On the 16th of July 2006 I gave up on religion. It was Tom’s fault. I forgave him ‘South Park’, I even forgave him Oprah’s couch. I could not forgive him standing up on that stage in Saint Hill, Southern England, next to our diminutive dictator and tell me that he was more dedicated, worked harder and suffered more for the Scientology cause than me and my Xenu fearing comrades. After all, I lived for years on less than £10.00 for a 140 hour work week. He arrived and swanned around in a Mercedes E500 and wore hand-crafted suits. I wore a rumpled looking Scientology interpretation of a naval officer’s uniform. He was arrogant, he berated us about dedication. After twenty two years of sweat and tears, I considered myself pretty damned dedicated. Well, I suppose I must thank him. A few months ruminating over this insulated, privileged Hollywood star and his sense of entitlement saw me leave Scientology forever and I became a mask wearing Anonymous and a very public author and critic of him and his cult.
Mind you, I also gave up on those berobed old men claiming that they can intercede between my carnal humanity and divinity. I rejected the fabrications sold me by priests, preachers and gurus. I rejected those brief transcendent moments of religious ecstasy and revelation. It was a coldly liberating moment. It was hard won.
Like a rehabbed junky, I struggle daily in my efforts to deconstruct religious habits, thought patterns and the wishful consolation it once offered me. While I have gained theistic liberation I accept that I will forever live with this empty space, like one bereaved, that describes the place where I once pinned hopes, gratitude, fears and spiritual ecstasy.
It has left a bitter taste, religion has. What I discarded was a debilitating delusion. I had to that point not felt that could not independently act in my life. I believed that I required divine dispensation to move. It had been drilled into me that I could not be a moral agent without the providence of the Christian God. I had been trained since babyhood to accept statements by authority figures without critique or question.
My job as a Catholic school boy was to believe, not critique. The convoluted logic involved in trying to reconcile how God the father became his own son incarnate served to dull my thinking. It demanded blind faith. This served to blunt my ability to analyze worldviews that I came into contact with. It served to distort how I interacted with others and my sense of self as an actor in my own life.
I hold my mother at least partly accountable. My dad, Jim, was a covert agnostic. He attended Mass on most Sundays. He would stand, kneel and sit as the rituals dictated. But he would do it with bitter resentment. I internalized his conflicts. While he never spoke about it, I did discover that something awful had happened to him as fourteen year old while a boarder in a Scottish Catholic seminary. The rage ate at him and finally took him, at the age of thirty five, assisted by a running Vauxhall engine and a stretch of flexible washing-machine pipe.
I was not stupid as a child. I was observant. I could see, but I had no voice. As a teenager I was angry. I had not been given the tools to analyze or articulate the glaring inconsistencies the Catholic milieu presented. Those seething resentments and disagreements tore me to despair. I could find no vehicle that allowed me expression of such feelings.
Pronouncements, edicts and statements by Irish religious authority demanded submission and subservience. At mass on Sundays the robed and anointed ones led us in the recitation of the Apostles Creed. ‘I believe in one God, Father Almighty, maker of heaven and Earth. And in Jesus Christ our Lord….’ Hang on, I was never asked if I believed in this stuff. I was never asked what I thought about it. I went to mass as a result of social conditioning and familial pressure. The concept of dialogue and disputation was not part of the curriculum.
Talking with contemporaries, people who went through the school/church system in the 1970s and early 1980s proves that I am not alone in my frustration. We can see the issues the like of a political power that seem to act against us, a social order that willingly accepts harsh austerity with little or no protest, a corrupt and incompetent religious elite. We seethe and yet encounter great difficulty in articulating what it is that we are mad about. It is an outgrowth of the Catholic didactic system. I think that this, along with a big dose of Catholic guilt, sheds some light on why so few of us Irish don’t come out on the streets in mass protest against an endless stream of idiotic and corrupt political decisions that enriched the few while further impoverishing the rest of us.
I voted for our current coterie of government leaders on the basis of their proffered platform of reform and corrective justice. We were assured, at least I was, that corrupt bankers, developers and the politicians that were in league with them would face justice. No such justice has manifested. Reforms have been cosmetic. The corrupt and incompetent elite are still free of sanction. No one has been jailed. Then on the ecclesiastical front we find that not a single bishop or cardinal has been imprisoned for covering up for paedophile priests. There is plenty to get angry about, plenty to protest about.
