Scientology auditing are a reflection of how people view their past and how that past serves to help them build an identity in the present. Perhaps in ancient Greek or Roman times, people thought of themselves very differently and so something like auditing wouldn’t have the same appeal. We’ll have to take Christensen’s word for it since Claudius and Maximus aren’t saying very much these days.
Christensen then comments on the multi-tasking that goes on in modern cultures, what she refers to as “pluralism and the blurring of cultural genres.”
“In Scientology, therapy and religion are two interacting cultural repertoires, wheras management rhetroic and religious discourse are joined to form yet another mixed couple.” (p. 105)
I’m assuming by this second bit that she is referring to Hubbard’s extensive compendiums of policy letters, orders and advices which lay out in detail how Scientology organizations are to be run. These of course are replete with descriptions of Scientology as a religion since Hubbard wanted to make it clear to all levels of his organization that Scientology’s religious status was absolute.
“The aesthetics of Scientology derive from American popular culture, such as TV shows, and the interior decorating of Scientological facilities seems inspired as much by IKEA as by the aesthetics of the romanticized nineteenth-century English countryside.” (p. 105)
True enough in that the aesthetics of Scientology come strictly out of the head of David Miscavige and whatever flavor-of-the-month has struck his fancy. This is reflected in the gaudy, burdensome uniforms that all local church staff have to wear as well as the gigantic roman columns which frequent every stage Miscavige sets foot on, as though perhaps he’s trying to compensate for something?
Christensen concludes this first part by highlighting one last cultural factor for which Scientology fills a need:
“Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skarderud (1999) has pointed to restlessness as a fundamental premise for postmodern lives and individuals….To Skarderud, no matter whether the object is the teenager suffering from anorexia, the modern primitive having his or her body pierced and tattooed, or the homemaker seeing her psychotherapist or crystal healer on a regular basis – these people are coming to terms with the existential conditions of our times by, more or less, pragmatically, choosing a strategy: a way of telling themselves, of finding narratives to make sense of who they are or who they want or need to be, and a set of practices through which they can find room for obtaining resources or practical tools for handling their lives.” (p. 106)
While Christensen is not a psychologist, she is using the work of a psychiatrist to analyze auditing and has written a very good description here of what Scientology auditing is actually doing: giving people an excuse to create a past which conforms with the image they have or want to create about themselves, thereby resolving feelings of insecurity, uncertainty, loss and worry.
People ask me all the time if I think that Scientology works and I say that sure, there are things that Scientology does that could be considered helpful, but I hope this demonstrates what I’m talking about when I say it’s not doing what you think it’s doing. For example, Scientology auditing doesn’t validate or prove the existence of past lives; it proves that the human mind creates stress and sometimes is capable of resolving that stress.
The next section is called “Scientology and Scientologists” and it is here that Christensen voices what are perhaps the most stupidly obvious and common sense observations ever about this subject and its followers. She starts with this:
“When studying the materials written by or ascribed to founder L. Ron Hubbard, it is possible to establish an understanding of how the different elements of Scientological theology are interrelated in a number of ways. My Ph.D. dissertation, Rethinking Scientology: Cognition and Representation in Therapy, Religion and Soteriology, was an attempt to develop a theoretical framework for analyzing the written material with a focus on how the therapeutic and religious elements interplay in the Scientological soteriological system and in the written representations of founder L. Ron Hubbard from 1950 to 1986.” (p. 106)
Never has so little been said in so many words. I honestly think she wrote this part just to increase the word count of her essay. But moving on, she actually has a point to this section which is this:
“However, interpreting texts does not give us any understanding of how actual individuals in Scientology organize the knowledge they gain from studying the Hubbard material or how different sets of knowledge interplay….Since 1991 I have done fieldwork among Scientologists in Denmark and in the United States. My fieldwork varies from interviews and informal conversations with Scientologists to hanging out with Scientologists and participating in all kinds of religious festivals and ceremonies, social gatherings and other informal activities. A large number of Scientologists have, during the years, generously shared their self-narratives and ideas and emotions with me. Hanging out with people is a great way of making oneself aware of what is actually going on in people’s everyday representations of the world: getting to know people in the sense that the conversations with them do not constitute formalized communication such as interviews but simply implicitly reflect how they think of themselves and the world at small and at large. Going to the movies, hanging out at parties, chatting over a cup of coffee. Everyday practices.” (p. 106)
Uh, yeah. You hang out with people and, surprise!, you get to know them! You wouldn’t think it would take so much to explain this sort of thing, but there you go. She goes on:
“This kind of communication has made several things obvious to me: First, Scientologists are, of course, Scientologists, but they are, more important, people in the community, in society, in the world: citizens, lovers, parents, friends, employees, and so on.” (p. 106)
“Second, their representations do not follow a simple pattern of deduction from, for example, the writings of Hubbard (the system or theological level of Scientology) to their own lives. Not all the teachings of Hubbard are actual factors in the individual lives of these people.” (p. 106)
I would conditionally say that this is true for those Scientologists that Christensen would have interacted with socially, but that as a person goes further and further up The Bridge and becomes more and more indoctrinated in Hubbard’s teachings, the more that Hubbard’s teachings do become an integral factor in their lives. If only because of the amount of time and money that is demanded from upper level members, you cannot so easily discount the huge influence Scientology has on their thinking and daily life.
