Who’s afraid of the Church of Scientology?
It’s Sunday morning, and 300 young people in Guy Fawkes masks have gathered in central London to protest against a ‘creepy cult’. What’s going on?
Aside from the cash of feckless movie stars, if there’s one thing the Church of Scientology has never lacked, it’s critics.
TV documentaries have scrutinised, newspaper features have exposed, and the public has generally mocked – prompted, usually, by poor Tom Cruise’s latest ‘enthusiastic’ episode. Recently, however, Scientology has seen a different type of adversary come to prominence: a group mysteriously titled Anonymous (1). ‘Anonymous is legion’, they proclaim. ‘We do not forget. We do not forgive. Expect us.’ And so it was that at 11am on Sunday, near enough 300 people, most sporting V for Vendetta style Guy Fawkes masks, gathered outside the Church of Scientology’s London headquarters as a part of a day of worldwide protest against the church.
There was little doubting the youthful energy of the protesters (the average age seemed to be about 19). Nor their unerring focus: everywhere placards asserted the Church of Scientology’s cash-generating motive and fliers outlined its alleged misdeeds. All to a soundtrack of Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. Presumably this was to indicate the relentlessness of Anonymous’s pursuit.
Protesters in Guy Fawkes masks
However, despite the accusations of shady dealings from the amassed ranks of Guy Fawkes-a-likes, it does seem a little too easy to have a go at a creepy ‘cult’ filled with cheesy celebrities. Indeed, if ‘cheesiness’ had a face, it would surely be John Travolta’s – Pulp Fiction excepted. Not that the Church of Scientology would be unduly bothered by such shallow aestheticism. An unfeasible naffness almost seems to be a source of Scientological pride. For example, while the Catholic Church can claim partial responsibility for the The Divine Comedy, the Church of Scientology basks in the glory of Battlefield Earth. Or, better still, consider the church’s aching attempts at profundity, especially its needless excursions into etymology: ‘The primary way Scientology’s principles are applied to the individual is called auditing — from the Latin word “audire,” meaning “to listen.”’ (2) Ah, so that’s what accountants do. As this paragraph shows, the Church of Scientology is a very soft target.
This does raise the question as to why Scientology seems to stoke enough self-righteous ire to prompt a day of global protest. ‘They damage and destroy lives’, somebody who looked like Guy Fawkes told me: ‘Anyone with a soul would care about these things.’ What I was seeing was a ‘good thing’, apparently, it was ‘people coming together in common cause’. Yet when you stand back from the rhetoric, it still seems a disproportionate response to an organisation as easily and often ridiculed as the Church of Scientology. Why not just leave them to it?
Putting this more strongly, why not let the Scientologists continue trying to recruit more people by convincing them of Scientology’s worth, and have enough faith in the reason of others to decide for themselves whether to sign up or say ‘get stuffed’? Those who choose to spend their time and money undergoing street-side stress tests and ‘audits’ for mental distractions do so of their own volition. Unfortunately, the protest had no such confidence in the public. It evinced, rather, a tendency to view others as susceptible to insidious persuasion techniques, a credulous public all too exploitable by the unscrupulous Scientologist-cum-marketeer. ‘Love Scientologists, hate CO$’ read a placard. Why the distinction, I asked? Because the congregation are ‘victims’, I was told, willing dupes for a shameless money-making venture. As highly litigious as the Church of Scientology is – allegedly – the restrictions it imposes upon free speech are met by a similar aversion amongst the protesters. Free speech is too much, it seems, for the public to handle.
There is an irony to this surreptitious reluctance to allow Scientologists to speak freely. When, under pressure from the Scientologists, YouTube removed embarrassing footage of Tom Cruise declaring scientologists ‘the authorities on getting people off drugs… the authorities on the mind … we can rehabilitate criminals… we can bring peace and unite communities’, this was seen as yet another example of the Church’s ‘suppression of dissent’ (3). Indeed, it was this act that has been widely reported as the spark for yesterday’s protests. But, in turn, the protesters themselves articulate a similar anxiety about people’s own ability to rationally evaluate what is being said to them. And all too predictably, as was the case when internet activists crashed a few Scientology websites, the Church is then able to play the free speech card itself. Sharing a similarly degraded view of the public sphere, both Scientologists and protesters share a similarly instrumental view of free speech, a principle to be selectively applied depending on what is being said. You’re free to say anything you want as long as its black, as Henry Ford might once have said.
Moreover, the needs that Scientology meets, the trends of which it is part, are hardly beyond the pale. Your local Borders bookshop will have a well-stocked section dedicated to ‘Mind, body and spirit’ and such like, while the public’s ‘happiness’ has become a concern of policymakers. Insofar as it’s a ‘religion’, the Church of Scientology is a religion drenched in the predominant narcissism of our times. Is there really much difference between being encouraged to attend to your non-material wellbeing by someone like Lord Richard Layard, a former UK government adviser, and a scientologist advising you to purge yourself of ‘unwanted spiritual conditions’ like stress, so as better to realise your ‘ability’? If you’re going to criticise scientology, it can’t be done in isolation. It is necessary rather to understand the social problems to which the farrago of self-helping, counter-cultural indulgence offers its self-defeating solutions.
But this was never going to happen with the Anonymous protest. For it was not popular in any genuine sense of people striving to persuade others of their common interest. This was not about collective needs, shared values or, indeed, solidarity at all. Rather, it was a radically individuated form of protest, and as such, inherently self-righteous. It seemed more to do with the sense of inner worth acquired through the ethical gesture, the comforting sense of being right, rather than with bringing down an allegedly corrupt church. Beyond ‘raising awareness’, feeling good about oneself eclipsed any concrete objective.
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The nature of the protest reflected this. An affable guy, who bore a striking resemblance to Guy Fawkes, told me that, amongst the protesters, ‘no one knows anyone. There’s no leader - it’s organised chaos.’ Others I spoke to echoed this sentiment. This was seen unequivocally as a good thing: the absence of solidarity as a freedom from hierarchy. But this absence of any stronger sense of collectivity was not borne of a resistance to organisational strictures as much as of the principle need met by the sheer act of protesting: individual self-affirmation. This is protest as self-helping, just as the Church of Scientology itself is fundamentally a self-help institution dressed up as a fancy faith system. Participants seemed merely to want to establish an identity, not absorb it within a larger cause.
This also means that causes, as a generic raison d’etre, become interchangeable. Are you going to campaign against other organisations, I asked? ‘No, not yet’, was one telling response; yet another protester, remarking on the evilness of the Scientologists, said that if he saw similar tactics elsewhere, ‘it wouldn’t matter what it was, I’d protest’. It could, one suspects, be the environment one minute, globalisation the next. What unites them is not a totalising perspective, a grasp of the nodal points at which the social whole is reproduced, and within which each social phenomenon acquires its significance – no, what matters is the self-realisation of the participant, the becoming ethical in a universally corrupt world. The causes are as abstract, as under-determined, as the self that seeks expression.
As impassioned and committed as these protesters were, as energetic and exuberant as the protest was, there was a sense that for all its sound and fury, if not signifying nothing exactly, it was still searching for a reason worthy of its commitment. Opposing the Church of Scientology is not it.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Previously on spiked
Dolan Cummings said that Scientologists are creepy - but no more than the people obsessed with them. Nathalie Rothschild talked to Ian Halperin on how he infiltrated Scientology for his exposé of Hollywood and looked at some parallels between Scientology and Kabbalah. Or read more at spiked section Religion.
(1) See Web viglantes attack Scientology website, The Times, 25 January 2008; Hackers declare war on Scientologists amid claims of heavy-handed Cruise control, Guardian, 4 February 2008
(2) Hackers declare war on Scientologists amid claims of heavy-handed Cruise control, Guardian, 4 February 2008
(3) See the Church of Scientology website here.