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
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times