And I would state without question that Christensen’s statement is not true for members of the Sea Organization. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that she didn’t socialize for any real length of time with any Sea Org members. I can say this confidently too because Sea Org members not only don’t socialize with anyone outside of the Sea Org, but actually have very strenuous regulations dictating that they not hangout with non-Sea Org members. It’s called fraternizing and it’s a big no-no. Of course, Sea Org members sometimes visit family and see old friends, but they have to keep their mouths shut in such cases about anything having to do with Sea Org business.
“Third, the ideas produced by these individuals seem to be produced to meet the overall cultural challenges of Western, modern culture. And, fourth, even though these people represent things differently, it is possible to point to certain key representations that are – implicitly or explicitly – present in their ideas with regard to their being Scientologists.” (p. 106)
So you’re saying that Scientologists have things in common with one another, from one to the next? That one to the next, they sometimes say the same things? Really? Are you sure about that because that sounds like a pretty outrageous claim to me.
Christensen gets more to the point of her article in the next section, titled “On Knowledge and Representations.”
“Scientology is an individualistic religion with a hierarchial organization of the soteriological system, called the Bridge. The Bridge is pictured as a comprehensive series of soteriological steps, and each step consists of a certain type of auditing (the primary ritual activity) or training, addressing a certain kind of physical, mental, or spiritual trauma from the individual’s mythological past. At each step the individual receives a formal certificate and is supposed to feel – or, socially speaking, to perform – a changed awareness of his or her own development as a human being and as a spiritual being.
“It might be said, therefore, that, on the one side, the Scientological soteriological system is rigid and hierarchial because individual Scientologists are not supposed to intuitively feel their way through the different steps or intuitively choose which step might be suitable for them and their specific life situation. Furthermore, the texts and other materials studied at each step by the initiate (referred to in Scientology as the pre-Clear) are strictly prescribed in a firm order as are the questions asked by the auditor, that is, the person trained to carry out the rituals within the framework of Scientology’s <i>standard technology<i> (the canonized, ritual practice).” (p. 108)
So far, so good. She’s absolutely right about each point she’s made.
“But, at the same time, although material is continuously published in which the Scientologist can read about experiences of others at the different ritual steps of the Bridge and despite the fact that the comprehensive oral tradition in Scientology on ritual experience is known by Scientologists, the normativity of these written and oral traditions do not seem to be closed. Individuals can find room for their own understandings of themselves and their lives, and find relevant contexts in Scientological reality. The Scientological material, in this sense, seems to be a resource of terminology, mythological frameworks and stylized forms – a vessel of resources from which Scientologists draw needed bits and pieces in the specific ritual situation, as in daily life situations serving ad hoc needs.” (p. 108)
Now, she is not doing us any favors in the way she writes this academic drivel, but when you decipher this, it is such a bizarrely common sense observation that I’m kind of dumbfounded by it.
She is saying Scientologists interpret their experience of Scientology in their own words and that they say different things from one to the next which is about as insightful as saying that grass is green.
Do people really get paid and hold tenured positions in academic institutions of higher learning for making such brazenly daring statements as this? I’m being sarcastic because I’m actually shocked that anyone who is supposed to be doing highbrow academic research work would be making such mundane observations.
The next section is called “Religion in Mind.” In the same way as she has already demonstrated she would never use one sentence where six can be used instead, Christensen ploughs on about how the Bridge is built of successive steps which are supposed to build an ever-increasing set of views in accordance with the teachings of Scientology. According to American anthropologist Harriet Whitehead:
“As they move up the Bridge, their worldview will gradually change.”
But Christensen does not subscribe to this. She says:
“My interviews and conversations with Scientologists from all over the world tell me differently. Although Scientologists eagerly socially engage in performing a changed awareness according to the social demands within Scientological society, and although they have, of course, studied the material prescribed for each soteriological step, it is by no means certain that it is accurate to talk about a change of worldview as the person gradually moves up the Bridge.” (p. 108)
Now this is a truly interesting claim because she’s basically saying that Scientologists learn how to talk the talk when it comes to speaking about their gains and socially talking to other Scientologists, but that this does not really result in much of a change of their outlook on life or the world. This is a very interesting claim because as an ex-Scientologist I can see many instances where this could be true and many instances where it absolutely would not be true. And this is perhaps the most disappointing part of Christensen’s essay.
Why? Well, simply put, while Christensen is expounding for page after page with simplisitic observations and references to other academic’s works, when she finally makes an original claim about Scientology, she utterly fails to back it up with the data or the proof as to why this claim is valid.
Rather than read you any more of this, I’ll just skip to the two points where she should have gotten on with some real expounding but instead leaves the reader hanging.
