01 March 2006

That’s a question asked in a “security check” that’s part of the “auditing” process at the heart of Scientology, the religion created half a century ago by Hubbard, a pulp sci-fi writer. Auditing, as described by Janet Reitman in “Inside Scientology,” a fine exploration of the faith in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, is like therapy. Or like an interrogation. It’s a bit of a tomato vs. tomahto situation, which is what makes one of the photographs accompanying the story so apt — a jowly Hubbard staring intently at an actual tomato, which he’s auditing with his “e-meter.” An e-meter is — oh, just read the story.

I write for Rolling Stone myself, and I spoke to Reitman about rationalism and religion shortly before she went to press with this article, but my enthusiasm for the piece is independent of those connections. Reitman spent nine months on the story. She talked to celebrities, yes, but also a great number of ordinary scientologists. She talked to critics, yes, but she allows Hubbard’s theology an uncommonly full and respectful hearing. She submitted herself to the first stages of the conversion process and visited Scientology facilities all around the country and checked in with scholars. The result is a calm, authoritative, and disturbing work of journalism, a model for how to write about new religious movements.

Or, for that matter, older ones. Scientology’s creation of new words and grammatical re-tooling of familiar terms is merely an amplification of the linguistic strategies of more mainstream faiths. Its emphasis on purity — particularly of the sexual variety — echoes the concerns of a number of religious movements. Its distrust of non-believer media is not unlike that of, say, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. In other words, Scientology may be strange, intolerant, and paranoid, but it’s not so unusual. Even its most sci-fi claims — about ancient space warlords — begin to “make sense” when you consider their application in what Scientologists consider the only “rational” religion. Hubbard’s goal wasn’t to tell an innovative story, it was to offer up a body of “facts” upon which to base “faith.”

Why did he need a space warlord to justify his claims? Because something had to explain how we got here (see, the planets were overpopulated, so the warlord rounded up a trillion ancient Thetans and sent them to Earth and — oh, just read the story.). That’s not mystical, that’s the “common sense” of cause-and-effect in an enlightened age, the logic that holds that we can know a thing by its beginnings. Call it the fallacy of origins, but don’t blame it on L. Ron Hubbard. It’s what commonly passes for history in mainstream media.

The marriage of rationalism and religion is a pervasive 20th-21st century phenomenon: It’s there in the prosperity doctrine of televangelists such as Rod Parsley and Creflo Dollar; it’s there in the dumbed-down “natural law” claims of those who claim personal knowledge of God’s excessive anxiety over same-sex marriage; it’s there in the anti-self, self-help proclamations of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life; it’s even in yoga studios, where more than a few teachers combine the “common sense” of a health regimen with subtle assertions about deeper meanings.

In short, it’s one of the great subjects for religion writers. That’s a new beat for Reitman, who’s been writing some of the best journalism around about the lives of ordinary soldiers in Iraq. When I spoke to her, she drew a connection between that work and this story. A soldier in the field, she said, is often by necessity passionately devoted to a particular worldview he or she thinks will foster survival. Whether or not it is “correct” is a bit beside the point. Likewise here. What interests me as a reader is the shape of the beliefs at the heart of the story, not their justifications.

–Jeff Sharlet