The Appeal of Scientology and an Atheist Church

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 12, 2009 in Scientology

This weekend I visited two gatherings of Toastmasters, an organization of local small groups that help you learn and practice the skill of public speaking. Yesterday I visited the Freethinker Toastmasters held at the Center For Inquiry West. The group was small, cramped, amateur, and completely disorganized. Not good.

scientologyThen, this morning, I went to the Scientology Toastmasters at the Celebrity Centre in Hollywood. They were awesome. Organized, professional, funny, warm, personal, and skilled. They had a lighted stage, great seating, a video camera, and a projector for PowerPoint. The feedback given on each speech was supportive, useful, and detailed. As I later learned, it’s one of the top 5 Toastmasters groups in the world, and I believe it. One of their members recently won the top worldwide Toastmasters competition for Best Speaker.

The Scientologists were all very genuine, loving, fun, and positive people. Since you cannot become a member of their Toastmasters club unless you have taken a Scientology class, I asked a woman to introduce me to the religion.

She talked about how Scientology had transformed her life. She was a battered child, unsuccessful and shy. Scientology gave her the tools she needed to overcome her abuse, and she is now confident and successful in two art careers! She spoke of Scientology as a pragmatic way of life, and she said I could remain a Christian or an atheist or whatever and still apply the tools I learn from Scientology.

Let me tell you, I understand why Scientology is attractive to so many people! Scientology uses the same tactics as domestic evangelical Christianity. Their churches offer self-help programs on sobriety, relationships, business success, public speaking, comedy, and more. They offer a warm and accepting community. There are lots of cute young women walking around. The Celebrity Centre, in particular, is a pleasant place to spend your day. It’s basically a fairy tale castle surrounded by trees, gardens, fountains, a cafe, and even a basketball court.

The advice of Scientology is different than Christian advice, though. It’s more inclusive. It doesn’t say: accept Jesus or else you burn in hell in the afterlife. No, Scientology says: learn the skills to improve yourself, and then you can improve this world. Christianity says to solve your problems by praying to Jesus and by offering up your problems to God (instead of taking personal responsibility for them). Scientology says: collect more data (!!), and solve easier problems in the same area first. Damn sensible, if you ask me! Where Christianity sees suffering and poverty as ideal, Scientology encourages you to build wealth: money is an “energy” for good in the world.

Of course, there was lots of hocus pocus, too. Christianity talks about God and sin and resurrection and atonement and prayer and magical crackers. Scientology talks about our alien souls, the spiritual tone scale, and cleansing drugs and radiation from your body by taking a purifying sauna session.

e-meterAnd the E-meter. The woman giving a tour of the Celebrity Centre had me hold two metal cylinders attached to the E-meter. Then she pinched me. The meter didn’t move. She pinched me harder. It didn’t move. So she pinched me harder. No movement. She kept adjusting the knobs and saying she didn’t know why it wasn’t working. Turning one of the knobs made the meter super sensitive, so it would jump back and forth at the slightest breath. She said she had to “adjust it” to my “level.” But it still didn’t move when she pinched me, so she said it must be broken. But then when it jiggled a little bit she said, “You see! That’s you remembered the pain of the pinch.” But then later she again said it was broken, so… I guess the jiggle didn’t mean anything? She kept saying, “Don’t worry, that doesn’t say anything about you. It’s the machine; it’s broken.”

I wanted to say, “Oh, trust me: I know it doesn’t say anything about me!” :)

So, yeah. At the higher levels of the religion there’s corruption, conspiracy, criminality, intimidation, and violence. But hey, that’s true of Christianity and Islam, too. (Jainism, strangely, seems to avoid all this.)

But at the level of the Scientology community, it’s just people helping people become happier and more successful, with some superstition mixed in but not as much repression as in Christianity. Maybe my opinion will change, though, because I’m going back. They have a great Toastmasters, so I’ll probably take one of their introductory Scientology classes to get in.

