Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Scientology: misappropriated Stoicism

The Church of Scientology claims to be a "philosophical religion." Critics have called it a cult. A famous 1991 Time Magazine article on Scientology by Richard Behar, The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power, was awarded the Gerald Loeb Award for distinguished business and financial journalism, the Worth Bingham Prize and the Conscience in Media Awards from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. [1] In more recent times religion critic Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, has used the word “gullibiligy” in describing Scientology. [2] Its claims he said are "purely made-up." Dawkins’ word gullibiligy has not yet made it into the standard Oxford dictionary, but the meaning seems to refer to a practice that is inimical to reason. While I certainly side with Dawkins on the gullibiligy front, I cannot agree that Scientology’s core philosophy is "purely made up." In fact, the "philosophy" at the core of Scientology is not fabricated. It’s very old - and there’s nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of tried and true philosophical ideas floating about in world culture. Many of the great ideas that lay at the root of modern institutions are built on successful philosophical platforms.

My problem with scientology’s philosophical basis is that this "Church" does not acknowledge its sources. This is intellectually dishonest. As I will argue below the philosophical basis of scientology is based on the ancient philosophy of Stoicism with several unsubstantiated detours. Scientology is not a philosophical religion. Scientology is a distortion of Stoicism.

I just finished writing a book, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained. [3] This book has absolutely nothing to do with Scientology. It has everything to do with the ancient practice of Stoicism, an intellectually defensible philosophy with roots in the best of the great Greek philosophers beginning with Socrates and Plato right on down to the Romans Seneca and Epictetus, and of course the emperor Marcus Aurelius who captured the best of Stoic thought in his famous Meditations. Because those original meditations are presented in no particular order, there is no obvious philosophical coherence in their presentation. So, I've reordered (and rewritten) the key passages as a handbook on Stoicism. In doing this the reader will discover that Stoicism rests firmly on the bedrock of reason.

The Stoic argument is centered on the notion that morality comes not from divine authority, or faith, or "revelation," but from a close study of nature - a study that makes strong demands on reason. Three principles of Stoicism come from this study of nature: first, we as human beings are social; second, our core humanity resides not in our physical bodies but in our psyche or mind (or soul or "spirit"); and third, the psyche is distilled from what stoics call the active principle of the universe, an intelligence that is all pervasive, perfect, and inherently good and beautiful. [3, p 234] This last principle implies that the human psyche is effectively "invincible" when we live according to nature. The active aspect of nature is called Logos. Stoics live well when their activities are directed away from the self and outwardly, toward others. Stoics describe these activities using the word "virtue." Virtuous activity is what life is all about, and it is virtue that makes us happy. There’s much more of course, but this is the core idea.

I was surprised a few months after sending this book off to the publisher when I stumbled upon a Scientology website. [4] What I discovered was a distorted version of Stoic philosophy. Here are my top ten reasons for this conclusion:

10. It was the etymology of the word "scientology" that grabbed my interest. [4] This compound word is derived from the Latin sciare (to know) and the Greek Logos (reason or truth) Scientology means "knowing reason." But "knowing reason" is what Stoicism is all about. [3, p xx]

9. Scientology maintains that "human capabilities are unlimited, even if not currently realized." [4] This clearly has its origin in the "invincibility" principle of Stoicism. [3, p xxxii]

8. Elsewhere I read that, “Scientology holds man to be basically good, and that his spiritual salvation depends upon himself and his fellows and his attainment of brotherhood with the universe.” [4] This idea is based almost literally on the social principle of Stoicism: that humans are social because we are all connected through and derived from Logos (also referred to in Stoicism as universal intelligence) and that Logos is good. [3, p xxix]

7. Scientologists assert that their creed "is not taken on faith." [4] In other words scientology maintains, just as Stoicism did, that it is reason, not faith, that drives the search for truth. [3, p xxvi]

6. Also central to this "religion" is the position that "thinking for yourself" is essential. [4] But it was the Stoics who first maintained that "right thinking (opinion)" was one of three powers (along with desire and action) that are solely independent of external interference. [3, p 12-13]

