This post is a request for help. I’m trying to understand the link, if any, between Scientology and conspiracy theory thinking. I was struck by how well-known old guard critic Arnie Lerma, who recently attacked his wife and then killed himself, had degenerated into the conspiracy mindset. The story is more complex, involving significant medical challenges that affected his mental health, which may have been primarily responsible for his increasing paranoia. (Lerma’s tragic saga merely sparked my interest in the general mechanism; I’m not trying to understand the particulars of his journey or to diagnose him retroactively.) The news about Lerma’s death came only a day after another post from Tony Ortega about Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s “SMERSH” conspiracy, a ludicrous tale of opposition to Scientology, and the juxtaposition led me to start thinking about the connection.
I’ve heard stories about other former Scientologists who have similarly crossed into the conspiracist world. I’m trying to understand the relationship between Scientology and conspiracy theory obsession, and I can’t get it right without a lot of different perspectives. I’ll set out my thinking so far, which is indeed incomplete, and then set out particular questions I’m struggling with. I welcome the thoughts of ex-Scientologists, never-ins and people who are familiar with the mindset of conspiracy theorists. Thanks in advance for helping me (and hopefully, the reader base) understand the conspiracy mindset and how it relates to Scientology.
Conspiracy Theories in Scientology
Rejection of Dianetics sowed the seed: It seems that conspiracy thinking was baked into Scientology doctrine from the beginning. Much of it appears to be a consequence of the brutal rejection of Hubbard’s ideas in Dianetics by the psychological/psychiatric community. He was contemptuously derided from all quarters. In reality, of course, this is because many of the ideas in Dianetics had already been considered by experts in the field and dismissed as unworkable. The fact that Hubbard’s turgid prose was mostly unreadable didn’t help. His self-congratulatory prose, including the memorable assertion in the introduction that “The Creation of Dianetics is a milestone for Man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his inventions of the wheel and arch” undoubtedly clued in the professionals that they were dealing with a loon. And if there was any remaining doubt, the bland assertions of “research” to back up the theories without even the most cursory summary statistics surely eliminated all doubt that Dianetics was a pure fabrication.
The unanimity of the expert opinion about Hubbard may well have looked like a coordinated assault on Hubbard’s “baby.” Among many negative reviews, Scientific American columnist and well-known skeptic Martin Gardner did a great job trashing the work. It’s not surprising that Hubbard’s narcissism led him to believe that there was an organized conspiracy to keep him down.
Of course, the problem with the idea of an organized conspiracy among 130,000 psychologists and 40,000 psychiatrists in the US all working in perfect unity to suppress Hubbard’s “tech” is that it ignores, as many conspiracy theories do, competition in the marketplace of ideas and competition among stakeholders whose interests diverge. If Scientology auditing worked (it doesn’t as we have discussed), psychologists would rush to get trained; they’d simply become auditors for the same money as they were previously charging for various forms of talk therapy. Most therapists are focused on results, not on sustaining a particular therapy doctrine. And insurance companies have a stake in cheap and effective treatment — if auditing worked, every insurer in the world would require that patients be audited for a while, and would only approve expensive long-term psychiatric drug treatment after auditing had failed, just as they today only approve electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) after drugs have failed.
As most longtime Scientology watchers know, Hubbard’s narcissistic rage festered for ages, leading to the creation of a complex cosmology of evil, where the “psychs” were the only form of being so evil that they couldn’t possibly be saved by Scientology.
Bad behavior drove governmental investigations: The other obvious front for conspiracy thinking was the political opposition to Scientology. Hubbard’s ship-borne “Sea Project” was thrown out of countless ports for various reasons, mostly to do with inappropriate behavior by the crew or Hubbard himself. Troubling to the local authorities was Hubbard’s frequent attempts to ingratiate himself with various governments. For example, he may have attempted to sell some of the “tech” to the military intelligence agencies in Morocco, and their suspicions about his motives (and, presumably, about the scientific underpinnings of Hubbard’s “tech”) led them to cast him out of the country. Heavy-handed treatment of the natives undoubtedly helped authorities make the easy decision to make the motley fleet persona non grata throughout the Mediterranean.
