There’s been a lot of talk about a truly bizarre Scientology recruitment video made by Tom Cruise about four years ago. (If you watch the video and are confused because you can’t make any sense of what Tom is saying in between his fits of maniacal laughter, MTV has a glossary for you.) But really, how much more bizarre is Scientology than, say, Mormonism? Or, for that matter, what Primitive Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Scientists believe?
Now, I absolutely agree that Scientology is a profoundly weird set of “teachings” and everything I’ve seen about the Church of Scientology looks a whole lot like it’s a scam meant to relieve Tom Cruise of his surplus money. But people who are in the Church of Scientology don’t feel that way about it at all.
Keep in mind, I’m an atheist. I don’t see any reason to think that the theology of Scientology is any more or less credible than the various Genesis creation myths or the idea that the universe is banana-shaped and rests atop a giant turtle. When I abandoned Roman Catholicism (well, actually quite a bit before that) I found myself lacking the ability to distinguish one form of mythology from another in any principled way; some of it seemed more familiar to me than the rest, but none of it seemed any more credible than the rest of it. But I also realize that people join churches and profess belief for a variety of reasons, some of which include being attracted to the spirit of community and fellowship that the church offers, sympathy with the moral teachings of that church, the pleasant feelings and emotions generated from pursuit of that version of spirituality which the church offers, or a desire to support the charitable activities for which the church works.
So while I don’t feel that way myself, I can understand that maybe some people find those pursuits worthwhile. (I think supporting charity is worthwhile, but there are plenty of opportunities to support a wide variety of charities in a secular manner.) It seems to me that Scientology provides at least some of those things to its members. It’s expensive, by all accounts, beyond the entry-level membership.
If the kinds of reasons I said above that seem valid for joining a “mainstream” religious organization like a church or a synagogue, aren’t they equally valid reasons to become a Scientologist? Why should I distrust Scientology any more than I would distrust, for instance, a Baptist church that tithes its members? Does the Church of Scientology give nothing to its adherents in exchange for the money they pay to it? If you say “yes,” then how is that different than this hypothetical Baptist church? Put another way, where is the line that separates Scientology from Roman Catholicism?
I posit that whatever dividing line results from that analysis will become the “Tom Cruise test.” If someone can explain to a thoughtful skeptic why one “church” is a valid religion and the other is a “cult” or a “scam,” that will be a very useful social science tool indeed.