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Start a Church for Fun, Sex, and Profit

by Brian Dunning, Feb 17 2011

Recently I did a Skeptoid episode on Scientology, and followed it up with a post here on SkepticBlog to further explain my position. And this was, very much, a position piece… whereas normally with Skeptoid, I compare science to pseudoscience; but as there’s really no science behind Scientology, it was more “Brian’s personal opinion of Scientology”.

To sum up the criticism, it was overwhelmingly that I was too soft on it.

And then, interestingly, one commenter pointed out something I said in a really early Skeptoid episode, way back in 2006:

My dream is to start a church and become fabulously wealthy, with the world’s happiest customers. These customers are people who are already believers, whose minds are not about to be changed by a few skeptics. They are going to buy these services: and if they don’t buy them from me, they’re going to buy them from the psychic next door.

In other words, “Hey it’s OK to start a church and take people’s money, because otherwise they’re just going to give it to someone else.” It sounds like it’s not too different from something L. Ron Hubbard might have said. And here’s the kicker: That Skeptoid episode was about ethics.

When I read this comment, I’d completely forgotten about my old remark, and I’ll admit it was pretty eye-opening to have it pointed out. I was like, “Wow, am I really similar to L. Ron Hubbard? Is that why my Scientology episode was so soft?”

Scary thoughts.

I hope nobody’s ever gotten the impression from me that I believe I’m on some sort of pedestal and that I’m always right, just because I have a podcast. I’m not. I’m just a regular dude. I put my foot in my mouth as often as anyone else; I have crazy opinions like anyone else; I change my mind about things and I’m sometimes right and sometimes wrong, like anyone else. Producing Skeptoid, and its associated activities like blogging and tweeting, force a lot of stuff out into the open. Many of you reading this probably know me better than you know your next-door neighbors. Any shield of privacy I might have ever had is gone.

I wouldn’t say this has forced me to be more careful, and to choose my words better. Rather, it’s made me more introspective. I still say what I think, but I think about it more before I say it. Four years ago, I was a different person. Four years of spilling guts and running around naked in public has made me more reflective. When I say something now, it’s not saying it to four buddies in a bar; it’s saying it to a hundred and forty thousand people. I believe there’s less value in putting a diplomatic spin on your thoughts than there is in revising and improving those thoughts and sharing them openly.

So I will freely admit, yes, I have long thought that starting a church is a great way to make money. But let’s be realistic: That idea is hardly original with me. It’s not original with L. Ron Hubbard either. Half of you reading this have had the same thought, and the other half are liars. That’s not to say we’d actually do it; but we’ve all had the thought.

Four years after saying that, I now know myself well enough to feel confident that I would never do it. That’s not a way I could ever look back and feel proud of how I’d spent my life. But in my twenties, I actually did put some thought into this. Somewhere I still even have the notes I’d written. But to be fair to myself, it wasn’t a church so much as a New Agey kind of book club. When I did my Skeptoid episode on Rosicrucianism, I was surprised to learn how similar the Rosicrucian organization is to what I’d outlined. You pay a membership fee to join, and you purchase manuscripts that are equivalent to coursework. You achieve higher classification based on having completed more courses. That’s pretty much all there was to it; there was no malevolence, no ripoff. It had a built-in constant upsell pitch, but that’s hardly revolutionary. I never got as far as writing any of the documents, but I had every intention that they should be of some actual value to the readers. I’d gone through a bit of the self-help fad stuff in those days and I had some idea of how I wanted the content to be. Where I applied my creativity was in the adornment with Eastern words and names for the various philosophies involved. In those days I had no experience at all with things like Scientology and it never, ever would have occurred to me to do any of the totally creepy life-controlling stuff that Hubbard did. Rosicrucianism is harmless New Age cosmic babble, and Scientology is not. There are many lines that Scientology crosses that Rosicrucianism does not.

Even this line of reasoning of mine can be viewed as frighteningly similar to Hubbard’s. Scientology began not as a church, but as a dime-store counseling regime called Dianetics. He tried (and failed) to get it recognized as a legitimate psychiatric standard. I don’t know, but there may have been a point where he was honestly trying to help people. I doubt it, but I don’t know.

So yes, I did express an early thought that’s substantially identical to the one L. Ron Hubbard had, that he ran with and I didn’t. I think I can see where his mind was at, superficially. But having researched the man, I’ve learned why he ran with it and I didn’t. He was a lot of things that I’m not. He was fanatical, passionate, and utterly unscrupulous. An unscrupulous fanatic can do things with a baseball bat that I wouldn’t, and he could do things with the idea to start a church that I wouldn’t.