My visit to the Celebrity Centre made me wonder: why can’t we just create an Atheist Church? It would be a warm, friendly, welcoming, pleasant place to go. We’d have all sorts of programs for how to solve certain problems with the latest techniques advocated by scientific data (cognitive behavioral therapy, personal finance skills, business skills, dating skills, public speaking skills, etc.). We wouldn’t require any beliefs or creeds – it would just be a place to come to improve yourself and one’s community with the techniques that have proven to be most effective, and to enjoy the company of like-minded people. Something like the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture or the North Texas Church of Freethought.

Why not?

Seriously, why not?

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Ryan April 12, 2009 at 2:02 pm

I think that atheist churches exist in some regions. The major issue is that in order to create organizations, you have to have an explicit social ideology and a common culture so that way you do have like-minded people who are motivated to maintain the group.

The issue is that explicit social ideologies are hard to assert for a group of free-thinkers, and cultural commonalities are less common for a group of people unified by a rejection of creeds. I mean, how do you create something big and purposive, with deep emotional ties as a matter of contrivance? I can’t imagine too many rationality hymns, or people who would want to sing them as a sign of community, but I could be wrong.

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Shane April 12, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Funny, I had been thinking about that today. “Church of Jesus Christ, Atheist” has a nice ring, and we could develop a specific “Christianity Compatibility Layer” to allow atheists to get involved in churches, without having to either be hypocrites, or amputate their brains. Sort of like running Windows programs under Linux. Just a thought – possibly a very silly one…

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Teleprompter April 12, 2009 at 2:13 pm

A lot of freethinkers whom I have met really dislike ritual or even the social aspects that such a group would entail.  Then others would be afraid of outside criticism – “you’re too much like a religion”, “this proves you need religion”, etc.

Personally, I think it’s an awesome idea.  I like the idea of having a community, though it would be difficult to say what it would be about.  So it would probably make more sense if it were an “Ethical Community” or a “Humanist Community” than an “Atheist or Skeptical Community”, since those things really don’t tell you anything except for a stance on religious issues. 

Have you seen this article by Dale McGowan? 

http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=1957

It’s super-relevant to this discussion, and has lots of great ideas for how a successful free-thought community should operate.

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lukeprog April 12, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Nice, Teleprompter! I’ve added a link to that in my post, now.

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TX CHL Instructor April 12, 2009 at 4:16 pm

See http://churchoffreethought.org/ — it is an atheist church that has been around for 15 years in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.  I’ve been a member for nearly 10 of those years.

Oh, and the State of Texas recently (and VERY reluctantly) was legally forced to recognize us as a REAL CHURCH!

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Jeff H April 12, 2009 at 6:06 pm

I can see the appeal of such an idea, but my question is why someone would want to unite under the idea of something they DON’T believe in. Why not just join a social club? Or a knitting club? Or a book club? Or whatever you’re interested in – such places will still give you the sense of community, but religion never needs to be brought up in the first place.

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lukeprog April 12, 2009 at 6:06 pm

That’s great, TX CHL Instructor. I had to add that link to my post, too. :)

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Teleprompter April 12, 2009 at 6:30 pm

Jeff H,

I suppose you may have a point…but I recommended that any such group be an Ethical or a Humanist group rather than an Atheist group so that your very quandary would be avoided, so that it would be something positive rather than something negative.
Sure, a knitting group could serve a few positive purposes.  But that’s not a community.  That seems to be the important variable here.  Is there some place which will allow people who happen to be non-religious to come together as a community and celebrate shared positive values? It’s definitely a matter of personal preference, but that is how I would frame the discussion.

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Avdi April 12, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Without ritual, you’re describing a social club.  Granted, pure social clubs are on the wane these days.  All the more reason to start a new one!

I’m curious if you’ve ever been to a Unitarian Universalist service.  They are extremely ecumenical and welcome atheists and agnostics (along with Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, etc…).  I’m pretty sure they don’t have a “core” belief system.  They are mainly about celebrating shared positive values, as you described.  But as a long-established church they have some of the tradition and evolved ritual that a pure social club lacks.

