Two new books to consider

January 19, 2013 • 9:15 am

The Sunday New York Times Book Review always appears online on Saturday, and this week’s issue has reviews or blurbs about two books of interest.

The first is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright, reviewed by Michael Kinsley, editor at large at The New Republic.  You may remember Wright as the author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book The Looming Tower, which traces the roots of Islamic terrorism, and the 9/11 crashes, to the 1940s and the initial disaffection of one man with western mores considered heretical to Islam. (By the way, it’s a superb and engrossing book, showing clearly that what Al-Qaeda does now has its roots not in politics or territory, but in pure religion: the desire for Islamic hegemony.)

At any rate, Wright has now turned his sights on an equally dangerous topic: Scientology. (Remember that Scientology loves to harass and sue its critics.) I will surely be reading this book, for Scientology, officially classified by our government as a religion, enjoying all the tax benefits of, say Catholicism, is really a vicious cult with a “theology” so outré as to be laughable. (Of course all theologies are laughable when viewed through the lens of unfamiliarity.) Here’s some snippets of Kinsley’s review:

So what are poor thetans to do, where are they to go, when they find themselves between lives? Left to Venus or right to Mars? For sure, they can’t stay here. “The planet Earth, formerly called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of planets under the leadership of a despot ruler named Xenu,” said Hubbard, who was a best-selling science fiction writer before he became the prophet of a new religion. To suppress a rebellion, Xenu tricked the confederations into coming in for fake income tax investigations. Billions of thetans were taken to Teegeeack (you remember: Earth), “where they were dropped into volcanoes and then blown up with hydrogen bombs.” Suffice it to say I’m not hanging around Earth next time I’m between lives.

Hubbard apparently could go on for hours — or pages — with this stuff. Wright informs us, as if it were just an oversight, that “Hubbard never really explained how he came by these revelations,” but elsewhere he says they came to him at the dentist’s office. Of the Borgia-like goings-on after Hubbard’s death in 1986, Wright says cheerfully, “Every new religion faces an existential crisis following the death of its charismatic founder.” He always refers to Scientology respectfully as “the church.”

But Wright’s book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” makes clear that Scientology is like no church on Earth (or, in all probability, Venus or Mars either). The closest institutional parallel would be the Communist Party in its heyday: the ruthless struggles for power, the show trials and forced confessions (often false); the paranoia (often justified); the determination to control its members’ lives completely (the key difference, you will recall, between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, according to the onetime American ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick); the maintenance of something close to prison camps where dissenters, would-be defectors and power-struggle rivals were incarcerated in deplorable conditions for years and punished if they tried to escape; what the book describes as mysterious deaths and disappearances; and so on.

. . . All this was going on under the nose of Tom Cruise, who, according to Wright, allowed Scientology’s leaders to pimp for him (no, no: all women), among other favors. Young women were told that they had been chosen for a “special program” that would require they drop their boyfriends. But the fish that got away, Scientologists believed, was Steven Spielberg. He told Haggis that Scientologists “seem like the nicest people,” and [director Paul] Haggis responded that “we keep all the evil ones in the closet,” which was close enough to being true that Haggis was in hot water with the Scientology powers-that-be. But he didn’t quit.

Kinsley picks out some flaws in Wright’s book, like his failure to explain Scientology terms when they come up, but concludes that “Going Clear is essential reading for thetans of all ­lifetimes.”

I’m fascinated with Scientology, for it shows us clearly what some people are looking for when they turn to “religion”—and it’s not always candles, songs, potted palms, the afterlife, or membership in community of people determined to good.


Jared Diamond has also come out with a new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Lean from Traditional Societies?, which was given a mixed review by David Brooks in last week’s NYT Sunday book review. Today, in “By the Book,” Diamond is interviewed by an unnamed interlocutor about The World Until Yesterday and various booky topics. It’s quite revealing: Diamond talks about his favorite books as an adult and child, the book he’d recommend that President Obama read, and the last book that made him cry. I found the following Q&A intriguing, for I’ve read Primo Levi’s book and thought it stunningly good:

What was the last truly great book you read?

