Cthulhu’s Tea Party

It was in the eldritch-sounding Oshkosh that I first came across H. P. Lovecraft. The web was still somewhat of a novelty then, and I’d run across a Dagon symbol that I couldn’t identify. My researches led me to the old gods of Lovecraft’s atheistic imagination. Even non-believers are haunted, it seems, by deities. Dagon, about whom I’d published an academic paper, always seemed to be a divinity to whom very few paid attention. Little did I know that in popular culture this god, along with others made up by Lovecraft, were slowly gathering an immense following. Now, about a decade later, Cthulhu is everywhere. I was reminded of this when I came across a website advertising Cthulhu tea cups. As you drink your tea, Cthulhu emerges. These novelty items, along with many, many others, are easily found. Cthulhu is running for president. The creature that Lovecraft described with such terror is now available in a cute, stuffed plush. Board and card games come in Cthulhu varieties.

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What I find so interesting about this is that the following of Cthulhu has taken on religious dimensions. Not that writers haven’t invented religions before—L. Ron Hubbard came up with Scientology after a career of science fiction writing, and Jediism is considered a religion by some—but Cthulhu represents the darker aspects of religious thought. As Lovecraft described him, he is a horror. Not the kind of thing you’d want to discover peering out of your teacup. I wonder if this is precisely why the fictional god has become so incredibly popular. In a time when some real presidential candidates are really scary, suggesting that an evil deity take on the job may only be natural. Cthulhu is, after all, really more an alien than a god, but to puny humans the point is moot.

Mainstream religion is not about to disappear any time soon. There is, believe it or not, a strong resistance to the materialistic reductionism that presses in on us from all sides. People are not becoming less religious—they’re becoming differently religious. The old sacred texts are being replaced by the fictional Necronomicon. Ethereal beings that have always been there are bowing before ancient aliens who aren’t really eternal or omnipotent, but who feel more real in our culture of might makes right. Whether a religion is factual or fictional has come to matter less than the feeling that there is something, anything, larger than humanity that demonstrates the vanity of our striving after material gain. That actually sounds quite biblical. Anything believed with adequate passion stands a chance, it seems, of becoming a religion.

Latter-Day Battlestars

Science fiction, when I was a child, constituted my fantasy life. I read such science fiction books as were available to a kid in a small town with no actual bookstore, and I watched what I could on a television with three or four channels. Star Trek and Twilight Zone were staples. As I got to high school there were more offerings, and one that I remember particularly liking was Battlestar Galactica. I was disappointed when the show ran only a few months. Something about looking for a home, being a scrappy, rag-tag fleet fighting against the odds appealed to me. Although I grew away from sci-fi as I went to college and studied more “serious” subjects, I never completely abandoned it. So the other day when I had reason to use the word “cylon” in something I was writing, I decided to do a little reading about the original series. I never did watch the reboot, as I was far too busy for television by then.

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I was surprised to learn that the original 1978 series was an exploration of Mormon theology. The show’s creator, Glen A. Larson, was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and, not surprisingly, used his fiction to promote his religious ideals. After all, Orson Scott Card, of Ender’s Game fame, is also a Mormon and elements of its theology come through in his work. As a child I didn’t watch television for religion, but rather as form of escape. I wouldn’t have guessed, however, that I was escaping to Mormon theology. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a bit more shy about telling outsiders its theology than many Christian bodies are. Mainstream Christianity, after all, is one of the main ingredients in our cultural soup. Any Methodist will be happy to tell you Wesley’s theology, if they happen to know it.

I haven’t watched television for over two decades. Very select shows we’ll watch on DVD, being the old-fashioned sort, but I missed the reincarnation of Battlestar Galactica in 2004. I’ve always had a soft spot for the originals when it comes to sci fi. The original Star Trek, the original Star Wars, and even that sleepy and terribly dated Space 1999. I suppose as a working-class child looking for an escape these shows had a kind of religious message. Although my religion taught a conventional Heaven and Hell, I wondered what was out there beyond even that, since the tri-partite universe was basically earth-bound. And science fiction offered to lead me to other worlds where things might be better. On the Enterprise we might whizz past the Galactica and wave, even if it was piloted by Mormons in space. And L. Ron Hubbard was known to me only as a writer of science fiction rather than the creator of a new religion.

New Faiths

Scientology is never far from controversy. In the light of the new HBO documentary on Scientology by Alex Gibney (with New Jersey roots) the Star-Ledger ran a Sunday piece about the Jersey origins of the religion. L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics while living in the state. The article, by Vicki Hyman, points out that the current head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, grew up in the Garden State. John Travolta and Tom Cruise are also New Jersey sons. Living in a religiously diverse state has tempered my perspective on New Religious Movements somewhat. That applies to Scientology as well.