5. Scientology also maintains that a lack of knowledge and awareness about the self, or lack of "clarity," leads to "unhappiness." [4] For Stoics "unhappiness" comes from living in opposition to nature (because it is through nature we come to truly know ourselves using reason). [3, p 132]

4. The practice of Scientology involves a process of "clearing." Practitioners describe clearing as the removal of "harmful three-dimensional sensory images, or engrams, from the mind." [4] Stoics do the same thing. But what a Stoic clears from the mind is not an engram but "ignorance," and that's done by developing what Stoics call "true opinion." There's nothing secretive or mystical about this form of Stoic clearing. It's called "meditation." [3, p 172/3]

3. There’s more. Influenced by the principles of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the substance abuse program called Narconon (not associated with Narcotics Anonymous (NA), or is it related to Nar-Anon) was founded by William Benitez, in 1966. [5] The famous Serenity prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous (which is recited in all AA meeting) reflects a strong Stoic influence. [3, p 190/1]

2. Scientology uses a process called "auditing" which is designed to rid one's soul of traumatic experiences. But auditing in Stoicism (although that word is not used) involves what stoics would call removing false opinion.

1. The process Scientology calls "Dianetics" is a methodology designed to alleviate unwanted sensations and emotions and irrational fears. [4] This seems essentially the same result that is at the base of the Stoic mind-set and responsible for the popular image of the Stoic as detached, unemotional and indifferent to pain. [3, p 203]

Of course there are striking differences between the philosophy of Stoicism and the “philosophical religion” of Scientology. The most obvious difference is the cost of entry. Stoicism is free (unless you count the cost of a book). Stoicism is also completely open. There are no “secrets.” Stoicism is also atheistic. There is no transcendent God (the divine in Stoicism is in nature) and there are no churches. Stoicism is also egalitarian and cosmopolitan and non-hierarchical. Stoicism encourages, in fact demands, free and open and fair democratic debate. A Stoic will never launch a law suit over a philosophical difference or engage in barratry, the practice of bringing repeated legal actions solely to harass. Stoics have nothing to lose. There is also no afterlife in Stoicism: no heaven, no hell, and certainly no reincarnation – and most importantly, there are no mythologies, no aliens, and no galactic fantasies.

Stoicism is not a religion. It is a philosophical orientation with spiritual consequences. The Stoic approach to living is not contingent on the belief in a God. Stoicism offers happiness without God, joy without heaven and love without religion. Stoicism is a natural philosophy rooted firmly in critical thinking and reason - and reason is rooted firmly in the laws of nature and physics as understood in the ancient world. The qualitative aspects of those laws, particularly the laws of thermodynamics and Stoic cosmology, retain their validity today. The methods of Stoicism can be applied to address personal, political, and environmental challenges of the 21st century. Genuine happiness in Stoic terms does not stem from reputation, material success, the pursuit of physical pleasures, or the avoidance of pain. Stoics do not need E-meters, Dianetics, auditing, or clearing to address the practical challenges of today's world. A Stoic can approach such challenges using her own capacity for right reason to develop innovative approaches toward war, climate change, mental health (anxiety and depression), anger management, aging, illness, death, and addiction (sexual, drug and alcohol).

[1] The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power. Time Magazine. May 6, 1991 page 50. Special Report (cover story)

[2] Scientology. Wikipedia. Retrieved on Jan 19, 2008

[3] McNeil, Russell. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained. Skylight Paths Publishing Oct 2007

[4] Church of Scientology Official Web Site. Retrieved on Jan 19, 2008

[5] Narconon Web Site. Retrieved Jan 19, 2008


Ryann said...

great post Russell.

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resac said...

You may well be correct about Stoicism being an underlying principle of the Scientology philosophy, but I rather think that what Dawkins was referring to when he used the very apposite term gullibiligy, was the absurd cosmogony of the sect first thought up by the second rate SF author who founded the movement, and so marvellously expounded in the South Park 'Trapped in the Closet' episode.