Over the past several years, I have become quite interested in exposes and memoirs related to the Church of Scientology. Apparently, I wasn’t alone in this curiosity, as my extensive reading culminated in HBO airing a scathing documentary “Going Clear” and popular interest in the subject continues with Leah Remini’s A&E miniseries “Scientology and the Aftermath”. Whenever one of these former members or documentarians describes the harsh, authoritarian practices of this cult, I get a feeling that I’ve had direct experience of it, regardless of the fact that I have never set foot in a Scientology building or even read L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics”. Last night, while watching another installment of Leah Remini’s show, it dawned on me why I feel this way. While I have never been a Scientologist, I have been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and my experiences with the most obnoxiously ubiquitous self-help group in the world are the source of the vague yet persistent parallels I’m drawing. I know, I know…”But…but…A.A. has helped so many people!” No, it hasn’t. Those who have stayed sober for a significant period of time have done so of their own volition and the attendance of A.A. meetings is just a new social venue for them or, more commonly, it is a substitute addiction, albeit less harmful to the body. That being said, I don’t intend for this post to affect anyone’s efforts in the interest of keeping sober, but just to express my own firsthand feelings about 12 step programs and secondhand opinions about The Church of Scientology and why these opinions are strikingly similar. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Disconnection vs. “Tough Love”: Scientology’s policy of disconnection gets a lot of attention in the aforementioned exposes. When a member decides to leave the church, he or she is officially deemed a “Suppressive Person” and that individual’s friends and family members remaining in the church are forced to sever all contact with their former loved one. Parents become estranged from their children and vice versa; wives and husbands divorce; friends become cold-shouldered adversaries. At the time I made the decision to stop attending A.A. meetings in late 2014, I had roughly 100 local friends all of whom I met through the program. As of this writing, I have about 5 remaining friendships that originated in A.A. Whenever a 12 step attendee decides to drop out, there is an immediate buzz of gossip among his or her former friends that so and so has “gone back out”, as if the only alternative to attending these mind-numbingly boring nightly gatherings is to live under a bridge drinking whiskey out of a paper bag-ensconced bottle. They will feign concern for a moment or two and then deem themselves so superior to such an obvious drunkard that they feel a complete severance of ties is necessary. These are people who just days before greeted me with alarming (and patently false) affection. The idea is that the employment of such “tough love” may presage a change of heart in the wayward alcoholic, culminating in a humble return to the program. Scientologists who disconnect from former members also feel that they are doing so out of love and concern. In both cases, this rationalization after the fact is how Scientologists and 12 step attendees live with themselves. Clearly, Scientology’s official policy is far harsher than A.A.’s unofficial one, seeing that immediate families are torn asunder, but the psychology is the same: “Stay in my cult or you are dead to me.”
L. Ron Hubbard vs. Bill W.: A dead guy who is still given Messianic status and whose writings are not just the basis of his group, but the only works allowed to be officially consulted and read. A narcissist whose self-esteem was so over-blown that even years after his death, he is still considered by the flunkies he left behind as the ultimate authority. There is no need for me to make a distinction between Hubbard and Wilson here. The description tendered above applies equally to either of them.
Xenu vs. Higher Power: Take your inspiration and meaning from a fabricated entity invented by the group’s dead founder. Granted, Xenu is described as an evil force and A.A.’s higher power is explicitly taken to mean “God”, but both mythical figures were invented to serve as motivational concepts that, if fully internalized as true, have the power to keep even disenchanted members coming back again and again. I’m not going to get into the whole ridiculous sci-fi inspired story of Xenu other than to say that L. Ron Hubbard gives him an age that makes him considerably older than the Universe itself. As for Bill Wilson’s idea of God (deceptively called “higher power”, as if one can make one’s own decision as to what that power is, only to be inundated with the word “God” for ever after), I have to wonder why he felt that the creator of the Universe has a vested interest in former alcoholics to the point that they are described as a higher spiritual being, as contrasted with “normies” (non-drunks). It would seem to me that the latter are more spiritually advanced, seeing as how they never became addicted to booze in the first place.
Rallies, Rallies, Rallies! Nothing whips people into more of an enthusiastic frenzy than a big, opulent gathering of like-minded cultists. Scientology rallies are so over-the-top that they instantly call to mind Hitler’s Nazi propaganda events. A.A. conventions employ far less pomp, but still manage to create a feeling of superiority by association in those who attend. 12 steppers will travel long distances at great personal expense to experience the equivalent of a larger version of their nightly church basement meetings. Scientologists will hand over every penny they have ever made to attend events, buy books and remain in the good graces of the church. By virtue of being far cheaper, A.A. occupies the higher ground on this one.
Active Scientologists and 12-steppers both tend to become colossal bores in that the majority of their self-expression consists of gushing about how their respective cults have miraculously improved their lives. And both organizations share the trait of demanding lifetime membership (although Scientology takes it much further, demanding that their Sea Org members sign a billion year contract, pledging fealty to the church for eons after they die).
I could go on with the similarities I’ve found in these two questionable organizations, but for the sake of brevity, I will not. I’m hoping that this post might stimulate some interesting and maybe even argumentative comment section fodder.