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Shane April 12, 2009 at 10:59 pm

JeffH, you’ve got a point, but that was what the article about the scientologists was questioning. It’s getting to the core of what makes these groups successful – they are bringing things that are relevant to people’s lives, and enhancing at many different levels (not just the cerebral). Of course, scientology is a crock of, but it perhaps shows how things can be done. Churches have been doing this for years, and I would suggest that it often really *does* enhance people’s lives. I love the idea of a Church of Free Thought. Go Texas!

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Walter April 13, 2009 at 4:34 am

As Advi already pointed out: A Unitarian Universalist Church pretty much is an atheist church. ;-)

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Reginald Selkirk April 13, 2009 at 5:22 am

Avdi: I’m curious if you’ve ever been to a Unitarian Universalist service…

Avdi is correct, the Unitarian Universailists do not have doctrine. The constituency varies from church to church, but certainly nonbelievers are not excluded. There is a long-standing joke that Unitarians are “atheists with children.”

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Reginald Selkirk April 13, 2009 at 5:23 am

Shane: “Church of Jesus Christ, Atheist”

That makes as much sense as “Church of Christ, Scientist.”

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Jeff H April 13, 2009 at 5:34 am

Alright, I see your point, Teleprompter. I think I somehow missed your comment the first time around.

I tried going to a Unitarian church a while back, when I was still “on my way out,” so to speak. It was weird. They had very un-spiritual hymns and read poetry. They read a shortened version of the Wizard of Oz to the kids – the whole thing just seemed really odd. I just don’t think my “spirituality” works that way. But mind you, they had a few people come up and speak about their spiritual journeys, and it was really interesting. Had a former Catholic and an atheist speak, which I found odd, but refreshing. Something about hearing an atheist speak in a church just made the whole thing kind of amusing :D

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lukeprog April 13, 2009 at 7:19 am

Lol! “Atheists with children!”

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Shane April 13, 2009 at 8:09 am

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of an atheist church as well.  I really used to enjoy, and I know a lot of christians enjoy the community of a church.  I feel like we as atheists would really benefit from it as well.  It would also make it a lot easier to get together behind charities, or organize our own.

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TX CHL Instructor April 13, 2009 at 11:45 am

Jeff H: I can see the appeal of such an idea, but my question is why someone would want to unite under the idea of something they DON’T believe in. Why not just join a social club? Or a knitting club? Or a book club? Or whatever you’re interested in – such places will still give you the sense of community, but religion never needs to be brought up in the first place.

NTCOF is more than a “social club”. It is organized to meet the needs of its members in much the same way as other churches meet the needs of theirs. And it’s more than just ‘community’. It’s a safe place to discuss things like religion with like-minded freethinkers. We have a couple who met there and got married. We have social activities and outreach programs without the superstition.

We recently had a memorial service for the son of a freethinker, which was quite touching, and fulfilled the need for that rite of passage. Again, without the superstition.

Now, if you are not interested in joining such a group, that’s fine. We don’t proselytize; we are simply looking for folks who are like-minded who want to join us.

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tinyfrog April 14, 2009 at 12:13 am

Actually, what you’re describing sounds kind of like the “Landmark Forum”.  A friend of mine took a couple classes with them – it’s all about getting what you want out of life.  It costs some money, though.  I don’t think there’s any religious affiliation, although, some people describe it as being kind of “cultlike”.  I tend to think of them as being more like Amway.

she said I could remain a Christian or an atheist or whatever and still apply the tools I learn from Scientology.
I think the woman saying that is either ignorant about scientology or disingenuous.  Apparently, one of the teachings of scientology (that you don’t learn for a while) is that all the world religions are fictions created by Xenu to confuse the thetans.  If you believe in a religion, then you’re being confused by the false memories of your thetans.

Last summer, I took an e-meter test.  The guy could barely get the meter to move for me, too.  He tried adjusting it to make it more senstive.  He eventually concluded that I must already be very advanced (in my serenity) and that the church of scientology were very interested in people like me – imagine how far I could go in scientology if I was already this developed.

