o, was the
kooky cult to blame? We will likely never know what went wrong between
Tom Cruise and Nicole
Kidman, but a recent article in the New York Post suggests
that Tom Cruise's Scientology was a big part of the problem. Apparently,
Ms. Kidman is disenchanted with the controversial religion, and
does not want her children to be reared in it.
All this has subsequently been denied, but if it is true, who would
blame her? Even if one ignores the number of fairly sinister stories
told about Scientology, some of its precepts reflect the sort of
ideas that put it squarely in the lunatic fringe. Founded half a
century ago by pulp writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's roots lie
in a mixture of junkyard sci-fi and bargain-basement psychoanalysis.
Not too bargain basement, mind you. Unlike most faiths, Scientology
charges admission. To progress ever closer to enlightenment, devotees
pay to go through a series of sessions that are part confessional,
part therapy. These encounters are designed to reveal (and remove)
past traumas called "engrams" (don't ask) and are helped along by
the use of an electro-psychometer ("E-Meter" to the cognoscenti),
a specially designed instrument which can supposedly locate areas
of spiritual distress or travail. This is part of a process known
as "auditing," the real reason, perhaps, that the IRS chose in 1993
to recognize Scientology as a religion.
It is difficult not to laugh. Scientology, after all, is an easy
target with its oddball technology, goofy jargon, and, reportedly,
a secret creation myth that revolves around the activities of the
wicked intergalactic ruler, Xenu. Now, many religions include a
bizarre legend or two, and we probably should not worry too much
about the Xenu saga. After all, it has, apparently, been 75 million
years since the old boy was last seen, and he does not seem to figure
prominently in the lives of most Scientologists. Nevertheless, if
there really is such a tale, it is yet another reminder that the
intellectual origins of this creed appear to be, well, a little
Scientologists, of course, should be free to believe whatever they
want, but it does not say a lot for the state of this nation's critical
faculties that their philosophy has won as much acceptance as it
has. Given some of Hubbard's teachings, you would expect his followers
to be a little embarrassed, a little low key, content, perhaps,
to twiddle their E-meters in some tumble-down Appalachian shack.
But the reverse is true. Scientology is rich, increasingly prominent,
and unashamedly proselytizing. Check out its websites and you will
see all the good things that Scientology
claims it can do both for society, and for you. It is a message
of enlightened self-interest, typical of our age, and it uses the
jazzy marketing techniques of the PowerPoint era, statistics, graphs,
and charts. Scientologists, they reveal, are prone to marriage,
but not to auto accidents. Half do not drink, more than two-thirds
read more than five books a year, and 39 percent work out every
day. Scientology can even boast celebrity support. Travolta! Cruise!
Kirstie Alley! The voice of Bart Simpson!
days everyone is meant to be a little bit Buddhist, Catholic,
Scientologist, whatever. A sappy ecumenicism is now America's
In part, this success reflects the group's indubitable organizational
skills, and its willingness to defend itself through aggressive
litigation. It is also the case, however, that the growth of Scientology,
and many other such philosophies, is an almost inevitable byproduct
of a society that, over the years, has lost the art of religious
argument, reasoning, and debate and the ability or the inclination
to resist the blandishments of our zanier sects.
Ask most Americans, and they will tell you about their respect for
the spiritual, but it is a sloppy and uninformed devotion, a pastiche
piety with no intellectual force behind it, more Hallmark than holy,
the perfect background for a new cult recruit. Ironically, Nicole
Kidman herself provided an example of this mindset in a 1998 interview
with Newsweek. Asked about her religious beliefs, the actress
replied, "there is a little Buddhism, a little Scientology. I was
raised Catholic, and a big part of me is still a Catholic girl."
Hand in hand with such an attitude is an unwillingness to debate
the religious beliefs of others. Such debate is now believed to
be insensitive at best, bigoted and hateful at worst. These days
everyone is meant to be a little bit Buddhist, Catholic, Scientologist
, whatever. A sappy ecumenicism is now America's civic religion,
and it appears to include just about everyone (other, interestingly,
than atheists and agnostics). We are taught that such supposedly
inclusive tolerance is the hallmark of a tolerant society, when,
in fact, it is precisely the opposite. True religious tolerance
is the acceptance of the right of others to follow a different creed.
In our ersatz, contemporary version, however, it is denied that
there are any different creeds. Instead, we are encouraged to think
that all religions are basically the same, just different routes
to the same transcendental Truth.
In the name of "diversity," we try to erase difference. When it
comes to religious belief, this is a country chary of controversy
and anxious about argument. In the interest of fraudulent civility
and soi-disant "respect" we have removed the right of the
religious to disagree with each other. On the face of it, traditional
religious distinctions remain, but all too often they have been
trivialized and shrunk down to the superficial, reduced to a matter
of folklore or ethnic heritage, nothing more consequential, say,
than a choice of headgear: Yarmulke, or turban?
This is a mistake. Old-style rigorous religious debate was bruising,
tough, and frequently impolite, but it served a function. Homo
Sapiens is a credulous creature, ready to believe just about
anything, but, fortunately, he has an innate love of argument. Controversy
sharpened our great faiths and pushed them, however painfully, towards
some form of intellectual coherence. More than that, it acted as
a filter for the worst of the nonsense that people would otherwise
be tempted to accept. Now that filter has disappeared. The more
established religions are gutted, sunk into PC blandness, or, ironically,
introspective fundamentalism. In their intellectual retreat they
have left behind a spiritual landscape in which anything goes.
The Scientologists are not the only ones to have seized this opportunity.
We are becoming a nation of nitwit necromancers, idiot Astrologers,
and suburban shamans. Others prefer to fool around with crystals,
commune with UFOs, or worship the Earth.
And that is their right, but we should not be afraid to say that
it is also their mistake. Somehow I suspect that, these days, Nicole
Kidman might just agree.