Is Scientology just a weird cult?

Unconventional beliefs have always invited ridicule.

Has Rupert Murdoch finally said something we can all agree with? Scientology is a "very weird cult" he opined in a tweet at the weekend, "but big, big money involved" He added that there was "something creepy, maybe even evil, about these people". That some of these same criticisms might be levelled at News Corp doesn't negate the fact that the Church of Scientology has a decidedly dodgy public reputation.

Ever since the news broke that Katie Holmes was filing for divorce from Tom Cruise, one of Scientology's most high-profile adherents, commentators have been queueing up to implicate the religion as a source of marital disharmony - or else as a malign influence from which Holmes is trying to escape or to protect her daughter. When it was claimed that Holmes was being followed by men in unidentified cars, the obvious inference was that the Church of Scientology was keeping her under observation or trying to intimidate her. The Church denies this. But the very fact that such a thing could widely be believed points to the organisation's continuing image problem, something that neither its wealth, nor its notorious enthusiasm for litigation, nor its roll-call of Hollywood supporters, have been able to dispel.

In 1985, Mr Justice Latey described Scientology in the High Court as "corrupt, sinister and dangerous", an organisation that "has as its real objective money and power" and called its central technique, known as auditing, a "process of conditioning, brainwashing and indoctrination". The German government in 2008 restricted Tom Cruise's filming in the country on the grounds that Scientology's "totalitarian structure and methods may pose a risk to Germany's democratic society". The organisation has been criticised for secrecy and for financially exploiting adherents. It's regularly claimed that the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, created the religion as a money-making scam.

Criticism of the Church's behaviour often goes hand in hand with ridicule of Scientological beliefs and practices. To an outsider, these are bound to seem a trifle eccentric. An important character in Scientology, for example, is said to be a "space lord" named Xenu who brought several billion people to earth 75 million years ago, only to blow them up. The remnants of these immolated souls survived to contaminate the planet. To free people from their negative influence is said to be the main business of Scientology.

It may not help that before he became a prophet Hubbard earned his money writing bad science fiction.

To put this superficially weird mythology in some kind of context, Scientology is the most prominent of a group of new religions that emerged in the second half of the Twentieth century. These creeds blended popular belief in UFOs, speculative science and ideas about the nature of human psychology. Along with Raelianism, the Atherius Society and other, even obscurer, doctrines, Scientology replaced traditional conceptions of God with tales of super-intelligent and technologically superior aliens. As the name "Scientology" itself implies, the intention was to blend science and religion: to make science religious and religion scientific. In Scientology, psychological development is identical to spiritual development. The imagery may derive from sci-fi but behind it is the age-old religious quest for redemption and the secrets of the universe.

To its critics, Scientology looks like both pseudoscience and pseudo-religion. But then most religions require of their adherents belief in concepts or entities that strike outsiders as unlikely or even absurd: Virgin Births, the revelation of scripture by divine dictation, miracles, angels and demons. Is Xenu any more ridiculous an idea than a saviour who could walk on water, or less historical than Abraham? Scientology's credibility problem may partly be a consequence of its youth. It has yet to build up a patina of ancient wisdom, the respectability that comes from age. Nor does it have the ballast provided by a long-standing intellectual tradition.

Otto von Bismarck is reputed to have said that with laws, as with sausages, it is better not to observe them being made. The remark applies, even more strongly, to religion. Unlike in the case of Christianity or even Islam, all too much is known about the founder of Scientology, and much of it is not flattering. This makes it a soft target. Mormonism, too, has to contend with embarrassing details about its founder's biography and doctrines that seem outlandish to outsiders. But it is older than Hubbard's religion by more than a century, even wealthier and much better established. It may soon produce a US president. Although it is not there yet, it is further along the road to "great religion" status and the respectability that comes with that.

New religions can't count on the taboo against criticising other people's deeply-held beliefs that protects older faiths. Beliefs that are unconventional invite mockery rather than respect.  That doesn't necessarily mean that Scientology deserves greater respect. It could equally well mean that other religions deserve less. But I find it hard to believe that Scientology is no more than a con-trick. Whatever criticisms may be levelled at the Church of Scientology as an organisation, many people, including highly successful individuals like Tom Cruise, find psychological and spiritual benefit in practising their faith. It obviously works for him. The true test of a religion is not whether its doctrines are plausible but whether it provides a programme for life.

 

Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise at the Vanity Fair Oscar party earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit