I'm still working my way through the original New Yorker
article, but in the meantime, GetReligion.org
rounds up some responses, and then there is this:
- - -Killing the Thetan
As I read “The Apostate,” I found myself quibbling with lots of things. Why no mention of the Hubbard museums? Or the sites where Hubbard’s writings are buried in case of doomsday? Or the fact that many Hubbard “bestsellers” achieved their status only due to manipulation of the lists (so that journalists like Wright would one day list them as “bestsellers”)? Or the punishments and crimes committed (allegedly!) in the Sea Org? Having struggled through my own long chapter on Scientology, and having fought to get the organization’s whole story inside a manageable narrative (making cuts for the sake of structure that I knew might later be perceived as oversights), I could sympathize with Wright’s predicament in sword-fighting a hydra with a thousand heads. But I couldn’t stop myself, either, from fussing with it, from wishing he’d included those facts I’d thought essential.
Then I started quibbling with my quibbling. . . .
You have to be wary when you write about religion. The “weirder” a religion seems, the more readers will expect you not to sympathize with it. Even James suffered in some eyes for not standing far enough apart from that which he hoped to describe—in other words, for having made himself emotionally available to his subject. In The Devil is a Gentleman, I rejected the whole idea of Scientology, not merely because I thought it was a cult, but because the entirety of it began to seem preposterous to me. I had climbed inside the thing to fathom its dictates. I made myself available to it, and that immersion enabled me to assert its preposterousness, a preposterousness that speaks to human frailty and need. But Wright chose to stand apart from his subject, so he can’t assert anything.
Which is the ultimate weakness of “The Apostate.” Paul Haggis, the film director at the heart of the article, says at one point that he fell into Scientology because he was drawn to stuff outside the mainstream. I heard a lot of stories like that when I was exploring unusual religions. And the funny thing is, “The Apostate” is exactly the kind of article that might get someone interested in Scientology. There’s just enough doubt thrown in, just enough caveats and deniability and dropped threads, and just enough intrigue to make it all seem like a grand adventure. If you’re frail and needy, and if you’re a seeker, then you’re not going to listen for what Wright is suggesting between the lines of this piece, when he appears to be writing not for readers but for a judge and jury. Instead, you’ll listen to the quiet evangelism that Scientology knows creeps through all accounts like this, and is the only reason they’re willing to sit down with The New Yorker.
J. C. Hallman, Killing the Buddha, February 11