By now many of you have seen the video of Tom Cruise taking an almost physical pleasure in urging Scientology on the masses. It's a strangely riveting sight, the rare bit of web-pleasure that can keep me glued to the pixels for more than one minute. By the end, I had so many thoughts: Is this a Napoleon complex or a messiah complex? If I were just a little bit shorter, could this have happened to me? And why was I ever skeptical of any of the crazy things I read about him?
But it would be intellectually shoddy if, riveted by the almost pornographic pleasure of watching the video, we took it as the final word on Scientology.
Yes, Cruise's strange ramblings are certainly typical of a certain kind of Scientology evangelism. Scientologists are prone to making claims of human divinity and, like Cruise, they talk about having extraordinary powers to help people and of the intoxicating pleasure that comes from knowing that you know what to do at the scene of an accident. They speak in a blizzard of acronyms, like "SPs"--that's "suppressive personalities," a term for Scientology's critics--and "KSW," or "Keep Scientology Working," a policy pamphlet by L. Ron Hubbard, whom Cruise, like all Scientologists, calls "LRH." They believe they have a "technology," invented by Hubbard that enables people to recapture the powers that they have as "thetans," highly capable spirits trapped in human bodies. And their zealous desire to spread the "tech" can lead them into far reaches of cult-like aworship of LRH and his teachings. (For the ugliest allegations, many of which sound reasonably well proven, you can read important articles in Time and Rolling Stone.)
That Scientology seems bizarre, and that its leaders and many members have used the church in often immoral ways, is beyond question. The question that a student of religion must ask is whether the fascinating train wreck of belief embodied by the Tom Cruise video is typical of the Scientologist's experience. After all, every religion in the world has zealous, starry-eyed adherents. But most religions, like most political parties, also have normal believers, casual believers, occasionally indifferent believers.
Scientology, too, has its saner believers. In fact, the more you believe Scientology's grossly inflated claims for how many millions of Scientologists there are, the more the typical member is the casual, even indifferent one--the guy who takes the occasional class on Hubbard's teachings but knows none of the esoteric sci-fi mumbo-jumbo that passes for the religion's mythology.
Having spoken with dozens of Scientologists for my reporting over the past year, I would say that they come in three kinds. First, there's the big base of the pyramid, the majority, are occasional dabblers, some of whom are committed in direct proportions to the swelling of their bank accounts. When they can afford a few hundred bucks for a class, they take one; when times are tough, the Scientology goes out with the satellite TV and that third beer at the bar. Then there's the middle tier, people who take classes regularly and even proselytize--they tend to believe many of the claims Cruise is making in the video, but they have too little time and too great a sense of irony to carry on like that themselves. Finally there are people like those who have reached high "Operating Thetan" levels, meaning they've drunk the Kool-Aid. Cruise, for sure. Jenna Elfman is another one.
They have sailed on the ship to fundamentalism. Yes, fundamentalism. It's a key term for thinking carefully about any religion, not just Scientology. There are Christians, and then there are Christian fundamentalists; it's the latter I don't want my daughter studying science with. There are Jews, and then there are Jewish fundamentalists, and we know which group presents the greater obstacle to peace in Israel. There are Muslims, and... well, you get the point.
Scientology has made the interesting choice of putting one of its fundamentalists forward as its leading spokesman. I actually think that the Church of Scientology wished that Cruise didn't get so wild-eyed when he talked about his faith (and it's gotten worse over the past few years, hasn't it, what with the Oprah appearance and all?). I bet the higher-ups would like for Cruise to come across like a sane guy who owed his sanity, rather than his insanity, to Scientology. They want the movie-star charisma but with Lutheran trustworthiness.
Alas, that's not what they have. Cruise is Cruise, and if they want his big, if shrinking, box-office appeal on their side, then they get his fundamentalism too. I once tried out this theory on a church leader, and he vehemently denied it, but I think it makes sense.
Does this mean, then, that we have nothing to learn from the Cruise video? That because they're the rantings of a fundamentalist, these are tea leaves gone bad? Not quite. For one thing, the language that Cruise uses, pseudo-scientific and acronym-rich, does remind us that this is a religion that considers itself neither mystical nor sublime, but scientific. In this regard, Scientology can be usefully compared to certain political movements, especially those on the left wing. I am working on an article, to run here in a couple of weeks, about the followers of Bob Avakian, the chairman of a Maoist political party. Like Scientologists, Avakian's followers speak often about how "scientific" his work is; they aren't taking any leaps of faith, because their founder's work is scientific. And people who believe their truths are scientific, and that it's not necessary to have faith to see their merit, may have a special missionary zeal, one that surpasses even that of the typical evangelical Christian's. To Scientologists, what they're teaching is as plain to see as biology or algebra.
And, finally, there is something peculiarly Scientological in Cruise's passionate car-salesman talk, so reminiscent of the motivational speaker he once played so compellingly on-screen. Scientologists often sound like the Amway vice president who winds up the businessman troops and sends them out to conquer the world. Scientology is, ultimately, kitschy, and Milan Kundera defined kitsch as "the absolute denial of s--t." In their desire to pretend that the ugliness of life can be vanquished with the proper technology, in their deliberate avoidance of any tragic view of life, Scientologists promise a science-fiction universe in the here and now. It's a perfect commodity for a movie star to hawk, but even that doesn't mean that the average, man-in-the-street Scientologist is buying.