I recently watched the documentary My Scientology Movie which was interesting, strange and disturbing in equal measures. Louis Theroux (the filmmaker) with his disarming British charm attempts to unearth some of the mystery that surrounds the religion of Scientology. Afterwards, I found myself thinking about how seemingly normal and intelligent people find themselves flipping their behaviour in the name of their religion. It led me to think about how we’re all willing to do strange or damaging things in service of an idea.
The ex-Scientologists in the documentary explained how they truly believed that they were part of a mission for the betterment for all humankind. Yet they gave accounts of how they accepted an environment of harassment, financial pressure, sinister group obedience and alleged physical mistreatment going all the way up to the head of the religion. As Scientologists at the time, they accepted these things with wholehearted conviction despite the contradiction to their overall goal of protecting and saving humanity.
More revealing were examples of how existing members of the religion behaved towards the ex-Scientologists as well as the documentary makers. They refused any interviews and then proceeded to use their alleged Scientology training to bully, harass, discredit and disturb those taking part in the documentary. Examples include: following the ex-Scientologists and Louis around town in black vehicles and turning up with a cameraman and filming their every move. This is odd behaviour but the intensity and vigour in which they proceeded to menace them verbally was just bizarre and disturbing. Why?
Because this was being done with earnest sincerity; they really believed in what they were doing. These Scientologists beliefs made them feel justified in their behaviour. The ideas accepted by them gave them the power to override common human behaviours like courtesy, respect, kindness and civility. They felt empowered to shout, scream, harass and discredit (even those ex-Scientologists that were once part of their tribe) because of the religious ideas that have turned into beliefs over time and finally into character traits and behaviour.
It’s easy for us to view Scientolgists and the behaviour demonstrated in this documentary as cultist, fanatical or simply crazy but let’s look at how we’re all affected by the power of religious ideas…
Islam is a religion of peace yet some Muslims have committed atrocious acts that surpass even war. It seems the idea of a better life after this one empowers this behaviour.
Christians believe in loving thy neighbour, yet some are willing to tell children that they will burn in hell for all eternity if they do not follow a prescribed ritual or ceremony. It seems the idea of saving souls overrides the security and love we would normally provide to our children.
Ideas are powerful and too often they are used by those with agendas (religious, political, financial, personal) to indoctrinate and brainwash. They are also however, able to stop wars, topple evil regimes and create positive change.
We all do irrational, strange, bizarre and perhaps disturbing things if viewed by an independent observer, perhaps a being from another planet? Whether it’s ideas implanted during childhood or ideas adopted ourselves from our closest sources, we all have quirks that cause us to behave like those that we might criticise, judge or ridicule under different contexts. It may be superstitions, rituals, clothing, self-mutilation, holding power over others, prejudice, hate…the list goes on.
We are all filled with ideas that do not stand up if viewed objectively by ourselves (self criticism tends to lead to change, others criticism hurts our ego and we find it difficult to hear). We should be willing to re-evaluate the ideas we have accepted in our lives over time. The brave are able to evoke the power of ideas to find ones that do align with a better version of themselves.
Be warned though, it takes courage and a willingness to confront uneasy truths about ourselves. In the end, remember, ideas only hold power over us if we let them.