It is the secret dream of every science fiction writer to create his own religion. There is, in fact, one writer who actually succeeded: L. Ron Hubbard, author of such sci-fi paperweights as Battlefield Earth and Mission Earth, created Scientology – known to many people as “that crazy religion Tom Cruise is in.” For a long time, my knowledge of Scientology was what most people knew; in other words, I saw the South Park episode about it. According to South Park, Scientologists believe that 75 million years ago, the evil galactic lord Xenu put all the aliens in the galaxy he didn’t like into spaceships shaped like DC-8s with rockets instead of jet engines, flew them to Earth, dumped them in volcanoes, brainwashed their souls, and left them to wander the Earth for all eternity until they started inhabiting human bodies.
This never sounded like anything I wanted to believe in, or even something that I was interested in, but over the break, some friends and I went to the Scientology church just off of Times Square in New York. We said that we were doing it in order to give Scientology its fair shake – after all, it was kind of unfair to be judgmental towards something we knew so very little about – but to be honest, we were just looking for a cheap laugh.
In our defense, there’s a precedent for this kind of thing. Religion nowadays, at least the kind of religion I was exposed to in high school, is basically just a form of entertainment. I’ve sat in the pews of huge megachurches where thousands of people sang along to words flashing across giant screens while clouds and flowers and mountains flashed in the background. When people got baptized, we gave them standing ovations. The preachers’ sermons weren’t so much instructional as inspirational. In fact, most of them sounded like something taken from a football coach’s halftime speech – we were so close in that first half, we can defeat evil if you only try a little harder, pray a little harder, have a little less gay sex, now go out and kick Satan’s ass! Rah! Rah! Rah!
And so I had expectations. If Evangelical Christianity, which according to the news and the 2004 presidential election is somewhat mainstream, can be crazy and fun, I expected that the sidestream stuff would be even more exciting, and even stranger.
I was sadly disappointed.
As we walked into the church, we were immediately accosted by a large glass cross. I felt somewhat offended that Scientology had so blatantly hijacked the symbol of another religion. Once we passed the blatant thievery and walked down a flight of stairs, a well-dressed man and a well-dressed woman greeted us and took us down the hall to an exhibit explaining the basic tenets of scientology.
The well-dressed woman first told us that the word “Scientology” came from the Latin words “scio” and “logos”, meaning “knowledge in the fullest sense of the word” and “study of”, respectively. Scientology was, therefore, the study of knowing. We also learned that, while Scientology is called a religion, Scientologists don’t think of it as a “religion” in the traditional sense of the word (similar to the way they believe “Scientology” doesn’t really mean “the word ‘science’ mashed up with a really important-sounding suffix”). In Scientology, apparently, no one is forced to accept doctrine or dogma, and everyone believes only what they find to be true. Scientology, our guide-lady told us, is a “religion” in that it is a set of tools useful for helping people live better, more fulfilling lives. The woman then left us to watch a couple videos that explained all about the mysteries of the Universe while happy people laughed, smiled, and ran through fields and beaches. They reminded me of Levitra commercials. Overall, it was pretty standard fare for religious proselytizing, I figured.
Soon we started getting into the more uniquely Scientologist stuff. After watching a video on Dianetics (Scientology’s “modern science of mental health”), we were given three personality tests: the Oxford Capacity Analysis, an IQ test, and a strange test that involved comparing the length of various lines. After the tests were completed and our results loaded into a computer, we were taken away individually to discuss our results.
They ushered me into a room with a comfy chair next to a desk with a comfier-looking chair. Inside was a well-dressed woman with a chart describing my results, which she handed me. Each of the ten aspects of my personality tested were graphed on a scale from -100 to 100, and my results swung widely. Unsurprisingly, I was found to be deficient in multiple aspects of my personality.
“Can you tell me why this number is so low?” she said, pointing to my nervousness results.
Oh boy, I thought, she wants to talk about my feeeelings. I groaned internally, and figured that the quickest way out of the room would be to go along with everything, telling her what she wanted to hear. And so I summoned all the skills I had learned in my Princeton precepts and bullshat my way through my test results. Eventually we came to my happiness score: a -98, with a little box on the bottom of the graph saying “Depressed.” According to Scientology, it was a minor miracle I wasn’t cutting myself and listening to Taking Back Sunday.