Positioning oneself as a promoter of consumer protection can be like a minefield, if you’re afraid of being found out as a hypocrite. I’m not afraid of that, because I’m always happy to admit that I’m as prone to error, weakness, immaturity, and bad judgment as anyone else. That’s why I can look back on my twenties and see what was good, what was bad, and appreciate the steps I took that helped me to learn and grow. Five years from now I’ll be blogging to tell you what a nincompoop I was today. Nincompoopery is immortal.

14 Responses to “Start a Church for Fun, Sex, and Profit”

  1. Wait a second, are you saying you are a human being with all the weaknesses and frailties implied by that? And here I thought you were a lizard…


    • Citizen Wolf says:

      Of course he’s a lizard. This is just another one of his clever illuminati mind-tricks to make you think that he’s just a normal Joe.

      Look, it’s quite clear from his cover name;
      Brian Dunning – take away a few of the letters and you’re left with;
      _i_a_d, then fill in the blanks and you get;

  2. Robo Sapien says:

    Mr. Dunning, I think those engrams are really cramping your style. You got hit with a wave of criticism on the Skeptoid episode, now 2 blog posts later you’re still on the defensive. This is not the Brian Dunning that I’ve come to know and love and worship at a candle lit shrine in my basement. We need you to be our shepherd and deliver us from bullshit into the divine light of reason, not going back to explain yourself and then explaining your explanation. It’s not like you suggested trying to simultaneously bring Hitler mustaches and sun wheels back into fashion, just take your licks and get on with the real skepticism. We miss you.

  3. John Paradox says:

    The mention of Dianetics takes me back to when I read the original book, either shortly before or after it was ‘transformed’ into Scientology. SF writer/editor John W. Campbell wrote an editorial that praised Dianetics, which triggered my interest in reading the book, but once I’d read it, it caused me to downgrade Campbell in my opinion of his beliefs.


  4. erikthebassist says:

    Brian, I’ve hung out with a you bunch of times at SITP and listened to your podcasts for 3 years now I think. I don’t always agree with you, but over all I think you put a lot of work in trying to be factually accurate and you strike me as an honest guy who cares about people.

    I think we all share your cause in promoting science and education, which is what you do, extremely well. The amount of work you do in that cause, at great expense to yourself I might add, is not something that can be overshadowed by this silliness.

    I agree with robo, move on and don’t let it bother you. It’s a straw man.

  5. Chris Howard says:

    So, this isn’t a “How To” manual?! I, for one, am very disappointed! ;-)

  6. Richard says:

    I thought it was refreshing to hear a more balanced, more tolerant look at Scientology.

  7. marke says:

    Well, I for one have never dreamed of starting a church. I’m completely aghast at the thought of anything that is based on manipulating malleable minds.

    (but then, I am in marketing, does that make me a hypocrite?)

  8. Al Morrison says:

    So, my $3.99 monthly payment isn’t an offering securing my position junior skeptologist in the Church of Skeptoidology? Damn, I thought I finally had a religion and you were my savior. Guess I’m back to the atheist gig, and your just another intellectual hero…again.

  9. mom says:

    Dear Immortal Nincompoop we Love;

    As you said, it is the Logus of the Bogus, the Jim-Jam Jeeters or the Habitus in Extremis that has led you down this journey of self-reflection. Please remember the times you and Todd used to stalk each other on the fields of snow – although I never saw a baseball bat in your hands; I do recall you gripping a ski pole or two. Fortunately you both survived and are the better for it. And we are all the more fortunate that your extraordinary way of expressing yourself has flowered and continued to amuse and educate people all over the world. Hugs, Mom

  10. Tiana says:

    I think you can see your old episode in a ironical way, it’s what it looked like for me in the first listening. (Maybe I had set up my thought of something.)

    Thinking of doing something and doing it are totally different you know, and it’s a problem how seriously you want to do it. Run a church to make money in contrast to real psychics, it has some genuine points you picked out. If the points are about help (the “real” consequence, for everyone who seeks for their needs or is eager to release their “real-world” pains), why people who know the real effects in the world better can’t take some means to lead to good ending?

    Take it ironically, one believer can open a church “to make money” (in the surface), why can’t a much more realistic non-believer who can leads to an efficient and effective way take opening a church as a pure mean to help people and then of course make some money?(He/She needs to eat, right?) It’s in a ironical way to ask :P