At the higher levels of the religion there’s corruption, conspiracy, criminality, intimidation, and violence. But hey, that’s true of Christianity and Islam, too.
Based on what I’ve seen in scientology, it’s worse than what I’ve seen in Christianity and Islam.  Some of the stories I’ve heard from ex-members are actually really nasty.  A friend of mine said her aunt got involved in scientology, and when her aunt fell ill with bacterial meningitis, she stopped going to regular classes (which cost a fortune, naturally).  The scientologists got really nasty with her and essentially exiled her, telling her that she could never come back.  They apparently get really nasty with people trying to leave the “church”.  In that sense, I think they are like a drug – they’re all nice and pleasant up-front (like that first high), but then if you try to stop, you get the “withdrawl” symptoms – the nasty stuff that will only stop if you go back to the drug / go back to scientology.

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lukeprog April 14, 2009 at 12:41 am

tinyfrog,

Interesting. Well, I will let you know what my own experience is. :)

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Shane April 14, 2009 at 10:45 am

Oops – there may be >1 Shanes on this thread! Actually, I think there is a real need to help the many atheists and agnostics, humanists and freethinkers who feel very alone – as if they are the only one – inside their own churches. They often feel trapped – they know they don’t believe all that guff, but they are unable (maybe unwilling) to leave what may be a very supportive, if nutty as a squirrel’s fart, church community. So they stay quiet and suffer in silence.
What I would like to see would be a way to support and affirm atheists in that position, and maybe even see churches themselves break off from a “belief” stem and join the freethinking stream. I’d like to make that easier – develop a Christianity Compatibility Layer for atheists, just like Linux has a Windows Compatibility Layer for recovering Microsoft users ;-)

OK, it’s hugely experimental, and I don’t have masses of time to give to it, but have a look at http://churchofjesuschristatheist.blogspot.com – feel free to leave any comments or rip the heck out of it if it’s a *really really rubbish* idea (I take the criticism of the Jesus Christ Scientist notion – fair dues).

-S (the real one ;-)

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Lorkas April 21, 2009 at 7:39 am

I’m still waiting for the Church of Live Jazz.

I would go there every other Sunday (the other Sundays are over at the Church of Great Films).

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lukeprog April 21, 2009 at 11:17 am

Lorkas: I’m still waiting for the Church of Live Jazz.

No kidding! I would so hang out there all the time.

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Ajay July 6, 2009 at 2:49 am

I find scientology unbelievably ridiculous especially since it is a religion which was born in the last 100 years.
 
I have a strong feeling that perhaps this guy Hubbard and some of his friends maybe just invented this to mock religion (just like the flying sphagetti monster) and are just playing along for a long time until they died without admitting the hoax.
 
Do you think there is evidence to think that this is just a prank?

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lukeprog July 6, 2009 at 7:31 am

Ajay,

There is some evidence that Hubbard invented Scientology just to make money, yes. See here.

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Timothy Mills March 19, 2010 at 6:48 am

I agree that the Unitarians are a close approximation of an atheist church. However, their commitment to accepting all spiritual paths means they are less ready to criticize nonsense when it rears its head.

My family and I go to a Unitarian church – and I confess that it is at least partly due to the kids (without them, we would be able to go to the weekday evening humanist meetups). It’s a valuable experience, for the kids as well as for us. But I do find myself wishing for a kid-accessible community that was just a little more in tune with my beliefs and ideals. (Specifically, a bit more skeptical.)

Honestly, though, I don’t know if a more atheistic church would be a good thing (because I’d feel more comfortable) or a bad thing (because I’d be less exposed to different perspectives).

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Deaconess Barb June 18, 2010 at 1:01 pm

The Scientology Church sounds like a self help clinic that is geared to lifting ones spirit. Nevertheless, I’m sure that Christ is not the Groom of that church, though He is the universal and the originator of all things that the Scientology Church has access to. It is terrible the way man will destroy man in the name sake of man. I’m am glad that their are Christian Churches out there to warn others about the false churches being climaxed in this very difficult world view we have of ones self. The mystery of Christ that indwells in people must be to hard a concept to understand until people become fully mature in Him. I would place my life on Christ before I would any man.

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