There’s a lot of fine grist in Lawrence Wright’s survey of Scientology after Paul Haggis’ very public defection, newly published in the New Yorker. But it’s worth noting that one of L. Ron Hubbard’s fellow pulp writers, Philip K. Dick, cast a jaundiced eye on the sham religion the same year it was born, and turned its sacred materials to satiric ends.
Wright drags a lot of blind cave-slugs into the light, building on the writer-director’s open letter announcing his resignation from the Church in 2009. There’s the imprisoning and enslavement of members who run afoul of Church strictures; the vilification of the mental health sciences; the pyramid scheme that tells devoted Scientologists that while they’re coming along nicely, there’s always one more level they need to achieve to become “clear.” It’s revealed that only 25,000 people in the United States openly call themselves Scientologists — “less than half the number who identify themselves as Rastafarians.” Frankly, I think the Rastas have more fun.
Then there’s the account of Haggis’ elevation to the level of Operating Thetan III, where he finally got to read Scientology’s most closely-guarded manual, held in reserve for only the truly faithful. (Hint: It’s the Xenu-drops-people-in-a-volcano stuff.)
“I don’t understand,” Haggis said.
“Do you know the words?” the supervisor asked.
“I know the words, I just don’t understand.”
“Go back and read it again,” the supervisor suggested.
Haggis did so. In a moment, he returned. “Is this a metaphor?” he asked the supervisor.
“No,” the supervisor responded. “It is what it is. Do the actions that are required.”
Maybe it’s an insanity test, Haggis thought—if you believe it, you’re automatically kicked out. “I sat with that for a while,” he says. But when he read it again he decided, “This is madness.”
Of course, that was in the late ’70s, which leads one to wonder what took Haggis so long. He could’ve gotten there just as fast by reading Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Turning Wheel.” Originally published in Science Fiction Stories No. 2 in 1954, it arrived the same year Hubbard established Scientology as an organization. His proto-Scientology text Dianetics had appeared in print in 1950 and became a bestseller.
“The Turning Wheel” posits a stratified Eastern-style future society, in which a faithful priestly class (“Bards”) venerates and enforces the edicts of its founding father (“Elron Hu”). The Bards’ philosophical system embraces karmic reincarnation and a search for “clearness,” and eschews medicine that could stave off early deaths. The first line of dialogue spoken within the story is one word: “Cults.”
I haven’t found anything to indicate that Dick (1928-1982) and Hubbard (1911-1986) ever met, but Dick would’ve been well aware of the growth of Scientology. Dianetics was first proposed in the SF magazine Astounding Science Fiction, edited by John W. Campbell, who became an audacious promoter of this so-called “modern science of mental health.”
Dick too had published in Astounding, and had been rebuked by Campbell for depicting mutants and other evolved forms of mankind as threats to the human species rather than boons. (Michael Moorcock has his own beefs with Campbell, whom he viewed as a crackpot ne0-fascist, and called Scientology “an authoritarian system to rival the Pope’s.”) Dick also had to notice when one of his early heroes, SF author A.E. van Vogt (1912-2000), was seduced by Dianetics and spent most of the 1950s trying to advance the cause, to the detriment of his writing.
Paul Haggis is a maker of bad populist films, but he comes off like a pretty smart guy who should’ve sniffed out the Scientology scam for what it is — especially once he stuck his head fully inside it. Philip K. Dick, a genius-level ironist who was no stranger to altered modes of perception, glanced at the Hubbard mythos aborning and saw right through it, with his pink laser vision. He was, as usual, a prophet unheeded in his lifetime.