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Jon Atack Answers The Question: How Do Smart People Fall for Scientology?

BBTheoryJon Atack is the author of A Piece of Blue Sky, one of the very best books on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. He has a new edition of the book for sale, and on Saturdays he’s helping us sift through the legends, myths, and contested facts about Scientology that tend to get hashed and rehashed in books, articles, and especially on the Internet.

This week, Jon answers a question we get maybe more than any other. Scientology has so many outlandish concepts and makes so many unfulfillable promises, how is it that smart people get involved in it and then spend years chasing its impossible goals? Jon sent us this response, and we think it’s the best one we’ve seen yet on the subject.

JON: Russell Miller was perhaps the highest paid journalist in the UK, when he worked on the Sunday Times pieces that led to his still unrivalled biography of Ronald Hubbard, Bare-Faced Messiah. I put him in touch with a score of former members. When he came back from his first trip to the US, he was evidently baffled that every one of those he had interviewed was both intelligent and articulate. How could it be that such seemingly rational people could have been gulled by such a gauche conman?

Lawrence Wright, in the best book about the cult and Hollywood, wonders why RPFers failed to escape when the FBI took down the LA Org. Only a couple of weeks ago, a guy said to me that ex-members must feel pretty stupid when they realize just how gullible they’ve been. So, how could we have been so stupid?

A Baptist minister once asked me how anyone could possibly believe that 75 million years ago, Prince Xenu had rounded up the populations of the planets orbiting 76 stars and exploded them in volcanoes. Using hydrogen bombs. Like Russell, he’d forgotten that I had myself been that gullible. I suggested to him that there are people who believe that a man could not only walk on water, but also turn it into wine. I was mortified by the crimson blush that suffused his face. It was rude of me, but how else to make the point?

When some smart aleck tells me that the universe began with the Big Bang, as if that explained anything, I generally ask them how they know. So far, the answers to this question — and I’ve asked it many times — have always boiled down to: because the physicists say so, and you can trust them. Which is little better than: because the Bible says so, or the Vedas or Ronald Hubbard. I tend to believe in the Big Bang — but then, so have the Popes, for over fifty years now. But as much as I can spin a tale about the expanding universe and negative entropy, about quarks, Higgs’ boson and dark matter, I have no idea what or who had that Big Bang, and, apart from sticking the universe in an infinite and ever expanding series of parallels, or positing a Steady State universe, in which Big Bangs are infinitely regular (now called “cyclical universe theory,” by the way), there is little sensible to add to the picture. To paraphrase the Tao Te Ching, “I don’t know where the universe came from, but it must have come from somewhere, so I’ll call that tao.” Or “dark matter” or perhaps “phlogiston.”


We don’t know where it all came from. We don’t know if it means anything. And we certainly don’t know where it is going. Science helps considerably with “how,” but “why” will always be the province of belief. And all belief is fodder for the gullible, whether it happens to be true or not.

Even more so, however, there is a basic human mechanism, a set of reactions that are predictable, at least in terms of probability. In the beginning of almost all cult involvement is dislocation. The individual is dislodged from some old pattern: from an environment or a relationship. A job lost, a new town, a divorce, a different college, a death, a loss, a tragedy. Any significant change to the habitual, and not necessarily a bad change, opens us up to a new set of habits. It is how we are made.

For me, it was a lost girlfriend. For others it was a change at work, the loss of a spouse, or simply someone new in the environment who shook up old patterns of thinking. Vulnerability — dislocation — is deliberately created by Scientology from the first. The new victim is directed to the “ruin” — whatever they believe is ruining their life — so that they will become open to Scientology’s super-expensive snake oil. It is easy enough, just ask anyone to think about old age, disease, or death and he or she will most likely become glum. And it is easy to shove someone into his or her worst fear or greatest loss. It amazed me, as a baby Scientologist, sent out on the street with a clipboard, just how ready people were to share their most distressing problem with a stranger who had asked them some ridiculous questions (“what would you most like to be/do/have?”). The survey itself is bogus, too — just the first in a long series of deceptions on the “road to truth.” But then, as Hubbard said, “Honesty is sanity,” so Scientology is insane from the first.