Since the vast majority of Irish schools are to this day owned and funded by the Catholic orders and the bias is in favour of the Catholic ethos, the dialectic arts are not taught. Rote learning is encouraged and indeed validated by the examination system. University by definition is supposed to be a hub of debate and intellectual discourse. It was not discouraged, yet in my four years as an undergrad in Cork, the vast majority of my fellow students simply did not respond to the prodding of lecturers and tutors. There was more often than not a pained mute silence when student groups were asked in tutorials and lectures to discuss and debate. These fellow students generally came straight from the Leaving Certificate Examination – the final Irish High School examination. They were still stuck in the rote learning and exam passing mode. Too many Irish third level undergraduate students miss out on the real gift university offers; that is the empowering of the person to challenge ideas and the forming of better ideas by being challenged back.
I ask myself whether or not it is thanks to the Catholic Church that I ended up trapped for twenty two precious years in the utterly bonkers Scientology world? I believe that the didactic method employed in the school system, overlaid and deeply bound as it is with Catholic rites and rituals, robs the child of much of the education that he deserves.
The Catholic method of salvation, reliant as it is, on mindless devotional rites and incantations, in my view drives the worshiper into a state of servile supplication. This is reinforced by the demeaning insistence that we are sinners and that we are commanded to be saved and to accept vicarious redemption. It is not an educational recipe that would encourage the development of an inquisitive, creative and original intellect.
I had thus no defences against the intense and invasive methods the Scientology recruiters employed when I was first accosted by them on Hirsch Strassa in Stuttgart in 1985. It had been long inculcated in me to look up to ostensibly enlightened male authorities. I was inured to them telling me what to think and what to do and not to do in order to achieve heavenly salvation.
It is perhaps revealing that this faith that nurtured me has been distressing in its silence on the issue of parasitic cults. I would have been far better served had we spent our religion class time practicing dialectic debate and argument from reason rather than preparing to partake in empty religious rites.
During those first weeks after I fled Hubbard and his minions; while I was ducking and diving around the seedier areas of Birmingham to avoid the cultist that were hunting me, I sought help in Catholic, Anglican and a Unitarian churches. At best they gave me a pat on the back and sent me on my way. They did not want to know.
Atheism, or more precisely, secular humanism, sits well with me. It is perhaps the single profit my confinement in the Scientology mind trap provided. Having pierced the complexity of the Hubbard fraud, I found that any last vestiges of sickly and servile religious delusion that I might have held was forever banished. I was freed from the sense that this worm of a human was yet guided and redeemed by an aloof and jealous God. I discovered that I had a strong and innate sense of morality and virtue outside of the religious framework. I did not need a priest or some mystical entity to tell me that I was good.
The Scientology narrative is quintessentially no different to the Catholic or Protestant fairytale. Once all the spaceships and quasi-scientific verbiage is stripped away, I find that Hubbard was telling me that I was fallen, a sinner, not through choice, but simply by merit of being born. I could only be saved by dint of lifelong adherence to the rituals of faith and abnegation before Hubbard and his tech in place of the Christian God I once looked to.
Scientology employs myth as much as any religion but puts it in a pseudo scientific wrapping. That is was one of its attractions. Following a few months of indoctrination one discovers another wrapping entirely; that of the Gnostic myths. Of course I did not recognize it as such back then. I recently read Henry Chadwick’s ‘The Early Church’ In his chapter Gnosticism the reader encounters the Collossaen Gnostics Christians, one of the Christian splinter groups that gave Saint Paul such headaches between A.D. 30 and 50 as he endeavoured to maintain orthodoxy as the burgeoning Jewish breakaway sect expanded its influence.
This community blended Gnostic Christianity with Greek and Persian esotericism. They adopted the Platonic take on the immortality of the soul. They believed that they were essentially perfect spiritual entities. They were dualists who considered the spirit to be everything and the body to be nothing. Angelic powers served as arbiters between us earth bound spirits and God. Their creation myth told of a pre-cosmic disaster that explained the misery humans suffered on Earth. The divine spirit had become embedded in human flesh and lost its memory of its nature and its cosmic past. The Gnostic teachings were there to shake the spirit out of its sleepwalking state and remind it of its true destiny. Earth and the natural order were seen as alien to God. Earth bound powers were seen as constraints and thus burdensome on the spirit. The ethic running through the theology was that of total freedom from constraint and obligation to government, law and the social order, which were seen as degenerate and referred to in scathing terms. They held that Earth was in the grip of evil powers from the seven planets. Hubbard, or one of his minions, lifted this creation myth and rejigged it so as to fit within the Scientology design.
