Joseph Smith was a huckster who was making a living using “seer stones” to hunt for buried treasure when he claimed that God had called him to restore the Church of Jesus Christ. He announced that the Angel Moroni had led him to 1400-year-old golden plates, which he read using magic spectacles and translated (mostly into passages from the King James Bible and from a religious book that he had read a year or two earlier) as the “Book of Mormon.” He then focused on bedding a string of teenaged girls, which he justified by another vision, in which God revealed to him that men should have multiple wives, and that his existing wife would be “destroyed” if she did not accept it.
Joseph Smith is now revered as a Prophet. To this day, church members will fervently dispute that he was ever arrested for fraud, forced himself onto a string of child brides, or boasted that he had translated a set of mundane Egyptian parchments into the Book of Abraham.
Elijah Muhammad, after doing away with his predecessor Wallace Fard, grew the flock by announcing that the black race had been formed 74 trillion years ago, and even though a “big head scientist” named Mr. Yakub had created the “devil” white race 6000 years ago, their six-millenium reign over blacks would end in 1984. He then focused on violently putting down his rivals, diverting millions of dollars intended for the needy to himself, enjoying his private jet and $150,000 jewel-studded fez, and producing at least 13 illegitimate children through at least seven mistresses, many of them young church members.
Prophet Elijah Muhammad now sits exalted at the right hand of God, according to the Nation of Islam.
Despite this well-worn story, the history of Scientology, told in the new book “Going Clear,” is fascinating, and makes me think of hagiography, of Hitchens, and of “Humprey” Bogart.
According to “Going Clear,” L. Ron Hubbard was a born huckster, who lied lavishly and compulsively about his childhood, his war record, his travels, and his accomplishments. He falsely claimed that he grew up on the Montana ranch of his wealthy cattleman grandfather (actually it was a townhouse, and his grandfather was a working-class veterinarian); that he became a blood brother of the Blackfeet tribe at age six (nope); that he studied nuclear physics while getting his engineering degree (never studied physics, and dropped out of college as a result of poor grades); was one of the country’s most outstanding pilots (actually, he never flew an airplane and qualified only to fly gliders); was a world explorer and adventurer (nope); was a war hero who was wounded repeatedly in combat (actually, he was a substandard serviceman, never saw combat, and was hospitalized for ulcers and conjunctivitis). And, it goes on and on, including decades of lies about the accomplishments of Scientology, the religion he founded.
Hubbard announced that he had discovered that all humans are inhabited by “thetans,” disembodied spirits that were released 75 million years ago when billions of people were brought to Earth and then blown up with hydrogen bombs by Xenu, the tyrant ruler of the Galactic Confederacy. Hubbard sold a method to remove these thetans through the use of a sort of self-psychotherapy aided by galvanic skin response machines, which developed into the religion of Scientology. Ron did not claim to be divine, but he did claim enlightenment and a host of supernatural powers, none of which seemed to have saved him from constant ill health, paranoia, petty vindictiveness, or enormous greed.
And yet, to this day Scientologists will forge documents, cultivate false witnesses, and persecute anyone who disputes the exalted version of Hubbard’s life story. To the Church, Hubbard was a child prodigy, a world explorer, pilot, horseman, and adventurer, and a war hero.
Which makes me wonder, is hagiography itself a bad thing?
This is where Humprey comes in. Prominently on the desk of my former boss is a framed picture of Humphrey Bogart. He bought it for $1 at a garage sale, believing he’d found gold because the photograph was hand-signed by the star. It was only later that he noticed that the photo was signed “Humprey” Bogart. Yet, he loves that little forgery, and I love that he loves it. I love that he has made the choice to treasure this flawed object, not only despite its flaws, but because of them.
Which reminds me of one of the many low points in my long years of dating. I was on a first date with a woman who was a religious Jew. At the time, I was feeling pretty cocky about Biblical history, having read a couple of books that used archaeology, historical records, and logic to show that most of the Bible stories could not have been true, and that the Torah and historical books of the Old Testament were likely written by King Josiah in the 6th Century BCE as a polemic to support his religious reforms (and to show that his tribe, Judah, was favored by God over the tribe of Israel). Over what should have been a friendly drink, I therefore bull-headedly raised the topic of Jewish faith in light of the “fact” that the Bible stories are untrue. Before shaking my hand goodbye forever, this poor woman answered me simply: It doesn’t matter if it’s true. It is what we choose to believe in. The Bible was her “Humprey” Bogart.
Ron Hubbard’s lifetime of whoppers, then, do not sour me on Scientology. Followers believe in a different Ron Hubbard, one who walked this Earth in big boots, swashbuckling and healing and uplifting. Does it really matter that this Ron Hubbard never existed?
However, the rest of Scientology, as described in “Going Clear,” is not so excusable. As Hubbard notoriously said, “If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.” He (and his successor, David Miscavige) lived in unspeakable luxury while squirreling hundreds of millions of dollars into personal overseas bank accounts. Control of church members was paramount, with followers being belittled, beaten, imprisoned, forced to undergo abortions and to cut off ties to nonbelievers, and to relinquish their worldly goods to the church. Deserters were hunted down, and there is at least the suggestion that some were murdered. To protect their power, church elders tirelessly persecuted all critics, including journalists, government officials, and former members who spoke out against the church. Scientology’s practice was to file thousands of frivolous lawsuits against its opponents, and to burglarize government offices to remove files relating to investigations of the church. Insiders lived in fear of being demoted, punished by solitary confinement, and (particularly during the reign of the rage-filled and mercurial Miscavige) beaten.
This brings me to Hitchens. I’ve written before about “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” which I consider to be a delightful lark by a brilliant polemicist who knew full well that he was just toying with ideas about religion. The story of L. Ron Hubbard (as well as the stories of Joseph Smith, Elijah Muhammad, the Catholic church, radical Islam, and so many other religions and religious leaders) proves again that Hitchens had it backward. It is not the case that “Religion Poisons Everything.” The fact is that humans poison religion. From the Salem Witch Trials, to “religious” tribal/class wars as in Northern Ireland and Sudan, to religious despots like Ron Hubbard, human greed, lust for power, misogyny, and tribalism tend to corrupt religious leaders and the religions they lead. It is unfortunate that those very human flaws tend to overpower actual religious values, and that people who are hungry for religious experience and community can be so easily misled by those very flawed humans.