This week's Skeptoid episode was on Scientology, the notorious “religion” created in the 1950s by sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard.
After I was finished researching and writing it, I had second thoughts, and decided for a few days that I would shelve it and not produce it, and said so on Twitter. Predictably, lots of people expressed their desire for me to reverse that decision, or that I had decided I was too afraid of Scientology suing me.
In fact, the reverse was true. I was afraid that the episode came out sounding too soft on Scientology. I did not want to be perceived as the pro-Scientology guy, and the episode turned out being less interesting than I'd hoped. But I eventually said “What the heck” and produced it anyway.
My thus-far-unpopular conclusion can be summed up thus: Despite how shocking Scientology's brutal treatment is of its live-in members, that's the lifestyle that works for those people. I'm sure psychologists could go on and on about what kind of personality thrives in an environment that is, at its worst, comparable to Abu Ghraib; but that's the life they choose, and who am I to begrudge other people to do whatever they want with their lives. Are we now in a society in which everyone is required to conform to some rigid norm?
The emails and site comments started pouring in fast. The majority have been lists of the worst things Scientology has done, accompanied by comments like “I'm surprised Brian didn't know about this” (as if my weeks of research missed the most obvious common-knowledge stuff that a cat could find on Wikipedia). The implication of many of the comments is that people are imprisoned against their will. Members of Anonymous have posted that when they protested at a Scientology branch, they were photographed or followed (as if it's unreasonable to expect to be scrutinized when you put on a mask and go to someone's home to protest their lifestyle).
I was also sent great lists of lawsuits filed by the church trying to silence its critics, and cases where Scientologists have been found guilty of crimes. Most notably, Operation Snow White, some 35 years ago when Hubbard was still alive, was the largest infiltration of the U.S. government in history when Scientologists took jobs where they had access to destroy IRS and other documents pertaining to Hubbard and Scientology. That's a crime, and 11 church executives appropriately went to jail. There's no excuse for that. In this case, Scientology does indeed stand out from any other “church”. This is something I probably shouldn't have left out.
What I tried to do in my episode, whether this was a good choice or a bad one, was to focus on ordinary Scientologists. Every organization and church in the world has every kind of people in it, including criminals, and I don't think it's fair to characterize any group based on the actions of its worst apples. In short, this is the essential reason I didn't spend time talking about the church's worst actions. I don't want to focus only on the rare exceptions, the kids forced unwillingly into the Sea Org by their parents, or overt criminal acts. I could probably do an expose on Sesame Street and uncover some producer's drug habit. That wouldn't be a fair treatment either. I wanted to talk about ordinary Scientologists who had nothing to do with Operation Snow White and have never beaten someone with an ax handle, as that's the largest representative group.
My analysis was that people who have the right psychology to want to live a Sea Org lifestyle find their happy place when they're under psychological pressure. Thus, Scientology must apply that pressure (Scientology and the Sea Org being essentially the same entity). Part of that pressure is making it real. It can't just be threats. So they actually do harass and sue people who leave the church or speak out against it. They actually do barricade them into their rooms. They actually do require them to cut off their family and friends. It's a twisted dance between narcissists and codependents. To you and I, that's pretty messed up. For them, it works. This is my own conclusion, and my opinion. Clearly, most disagree with me. But it's a perspective that I don't think enough people consider.
And that's just the Sea Org, the full timers. Most Scientologists are your neighbors down the street, whose expensive auditing sessions fund the Sea Org. I thought I gave the ordinary Scientologists a fair shake in the episode. These include the celebrities you know, the John Travoltas and Tom Cruises, who live regular lives but love what Scientology auditing has done for them. Nobody who's had a good experience talking through their problems with a therapist, friend, or barber should be surprised that auditing can be a powerful and fulfilling experience. If it wasn't, Scientology wouldn't have the income stream that it does. That income stream does indeed exist, and so whether detractors like it or not, ordinary Scientologists are enjoying their auditing, regardless of whether it has any legitimate psychiatric value. I went into this point in detail in my episode, so won't repeat any more of it here.
So in conclusion, I just wanted to make it a little clearer why I talked about the points that I did, and why I glossed over or omitted other things. No Skeptoid episode pleases everyone. Every week I get “I agree with all your episodes except this one,” and I've gotten at least a fair share of those this week. As I often say, whether I'm right or wrong is not nearly as important as whether I suggest something new for you to consider.