It’s pretty obvious that Hubbard’s political troubles were of his own making. Delusional attempts to manipulate governments, bizarre expeditions to find buried treasure, and arrogant behavior towards the “savages” all helped him to be increasingly unwelcome and to further his feelings of persecution. There was a basis for persecution, with occasional US government actions including the 1963 FDA raid on the Church as well as ongoing tax issues that persisted until the 1993 IRS agreement as well as various investigations by other governments.
The reality, of course, is that there was no organized conspiracy to destroy Scientology. There were many commissions, investigations, and other interventions, but for the most part, Scientology continued to flourish in spite of them. And a reasonable observer would quickly conclude that Scientology’s own bad behavior, across so many areas and so many geographies, was responsible. The cult clearly flouted obvious laws about unsupported medical claims, which drove the FDA raid, to single out one of many cases where the cult has simply ignored the law. They have continuously, willingly broken countless regulations in the territories where they operate. So they most certainly “pulled it in” when it came to government investigation.
All cults need a persecution narrative: The obvious strategic justification for Hubbard’s “psych” narrative is the standard practice in cultic groups of creating an “us versus them” mentality, laden with fear of the outside world, which serves to cut members off from anyone other than the group. The group and its leadership become the source of security and safety in a world that is complex, terrifying and powerful.
Mechanisms of Conspiracy Thinking
I’m a skeptic about conspiracy theories. While there have been some successful conspiracies in history, they are the exception rather than the rule. It’s much easier to bet on incompetence and the inability of people to keep their mouth shut than it is to bet that hundreds of thousands of people can work together to fake the Apollo moon landing, with not one single person spilling the beans and providing clear evidence from inside NASA in the half century since.
A lot has been written on the proclivity for belief in conspiracy theories, from various disciplines including politics, psychology and sociology. At the risk of over-summarizing a complex issue, it seems that conspiracy thinking is driven by at least two phenomena.
An obvious one, and perhaps the major one, is to make sense of a world in which the conspiracy believer feels powerless or vulnerable. For example, a sudden economic downturn such as the 2008 credit crisis can lead to conspiracy theories about a shadowy global conspiracy destroying the global economy to further some sort of evil plan. There was just enough incompetent or avaricious behavior in the runup to the credit crisis to make it seem like there ought to be a conspiracy of a small number of elites that sought to destroy the global economy to further their own objectives. A summer intern on Wall Street would have enough financial knowledge to be able to assess the credibility of the official causes of the collapse, though the causes were far from simple enough that an uneducated amateur could grasp them.
Another purpose of conspiracy thinking is to engage in normal human tribal behavior, scapegoating undesirable events, blaming something outside the group for bad outcomes. We don’t need to take responsibility for electing politicians who enact ill-chosen monetary policies if we can blame a conspiracy of international bankers (the tired code words for the Jews). And we certainly don’t need to take the time to understand complex concepts if we can blame someone else.
These two factors overlap and may result in conspiracist thinking being thought of as a coping skill to deal with fear, uncertainty and the powerlessness inherent in much of modern life. But in many respects, conspiracist thinking is a maladaptive coping skill, one that creates more problems than it solves. Various studies have shown that once conspiracy theorists have adopted one conspiracy theory, they often adapt more, and in many cases, the various conspiracies are contradictory. President Obama could not have simultaneously been the worst president in history (as many fringe right detractors believed) and at the same time, a collaborator with the Illuminati to enslave America and bring about the New World Order.
Most interestingly, conspiracy theories are not rational. Those who believe in one theory are at high risk of believing in multiple theories, even ones that contradict each other. Conspiracists may see this as a feature. For example, G. Webster Griffin, who wrote a conspiracist view of the Federal Reserve called “The Creature from Jeykll Island” is also a 9/11 “truther,” a cancer quack, an HIV/AIDS denialist, and has odd theories about the JFK assassination. In addition, he’s a chemtrail believer, one of the conspiracy theories that I find the most ludicrous and easily debunked. A critical thinker would find it hard to believe anything such a man has said, but Griffins delusions about the Federal Reserve continue to sell 25 years later.