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Many critics claim that Scientology began as a scam. There are those who claim that it still is. It seems clear, however, that there are many people who believe in it with all sincerity. No religion is free from episodes of abuse or poor judgment. Thus it is with human institutions. No universally accepted definition of religion exists, making categorizations difficult. What members of Scientology do, in as far as this is known, sounds very much like what other religions ask of their members. Oddness of belief is hardly unique to any religion. All ask for contributions from their members. Religions offer a community for those who belong, and many are strongly hierarchical. Even should a founder have had less than pure motives, that doesn’t translate to any less verisimilitude on the part of the faithful. Some viable religions have been based on known fictions.

Ironically, a common response to religions is anger on the part of unbelievers. (If we are believers of one religion we are, by default, unbelievers of others.) A friend of mine recently mentioned Heaven’s Gate on his blog. Although the outcome was tragic, can we say that those who followed Marshall Applewhite appear to have been true believers. Fear of Scientology may largely be based on the horrific outcomes of Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians in Waco, and the People’s Temple in Jonestown. Religions can lead to people doing strange things. And those of us who live in New Jersey know that is indeed saying something.

Clearly Religion

GoingClear“There is no point in questioning Scientology’s standing as a religion; in the United States, the only opinion that really counts is that of the IRS;” so Lawrence Wright partially concludes Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. This is an important book, and one which once again demonstrates how seriously religions should be taken. New religious movements offer a ringside seat to how orthodoxies are born. Facts may be distorted or covered up, but there is information to be had on L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, and Mary Baker Eddy. We can learn from the way their ideas may move from fiction to fact, and how intelligent people still feeling spiritual yearning can turn to a religion invented recently as well as those invented millennia ago. As Wright points out, all religions make improbable claims. Fact-checking, however, is much more difficult for periods long gone that left only meager records. The distance in time may lend ancient assertions the benefit of the doubt, but the real decision-maker is money.

Given universities’ interests in lucre, one might logically conclude that religions would be of great interest. It is telling that, especially in the case of Scientology, that the factor most important to the status of the church is its money. Religions may claim tax-exempt status, setting them apart from purely commercial enterprises. This gives religions an advantage when they are careful with their finances, and the whole question of whether a religion is a religion is not left to scholars but to the lawyers of the Internal Revenue Service. The truth of religion lies in its bank-books, not its holy books. No doubt in the case of Scientology this is because of the high-profile court cases in which the status of the religion was challenged by government agencies. Nevertheless, when it comes to the laying down of the law, only money really matters in defining a religion.

As Wright discusses, one of the problems we face is that religion is poorly defined. Nobody can really assert much beyond that religions involve belief of some kind. Beliefs, in this case, about L. Ron Hubbard and his ideas. Although facts about his life are disputed, there can be no doubt that Hubbard was an intriguing man. He was a prolific writer with great imagination, and he clearly had keen insight into psychology. A religion used to be measured by the good it produced. Now it is measured by the dollars. As Going Clear illustrates, trying to construct an unbiased account of Scientology is a fraught enterprise. Like many modern religions, Scientology is very secretive. Even the early Christians knew that if everybody could join, then the club loses its appeal. Apart from belief, religions also must have outsiders and well as insiders. In a world measured by consumerism, wealth is the surest sign of blessing. No one should be at all surprised, therefore, that it takes the IRS to decide that which used to be taken by faith alone.

Mr. Hubbard’s Legacy

churchofscientology As a child just discovering the joys of reading in the early 1970s, I found science fiction captivating. We were poor, and our town had no library, so I’d buy my books on Saturday trips to Goodwill. In other words, you take what you can get. I recall buying a book by a guy named L. Ron Hubbard. I don’t remember the title or the story, but I recall my surprise when, as a religion major some years later, I learned that this same sci-fi author had started a new religion. Scientology was not something you’d likely encounter in a poverty-stricken, sub-Appalachian town in rural Pennsylvania, and with no Internet it wasn’t so easy to learn about such things even if you had. We did have TV, though, and we watched Welcome Back Kotter (Risky Business was a little too risky). When I discovered that John Travolta (“Vinnie” as we thought of him) was a Scientologist, I was curious. But only to a degree. When I first taught World Religions and spent a few years researching the Scopes Trial for a book I never had the chance to write, I became very interested in American religions. They don’t come much more American than Scientology (and Latter-Day Saints).

