Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Adapt and Survive

One of the things I enjoy about criticism of the Church of Scientology is that it forms a microcosm of most religions, as though Hubbard had engineered it as a model of religion so he could observe how it behaved in the world at large. He didn't; he just foolishly thought it would allow him to get rich through the application of little effort.

Much of the criticism of Hubbard's writing, that which doesn't hinge on its logical inconsistencies and occupation of bad or invented science, has focused on its bigotry - its position on homosexuals (should be cured or killed), on native South Africans (can't do anything with them, primitive, utterly materialistic), on Chinese ("the trouble with China is there are too many Chinese there"), and so on. Apologists say "well, he was a white middle-class guy in the 1950s, what do you expect?" To which one must reply "I expect him not to inflict his opinions on future generations by starting up a fraudulent organisation pedalling this bigotry as though it were inescapable gospel truth."

Last year David Miscavige oversaw the re-editing of many basic texts, against Scientology rules, and resold them all to Scientologists worldwide in an aggressive series of celebratory events. If you're curious about these new editions, you can get them for pennies on ebay. You might even be able to save on postage and packing by contacting local libraries, many of whom will have been sent unsolicited copies they'll be keen to get rid of.

This is the second time the tech has been changed since Hubbard's death, and crystalises the paradox of the sacred text. How can Truth cease being True over time? How can you change your sacred texts and still be the same religion? How can the new Truth be trusted if the old Truth has been swept away. Scientology adopts the George Orwell approach. The new Truth is actually the original Truth, kept from us by nasty nasty squirrels, which is not a trick they can go on pulling forever (twice is already pushing it) and when the continued financial success of the corporation relies not on the increasingly impossible task of new recruits, but of reselling the same stuff over and over to members who feel unable to leave.

But here is the dilemma, and it is a dilemma that is faced by many more orthodox religions. People pursue their own moral compasses - they have an ability to assess, based often on a few core principals and internal debate based on those principals, the rightness and wrongness of things. Often that compass will develop within religion and within a legal system. The law and religion will not necessarily see eye to eye all the time, but more to the point, that person's moral compass will not always marry up to what their religion tells them. These people then run the risk of disenfranchisement from that religion. If the dissonance is strong enough then the religion will cease to function well at all. If, for instance, a religion stipulates in its scripture that women are subservient to men, then in time, as sexual equality becomes the norm, people will consider this aspect of religion (often taken, rightly or wrongly, to be representative of the religion as a whole) and choose to leave, or at the very least to humour it without conviction. If this continues, over the course of a couple of generations the religion will flounder and fail - and attendance will drop. If the religion refuses to change its ways, it will not survive; it will return to the cult status it no doubt started as.

How that change takes place is problematic if the rules are laid down in scripture. Abrahamic religions are lucky (just about) in having a multi-translated ancient text to work from - open as it is to reinterpretation, translation errors and more. Hubbard's intentions, however, were to avoid schism. He mistakenly believed that the best way of avoiding schism was to ensure that everyone was clear on what was meant by everything he wrote. He wasn't especially good at this - his policies were frequently amended, something that has officially stopped since he died. Hubbard's words are carved in stone (well, etched in titanium, really) so can't be changed as readily. As a result, critics, perhaps a little unfairly, highlight Hubbard's bigotry, but also highlight the Church's attempts at changing its ways. The real root of this two-pronged attack is that CoS makes the claim that it is the purveyor of truth ("I only deal in facts" as Hubbard so memorably sang), but doesn't make very convincing arguments, especially when it starts changing its story about what that truth really is. The attack only seems unfair because it has been spawned by the cognitive dissonance at the heart of Scientology; the doublethink on which the cult thrives. As noted in the Purview, a CoS PR officer recently stated that touch assists are there as a means to heal on a spiritual and emotional level. For years touch assists have been marketed as a means of speeding recovery on a physical level; as it becomes clearer and clearer that no evidence for this will be forthcoming, the claims are being shifted to where evidence cannot exist - the spiritual plane (see Evolution of CAM). Soon those will be the only claims ever made about it, irrespective of what is written in the books right-thinking Scientologists ought to have pulped when they got their new, un-squirreled editions hot off the presses

As a footnote, it should be pointed out that Hubbard, for all his attempts, got his schism in the end. The unmovable position he made, first on Dianetics, and later on Scientology, created the Freezone, offering many people who like the belief system but not the Church, a way to the kind of freedom they'd initially imagined.

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