A Common Feature Between Conspiracies and Cults: Closing the Door on Critical Thinking
I’m still looking for more connections between Scientology in particular (and cults in general) and the conspiracy-obsessed mindset. I think that conspiracy theories are increasingly becoming a new type of “leaderless cult,” where a corpus of related ideas spread by social media is increasingly held in the same way that cult dogma is believed in a structured cultic organization.
In both cases, though through slightly different mechanisms, Scientologists and conspiracy theorists cut themselves off from conflicting information. They “close the loop” so that their beliefs become self-reinforcing and they shut out anything that might undermine the belief.
In the case of Scientology, the “Keeping Scientology Working” policy that’s at the front of every single Scientology course reinforces the exclusive focus on Hubbard’s ideas as the only source of truth; anything else is “incorrect technology” that needs “hammering out of existence.” The conspiracist views anyone attempting to promote a contrary viewpoint as part of the conspiracy, and thus must be avoided. These two different techniques end up in the same place: with compliant followers distrustful of the outer world.
Scientology’s practices have another common mechanism with conspiracy theorists: applying two different standards of proof to in-group sources of information versus outsiders. Hubbard claimed, without one iota of proof, to have done actual research on the principles incorporated into Scientology. No scrap of any research material supporting anything Hubbard claimed to have invented has ever been found. Similarly, conspiracy buffs are wont to accept even the most outlandish theories from gurus in that world without question. David Icke’s idea that the earth is controlled by disguised reptilian aliens is often accepted uncritically without a shred of evidence by people who initially believed less fanciful ideas about world affairs.
Scientologists are trained to “dead agent” individuals outside the group by believing that any inaccurate statement from any opponent of Scientology automatically means that every single assertion that that person has ever made is therefore incorrect, an obviously ludicrous idea.
I spoke with Chris Shelton, a longtime Sea Org member, who spent 27 years in the cult. He made several interesting points.
Chris said that he was a conspiracy theorist when he first emerged from Scientology five years ago. He said that he quickly turned away from conspiracist thinking when he started to investigate alternative points of view. Chris notes that “conspiracy theorists are very lazy thinkers, even though they think they’re doing critical thinking. That’s just like Scientologists. Scientologists will pore endlessly over encyclopedias and dictionaries to word clear stuff that Hubbard talks about but they will not work to clear up the myriad contradiction in what Hubbard has said.”
Shelton goes on to point out that conspiracy theorists will find patterns and connections that don’t really exist, because they don’t do the work to attempt to explain a pattern through other means. I’ve noted that this is a major flaw in UFO conspiracists, for example, who often say something like “Scientists have not come up with an explanation for the XYZ sighting, therefore, it’s an alien intelligence piloting a ship to Earth to conduct alien anal probes on people driving pickup trucks on back roads.”
Regarding the propensity for some Scientologists to dive into the conspiracist mindset, Chris made several very interesting observations. He notes that “Scientology inculcates a kind of paranoia. Cult experts like Margaret Singer and others talk about the emergence of the ‘cult persona,’ an adopted personality that often has a narcissistic bent. But Scientology also inculcates paranoia. Scientology teaches that society is structured as a function of ‘implants’ with evil purpose. Society’s evolution is unnatural; it’s a synthetic trap created for the purpose of enslaving you.” In that circumstance, it’s pretty apparent to me that anyone would be questioning the motive of basically any social or governmental institution, which does indeed sound like paranoia.
In more recent times, Chris notes that The Matrix films resonated with Scientologists, because the movies are based on the idea that society is an illusion and is completely artificial. In Scientology’s case, the world around them is a fabrication built by multiple invader forces, Marcab, or Xenu, depending on how far up the “Bridge” one has progressed. In Chris’s case, he had not reached OT III, so he didn’t think in terms of Xenu, so he went with the seven Invader Forces that Hubbard spoke of. I would also talked in terms of observation stations in the solar system, including ones on Mars, they keep tabs on earth and control the flow of events in human history.
