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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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