To an outsider, the idea of basing a religion, a moral code, and a guide to one’s life on the cynical and only semi-coherent ramblings of a science fiction author from the 1950’s seems deeply silly. Scientology certainly looks like a bizarre religion to me, but really are its teachings any more bizarre (at least, to an outsider) than those of the more mainstream religions? Its members claim that the religion brings them happiness and fulfillment; it has its scriptures and it honors its founding prophet; it has relics and rituals and repetition and hierarchy; it has its public face and it has its esoteric teachings.
An insider, a believer and particularly a convert, is not prepared to ask the kinds of critical questions or suspend credulity long enough to look at those sorts of objections. The moral code, the life guides, the fellowship and acceptance of an institution, seem indispensible to them. Believers tend to fall out, like screenwriter Paul Haggis did as described in this New Yorker article, when they observe serious moral flaws in their religions, and then see the religion used as a tissue to justify something they cannot morally stomach. Once they see a moral outrage, only then do they begin to question the validity of their scriptures (as did Haggis upon his gaining admission into the Holy of Holies of his church).
Two things stand out for me here. First, I am reminded of the famous quote from Steven Weinberg:
Frederick Douglass told in his Narrative how his condition as a slave became worse when his master underwent a religious conversion that allowed him to justify slavery as the punishment of the children of Ham. Mark Twain described his mother as a genuinely good person, whose soft heart pitied even Satan, but who had no doubt about the legitimacy of slavery, because in years of living in antebellum Missouri she had never heard any sermon opposing slavery, but only countless sermons preaching that slavery was God’s will. With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.
Dr. Weinberg overstated the case — fanaticism of all sorts can motivate otherwise-good people to do evil things, and do them for reasons which they believe to be morally justifiable. But religion seems particularly well-suited towards this end.
The other thing that stands out from the story is the speed with which the writings of a prophet become scripture, and the similar speed and agility with which that scripture can be interpreted to support a short-term goal. There seems little doubt based on the New Yorker report that Hubbard condemned homosexuality in no uncertain terms and entirely consistent with the prevailing conventional wisdom and ethics of the time in which Hubbard wrote. Yet Scientology’s leaders seem to have little trouble advancing with straight faces the transparent fiction that someone forged those statements long ago — and then not doing a very good job of editing out the forgeries. To an outsider, this is obviously conforming a purportedly immalleable Scripture to the vicissitudes of current political, social, and moral thought.
This is what happens within a generation after the prophet’s death. Analogous transformations can be readily seen in the creating and morphing of, say, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints and its rejection of polygamy as part of its search for political legitimacy; witness monogamous Bahá’í apologetics explaining away the triple marriage of their founding prophet as pre-dating the revelation of the new dispensation — after polygamy became socially unacceptable in the circles where the religion sought to gain purchase.
Is it so hard to think that similar things have happened with the teachings of any other religion — particularly of importance to us in the West, in the histories of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism? To an outsider, the split between Sunni and Shi’a, and the religious justifications used by the differing ninth-century secular leaders to legitimize themselves and condemn the others as schismatics, seem strange and insubstantial. So do the splits between the Orthodox and Catholic, and then Catholic and Protestant, traditions of Christianity, particularly when those schisms are viewed parallel with then-contemporary political activity.
Converts to religion describe the process as one of “waking up” or having something revealed to them. But it seems to me that apostacy is the real awakening — it is acquiring the ability to view one’s own religion through the eyes of an outsider. The cognitive dissonances of believing the incredible, of calling evil righteousness, cannot survive analysis from an exterior perspective. Scarcely a wonder, then, that apostates, particularly ones who make their apostasy so public, are so strongly condemned. Good luck to Paul Haggis the apostate.