“My fieldwork affirms this. If Whitehead’s hypothesis were to be supported by empirical evidence, this would imply that talking to, say, twenty Scientologists at the level Clear on the Bridge would represent certain aspects of their lives in equal terms and with the same set of implications….The point is, of course, they do not….But this again, depends on the kinds of questions posed by the interviewer.” (p. 109)
And that is the crux of the matter right there. What questions did she ask when she was hanging around with Scientologists that led her to determine that they don’t have the same worldview as Hubbard espouses? She doesn’t say and thereby leaves a gaping hole in the middle of her essay.
She then goes into explaining how psychologist Justine Barrett has said that religious believers make two kinds of statements: (1) religious correctness and (2) subjective representations.
“[Religious correctness] means that the individual reproduces some kind of idea or explains it theologically according to the theological teachings of the religious system.” (p. 110). In other words, they are parrotting their religious teachings.
“[Subjective representation] is brought about when the speaker is not necessarily aware that he or she is representing religious ideas. This means the person is in some kind of communicational situation in which the person relaxes, or the situation has no direct connection to the religious system and its theological teachings or practices. These kinds of representations are the most interesting and the most revealing because the person makes spontaneous statements about this and that, and it is thereby possible to analyze which ideas of, in this case, the religious system, the person is actually using to represent his or her life – that is, which ideas this particular individual has not only achieved as knowledge but is in fact using in communication with and about the world.” (p. 110)
Christensen has every opportunity to explain or give examples here as to how she knows that Scientologists’ subjective representations show that they are not ascribing to Scientology teachings or changing their world views in accordance with L. Ron Hubbard’s but she fails to give even one. In fact, she takes the totally opposite and lazy approach by simply saying:
“The explanation for this, which I cannot elaborate on in this chapter, is that human cognitive mechanisms cannot intuitively cope with all of the ideas and causal mechanisms dealt with in religious theologies.” (p. 110)
So basically, we’re just supposed to take her word for it. (head shake)
The last section is where Christensen wraps this up with three amazingly mundane observations about Scientologists which anyone who has read even a page or two of Scientology’s website would know:
“I will argue that there are only three basic ideas shared by all Scientologists no matter at what level at the Bridge.”
“First, every Scientologist has a notion of him or herself as a spiritual being.”
“The second notion is the time track….Every single experience, be it physical, mental or spiritual, that the individual has had throughout his or her total history, makes up the time track – and millions of millions of units of experience are affecting the life of the individual in this actual incarnation.”
“The third idea shared by all Scientologists is that founder L. Ron Hubbard was a very special human being who educated himself in all kinds of wisdom (Eastern religion and Western science and philosophy), thereby making available for his fellow men a safe path to mental and spiritual freedom.” (p. 112)
I am frankly shocked that if she spent ten years going to Scientology events and talking informally with Scientologists, that she thinks that’s all they have in common. As an ex-Scientologist, I can tell you that they are far from the only three things that all Scientologists believe. And unlike her, I will give you examples of what I’m taking about:
Belief #1: there is a philosophical mechanism called the ARC triangle made up of affinity, reality and communication which are the component parts of understanding, and that this triangle is the most crucial element to understanding human relations.
There are many examples I could give of how the ARC triangle does seem to be universally applicable and could be used to help improve relationships, but I could also give just as many examples of how the ARC triangle does not actually work out in the real world. Since Scientologists are only trained in how it does work, and never think critically about how it doesn’t work, they believe it is a universal truth the same way they think gravity is a universal truth.
Belief #2: That everyone in the world has a reactive mind which is that part of the mind containing recordings of every moment of stress, pain and unconsciousness and which subconsciously works to bring about sickness, death and war. Scientologists universally think the reactive mind is just as real as their hands and feet and that only through Scientology auditing can the reactive mind be erased forever. The fact is that there is not one bit of scientifically validated evidence that the reactive mind is anything but a figment of Hubbard’s overactive imagination.
Belief #3: That Scientology is either the only or one of the only groups in the world that is actively working to improve the lot of Man and bring about a new civilization of sanity and peace. If Scientologists ackowledge that other groups such as Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders or the like are working to improve things, they all think that Scientology is the senior group which is more important by far than any of these other groups. To think anything else than this would be heresy in Scientology.
Of course, you know just from routine media reports as well as what goes on in your local community that Scientology is completely invisible on the world map and does almost nothing except show up with their cameras at disaster relief sites for photo opportunities. Scientology is not doing anything substantial to end poverty, war, famine or disease anywhere in the world and uses natural disasters as fundraising opportunities more than to bring actual relief to survivors.
There are more, but I just wanted to give a couple of what are to me very obvious examples which Christensen missed. And that is all she has to say in this essay.
So we’ve come to the end of Chapter 5, what is by far the most pedantic yet pedestrian essay I’ve come across so far in this book. I have not read anything else Christensen has written, so I’ll refrain from any personal judgements about her academic skills other than say if this is representative of her work, she is a very poor academic, researcher and scholar.
Next week, we have an essay by the editor of this book, James R. Lewis, called “The Growth of Scientology and the Stark Model of Religious “Success.” After taking apart Lewis’s nonsense in the first video in this series, I cannot wait to see what claims he has to make about Scientology’s worldwide growth.
You did great sticking with me through all of this. See you next week.
Thank you for watching.