Primo Levi, “If This Is a Man” (original, “Se Questo È un Uomo,” 1947). At one level, Levi’s book is about how as a young Italian Jewish chemist joining the resistance during World War II, he was captured, sent to Auschwitz, and survived. At another level, the book is about our everyday life issues, magnified: the life-and-death consequences of chance, the problem of evil, the impossibility of separating one’s moral code from surrounding circumstances, and the difficulties of maintaining one’s sanity and humanness in the presence of injustice and bad people. Levi dealt with these issues and was lucky, with the result that he survived Auschwitz and went on to become one of the greatest authors (both of nonfiction and fiction) of postwar Italy. But he survived at a price. One of the prices, the loss of his religious beliefs, he summarized as follows: “I must say that the experience of Auschwitz for me was such as to sweep away any remnants of the religious education that I had had. . . . Auschwitz existed, therefore God cannot exist. I find no solution to that dilemma. I seek a solution, but I don’t find it.”

I love Levi’s writing, and was so sad when he died in 1987, perhaps by suicide.  Beside “If This is a Man,” I’d highly recommend “The Periodic Table” (Levi was a chemist as well as a writer), which was voted by the Royal Institution as the best science book ever written, ahead of even On the Origin of Species (I’d contest that!).

Just FYI, here is the list of the Royal Institution’s winners:

The shortlist

Primo Levi The Periodic Table
Konrad Lorenz King Solomon’s Ring
Tom Stoppard Arcadia
Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene

Other nominations

James Watson The Double Helix
Bertolt Brecht The Life of Galileo
Peter Medawar Pluto’s Republic
Charles Darwin Voyage of the Beagle
Stephen Pinker The Blank Slate
Oliver Sacks A Leg to Stand On

“Arcadia,” while a great play, is a bizarre choice, for it’s not really a science book. I’d put Darwin as #1, purely for its importance in transforming human thought.

41 thoughts on “Two new books to consider

  1. I knuckled down and read the whole of Going Clear in 2 days. He bends over backwards to be fair and balanced – not that he needs to, of course. Everyone knows it is a sick cult; what was alarming was just quite how sick it is. I won’t give any spoilers, but woah, I wasn’t prepared for the kind of revolting slime that David Miscavige is, or the ego-power mad and delusional Tom Cruise. He’s never getting a penny of my money again! And what the hell is Bart Simpson doing donating millions to the cult? I have now lost a lot of respect for a lot of people.

  2. Also listed on the RI’s list is “Life of Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht which is also a stage-play- pretty good on Galileo’s science, but has some details of his personal life quite wrong.

    A very non-religious cultural anthropology teacher of mine (bio at said the purpose of his discipline was to make strange things seem normal and normal things seem strange. Thus he wanted odd religious beliefs to be “viewed through the lens of familiarity” to reverse Jerry Coyne’s phrase.

    But such an anthropologist would reallyy have their work cut out for them on Scientology. What people must be seeking there is a bizarre form of security at the sacrifice of every other good, since it’s the most extreme form of security in abuse I know of. Scientology is the single most difficult belief system to fathom even on the level of empathy without mental assent.

    1. I think one of the explanations for why Scientology attracts what appears to be otherwise reasonable people is the gradual nature of the “revelations.” It is a modern version of a gnostic religion, one which has secrets which we are only allowed to know when we are “ready.” You can see why this seems intuitively appealing to the average person: every person was once a child, jealous and eager to be let in on secrets they’re too small and inferior to understand. Scientology taps into that.

      One of the other significant advantages this pile of nonsense is able to draw on is, ironically, the difficulty of believing it true. There is a widespread deference granted to “faith.” People sometimes talk about what they’re able to believe as if they were talking about how much weight they could lift, if they really had to. To believe in Scientology, your faith muscle must be really, really strong. Bully for you.

      Another explanation I think is the Trojan-horse nature of how Scientology hooks its members. They often start out by proclaiming their concern that children today are being over-medicated by pharmaceutical drugs. There is some truth to that — but the real benefit is that putting this cause front and forward helps to identify Scientologists as a certain kind of group, with certain kind of people in that group. Caring, concerned, children, natural. Once you start thinking of them like this, you’re hooked.

      There’s also the “therapy” of Dianetics, which encourages you to focus on all your flaws in an attempt to become perfect. That tactic will appeal to multiple factions. Especially if you’re weak, or feel weak.

      1. I like your idea of “gradually revealing secrets”. I see religions as a collection of various (in designer’s terms) loops or patterns, and this would be one of them.