Chris noted that not all Scientologists are fervent conspiracy theory believers; some are more attuned to this than others. However, conspiracy-driven thinking may be more common in the Sea Org, because of a briefing used in the recruiting process, one that Chris delivered to a number of prospective members. This briefing is essentially one long conspiracy theory that is used to convince people that the planet is in mortal danger and that only they (and Scientology) have the “tech” to save it.
Chris notes that when he first got out of Scientology, he discovered that conspiracy media personality Alex Jones had a website called “Prison Planet.” Shelton said, “I immediately felt a kinship and interest in what this guy had to say, even before I had heard anything that he was talking about, just because of the similarity names, since Hubbard often talk about Teegeack as a prison planet.”
Although Hubbard’s conspiracy theories were fairly narrow in scope versus a lot of the nonsense making rounds today, Hubbard was very much aligned philosophically with fringe conspiracy theorists making the rounds today.
I asked Hana Whitfield, captain of the Apollo and longtime senior executive who spent extensive time with Hubbard about the connection. She shared a research piece she wrote several years ago which raises several very interesting points. Her point about conspiracy theorists being able to believe contradictory theories simultaneously is extremely interesting.
A conspiracy theory explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators. It relies on the premise that the universe is governed by design and includes three fundamental truths: nothing happens by accident; nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. Conspiracy theories are closed systems. And by their nature – being subjective beliefs – they are unfalsifiable and a matter of faith rather than proof.
It is clear that Xenu was Hubbard’s conspiracy theory and he desperately tried to make it fact by creating a worldwide institution of organizations, relay offices, continental liaison offices and even a whole bunch of ships and boats to take on the task of eliminating it. Miscavige took over that task, and we now await his ministrations to that end.
Scientology has all the earmarks of a conspiracy theory – the ultimate antagonist, Xenu; the obvious protagonist, Hubbard himself, and between them the vast cosmic battle of good versus evil.
Xenu’s evil goal was to capture dissidents and disposables in his far flung confederation of planets and remove them to the prison planet of earth. After imprisoning Xenu in that electronic mountain trap where he remain forever and taking a well deserved vacation after his arduous labors, Hubbard arrived on Planet Earth with hair on fire and brimming with the vim and vigor to erase Xenu’s implants and save the day.
It matters not whether a conspiracy enacts out in space or on planet earth: it is what it is.
Conspiracy theories appear to originate in the search for meaning.
A study published in 2012 found that conspiracy theorists frequently believe in multiple conspiracies, even when one conspiracy contradicts the other. For example, the study found that people who believe Osama Bin Laden was captured alive by Americans are also likely to believe that Bin Laden was actually killed prior to the 2011 raid on his home in Pakistan.
Hubbard certainly fits this study. He had multiple conspiracy theories – Xenu, The World Federation of Mental Health, SMERSH, the CIA, the FBI, and at in 1974 he even believed Sea Org members on board the Apollo were plotting his demise.
Seems that Hubbard adopted at least one of Xenu’s beliefs, that anyone below 2.0 on the tone scale should be disposed of quietly and without sorrow. It’s what Xenu did. And what Hubbard recommended in “Science of Survival.”
Birds of a feather?
Questions for Readers
- For ex’s, did you take Hubbard’s specific conspiracy theories (like “SMERSH”) at all seriously when you first encountered them? If not, what did you think of them at the time?
- If Hubbard’s theories changed the way you see the world, did you believe more in conspiracies when you were in Scientology than after you left? Or do you now believe more conspiracy theories?
- If you’re a conspiracy theorist, how do you determine whether a conspiracy theory is true? How do you determine whether to reject a given theory?
- What else am I missing in this analysis?
I welcome feedback in the comments section. If we’re able to move to some sort of consensus, I’ll publish a summary of what we figure out together at some point down the road. Thanks in advance for your thoughts.