Scientology and the “Culture War”

Scientology, edited by James R. Lewis

This is not an official or fully detailed review, but simply a brief commentary on this edited volume as it relates to my master’s thesis. My thesis explores how New Religious Movements that reject the duality of Judeo-Christian morality develop and construct a moral/ethical framework. It will focus on two NRMS: Scientologists and Raeliens. Primary literature and select internet sources, along with academic studies on these groups will be analyzed in terms of how these NRMs address and define evil – that is, the problematic, imperfect, and heinous. What do these groups delineate as causality for the problems, issues, and distress in their worldview? Delineating their notion of causality of “evil” reveals fundamental presuppositions about their worldview, and how those premises inform their understanding of their place on the world. This project begins with a lengthy discussion on the term “evil”; how it is framed, constructed, and the inherited philosophical history of the Judeo-Christian worldview embedded in all Western society. Even if evil as it is historically understood is ultimately rejected by the groups studied, they are products of Western history and civilization, and thus respond to their philosophical precendents.

This post will fit into a series of posts on books related to my thesis.

The Lewis anthology on Scientology was extremely informative, and contained some excellent articles containing much information and detail that was previously unknown to me, such as the Xenu narratives and the extent of their legal battles with the Anti-Cult Movement. Comprised of twenty-two scholarly articles on the Church of Scientology, the book is divided in five sections. The first provides foundational information and discusses methodological issues. The second contains sociological studies. The third offers a “contrast and compare” with other religious worldviews. Part four examines controversies. Section five looks at Scientology overseas. And part six details some distinctive practices of this NRM.

In Lewis’ introductory note, he writes, “This volume will…likely end up pleasing no one engaged in the Scientology/anti-Scientology conflict….” (5). This becomes more relevant throughout the text, as well as reading reactions to this anthology, post-publication. Much like David Chidester’s, Salvation and Suicide (another post regarding this book coming soon), Lewis’ volume received criticism from popular and academic sources alike for being an apologetic volume, prompting Lewis to write an “An Open Letter to: Scientologists, Ex-Scientologists, and Critics of the Church of Scientology.” It was reprinted on various Internet blogs. In it, he addresses the so-called “cult controversy”, and makes a somewhat clear statement about his personal views on the Church. I address this here because it is relevant to my reading of this volume.

Lewis states in the “Open Letter” that:

Neither I nor the great majority of new religions specialists view ourselves as defenders of groups like Scientology. Rather, we are interested in understanding social-psychological processes and the dynamics of social conflict.

He continues to affirm that if NRM scholars are defending anything it is good science versus bad science. This is a provocative claim not in its content, but because it is apparently necessary to address publicly. I wonder if scholars of other areas are forced into clarifying their personal position with such regularity or firmness? It is perhaps relegated to areas of controversy; queer, race, feminist, and Islamic studies all fall under popular and academic scrutiny because they involve contentious issues.

Moving on to the content of the actual anthology, I will focus on two articles. Régis Déricquebourg’s article, “How Should We Regard the Religious Ceremonies of the Church of Scientology?” (165-182), where he examines the rituals of the Church of Scientology, and includes a detailed list of their rites of passage: marriage, naming ceremony, ordination, funerals, etc.  The author concludes that, while much of the organization of the church is bureaucratic in nature – indeed, that the prime participation for members it to be involved in its structure – that the rituals are designed to provide a greater sociability and a better civilization. Déricquebourg considers scientology a social movement aimed at improving the lives of individual members and society at large. He argues that because the ceremonial rituals are not particularly well attended it reveals tensions between the individual spiritual path and the organizational and bureaucratic aspects of Scientology. Rituals are an imposed mandate by the founder in order to boost Scientology’s status as a “religion”; that is, rituals surrounding rites of passage lend legitimacy to the “Is Scientology a real religion?” debate. Déricquebourge offers that regardless of the ostensible status of it as a religion, “Scientology is a social movement that exists and that needs to be studied as any other ‘social actor’” (165). He essentially sidesteps the whole debate, and chooses not to answer questions of “real religion” instead focusing on Scientology as social movement, and as such, deserving of social scientific study.

This section brings into question the larger environment of academia and how it frames and approaches religion. It reveals the broader issue of defining religion itself, a topic that every scholar engages. Perhaps it is my naiveté, but this question – while I understand its importance – is almost tedious. By that I mean that when academia focuses so much on quantifying and categorizing religion, they are not engaged in the study of human behaviour. I favour the anthropological/ethnographical approach, and would stress that analysis through participant observations should have precedence over theoretical work in the initial stages. Data could then be examined to support or debunk theories. Many of the authors in the anthology begin with a statement about how Scientology is generally perceived, and either accept, reject, or alter that perception through their arguments and claims. This means that they are in dialog with a pre-existing framework, either explicitly or implicitly, in popular and academic forums alike. This tension is current throughout every article.

The tension is not without some legitimate concerns. The litigious nature of Scientology is well known, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the criminal cases it was involved with regarding CAN (Cult Awareness Network) and AFF (American Family Foundation). Anson Shupe’s article, “The Nature of the New Religious Movements – Anticult ‘Culture War’ in Microcosm: The Church of Scientology versus the Cult Awareness Network” (269-281), provides information on the pressured environment surrounding NRMs. CAN and other such groups (labeled as part of the ACM or Anti-Cult Network) were organizations intent on raising awareness of the destructive nature of NRMs, and promoted “extraction” by means of kidnapping and “deprogramming.” These groups, mostly Christian based, polarized the general public.

Shupe has an impressive list of sources; he cites 35 years of data collection and 400 boxes of legal transcripts among them. His article is a basic telling of events that eventually led to the dissolution of CAN and even the ACM movement, primarily due to financial woes. Because CAN and other groups engaged in alleged criminal activity (i.e. kidnapping, restraining, starving, and generally causing distress to their captives), they were most often convicted (in either criminal or civil lawsuits) and ordered to pay restitution in the millions. The Church of Scientology was but one of the NRMs involved in such lawsuits.

The broader issue here is the nature of the “Culture War” itself. ACM provided journalist and editors polarizing and damaging sound bites regarding NRMs. Shupe claims that ACM used the “naïve media” to their advantage, pushing the fear that America and American values were being subverted and destroyed. There was a war on the frontiers of society. It is interesting to note that the language and rhetoric used regarding contentious topics is almost always the same; gays/Muslims/cults are destroying America/morality/society. These groups and ideas are held up against a polished and idealized version of a perfect society. As much as the construction of these groups as evil/destructive/subversive is a narrow and polarizing view, so is the ideal of a perfect society. American society is romanticized just as much as NRMs are demonized. They exist en tandem with each other.

Questions for discussion:

1)   Are scholars on contentious issues forced into a defensive stance, and if so, what is the best approach to such critique?

2)   Does the debate regarding ritual as a defining factor in religion inherit the historical tension between Protestant and Catholic rituals?

3)   Why are scholars focused on deconstructing the demonization (of NRMs) but not the romanticization (of the ideal society)?

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