About a decade ago, a woman who looked like a librarian stopped me and invited me into an independent bookstore “to screen a new movie.” I was on my way somewhere and asked what time it started. She said she had a showing beginning right that minute, and it seemed like lucky timing until I got inside and realized no one else was there. The librarian trundled over a rolling cart with a television set strapped on top. I couldn’t figure a polite way out so I humored her. The film told the story of a high school football player who, in the space of fifteen minutes, took a bad tackle, got paralyzed, wept piteously on a hospital bed while his doctors chortled in the shadows, and then healed himself by reading a book. Afterward the librarian tried to sell me the book: L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. The word Scientology hadn’t been mentioned even once, not in the film or by the librarian. She was dowdy and pleading. For whatever reason, I declined.

Lawrence Wright’s magisterial account Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief reports the rise and eminence of Scientology by shining a cold light on that peculiar organization and its jealous founder Hubbard, who once pistolwhipped his sleeping wife awake because something in her dreams made her smile. Hubbard began his career writing adventure stories for pulp magazines. Going Clear describes his writing process as a feat of focused imagination: “He would simply ‘roll the pictures’ in his mind and write down what he saw as quickly as possible … he would actually perspire when he wrote. His philosophy was ‘First draft, last draft, get it out the door.’”

The space opera mythology Hubbard later invented for the Church emerged from the same place as his fiction. The most famous myth begins with a galactic dictator called Xenu who massacres his subjects, dumps their bodies into volcanos, and blasts them with hydrogen bombs. The immortal souls of the dead, known as thetans, attach to human bodies after millions of years and today remain a source of unhappiness and imbalance. The Church claims these myths as holiest-of-holy scripture, or “Advanced Technology.” Depending on the forum, public spokesmen (and they are always men) deny the myth wholesale or insist public acknowledgement of these scriptures constitutes an offense to their religious freedom.

The movement from story to scripture is as old as human society. In The World Until Yesterday, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond offers the hypothesis that the religious tendencies of our minds are a byproduct of storytelling – or more specifically, a byproduct of the capacity to create stories. For instance: I’m a bad fisherman, but I used paddle out with a good one to fish from a point on the southern shore of Lake Monroe. As soon as I cast, I’d imagine catfish in their dens smelling my chicken liver bait, twitching their whiskers and stirring their tails. But the longer I waited without a bite, I found myself grasping for a reason why. Maybe the lead weight dragged the hook down unnaturally. Maybe they didn’t like chicken liver anymore, or weren’t hungry on cloudy days, or were out feeding in the deeper waters. Maybe they could smell my frustration. All these little narratives, or causal explanations, burst into mind while I stared and wished desperately for ripples from the pinpoint on the brown silty surface where my line pierced the water.

A human who looks at a path of matted grass leading from a river can invent a wealth of causal explanations about the agent that created that path: a sunning crocodile, say, or a slithering python. Our ability to concoct a hypothetical story based on signals in our environment is unrivaled in the animal kingdom. This gave our ancestors a significant comparative advantage against their stronger, hairier, and toothier competitors. The expression of these stories permitted the hoarded knowledge from many generations to pass as an inheritance into a common well of memories, taboos, and customs. Even today, every angler has his superstitions. One summer afternoon at the lake, the fisherman I mentioned earlier clubbed a snake on the back of the head with a branch and lickety split noosed it up with line and strung it from a nearby tree. “What are you doing that for?” I asked. He said, “Warn the other snakes.”

According to Going Clear, “It is one thing to make a universe believable, it is another thing to believe it. That is the difference between art and religion.” But as the phenomenon of Scientology shows, it is sometimes enough to convince a parishioner to agree to believe in a religion, the same way we suspend our disbelief and agree to be excited by art. Just as we look at the path of matted grass and conjure images of things that are not there before us, we can read fiction we know is lies but somehow makes our feet tingle, or look at a picture and see vistas outside the frame, or hear a march and see the flags cracking and the trumpets swinging with each step. The same capacity that allowed L. Ron Hubbard to unfurl his imagination on rolls of butcher paper fed into a typewriter allows us to see past the margins of his work and into the weaknesses of his character that drove him to claim the answers to the secrets of the universe.

There’s a story I know about a naked yogi resting on a road that Alexander the Great intended to march. As the conqueror stood in his armor at the head of his fearsome panoply, the naked yogi asked, “Why should I yield to you?” So Alexander pronounced the hallowed litanies of his conquests, and when he was finished he asked what human deeds could possibly rival his own. The naked yogi answered, “I’m the one who conquered the need to conquer the world.” And Alexander applauded and led his armies the long way around.

Hubbard projected vanity and self importance, but he knew he was a charlatan. At his most vulnerable, he admitted to yearn for a world where he could be charming without telling lies, where his “magical work” was effective and true, where he was a brilliant writer who loved his wife and didn’t feel insecure for hoping others would love him. He spent his last years living in increasing isolation out of a motorhome, and at the end was announced by his successor to have “discarded the body he had used in this lifetime.” The gathering of Scientologists cheered, “Hip hip hooray!”

About a year before my brush with Scientology, a Hare Krishna took a flimsy paperback out of his satchel and waved it in front of me, saying, “You can travel through time!” I said, “What the hell are you talking about travel through time?” He said, “It’s real!” So I bought the book. The cover showed a four-armed god haloed by flaring cobras. The god stood waist deep in calm water. The cobras all wore hats. Bunched up with their white bellies and black tongues, they looked like huddling penguins. It turns out that time travel, according to His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, is a state of heightened consciousness only available after exhaustive repetition of devotional mantras and rebirths.

I remembered feeling tricked.

The book was a waste of money.

I think, if I was pressed, that would be my causal explanation for why I didn’t buy Dianetics from the librarian.

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