    2. To what extent is pure blackmail involved? You tell them your most intimate personal details when being audited, and they threaten to spill all if you’re in danger of leaving. I strongly suspect that is the major motivation for some of the most high-profile ones (JT), though TC seems to be also just plain nuts. They hoard personal secrets the way Mormons hoard genealogies.

    1. Amusingly(?), when I read “The Periodic Table” (my first degree was in chemistry), I loved the first 19 stories, but did not like the last one, “Carbon,” as it was about evolution, and I was still a YEC fundamentalist at that time. I’d like to reread it, but can’t locate my copy of the book…

      My all-time favorite science book (or is it philosophy of science?) is Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.”

  3. I’ll look up those books by Levi, need some new fiction.

    WRT science books I think Horace Freeland Judson’s “The Eighth Day Of Creation” is much better than Watson’s Double Helix and covers all the science leading up to Watson/Crick too with portraits of all the scientists and a lot of detail on their work. Definitely one of the best science books I’ve ever read.

  4. There’s been a bit of a flurry on this side of the Atlantic, as Wright’s book will NOT be published in the UK. The publishers are apparently worried about the Scientologists launching a case for libel/defamation in the UK courts, which are extremely open to legal attacks against publications (this has created a kind of “libel tourism” where non-UK residents do battle in the courts).

    1. Would a bookseller/bookstore in the UK be able to order the book from the US without worry, or would that person/firm then be open to the same sort of attack?

      eBay / Kindle to the rescue, I suppose.

    2. From the NYT review cited by Jerry, “The purpose of a lawsuit is ‘to harass and discourage rather than to win,’ Hubbard said.”

  5. Loosely on topic, the Addy Pross book recently mention on WEIT: What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Life is also a great read.

    It address how simple self-replicators (AKA auto-catalytic molicules) become the basis for life. Indeed, how chemistry becomes the basis for biology (AKA systems chemistry). And how stability in the dynamic kinetic sense becomes the driving principle behind it all.

    Quite a few “wow” and “ah-ha” moments for me. I won’t feel stupid now when the question comes up, “how did non-living things become living?”

  6. AFAIK, the end goal promised by Scientology is to become a master of MEST. Matter, Energy, Space, and Time.

    This would make one a god.

    At least it is a comprehensible if false promise. That is one of the claims of religions.

    1. The xians and Moslems promise eternal life in heaven.

    2. The Mormons promise that special men will become gods with their own planets and herds of goddess wives.

    3. The Scientologists promise that anyone with a lot of money to give them will become a god without even dying.

    See the pattern here? There has been an escalation of promises for your future life.

    The next religion is going to have to up the ante. The bar is set high here. Probably you will become an uber god with your own lesser gods as employees and your own universe in the meta-universe.

  7. We do owe Mormonism, Scientology, and Moonie-ism for one thing.

    Thanks to them, we know where religions come from. People just make them all up.

    PS It’s a good question how Hubbard knew what happened tens of millions of years ago with Xenu and the billions of dead Thetans.

    Someone once told me that one of the secret beliefs of Scientology is that Hubbard was actually an extraterrestrial, an alien from another planet. And that could explain it.

    1. Really? There’s a question of where a less-than-mediocre (imo) science fiction author got the idea for a religion that reads like less-than-mediocre science fiction?

    2. “Someone once told me that one of the secret beliefs of Scientology is that Hubbard was actually an extraterrestrial, an alien from another planet.”

      That would help to explain his less-than-terrestrial grasp of English. 🙂

  8. Rather like the 3 Inches of Blood album I’m currently listening to, I’ve long suspected that Scientology’s origin story was fueled in part by cheap beer and bong hits (Hubbard was a pretty big drug user, IIRC).

  9. In your list, I vote against Darwin. Not the person but the book. Because that isn’t The Origin of Species. It’s his good and popular account of his travels on the Beagle.

    I’m going to risk my life by suggesting that Darwin wasn’t the greatest writer, or the greatest science writer. He was pretty good as Victorians went, but they all had a bad case of long-winded sentences. The Origin has some great phrases, but in between is a lot of interesting science written in long Victorian sentences. One rarely hears of students who start reading the Origin and can’t put it down.

    1. I disagree about Darwin’s writing. I find the Origin to be spellbinding, and when I first read it sixty years ago, at the age of eleven, I could barely put it down. I’ve read it several times since, and IMHO it only gets better each time.

