Why is Scientology so successful?

by phil on Sunday Feb 20, 2011 12:46 PM

There's a really interesting article in the New Yorker about Scientology. The focus is on Paul Haggis, probably the most successful writer in Hollywood, who left the Church a few years ago and is becoming increasingly vocal about why he left.

But if the foreground of the article is about the vile and inauthentic practices of Scientology, the background is its success story. How is it that, in the age of Google, when people can easily learn about problems in the Church, that Scientology is still growing? My belief is that it's suceeding because it works for many people, and it does so by repackaging cognitive therapy, alternative medicine, and even some bits of meditation, into a traditional religious apparatus.

If I had to do an informal word cloud on the article, I'd put the word "auditing" on top. The process of auditing, from what little I know about it, sounds very similar to cognitive therapy. The point of an auditing session is to sit down and think about a negative stimulus, and remember a time before when you didn't feel that way. You keep doing this until the negative stimulus ceases to have a hold on you. In other words, you continually revise your perception of the negative stimulus until you cease to perceive it in a negative way. This is essentially what happens in cognitive therapy. But instead of calling it "auditing," cognitive therapists call it disputing, where you dispute distorted perceptions about your life.

Another common word I read is "Clear," which sounds like the clear-headed feeling you're supposed to get from meditation. The goal of Scientology is to be Clear. Scientologists plug into an E-meter, which is essentially a polygraph, which is also essentially a measure for stress, anxiety, and tension. I imagine that being plugged into that, and watching a dial swing up and down, becomes a form of measured meditation. If the dial is down for a long period of time, you've achieved some long period of relaxation. This would probably be the same effect you'd see if you plugged an E-meter to a meditating monk.

And as for alternative medicine, the Scientology way for treating sickness is to use the power of thought combined with vitamins and supplements. There is a segment in the article talking about a 5-hour-long sauna treatment combined with high amounts of niacin that's supposed to cleanse toxins from your body. Paul Haggis said that he never felt better in his life than when he did this. Actress Kristie Alley reportedly got cured of her cocaine addiction through this process, and she says that she'd be dead if it wasn't for it. Other adherents report similar physical awakenings that remind me of stories I've seen posted on herbal remedy forums.

Paul Haggis says that what initially drew him to Scientology was his attraction to the underdog. Scientology presents itself as fighting Big Pharma and the APA (American Psychological Association), and their conspirational words resonate to a lot of people who are skeptical about glossy-eyed interpretations of modern medical and psychological advancement. But for all of Scientology's talk about how psychiatrists are evil, the use of auditing and E-meters is its own distilled version of psychotherapy. And when it comes to medicine, if you dabble in terms like niacin or "cleansing toxins," then you can't tell me you're not practicing a form of medicine on yourself.


Duff said on February 24, 2011 8:07 PM:

While I agree that there are many appealing hooks to Scientology, most reports that don't come from the "church" show membership has been declining rapidly for many years.

And while many glowing reports certainly exist for the "purification rundown," many suppressed reports indicate major health complications (or even death) from this extreme cleanse.

Bill said on October 5, 2011 3:14 PM:

You must get your information from the Church of Scientology itself. The truth is that Scientology has collapsed. Check out the ARIS surveys 2001 and 2008. Scientology in the U.S. went from an estimated 55,000 to 25,000. It is even less now. The Internet, Google and Anonymous have had a devastating effect on that little cult, not that the church will admit it.

No, Scientology is NOT expanding and its techniques do NOT result in any significant benefits.

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