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Weird, Sure. A Cult, No.

By Mark Oppenheimer
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Scientology, the controversial religion whose adherents include John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Jenna Elfman, can't seem to stay out of the news. Sometimes the church would rather not have the publicity, as when Germany, which considers Scientology a cult, recently refused to let Cruise shoot scenes for his new movie in government buildings. Other times, Scientologists court the attention -- as when Cruise brought his Scientology-influenced anti-psychiatry crusade to the "Today" show in 2005.

Some Americans may consider Scientology perhaps a cult, maybe a violent sect, and certainly very weird. But Scientology is no more bizarre than other religions. And it's the similarities between Scientology and, say, Christianity and Judaism that make us so uncomfortable. We need to hate Scientology, lest we hate ourselves.

When it comes to Scientology, there's a hunger for the negative. I suspect that's because Scientology evinces an acute case of what Sigmund Freud called the narcissism of small differences: We're made most uncomfortable by that which is most like us. And everything of which Scientology is accused is an exaggerated form of what more "normal" religions do.

Does Scientology charge money for services? Yes -- but the average Mormon, tithing 10 percent annually, pays more to his church than all but the most committed Scientologists pay to theirs. Jews buying "tickets" to high-holiday services can easily part with thousands of dollars a year per family. Is Scientology authoritarian and cult-like? Yes -- but mainly at the higher levels, which is true of many religions. There may be pressure for members of Scientology's elite "Sea Organization" not to drop out, but pressure is also placed on Catholics who may want to leave some cloistered orders. Does Scientology embrace pseudoscience? Absolutely -- but its "engrams" and "E-meter" are no worse than what's propagated by your average "intelligent design" enthusiast. In fact, its very silliness makes it less pernicious.

And what about the Xenu creation myth that anti-Scientologists are so fond of? Scientologists have promised me that it is not part of their theology. Some say they learned about Xenu from "South Park." Several ex-Scientologists have sworn the opposite. Given his frequent conflation of science fiction, theology and incoherent musings, I think that L. Ron Hubbard may have taught that eons ago, the galactic warlord Xenu dumped 13.5 trillion beings in volcanoes on Earth, blowing them up and scattering their souls. But I'm not sure that it is an important part of Scientology's teachings. And if Xenu is part of the church's theology, it's no stranger than what's in Genesis. It's just newer and so seems weirder.

Religions appear strange in inverse proportion to their age. Judaism and Catholicism seem normal -- or at least not deviant. Mormonism, less than 200 years old, can seem a bit incredible. And Scientology, founded 50 years ago, sounds truly bizarre. To hear from a burning bush 3,000 years ago is not as strange as meeting the angel Moroni two centuries ago, which is far less strange than having a hack sci-fi writer as your prophet.

That's not to say that all religions are "equal" or equally deserving of respect. I'm no more a Scientologist than I am a Swedenborgian or a member of the Nation of Islam, and I do have two criticisms of Scientology that one rarely hears from the Xenu-obsessed detractors.

First, while the introductory Scientology costs are not outlandish (for example, a member may pay about $200 for a dozen sessions of "auditing," to start out), the fees increase as adherents gain knowledge through advanced coursework (going "up the bridge to total freedom," in Scientology-speak) -- and it does make the religion resemble a pyramid or matrix scheme. More than one Scientologist explained to me that they don't have the financial resources of the Catholic Church that come from thousands of years of donations. They have to charge. Well, that's not the whole truth. The secrecy surrounding Scientology's higher levels of knowledge has no apparent analog in the Abrahamic faiths, and the steep financial outlay to get higher knowledge also seems unique. Catholicism doesn't charge people to become learned, nor does Judaism. In fact, the greatest scholars in those faiths are often revered paupers: penniless rabbis and voluntarily poor priests, monks and nuns.

Poverty is not Scientology's style, to say the least. That leads me to my second criticism: bad aesthetics. Whether the Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles, the church off Times Square in New York or the local branch down the street from my house, Scientology buildings are filled with garish colors, flat-screen TVs showing silly, dull videos, and glossy pamphlets recycling the legend of the overrated Hubbard, whom Scientologists revere as a scientist, writer and seer of the first rank. In my opinion, Hubbard's books are bad, the movies they inspire are worse and the derivative futuro-techno look that Scientology loves is an affront to good taste on every level. It's a religion that screams nouveau-"Star Trek"-riche. For those of us who seek mystery, wonder and beauty in our religions, Scientology is a nonstarter.

But good taste, as the art critic Dave Hickey says, is just the residue of someone else's privilege. Catholicism has its Gothic cathedrals, Judaism its timeless Torah scrolls. Scientology is new, but it has played an impressive game of catch-up. In its drive to be a major world religion, it will inevitably go through a period when its absurdities and missteps are glaringly apparent. But someday it will be old and prosaic, and there may still be Scientologists. And when some of those Scientologists embezzle, lie and steal -- as they surely will -- they'll seem no worse than Christians, Jews and Muslims who have done the same.

Mark Oppenheimer, a book critic for the Forward, is writing a book about American oratory.

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