It took me twenty plus years, but once I began looking, it did not take long to see that this ‘scientific’ religion required as much blind faith as did the Christian insistence that followers accept vicarious redemption. Scientology would have us believe in the first instance that we are each born into this world with two minds. One is a nasty, hidden, stupid, primitive mind. It is a throwback to caveman times. It could only be dissipated, through the Hubbard techniques that would weaken the primitive mind and empower the analytical one. The end product of this stage of the process is that the subject reaches the ‘State of Clear’. The primitive has been vanquished and now the computer like analytical mind rules supreme.
Further complexities were added as one progressed. Hubbard must have loved the abrahamic religions. They did all his prep work for him. All he had to do was to plug into the core narrative, shift a few characters around, rename them and presto, he had malleable subject delivered to him on a platter.
Atheism forced me to grow up. Forced me to confront and then to reject the idea of the invisible patriarchal archetype; I had to begin to figure this life out for myself. I am genuinely shamed and saddened that it took me until I reached the age of forty five to emerge from my psychological chrysalis.
Through the agency of therapeutic intervention I have been trying to learn to be gentler on myself when it comes to self criticism. I have plenty of material to cut myself up about; but it serves only to deepen the sense of overwhelming despair that I am inclined to succumb to. I allow that this mental crippling was effected on me as a defenceless and oft traumatized child. But there is no therapeutic balm that can make up for the wasted years and the squandering of my inherent human potential. While I am generally positive about my new life and hope for some dignity as I live into the future, this waste of decades of potential remains profoundly troubling.
My assumption of the atheist view was not anything like the euphoric state I experienced when becoming a born again Christian, nor was it like the Scientology equivalent, what they call ‘cognitions’ or ‘wins’. It was rather, rational and considered. It was quintessentially the vanquishing of occupying forces; taking back my own territory, my ownership of self.
The life that courses through our veins and goes on all around us is astounding in itself. It does not need the gloomy filters of religion. Reflecting on this from the standpoint of what I am, a member of a species of evolved primate, a species that is capable of abstract thought. A species that is capable of self-criticism. That I can sit here and reflect on this is extraordinary. I avoid the word ‘miraculous’. The term means a suspension of the natural order of things. The natural order is surely wonderful enough and terrible enough on its own.
While working within the administrative wing of the Scientology Corporation, I worked with a woman who had delivered Scientology counselling to the great William Burroughs. It was only after I had escaped the cult and started reading English Lit in university that the importance of this revelation hit me.
After he defected from Hubbard’s mind trap he wrote an astounding critique of the cult and its methods. – See David S. Will’s book ‘Scientologist!: William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ available in paperback and on Kindle.
Burroughs decade long involvement with Scientology did not seem to leave lasting damage. He seems to have eluded the crushing psychological distress that I have seen in others and indeed experience myself to this day. Unlike so many of us who succumbed, forfeiting our freedom to think and act, Burroughs, it seemed, did not surrender his soul. He did not sell his birthright for a ‘mess of potage’. He did not become a Scientology junky.
I have long puzzled as to why this was so. He was a man of prodigious creative output and was actively involved in the artistic scene, indeed he was a pioneer, a prophet, a spokesman for a cutting edge literary, musical, visual movement that pushed against normative artistic constraints. Perhaps he was able to put it into perspective in a way that I and others have failed to. Or it could be that Scientology never became his whole world, it was just another creative experiment the like of his experiences with Carlos Castaneda’s psychoactive plant induced Nagual states.
As Hubbard evolved the Scientology system it came to resemble the model and the function of the spider’s web, better yet a Venus flytrap. The insect flies through a garden of spiritual possibility searching for spiritual sustenance. A plethora of seductive flowers scent the air with elusive promise. These webs and flytraps reach to up capture inquisitive spirits seeking to satisfy an existential yearning for an intangible, an elusive, and indefinable something. Perhaps it is that the child demands more than the parent has the time or energy to give. Does this create a void that cannot be satisfied until we learn to parent and to nurture ourselves? Cults, drug pushers and marketers intuit this existential void, see it as exploitable and mine it for all that it is worth.