    2. Oy, you know, I didn’t even read the title; I just assumed it was the origin.

      I agree with you that Darwin wasn’t a great writer or a great science writer, though the Origin does contain some lovely passages. But as a science BOOK, the origin should be #1. What it lacks in eloquence it makes up for in impact!

      1. If we go for impact, Newton’s Principia wins hands down:

        “A more recent assessment has been that while acceptance of Newton’s theories was not immediate, by the end of a century after publication in 1687, “no one could deny that” (out of the ‘Principia’) “a science had emerged that, at least in certain respects, so far exceeded anything that had ever gone before that it stood alone as the ultimate exemplar of science generally.”[7]”

        I haven’t read Origin, but it seems to me from the little I have read that Darwin was the greater analytic genius for what it’s worth. (Principia is unreadable today, and I would guess Origin is a problem to understand in its context as well. But what emerges is wholesome analysis.)

        1. That was precisely my thought as well! However one might argue that a modern physicist/mathematician chosen at random has almost certainly not read the Principia: the only notable exception I can think of is S Chandrashekhar who published a rendition of the Principia in modern language and notation.

          Add to that Newton’s tendency of using elegant but weird geometrical arguments where calculus would make for an arguably simpler though less elegant solution, and the book has probably lost much of its utility. But just for sheer novelty and impact, it would be hard to argue for any other science book in history in front of the the Principia.

      2. Maybe what I was looking for in 1951 was different than that which those reading the Origin are seeking today — but nevertheless, I was enthralled.

  10. I thought Primo Levi’s death was a definite suicide. At any rate it was sad to lose someone who spoke and wrote so well of why religion is evil and why there is no god.

    1. Well, the topic is almost too broad to allow for a meaningful winner. There are books that explain the science to the reader; books that result in new advances in science (e.g. Origin of Species, The Selfish Gene (I think)), and books about people doing science (e.g. The Double Helix). How do you compare them? And on what criteria – readability, public impact, scientific influence? It’s a bit like saying ‘Which is the best car?’ Best car – for what? But the selection process seems to have been fairly arbitrary.

    2. P.S. I’d agree ‘Origin’ would be a good candidate for the winner – but it wasn’t even nominated!

      1. There is a book by Isaac Newton also that is a close competitor, Principia Mathematica. It will win no readability or popularity contests, especially as it was in Latin. But it is of comparable importance to Darwin’s Origin.

  11. … The Looming Tower, which traces the roots of Islamic terrorism, and the 9/11 crashes, to the 1940s and the disaffection of one man (and then more) to western mores considered heretical to Islam.

    Ah, from the Amazon reviews that should be Sayyid Qutb (and you can intuit from his photoi that he was repressed in many ways). “Egyptian author, educator, Islamist theorist, poet, and the leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and ’60s.” “He has been described by some as a great artist and martyr for Islam,[6][7] but by many Western observers as one who shaped the ideas of Islamists[8] and particularly of groups such as Al Qaeda.”

    Now I can begin to understand why the choice of Morsi was seen so apprehensively by Jerry. Full disclosure would have been the better choice, I think.

    But the connection seems more troublesome than the today’s politics show.

    … [director Paul] Haggis responded that “we keep all the evil ones in the closet,” which was close enough to being true that Haggis was in hot water with the Scientology powers-that-be. But he didn’t quit.

    Haggis quit 2009, and the New Yorker (IIRC) article on his history is an excellent read on the sect and its atrocities.

  12. Why do you find Scientology’s “theology” to be more laughable than e.g. Abrahamic religions? At least it involves entities which are scientifically plausible (aliens, spaceships, bombs; well, not the Thetan spirits…) and events which happened long ago enough to not be ruled out by history/paleontology (well, maybe so many hydrogen bombs exploding would leave some geological record…). Compared to gods, angels, Heaven and Hell, inherited sin, blood atonement, six thousand year old Earth, creation via voice, etc., it’s all quite realistic.

    1. I’m not sure ‘realistic’ is quite the word I’d use. ‘Freaking batshit insane’ would be closer to it.

      Aside from anything else, bringing billions of thetans to earth just to drop them into volcanoes seems a little – unnecessary. And blowing them up with H-bombs as well is definitely overdoing it. (Afternote – I just Googled and that account of his methodology is wrong – see below).