“Yeah, there’s some things in the past that happened to me that really hurt me,” I said.
“Like what?” she said.
I paused, and considered my feelings. They mostly consisted of being really ticked off. Everyone past the age of two, by virtue of being a human being, has tragedies in their past. Even I, in all my Privileged-White-Male-Ivy-League-Schooled glory, have tragedies, and they were making it obvious that they were trying to take advantage of this. It didn’t satisfy these well-dressed people that I knew that I was messed up and that I felt bad about it; I had to tell them about my horrible past too. And that was something I was not willing to do with a woman I had met less than ten minutes ago, even a well-dressed one. And so I steadfastly refused to even bullshit this question, and I told her so (leaving out the word bullshit, of course). She proceeded to ask the question in a couple different ways, and when I wouldn’t answer, she changed the subject and then tried to sneak my “Depression” back in. And again I refused to give a satisfactory answer. Finally, she gave up, picked up the phone and called her superior into the room to replace her.
On the train back to Princeton, I read through several of the Scientologists’ informational pamphlets about various drugs. According to the pamphlet on the dangers of Ritalin, a few years ago a 17 year-old Ritalin abuser hacked his parents to death with a hatchet and then proceeded to attack his siblings. Another unidentified 14 year-old boy killed another boy with a baseball bat. All these horror stories were very intriguing, but the thing that caught my eye was the last lines of every pamphlet: “Taking drugs is not an answer. As difficult as it can be to confront one’s problems, the consequences that come with drug use are always worse than the problem one is trying to avoid when he or she begins to take drugs. And the long slide into hell that comes as a result of taking drugs is even worse.” I feel saddened that the Adderall a couple of my friends took during exams was actually a one-way ticket to the burning lake of fire.
And so it might seem like Scientology had been pretty entertaining. To be fair, it had been. I had been told the mysteries of the Universe, I had discovered a secret depression lurking inside of me, and I had even been condemned to hell. But it wasn’t special enough; I’d gotten pretty much the same thing from my church back home. Everything at the church of Scientology had been slick, professional and stale, and it offended me in the same way that Starbucks’ obvious commerciality offends some people. I wanted flare, personality, kookiness – I wanted a real cult, not an expensive, well-dressed clinic.
I mean, Scientology just wasn’t out there enough. One of the well-dressed people who had talked to us at the church was a woman who told us that she had been an i-Banker at UBS until just recently, when she decided to help out at the Scientology temple full-time. At the time, I had thought to myself, This is my future. I will graduate Princeton, become an indentured servant to some Multi-National-Mutual-Fund-Investment-Group with an impressive-sounding name, and then I will go insane. But if this is truly my fate, I don’t want to go merely insane, I want to go completely batshit insane, stalking around a street corner repeating old Chevy Avalanche commercials (“Everything must change! The atom becomes the flower becomes the bull becomes the man! You sir, you must change!” [Man changes his Chevy Avalanche from a pickup to an SUV, and mad prophet hands him his flower] “Thank you,” says truck owner. “No sir, thank you.”)
And this is why I’m pissed off that it’s L. Ron Hubbard, of all the science fiction writers in the world, that got a religion. As far as science fiction writers go, Hubbard is alright, somewhere between middling and pretty good depending on which book of his you’re reading. But in the pantheon of sci-fi greats, Hubbard is nowhere to be found, and Scientology suffers from his lack of talent. If I could have picked any writer to give a cult to, my pick would have been Robert Heinlein, author of Stranger in a Strange Land. Stranger’s main character is a Martian human called Michael Smith who starts a cult espousing free love, the godhood of everything, and fellowship with the “Ancient Ones.” Heinlein’s cult would kick the crap out of Hubbard’s.
There are no pilgrimages to Mecca in Scientology. There are no holy wars. No one gives you a standing ovation when you join; they give you a receipt. And this is why I will never be a Scientologist. I am an American, and I want to be entertained, dammit. Personality tests and paranoia about prescription drugs don’t cut it. And the whole Xenu story? Come on, I’ve written better science fiction myself.