Some and by no means all of the techniques that scientologists were subject to included endless repletion of a course of ‘Training Routines ’. The hypnotic states induced by this process served to make the individual cede self control to the cult authorities. When I was first introduced to this process I was ‘twinned’ with US Naval Intelligence operative based up at a local major US military base, one on which I had spent a considerable period during my Covenant Player years. He copped on to the dangerous level of intrusion that the Scientologists were pushing even at this early stage. He left quickly. I remained, captivated. It was during this course of Training Routines that I had my first of several severe dissociative episodes. Later I would fall into semi conscious states as I fought the ceding of control of self to the cult. I ultimately failed of course and lost myself utterly.
Group and peer pressure are added to the mix, then fear. Less obvious, as Jon Atack detailed in his article ‘Hubbard and The Occult’ – http://www.spaink.net/cos/essays/atack_occult.html – is Hubbard’s use of contradictory statements. These were seeded in many forms into all of his lectures and his broad range of indoctrination material. Contradictions are designed to cause confusion, a state that, coupled with the binds the follower ever tighter to the guru. An example being that of the omnipresent exhortation to achieve ‘total freedom’ and yet all directives, all training materials advocated total control of the individual in order to attain that elusive end.
To be in that cult was to exist in an intellectual and emotional desert. It permeated every waking moment. When I was with Tanner’s Christian cult, – I was, as I said, a cult junky – The Covenant Players, I spent about eight months working the US Military base circuit. During this time I lived in US military housing and my days were spent on one drab base after the other. The only colour was the olive green of the jeeps, trucks and tanks. Offices and performance spaces were a uniform dirty shade of cream while fixtures and furniture were all of an uninspiring grey or matt green finish. After a few months of this I hankered to get out off the bases, and I would at any opportunity. Even a few hours spent in a rather uninspiring shopping centre in Dortmund proved to be as refreshing as a day at beach by comparison. But the drab uniformity of cult life permeated in far more profound fashion. And I could not just pop out into a more pleasant environment. The drabness and uniformity was in me and there was no out.
Euphoric moments of the were provided through the auditing session that one partook in order to achieve the designated levels of enlightenment mapped on a chart boldly headed with the aspirational designation ‘The Bridge to Total Freedom’. The auditing sessions that the Scientologist engaged with were the steps one took on the journey across that bridge. These provided sensations of euphoria, of floating and disassociation. Often they conjured up imagined past life incidents. Pretty much every Scientologist will have experienced being Alexander the Great, Marie Antoinette, Jesus Christ, Churchill or even Hitler. These brief ‘insights’ might resemble moments of Pavlovian canine reward techniques – you can observe the Scientologist practically salivating at the prospect of being granted permission to take his next step on ‘The Bridge to Total Freedom’ and he could be denied the reward of auditing as a result of any infringement of arbitrary codes and expectations.
What happens to the otherwise normal, unremarkable person that becomes a Scientologist? It is so much more than the holding of an odd set of and systems of belief. Foundation myths baffle when they are subjected to rational scrutiny. The Catholic’s have transubstantiation; the Hindu’s have avatars and priceless rubies embedded in mangos; the Moslems have The Prophet in trance while Gabriel recites to him the text of the Quran. Wiccans have the lady dancing in the heavens and the sparks from her hair forming the stars and the planets. Burning bushes, talking corpses leaping up into the trees, and invisible talking spirits are the stuff of religious mythology and belief.
The Scientologist’s Galactic Lord Xenu, the being now trapped in a mountain by a force-field, who hydrogen bombed prehistoric volcanoes with a fleet space ships modelled on 1960’s McDonnell-Douglas airliners; millions of disembodied alien beings that have attached themselves to the human body are just as improbable as any of the others.
Cognitive dissonance kicks in when the believer is faced with such improbable founding myths. Either the relevance and veracity of the story is reduced in the believer’s mind or the reality of the world around him is viewed through a distorted lens so that it can be rationalized to fit within the frame of the story that he has taken on in faith.