Dislocation puts old patterns on hold. It censors typical behaviours, so that the newbie fits in to the newfound pack. Add to that a lot of deliberate encouragement — the old love-bombing trick of all salespeople — and you have a receptive person. Next up, give them a personality test, and always, always, always mark them down. The manual orders it, because, of course, no one is actually “up tone” who hasn’t paid substantial amounts to the cult. I’ve read a suicide note by a girl who gave up, after hearing such an “evaluation” (Ray Kemp, by the way threw the “Oxford Capacity Analysis” together, his qualification being a “doctorate” in Scientology, and time in the merchant marine. The questions are reworded from an earlier legitimate test, but marking down was no part of the original. And Kemp wasn’t even in Oxford at the time, nor had he spent a single day at any of its universities — ever more deception and pretence).

The “need of change” now firmly fixed, no matter what the problem is, it can be readily mended by some cheap course or other. In the day, that was always the Communication Course — training routines 0-4. Steven Hassan, perhaps the most eminent figure in the counter cult world, and also a leading expert on hypnosis, when he first saw these drills demonstrated, said that they were the “most overt form of hypnosis” that he had seen in any cult.

Inertia is a distressing aspect of the human condition. We do indeed throw good money after bad. Once committed to any idea, we tend to milk it, until we have run out of strength and inclination, and, with Scientology, that can take a lifetime. Though it is the cult that does the milking. The author of the seminal and essential Influence, Professor Robert Cialdini, calls this the “consistency principle.” Once you’ve sent the first ten dollars to the Nigerian scam artist, it becomes easier to write out a check for two hundred. Once you’ve bought a ten dollar Communication Course, it becomes easier to splash out a thousand on an “intensive” of “processing.” If the “body router” who lured you in had offered you an “intensive of processing,” you would have smiled and run a mile, but after committing a little, as all salespeople know, it is so much easier to commit the lot. Despite the promises, the Comm Course will not actually have solved your communication problems, but that is how the consistency principle works. By the time you get to the perfect and post-perfect states of Clear and Operating Thetan the goal posts have moved so far away that you can’t even see them, even though any objective test of the promises of these states finds them ludicrously lacking (compare Hubbard’s claims for Clear in his first book to his later dismissal of those claims. How readily his “scientific research” proved to be hollow, by his own admission, but only when he had something new to sell, which would surely do the trick for a not so modest fee — sorry, “fixed donation”).

Experts tell us that cult members tend to have an average of two years in college. Most are middle class and from loving families. It is not stupidity that led us in, but desperation. Cialdini tells the tale of an evening spent with a professor of logic watching a Transcendental Meditation lecture. At the end, the logician stood up and stumped the presenters with a series of questions that clearly exposed the irrationality of their claims. The presenters fell silent, dumbfounded and ashamed, yet many of the audience still signed up. When asked why, they told Cialdini that they had urgent problems, so would grab at any chance, and if they’d waited until tomorrow and thought about the irrationalities, they would have lost the chance to follow the proposed course. Even when it was against reason or good sense.

That desperation can be either to escape upset or, in some cases, to find a way to effectively help others, in a society beset with bogus “therapies” and magical beliefs. At the 1982 Clearwater Hearings, in Florida, OT V auditor Lori Taverna said that many people had told her that they’d joined Scientology, because they wanted to be like her. She had to explain that she was a cheerful and energetic person by nature. Scientology had neither created nor enhanced her condition.

When I finished my secret interview with a former Watchdog Committee member — who had been one of the 14 who ran the cult under Hubbard’s direction — he boasted that at least we would never again be taken in. I told him that the only and somewhat slim protection that I had was the knowledge that, like every other living soul, I am gullible. So, the question isn’t “How could you be so stupid?” but “How can we help people to recognise exploitative persuasion?”


A New Interview of Jamie DeWolf

It’s always interesting to hear from L. Ron Hubbard’s great-grandson…



Posted by Tony Ortega on November 2, 2013 at 07:00

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