A recent episode of Skeptoid, covering the Church of Scientology, promised to be particularly controversial.
Brian Dunning said on Twitter that he doubted it would be making him many friends, even among his fellow skeptics, and seemed to decide at one point not to release it, so as to avoid any negative reaction. This all came not long after something of a kerfuffle emerged following his piece on the pesticide DDT, and I did think he was possibly milking the idea of being some kind of rebel, and enjoying too much the thought of being too boldly honest for the rest of the skeptical movement.
He did release it, though, and I listened, interested to see what kind of radical, convention-defying ideas he’d have which the rest of us skeptics would simply find too hot to handle.
The shocking wisdom he was eventually brave enough to share with the world was that most Scientologists are really just everyday folk whose ridiculous belief system works benignly enough for them, and some of the moral panic and outraged backlash exhibited against the church is a little overstated.
So, there you have it. Brian Dunning has revealed himself as a heretic who must be burned for his unorthodoxy.
I was more and more curious as the episode went on, as to just what the big final twist was going to be. Mostly it was an interesting and characteristically well researched historical account of L Ron Hubbard’s life and the founding of the Church of Scientology, making the whole set-up seem as transparently fabricated as any other religion. He documents some of their practices which concern some people today, but the only real departure from the traditional opinions of the internet is in his assessment of their role as global antagonist. Essentially, he just doesn’t think they’re that big of a deal.
Most of the church’s members are fairly normal people, who maybe saw one of those “free stress tests” in the streets and decided that this thing kinda works for them. They’re not all some sort of creepy plastic homunculus spouting bullshit like an eviller John Barrowman, and the dues they pay the church aren’t significantly more cultish than what millions of people throw in the collection plate every Sunday.
Similarly, the more hardcore Sea Org stuff can be compared to involvement in the military, and the restrictive and regimented lifestyle is assumed to suit those who sign up for it.
In short, they’re a predominantly self-contained bunch of nuts who shouldn’t really be of much more interest to the rest of us than any other religion with an equally ludicrous mythology and tax-exempt status. And the anti-Scientology “Anonymous” movement have a number of disturbing practices of their own, and seem to attack the church with such a vicious dogmatism that it rather undermines their claims to the moral high ground.
So, is it really all just an over-blown fuss about nothing that need concern us?
I don’t think so.
As far as an empirical recounting of the facts goes, the episode seemed as well researched as usual. The single point of contention really only began to emerge in discussing value judgments, and his assessment of the impact of what the Church do. In this regard, Brian glossed over some points that tend to convince other people that the Church of Scientology is worth being concerned about.
The kind of lifestyle people in the Sea Org voluntarily sign up to might well suit their own personalities, and may not be much harsher than anything you’d expect from the military. But some reports of the Church’s activity and behaviour go beyond the limits of what I think can be shrugged off by saying “hey, it’s what they wanted”.
The notion of “Fair Game” didn’t come up anywhere in Brian’s discussion, despite being critical to the reasons so many people object as vehemently as they do to the Church of Scientology’s practices. It’s understood within the organisation that Scientology’s “enemies” – a status which it seems can be earned all too easily, for even minor infractions such as openly questioning the moral integrity of some of its decisions – may be attacked and persecuted by Church members beyond any limits of reason or compassion.
A number of lawsuits have resulted from the enactment of the Fair Game policy, including the case of Operation Freakout. In this, the Church conducted a plan with the specific goal of getting a journalist (who’d written a book that was critical about them) unjustly imprisoned or committed to a mental institution. The methods used to achieve this were deceptive and illegal.
There was also Operation Snow White, in which the Church of Scientology conducted the single largest infiltration of the U.S. government in history. They broke into and stole from government agencies and private organisations, in an effort to destroy records which reflected Scientology negatively.
This isn’t just about people making decisions on how to live their own life, which simply seem strange to the rest of us who choose not to live that way. This spills over way into the illegal and reprehensible.
And even if it was limited to people’s personal choices, that still wouldn’t nullify a lot of the arguments made against Scientology.
They take a fair chunk of people’s money for no real reason, which isn’t always made okay just because the people are happy about it. If you learn a little about cold reading, you could no doubt give people psychic assessments for five bucks a pop that they’d be very happy with, but it’s still a morally problematic thing to do (and even more so when the rate is $700 a time).
Also, there’s a big difference between anti-Scientology sentiment as a whole, fuelled by the above concerns, and Anonymous, a loose-knit “organisation” from a particular grubby corner of the internet which has chosen to fixate on Scientology with a greater continued interest than most of its targets. Anonymous might be fearless anti-authoritarian freedom fighters tackling financial exploitation and defending free speech, but they’re also the douchebags who spammed YouTube with porn disguised as children’s videos, and launched a campaign of obscene phone calls against a teenager who’d set up a no-swearing club.
So, it’s no surprise if that lot are taking things a little too far. But there are still a lot of legitimate complaints against Scientology to be made from a less frenetically provocative standpoint.
I’ve probably gone on far longer than I needed to, given how little Brian said which I take issue with at all. On reflection, my only complaint with his original piece came in the last paragraph or so, and even then it’s mostly that I just don’t think he’s giving sufficient weight to some of the more worrying aspects.
It’s taken me a couple of weeks to get around to putting all this together, and he has posted some further thoughts on SkepticBlog in the meantime. The comments there are getting predictably lively, and people are raising all the points I’ve made and more (the comparison between some Sea Org members and victims of domestic abuse comes up a couple of times, and may well be apt).
Brian’s main point in the follow-up is that he wanted to place more emphasis on the everyday, lower-level Church members than they sometimes get, and encourage everyone to remember that most people involved with Scientology are not brainwashed cultists or violently tribalistic thugs. There’s a lot of perfectly decent, ordinary folk in that Church, who have probably had limited but positive experiences with it on the whole, and may feel like they’re being included in some extremely harsh and incomprehensible criticism when Scientology’s critics get going, if we’re not careful.
I absolutely agree that this is an important and under-appreciated point. But the organisation is still capable of a great deal of harm (of which this is surely just the start), and although more care may be needed in picking our targets with greater precision, there’s still a lot about Scientology that should cause no little concern.
If you made it through all that, where do you stand?