Post traumatic stress symptoms are not generally seen to manifest in the ex Anglican, Lutheran or Catholic, unless the apostate has suffered sexual abuse or other forms of manipulative treatment at the hands of clergy. But the condition is commonly manifested in former members of cults the like of the Moonies, Jehovah Witnesses, Scientologists, Hare Krishna and some of the fundamentalist cults that form on the fringes of mainstream faiths, The Branch Davidians, for example.
For the ex Scientologist, or the ‘apostate’ as the cult’s corporate pr people like to label us, it is more than the dissolution of the foundation myth that consequences debilitating post-cult psychic trauma. It is more than the loss of familiar ritual. Scientology has an altogether more insidious impact on the participant. Burroughs 1960s Scientology experience is recognizable to me in every detail. Scientology did not change at all in the period between his rejection of Hubbard’s methods and my departure in 2006.
The Irish radio presenter, Marian Finucane, interviewed me on her Saturday show in 2008. I described the Scientology equivalent of Mao’s re-education camps, the Rehabilitation Project Force, for her. She is a sharp and perceptive woman, but she did not get it at all. ‘So it is like the Trappist monks?’ she asked. ‘No, unless those monks live under a regime that scorns them as scum, holds them under a system of fear, sleeplessness, enforced heavy labour and a daily series of intrusive interrogations’ I replied.
I mentioned the earlier the term ‘institutionalized’ meaning that after twenty two years of learned helplessness I had no experience of looking after my own affairs. How do I go about the renting and furnishing of living space; how to secure regular income and how manage money. Paying taxes and voting and having a sense of partaking in a local community were foreign lands to me. I am just scratching the surface, but these aspects are perhaps important components in understanding what the excommunicated suffer and why they suffer so much.
The road back to some kind of normality, irrespective of whether he was a customer paying for the courses and the auditing that would eventually lead to his being ‘total cause in the universe’ or whether a fanatical Sea Org Member who was simply expected to be ‘total cause’, is a fraught and often terrifying journey. It is one seeded with psychological landmines.
The tortured set of post-cult emotional fall-outs forms a norm irrespective of gender, age, degree of immersion or even time spent in the cult. Person to person the commonalities are astonishing.
The crude survey I conducted over the length of a four or five years of interaction with former Scientologists in a variety of forums, from internet discussion groups to one-on-one and group encounters at live events, has enabled me to form a picture of the psychological state of the person, once he finds himself out of the Scientology world. Frequently used terms such as shattered, traumatized, raging, grieving expressed the state of mind of those that I surveyed, even years after contact with the cult ceased.
Quizzed on a deeper level many admitted to feeling isolated; constrained by cultural ignorance and the lack of a sense of social and cultural cues – those reference points such as TV shows, football teams, election results, social trends – that give one a sense of commonality and belonging.
Beyond my cultural and social isolation was the fact that I had lost whatever circle of friends I had two decades before. And thanks to the cult’s excommunication policy, I had lost all of the close friendships I had formed while in the cult.
The cultural and ethical relativist would like to stuff such observations as these into the back of the file cabinet. Such people tend to live on the far left of the Liberal spectrum. These are people who seem to prefer a blurred, soft-focus reality that would smudge over observations such as I have detailed herein. They envision a sickly version of pluralism that would grant cults the same unquestioned standing in society as the Anglican or Unitarian faiths.
In December 2013 British Supreme Court, Justice Lord Roger Toulson, ruled that Scientologist had to be granted the right to perform legally binding marriage ceremonies, a ruling that applied throughout England, Scotland and Wales. The ruling effectively gives Hubbard’s cult the standing of a religion and all of the rights and protections these institutions enjoy under UK law. I fell into a dark and troubled place upon reading this news.
I am in St. Petersberg Florida all next week, following in the tradition of the Anonymous Scientology protesters as they were in 2008 and 2009, to partake in protests, interviews and general lulzy mayhem in an effort to protest the very real fact of Scientology’s human rights abuses as I have observed, experienced and partaken in while an officer of the ‘Church’. I am sure that the effort will lift my mood. Remember, you Scientologists, in the words of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in the wake of the South Park ‘Trapped in the Closet, episode;
“Scientology, you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for Earth has just begun! Temporarily anozinizing our episode will NOT stop us from keeping Thetans forever trapped in your pitiful man-bodies. Curses and drat! You have obstructed us for now, but your feeble bid to save humanity will fail! Hail Xenu!!!”