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Hubbard, Hagiography, Hitchens and “Humprey” (Two Lessons of Scientology)

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.

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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.

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Of Hitchens and Revelations

It was no surprise that reactions to Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great” (subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”) were loud and partisan. The celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrung his hands at this attack on religion, arguing that, “Without the Bible, how would we even know what good and evil are?” The Christian evangelist group Stand To Reason called Hitchens  “an arrogant, hateful man who isn’t ashamed to demean those, who by his own view, are not as advanced or gifted as he is.”  Atheists crowed, lauding the book as their anti-Bible.  When Hitchens developed terminal cancer,  Hitchens’  long-running polemics about religion (including his book-length debunking of Mother Teresa, which of course he titled “Missionary Position”) led to tedious questions and debates about whether Hitchens’ cancer might lead to a death-bed conversion or even, shamelessly, was a punishment from God.

It’s been five years since “God Is Not Great” was published. Hitchens has died without sacrament, and it’s past time for yet another review of the book. But, for what it’s worth, I thought ”God Is Not Great” was a hoot. I laughed. I cried. I crawled on my belly like a reptile.

Aw, c’mon.  Surely, Hitchens was having gleeful, cheeky fun when he wrote the book. Although the horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of religion are often dead serious, Hitch could not have believed he was making a serious argument.  Instead, he was having a lark with a mischievous and masterful recitation of all of the frauds, conceits, and hypocrisies that have undermined organized religion, weaving them together so tightly that he more or less gave the appearance that they are the sum total of religion.

Hitchens took insupportably absolute arguments – central among them that all religion must be a fraud because it has been so horribly corrupted by humans – and supported them with a dizzying inventory of horror stories, from the oppression of women in the Muslim world to Joseph Smith’s huckster “discovery” of the golden plates (thanks, Angel Moroni!) to the Spanish Inquisition. He took a contrarian’s delight in trotting out the history of how religion has become a surrogate for tribalism, violence, intolerance, and greed. One would think the subtitle of his book should have been “How Everything (that is, humans) Poisons Religion” rather than “How Religion Poisons Everything.”  The supposed topic of the book: Whether God (if there is one) is Great, is never addressed (other than perhaps by proxy, through the various tin-horn prophets and messiahs who claim to be divine).

Yet, How Humans Poison Religion is itself an intriguing topic. And, that is what I had in mind as I read Elaine Pagels’ book, “The Book of Revelation: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.”

“Revelation” is a history of the Book of Revelation:  Its origins, its meaning, and how it became part of the canonical Bible.  And, it is quite the story.

It should be no surprise that the story is entirely earthbound, rather than in any way divine.  About a century after Jesus, a fellow named John (no, not the apostle John), wrote Revelation on the island of Patmos off the coast of what is now Turkey.  Like self-decreed prophets before and after him, he declared that the writings had been revealed to him in a dazzling display of celestial hoo-hah.  And what a reveal!  Seven-headed leopard-like sea creatures!  Christ on a horse!  Lakes of fire!  Exploding mountains!  The fall of Babylon and the extermination of 2/3 of mankind!  And, of course, that odd Beast with the “number of a person,” 666.

The very human (and fascinating) side of the origin story is that Revelation is actually a thinly-veiled political allegory…sort of an “Animal Farm” for the toga set.  Babylon, it turns out, is Rome, and the sea creature’s seven heads are Rome’s seven past emperors.  “666” translates, in Jewish numerology, to Nero.  The great mountain exploding refers to the eruption of Vesuvius, which was still fresh in people’s minds, having occurred in 79 A.D.

So, what was this prehistoric “Animal Farm” meant to convey?  Says Pagels, John of Patmos was motivated by yet another tedious tribal conflict.  John, what you might call a Jew for Jesus, was warning the Gentiles what would befall them if they horned in on what was then (at least, in Asia Minor) a Jewish sect of followers of Christ.  Paul was at the time converting Gentiles to the fold, and they were allowed to join up without having to eat kosher or be circumsized.

At the same time, scores of other desert prophets were creating their own visions of an apocalyptic future…no doubt, to toot their own Shofars for the glory of their own tribes.  Heck, it’d been only a few hundred years since King Josiah bowdlerized the Jewish oral traditions, rewriting them so as to prove that his Kingdom of Judah were the chosen people whereas the Kingdom of Israel were rank sinners.  (We now call his creation The Old Testament).

So, how did John of Patmos’ outlandish and improbable book of prophecy become part of the Bible?  No surprise here.  Like Constantine, who adopted Christianity because he thought its god would be the most help to him in warring with other Roman factions; and like John of Patmos, who came up with the Book of Revelation as a diatribe against Gentiles following Jesus, the backer of the Book of Revelation saw a way to use the book for his own political ends.

Bishop (now Saint) Athanasius was a fourth-century bully whose self-righteous crusade was to define the Catholic church narrowly, and to save it from any writing that he considered heresy.  He wheedled.  He threatened.  He coerced.  And, after a time, he realized that old Patmos’ scary book could be repurposed.  The Book of Revelation, Athanasius insisted, was the story of what would happen to anyone who adopted the writings that Athanasius wanted excluded from the canon.

Hitchens would say that this all-too-human misuse of religion proves that religion is nothing but hokum, false promises, and oppression.  To dismiss religion for that reason is tempting, just as it is easy to dismiss religion because so much of it is so obviously created by self-interested hucksters, or to dismiss people because of their human foibles.  In fact, religion may deserve to be dismissed; but, to do so for Hitchens’ reasons is too facile, too easy.  For now, rock me, Anathasius.

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