Killing the Thetan

It seems to me that you’ve got basically two choices when you set out to write about a religion.

On the one hand, you can engage in a little of what Barbara Ehrenreich calls old-fashioned journalism—get out there in the world and experience the thing for yourself. This method appears sanctioned by William James, who did a whole lot of experiencing before he set the standard for writing about religion in The Varieties of Religious Experience. “One can never fathom an emotion or divine its dictates by standing outside of it,” James thought.

On the other hand, you can employ a presumably more modern journalistic methodology—i.e., adopt incredulity as perspective, and go about your work almost as though you are the investigator for some government agency. Perhaps the “article” you produce will be entered as evidence in a court of law.

When I wrote about Scientology a few years ago for my book The Devil is a Gentleman I went for the first method. “The Apostate,” in this week’s New Yorker, Lawrence Wright employs the second. It might just be me, but Wright’s account starts out kind of dull, spends way too much time being “fair” by giving lip service to people who don’t really deserve it, and winds up juggling so many accounts and characters, rehashing so many old arguments, slights, and debates, that it becomes lost in the very bureaucratic maze Scientology has used for years to slip away from scrutiny.

Don’t get me wrong—Wright has been doing important work of this kind for a long, long time. His 1993 book Saints and Sinners was the culmination of a great deal of reporting on peculiar religious leaders—mostly for Rolling Stone, if memory serves—and I borrowed a good bit of Wright’s legwork for background material in my own accounts of dabbling in Satanism and atheism. But there’s a big difference between Saints and Sinners and “The Apostate”: in the former, Wright always managed to get access to the founder, to what William James would have called the “religious genius” in charge. I assume Wright, like many other journalists, either couldn’t get access to Hubbard while he was alive, or blanched at Scientology’s extremely aggressive (not to say, illegal) tactics in warding off unfriendly media attention.

As I read “The Apostate,” I found myself quibbling with lots of things. Why no mention of the Hubbard museums? Or the sites where Hubbard’s writings are buried in case of doomsday? Or the fact that many Hubbard “bestsellers” achieved their status only due to manipulation of the lists (so that journalists like Wright would one day list them as “bestsellers”)? Or the punishments and crimes committed (allegedly!) in the Sea Org? Having struggled through my own long chapter on Scientology, and having fought to get the organization’s whole story inside a manageable narrative (making cuts for the sake of structure that I knew might later be perceived as oversights), I could sympathize with Wright’s predicament in sword-fighting a hydra with a thousand heads. But I couldn’t stop myself, either, from fussing with it, from wishing he’d included those facts I’d thought essential.

Then I started quibbling with my quibbling.

I realized there was a larger problem. When, as the writer of a piece about religion, you get too caught up in trying to color things one way or the other, when your allegiance to documented (and fact-checkable—this is The New Yorker, after all) facts takes precedence over everything else, you become blind to your own assumptions. A glaring surprise: “The Apostate” tosses around the world “cult” quite freely, and never even suggests what it might mean by the word. The piece relies on its own assumptions, and its readers’. In other words, there’s really no larger canvas that “The Apostate” seems to want to consider. It’s not going to tell us anything about cults, or religions, or, ultimately, people. It’s just a long news story.

Again, it might just be me, but I think we need to try for a little more than appeasing our curiosity about wacky Tom Cruise.

You have to be wary when you write about religion. The “weirder” a religion seems, the more readers will expect you not to sympathize with it. Even James suffered in some eyes for not standing far enough apart from that which he hoped to describe—in other words, for having made himself emotionally available to his subject. In The Devil is a Gentleman, I rejected the whole idea of Scientology, not merely because I thought it was a cult, but because the entirety of it began to seem preposterous to me. I had climbed inside the thing to fathom its dictates. I made myself available to it, and that immersion enabled me to assert its preposterousness, a preposterousness that speaks to human frailty and need. But Wright chose to stand apart from his subject, so he can’t assert anything.

Which is the ultimate weakness of “The Apostate.” Paul Haggis, the film director at the heart of the article, says at one point that he fell into Scientology because he was drawn to stuff outside the mainstream. I heard a lot of stories like that when I was exploring unusual religions. And the funny thing is, “The Apostate” is exactly the kind of article that might get someone interested in Scientology. There’s just enough doubt thrown in, just enough caveats and deniability and dropped threads, and just enough intrigue to make it all seem like a grand adventure. If you’re frail and needy, and if you’re a seeker, then you’re not going to listen for what Wright is suggesting between the lines of this piece, when he appears to be writing not for readers but for a judge and jury. Instead, you’ll listen to the quiet evangelism that Scientology knows creeps through all accounts like this, and is the only reason they’re willing to sit down with The New Yorker.

J. C. Hallman was raised on a street called Utopia Road in a master-planned community in Southern California. Nevertheless, he is the author of several books, including In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise.