Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman

Ready to thank God for the AMA and loose some respect for the IRS? Let's go Inside Scientology...

Inside Scientology
by Janet Reitman

Procured from my library's online lending program - the best advance of the digital age

Procured on July 29, 2012

Finished on August 4, 2012

Format: eBook edition 

Why I gave it a try: I heard the author, Janet Reitman, discussing the book on the NYT Book Review podcast. Not only did the subject matter intrigue me, but I appreciated her stated purpose, which was to try to assess the religion on its own terms, as well as from an outsider's perspective. Additionally, she sought out defectors who (at least when she was writing) had not previously spoken publicly about their experiences.

Summary: Scientology claims to be the world's fastest growing religion. But how did it get started? Who the heck is L. Ron Hubbard? Why is it so expensive? What are the roots of their well known hatred of psychiatrists? How did so many celebrities become involved with the movement? Reitman tackles all these questions and more...

Thoughts: Considering what we're talking about here, I do want to say on the front end- this is my opinion only, based on what I've read in Reitman's book and seen on the web. I'd encourage anyone curious about this to look into this important topic for themselves and hear both sides.

So, let's get straight to the question that I'm sure you come to this topic with: is Scientology a cult? Coming away from the book, my conclusion is... kind of. Reitman herself characterizes the group as a "commercially driven spiritual enterprise." The loudest of critics have no problem labeling them as a dangerous cult, while the Church of Scientology itself decries critics as persecuting a new and legitimate faith group. Everyone has to make up their own mind... I'll link to a few resources that can help form your own opinion if you are interested in the topic. From the horse's mouth, you can see what the CoS claims itself to be. You can read Dianetics (my library has a copy, so yours probably does, too). You can also watch Jason Beghe's compelling testimony to a Germany panel on Scientology's dangers or his amazing story about how he got out of Scientology (a lot of profanity here, warning!, but he is a compelling raconteur). There are hundreds of videos from Tory Christman that explain why she left the church and what happened to her when she did*.  The Village Voice did a really interesting series on the 25 people most damaging the CoS. And besides all of these online things, you could just buy Reitman's amazing book.

I went into the book with a somewhat open mind, though of course I'd gleaned various pieces of concerning information about the group over the years from the media and the weird behavior of Tom Cruise. Frankly, the whole TomKat split had revived my awareness in Scientology, and as I started to poke around, I found myself more and more intrigued as to what in the world was going on out there in Hollywood and Clearwater. I read the exposé in the New Yorker, which raised a lot of questions for me about how accurate the human rights abuse claims it contained were, though considering they sat down with CoS lawyers beforehand, I had to assume it was reasonably well established. What I wanted was a book that dealt with these kinds of claims in an objective fashion. I found all of this and more in Reitman's thoughtful and fair treatment of the group.

The book is structured as a chronological history of the group, starting with old L. Ron Hubbard himself, and moving into present day.  Reitman brings in many witnesses throughout the history, who explain the mood and attitude shifts within the organization as time moves on. One element that Reitman brings out beautifully is how Scientology has really always been a group that served the spiritual needs of its day. That is, it was born out of the 50's self-help fixation, adapted as a more New Age-y kind of spiritual movement in the 60s and 70s, and became much more regimented and structured with the "we-can-own-the-world" consumerism of the 80s. In many respects, the portrait Reitman has painted shows a group now stuck in that 80s mindset and ill-adaptable to the internet age. She also illustrates clearly (and with Hubbard letters stating as much) that the decision to declare the movement a religion was a business one, not a spiritual one. Hubbard speculates openly on how it would be advantageous for tax purposes to be a religion... not only that, Reitman points out that it would get the medical community off their back for offering therapeutic services without a medical license (makes the whole anti-psychiatry bit make more sense, no?)

Reitman shows Hubbard as a charismatic leader, more concerned with the sound of the thing than the truth of the thing, and as a kind of quintessential American capitalist. It appears to be well documented that Hubbard lied about his background on many scores, but he managed to bluff his way through any questions during his lifetime. While he wrote many statements and policies that are morally questionable at best ("Fair Game" appears to be the exact opposite of the Golden Rule), he wasn't inflexible about their applications. He was a master at giving people what they wanted to the extent that they would serve his ultimate purposes.

The current management, however, is presented as taking a much more literalist view of what Hubbard had written, which has resulted in an increasingly extreme and abusive atmosphere. Reitman documents several horrifying human rights violation that accord with what I had originally read in the New Yorker. We weren't there, so who can say whether all these accusations are true. But down South we have a saying - where there's smoke, there's fire, and it strains plausibility to look in the face of the sheer volume and consistency of the accusations and say none are true. And if even a small percentage are, the CoS is getting away with appalling acts of violence and psychological abuse.

I appreciated Reitman's non-hysterical tone throughout the book, especially given the extreme nature of many of the things she is documenting. In this respect, it reminded me strongly of All the President's Men, where you as the reader are the one going, "What?! Really?!" as the narrator unfolds the events calmly and without ado (as in, CoS was behind the biggest government infiltration in history? and that they basically bullied the IRS into giving them tax breaks, some of which are not enjoyed by other religious groups?). Just glancing at the footnotes gives an idea of the volume of research and interviewing she has done, and her knowledge of the subject shines through on every page. It is a work of narrative nonfiction in the very best sense.

I cannot help but come to this book as a person of faith. In that regard, I am probably more inclined than others to be generous on topics of belief. I personally find Scientology's religious beliefs improbable and derivative of other faiths and psychotherapy concepts. That said, I am always going to stand up for anyone to exercise belief. I don't have a problem with the faith group, as such - but the way the CoS is run is unacceptable in any humane society.

This book has encouraged me to dig deeper into this topic (I'm going to do one of my grad papers on the parallels between 2nd century Gnosticism and Scientology) and also to pray for those who feel that they are trapped in a situation from which they have no hope of escape. As a religious person, I am passionate about religious freedom for all- from the government and private bodies.

Reitman's book was engaging, well written, and deeply thought-provoking. Highly recommended to anyone with any interest in the subject.


6 - Why are you still reading this review? Go pick this one up NOW

*BTW, this lady is a BAMF - she's not messing around. I would not want to be on the wrong side of her! :) I have a lot of admiration for anyone who stands up and fights against injustices, and Tory is clearly one of those kinds of take-no-prisoners warriors who fights for what she believes in.

What are your thoughts on Scientology?

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