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Alleged Abuses in Scientology Are Far From Unique

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Scientology. The name is a travesty of science. The reality is a burlesque of religion.

Following the lead of the Saint Petersburg Times, where my late friend Steve Marquez once reported on the same church, the New York Times recently published tales of abuse told by Scientology "defectors." The term seems apt, since the harsh treatment former insiders describe brings to mind totalitarian states like North Korea.

Beatings, fleecings, and exploitation of teen labor - these are just some of the garish allegations limned in the accounts that you can read for yourself. What is important here, I think, is not how bizarre the Church of Scientology is but the ways in which it is ordinary.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not implying a moral equivalence between the alleged maltreatment of Scientology members and, say, your neighborhood Church of the Holy Redeemer's collection plate. What I am saying is that the allegations against Church of Scientology leadership suggest the hallmarks of human vulnerability to nonsense on the one hand and the intoxication of power on the other.

What distinguishes Scientology from most other theologies is that it was developed in plain sight by a science fiction writer who claimed (so far as I am aware) no special revelation, just a handy way with imagination and words. Actually, not so handy with words as you might expect of a writer.

The Scientology Creed begins with a blatant plagiarism of Thomas Jefferson's immortal lines in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." In Hubbard's hands, this succinct ode to liberty becomes a laundry list of "God-given" rights (for men only), including the "right to sanity." If only!

That so many people come to believe quite literally in Scientology's extravagant tales of aliens, billion-year lifespans, and whatnot says a lot, I think, about the human need for meaning at almost any cost. The philosopher Daniel Dennett calls it "epistemological hunger." Davy, the mischievous little boy in Anne of Green Gables stories, puts it more simply. When scolded for asking questions about God, he responds, "I just wanna know."

This hunger may be nourished with fruits gathered through exploration and seasoned with humility and doubt - or it may be stifled with junk food.

Whatever religious beliefs you may hold, you must surely agree that some religions spring up to exploit that hunger for meaning. Over and over again, we have seen that for certain personalities religion is the shortest route to absolute power. And we've seen that absolute power, as Lord Acton so rightly observed, corrupts absolutely. Some who hold sway over their flocks are undoubtedly sincere, others undoubtedly hucksters. I make no judgment about Hubbard in saying this. It really doesn't matter. The point is not whether a person sincerely believes that they bear tablets (or copper plates, or whatever) inscribed by God, so to speak. What counts is what happens to them them once they come down from the mountain and taste power.

From Rev. Jim Jones, who led his flock to "Jonestown" in the jungle and got them to commit suicide by drinking bad Kool-Aid, to Shoko Asahara the blind Buddhist guru who founded Shin Aumrikyo and persuaded his followers to release nerve gas in the Tokyo subways, to Ayatollah Khomeini, who after coming to power in Iran decreed death by hanging for girls as young as nine for alleged religious improprieties, the record of religious tyrants is rife with abuse. So it should come as no shock to learn that the inheritor of Hubbard's mantle, David Miscavige, stands accused by former lieutenants of slapping, beating, and worse.

Scientology is instructive because, obsessively secretive though it may be, so much of its malevolence is in plain view. That the church aggressively recruits followers and persuades them to transfer wealth and independence in return for promises of eternal (or near-eternal) life is indisputable. Ever heard of such a thing?

Of course you have. It's the practice of many religious entities. It simply goes unexamined once it has the patent of antiquity. My point here is not to condemn all religion as exploitation. I deny that. However, now that we know about the human vulnerability to religious exploitation, we have a duty to inoculate one another against it.

Protection begins with critical thinking. You don't have to earn a doctorate in philosophy to recognize that anyone who claims to have all the answers is a fraud. Sincere or sham, they are frauds. If they offer you truth, happiness, or eternal life in return for your obedience, turn around and run for the hills. If you are already in such a religion, challenge the dogma!

For in the end what really matters is not answers. Answers are words, and words are mere shadows of the truth. It's the questions we ask, and how we each choose to respond to them. That's what makes us human. Individually, we lead brief, flickering lives. Together, we are eternal explorers.