      For starters, surely the thetans could have been killed far more expediently just by dumping them out of the airlock once safely in flight. But assuming that was inappropriate for some reason, L Ron Hubbard’s scenario seems to be deliberately perverse –
      (quote from Wikipedia):
      “With the assistance of psychiatrists, he gathered billions of his citizens under the pretense of income tax inspections, then paralyzed them and froze them in a mixture of alcohol and glycol to capture their souls. The kidnapped populace was loaded into spacecraft for transport to the site of extermination, the planet of Teegeeack (Earth)… When they had reached Teegeeack, the paralyzed citizens were unloaded around the bases of volcanoes across the planet. Hydrogen bombs were then lowered into the volcanoes and detonated simultaneously, killing all but a few aliens.”

      This is totally dumb, as in stupid. It would have been more effective to just dump the aliens into the volcanoes (assuming they were all active) and save the nukes. But if you’re going to nuke them, you’d do an air blast above the nukees, not put the H-bomb inside the volcano where, very probably, the crater walls will shield the surrounding area from the blast. In fact any flat exposed area e.g. Death Valley would have been a far better site.

      But I suppose Xenu was just as psychotically irrational as Yahweh in his little genocidal spasms.

      1. …froze them in a mixture of alcohol and glycol to capture their souls.

        If you miss out the glycol this seems reasonable to me; at least, alcohol does have a freezing effect on my “soul”.

      2. Oh, of course it’s insane, irrational, etc.. I was merely questioning Coyne’s assertion it was more laughable than Abrahamic religions. Compare the issues with Thetan bombing you outline, which are mostly inefficiencies, to the issues with Noah’s flood, which are far greater- water magically appeared and disappeared, freshwater organisms magically lived, animals would have been functionally impossible to care for, disproven by genetics of every organism, disproven by just about all of geology, organisms just happen to end up in places that are biogeographically sensible, etc.. Although both stories were made up, if one HAD to happen, surely you’d choose the Thetan bombing?

        1. If I were to be given the choice between ‘accepting’ the Yahweh stories or ‘accepting’ the Xenu story? Can I please choose to believe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy instead, it’s so much better written and it’s fun to read. If I’m going to go totally daft I’d much rather go in that direction.

          Yes I know I’m dodging the question. I just can’t imagine what would ever persuade me to ‘accept’ either Yahweh or Xenu. I’d just have to have become so utterly bananas, I wouldn’t be me any more.

          (P.S. I did a misprint (which I caught) up there, ‘Xena’ instead of ‘Xenu’. OK, Xena will do, Greek gods, attempting to kill the Archangel Michael (I cheered!) and all. Oh and in the final episode some Japanese bogeyman was trying to capture the souls of ghosts, I believe. These things are never new…)

        2. But to answer your point, yes I do agree with Jerry that Xenu instinctively seems to me to be more ridiculous than Yahweh. Whether this is due to familiarity with the Yahweh story, or because of a curious sort of psychological phenomenon where, when you pile improbability upon absurdity you reach a point where it actually seems simpler and more credible to say ‘magic’ or ‘goddidit’.

          I’m not saying magic *is* more likely than the product of multiple improbabilities (it isn’t), it just instinctively seems that way. And yeah, I know some ID-ers try to exploit that.

  13. We’ll never know, of course, but I wonder how many lost their faith as a result of WWII.

    Besides Levi, one prominent person I recently came across was Marlene Dietrich. Per Wikipedia, after hearing both sides hold Gud up in support of their cause, she once said: “If God exists, he needs to review his plan.”

    1. As a result of WW2, Kurt Vonnegut lost any faith he might have had and founded a religion, Bokononism, in Cat’s Cradle. It’s a pity it didn’t catch on, because as invented religions go (and they’re all invented), it’s relatively benign:

      “Bokononism is based on the concept of foma, which are defined as harmless untruths. A foundation of Bokononism is that the religion, including its texts, is formed entirely of lies; however, one who believes and adheres to these lies will have peace of mind, and perhaps live a good life. The primary tenet of Bokononism is to “Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”” – Wikipedia

      “We do doodily do, doodily do
      what we mustm muddily must, muddily must
      while we can, cannily can
      till we bust, bodily bust, bodily bust.”

      For a census or two I put down my religion as Bokononist, and have been inclined to behave as if Bokonon’s claim that “peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God” were true, which has made my life more interesting.

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