HBO recently released their new documentary “Going Clear” based on the bestselling book with the same name by Lawrence Wright and many people learned about the crazy past, their charismatic and crazy founder, and practices associated with Scientology. I highly recommend watching the documentary, especially if you are not that familiar with Scientology. Many consider Scientology to be a cult and not a religion, but I find the differences between the two concepts to be pretty blurry. Generally “religion” is seen as a positive thing that has some benefits to society and individuals, it’s also something that should be respected without question. When people use the term “cult” it’s used to describe a group with religious aspects that also has various negative and many times outlandish aspects; cults are also often known for having very crazy and extreme doctrines. That leads me to ask the question, what makes one doctrine that is not supported by evidence more valid than another doctrine lacking in evidence? It’s easier to see that a set of beliefs seems silly or crazy if they are brand new and unfamiliar. The founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, was a prolific science fiction writer before he began to form his church and it wasn’t too many decades ago. So as an outsider it’s very clear to see that the religion is made up. If we use Christianity as an example of a mainstream religion to compare it to, we do not exactly know who the writers of the doctrine were so there’s a lot more mystery surrounding it and easier to make various claims about the authorship. In the western world the bible has been protected by the unfounded notion for centuries that its words are infallible and divinely inspired. A highly accepted idea that has been around for a long time often goes unquestioned because it’s popular amongst the majority and those in power, and for the most part it’s much easier to go along with the majority and the thought of questioning doesn’t come up. I think a Christian would be just as offended as a devoted Scientologist if they were to be told their beliefs are just made up, but more would be willing to stand up for the feelings of the Christian than for the feelings of the Scientologist. When I have said something along those lines to Christians they have taken great offense to it.
I think the special treatment the bible gets is partly because many in the western world are told how important and highly valued the bible is starting at very young ages, and this is reinforced by their family members, peers, and culture. People often like to believe that brainwashing is just something that happens in cults, that’s one of the big differences between it and proper respectable religions. It’s very obvious that the Church of Scientology uses brainwashing tactics to make their membership numbers grow. I’d like to argue that mainstream religions such as Christianity use forms of brainwashing to maintain and grow their membership. I thought of this because the other day on Twitter I said “people that make the argument that Scientology isn’t a proper religion just don’t want to analyze what’s wrong with religion in general” and to sum it up quick a tweeter claimed I was making a lazy argument because I could not conflate and compare the criminal cult Scientology with “actual religions”. When I asked what they meant by “actual religions” I was told that for starters it meant upfront disclosure of church doctrine. I do admit that when Scientology is bringing in new members they slowly spoon feed aspects of the doctrine and while they are doing that they are also doing things to make their mental state revert to that of a child’s. Those are classic brainwashing tactics. If you think about a young child being brought into Christianity, it is not that different. Unlike the Scientologists, they don’t have to work on the reverting back to the mind of a child because characteristics needed for brainwashing like lack of knowledge, trust in authority, and desire to please those around them is already there. Christians rarely wait until their children are old enough to understand many aspects of their doctrine, I’m pretty sure things would be pretty different if many people were explained Christian theology at the age of 18 instead of from early childhood. I remember for years as a child not understanding bits and pieces of the Christian doctrine I was being raised in. I distinctly remember as a very young kid wondering what the word “virgin” meant when the Pastor talked about the Virgin Mary at Christmas time. For a long time I just assumed it meant a very nice and good person. Of course when I understood what it actually meant and had to wrap my head around the idea of a “virgin birth”, the doctrine got a bit crazier to me. So I wouldn’t say that personally anyone was upfront with the doctrine with me because I barely had the comprehension skills at the time to understand it. Threats and put downs are often used during brainwashing to make the victims easier to control. I think teaching children that they’ll go to Hell if they don’t believe in Jesus sounds like a threat. The notion that we are all born miserable dirty sinners which is foundational for many sects of Christianity sounds like a put down, also the idea that people are powerless without god in their lives. These concepts do sometimes brainwash the minds of adults who are at low and desperate points in their lives and are looking for answers and acceptance within a group, many “born again” Christians fit that description. Many adults who join the Church of Scientology would fit that description as well.
A big difference between a cult and a religion is that a cult is like watching a sped up more intense version of religion in a petri dish. Many of the negative aspects we find in cults we can find all over history in many sects of mainstream religions. Those mainstream religions have just been able to get a lot of respect and power, and many want to keep a blind eye to the negative aspects. It’s great that many people don’t want to make excuses for an awful religion like Scientology and can easily speak out against it, but if people have a problem with criminal activities and crazy ideas within religious institutions why is there not more of an outcry against certain practices of the Catholic Church, various Evangelical groups, or other mainstream religious groups that are connected to criminal or underhanded practices? I hope more notice this double standard.