Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief – Book Review

going-clear-paperback-cover

The cover of the book.

Subject Matter

Going Clear is an interesting but occasionally preachy overview of the Scientology movement. Scientology is a cult (and I use that word unapologetically) that has its origins in the writings and life of L. Ron Hubbard. Scientology is ‘scientific’ inasmuch as it claims to be totally grounded in science. Part of the religion is a gnostic-like focus on secret knowledge, available only to an inner circle of elites. These secret beliefs were leaked because of a trial a number of years back; and now L. Ron Hubbard’s theories about aliens and thetans are easily found on the internet.

It is difficult to conduct a fair analysis of Scientology because their beliefs are kept secret; those willing to talk are typically ex-members. Scientologist church officials also have an extreme culture of secrecy and work to suppress those who disagree with them. For full disclosure, I ought to mention that I have poked around some official Scientology websites, read exactly one L. Ron Hubbard book (Battlefield Earth) and seen a movie adaptation of the same. I have also seen a very unflattering BBC documentary about Scientology. That is the extent of my knowledge before ‘Going Clear.’

So how’s the book?

Before I say anything about the book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, I should note that this book took tremendous courage to write. The Church of Scientology has a reputation for actively harassing its critics, and Mr. Wright was willing to risk all of that. In its favour, I ought to say that this book is engaging, and feels like Lawrence Wright tried to tell the ‘Church’ side of things as well. The best part are the chapters covering the life and escapades of L. Ron Hubbard himself.

Going Clear’s Achilles heel is the author, Lawrence Wright. A little internet sleuthing seems to suggest that he has no formal background in studying religion or cults himself. He’s simply a journalist, and from what I can tell, an atheist. In his favour, he has written other books on religion, but those are primarily about other ‘fringe’ movements. He’s going to interview mostly ex-members of yet another fringe religious movement. It seems like the book will have a foregone conclusion, yes?

Lawrence (for whatever reason) writes as though Scientology were ‘just another religion.’ Frequent comparisons are made to world religions based on the existence of belabored parallels. These are rarely accompanied by contrasting statements, and are made with little thought to the fact that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. For instance, he says that thetans – souls of deceased aliens infecting all human beings and removed through Scientology coursework and counselling – are similar to the concept of demons in Christianity. Mr. Wright simply says that they are ‘similar’ and neglects to note any contrasts. One important one would be that Scientologists consider everyone who has not moved high enough in Scientology to have thetans, whereas Christians do not consider all non-Christians/Christians who have not attended enough religious courses to be ‘demon possessed’, among other contrasts that ought to be mentioned. Many non-Christian religions could make similar complaints about comments directed toward their religions. Ultimately, I feel this speaks more to Mr. Wright’s ignorance of other religions than any meaningful parallels.

This extends into philosophy as well. Mr. Wright compares Hubbard’s work to that of Immanual Kant or Soren Kirkegaard, “although no one has approached the sweep of Hubbard’s work.” (page 445) Any moral philosopher who has read these two knows that Hubbard is not even in the same league, yet here it is implied that he is not only on par with them but surpasses them in scope. Hubbard is not a name in philosophy; Kant and Kierkegaard are two giants, for the uninformed. Lawrence Wright is perhaps trying to be ‘fair’ by finding something to praise Hubbard for, but it just makes Mr. Wright sound ignorant.

Lawrence frequently interjects a larger criticism of all faiths into his narrative. This even makes it into the title ‘…the Prison of Belief.’ Snide comments like, “Religion is always an irrational enterprise, no matter how ennobling it may be to the human spirit.” (page 102) pepper his analysis and part of his concluding remarks in the epilogue is the statement that “Never have I felt so keenly the danger of new religious movements and the damage that is done to people who are lured into such groups.” (page 445)

In my opinion, the principal problem with Going Clear is that Lawrence Wright seems to be approaching this as an atheist with no formal background in studying mainstream religions. Scientology’s faults and successes are all intrinsic to it’s religiousness and newness in his opinion, not it’s cultishness. In other words, if, on the basis of his book, we call ‘Scientology’ ‘bad’ we must call all religion ‘bad’ for Scientology simply exhibits traits found in Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and so on. Wright seems to think we ought to wait for Scientology to ‘mellow with age’ like all the other religions did eventually.  This is simply an inappropriate mapping of his preconceived generalizations about religion and the history of religion onto Scientology.

Consequently, Lawrence Wright does not attempt to sort out the ‘proper’ relationship between Scientology’s well documented crimes and its beliefs. This are important. Is Scientology dangerous because of what it believes or because of who is in charge? What does Scientology teach about its leader(s) and the things that it has done? Depending on the answers, Scientology may always be a threat or it could be a laudable but misguided institution with a leadership problem. Lawrence Wright ignores this. This is where a background in religion would be useful – to examine teachings and dogma, which is, after all, what will endure after the current leaders are dead.  He discusses divergent groups of Scientologists, but it is immaterial to him which one is true to Scientology’s doctrine. In fact, he only explains as much of the Scientology system as is necessary to make sense of the personal stories he is writing. Everything is compartmentalized and dealt with in isolation.

Without any religious or philosophical backbone, and coming from the quaint perspective that all religions are equally irrational, Lawrence Wright’s potentially interesting subject matter devolves into a mushy blend of lurid abuse stories. Despite his strenuous attempts to be even handed (even besmirching respectable moral philosophers in the process) by refusing to take religion seriously and not looking at Scientology as something unique he is unable to make meaningful conclusions (for good or ill) about Scientology and its current and future impact upon society.

Verdict:

The good:

+ Personal, interesting style

+ Meaty book

+ Great overview of L. Ron Hubbard’s life

+ There’s a movie coming!

The bad:

– No understanding of comparative philosophy or religion

– Should be titled Interviews with Former Scientologists, a Biography of L. Ron Hubbard & L. Wright’s Thoughts on Religion 

– Attempts to ‘be fair’ by making forced comparisons

The ugly:

A book about a religion that misses the important stuff (what is Scientology believing and doing as a whole) in favour of a series of candid interviews from ex-members and irritating generalizations about other, unrelated religions.

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