As soon as Hugh B. Urban’s book The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion appeared, it immediately went onto my reading list. Like most interested laity, I’d found it difficult to trust much of what I’d read on the Church of Scientology from media sources. Now I had a reliable guide! Even better, Urban frames his study around a question that pervades this blog: who gets to decide what is a religion? As Urban deftly points out, it is odd that government agencies are often those tasked with a job more fitting for those of us who’ve studied religion with the rigor that a physicist devotes to quarks and neutrinos. Some of us have parsed religious texts to bare bones and then dug up the skeletons beneath and examined their ossified remains as well. The world doesn’t take religion studies too seriously, however.

Urban’s book, well written and solidly researched, maintains that rarest of academic feats: objectivity. When approaching a religion, particularly a controversial one, emotions are easily engaged and objectivity is challenged. While confessing that he isn’t a Scientologist, Urban lets the historical facts speak for themselves. He doesn’t try to belittle those he studies, but he doesn’t coddle either. Reading his fascinating account, many questions are raised about the rights of religions and the role that secrecy plays. And we know that Urban is only skating across the surface of a deep and mysterious pond here. Sitting in my room with a yellowed, used copy of some L. Ron Hubbard pulp fiction story in my hands, I would’ve never guessed, as a child, what I was really holding.

Risky Business

Scientology has been back in the news with the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Media pundits like to point out the highly unorthodox nature of Scientology, but such critiques overlook the vital nature of New Religious Movements. Many of us are raised believing that religions, to be “true,” must possess at least a modicum of antiquity. We routinely reject the science of the first century of the common era (well, maybe the Creationists don’t), but we accept without question that the religious views of the time were on-spot and unchanging. It comes as a surprise, therefore, when a new religion like Mormonism or Scientology prospers. Accusations of being money-driven are rife, but then, who has recently audited the Vatican or CBN? Religions are “non-profit” by definition, but they certainly do raise money. As players in the capitalist game, I say more power to them. Who else can make tremendous profits and claim tax-free status (apart from major corporations, I mean)? Most believers are happy to throw a few dollars in the direction of some guru who will deliver him or her from hell, at least.

The fact that true believers in revelation don’t like to face is that every religion started some place. It would be a different story were there only one religion that ever developed, but as soon as someone started to declare their belief orthodox it was only a matter of time before heterodoxy joined the conversation. In the light of this wide-open world of religious beliefs, I think that creativity has been undervalued all along. Say what they might, critics have to admit that Mormonism, Scientology, and even Jehovah’s Witnesses have to score high on the originality scale. Since Yahweh has a lot of competition in the deity market these days it will be difficult to find an adequate final arbiter.

I would like to suggest a panel of experts, like on the appropriately titled “American Idol.” Gods are often hard to pin down, even with email and Twitter and Facebook. To fill in our distinguished panel of judges, then, who might we choose? The clergy of any tradition, I’m afraid, will be biased and so we might look elsewhere. Politicians too should be excluded since their remit is exploitation. Besides, they don’t often recognize creativity as something worth funding. Where does that leave us? We can’t use the average person, because who is going to watch their peers on television. Famous people. An athlete would be a good choice since overthinking religions can lead to trouble. We might need to avoid Tebow, however. Hollywood is said to be godless, so an actor would have great appeal—besides, good looks must equate to good theology, mustn’t they? Who will our third panelist be? Probably a writer; they are creative and their names are well-known. They would add intellectual heft without having the same star status as their more visible colleagues. Funny, L. Ron Hubbard was a science fiction writer whose religion thrives in Hollywood and who enjoyed the sport of yachting. We may have our winner here!

Religion or science fiction?

Ender’s God

Some time ago a colleague recommended Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, ostensibly because the protagonist is named Ender Wiggin, a surname suspiciously close to my own. I have generally been a reader of literary fiction rather than science fiction, but I enjoy a jaunt into the genre now and then. Set in a distant future, Ender’s Game occasionally references how religion is permitted but frowned upon, in that day. Those naïve enough to accept such old beliefs are relegated a less honorable social status. So far, so good; this is common enough in futuristic stories. Then Orson Scott Card came onto my personal radar screen again. I gave my wife a novelty quote book with feminist sayings as a stocking stuffer. One of the sound bites was from Orson Scott Card, a rare male figure in this tiny book. Then my wife pointed me to religious predictions for 2011 on CNN’s Belief Blog. Once again, Orson Scott Card was present, here classified as a Mormon.

Such convergences are somewhat unexpected in a short space of time. The revelation of Card’s religious orientation was a kind of epiphany to me as well. Considering the contempt for religion in his fictional future, I was surprised to find a faithful author. Then I began to see Mormon theology throughout Ender’s Game. While not an expert in the Latter Day Saints, their belief system was included in several courses I took as a religion major in college. As I read of Ender’s progress through the novel, to the point where he achieves a limited apotheosis, I could see elements of Card’s belief system playing out. The protagonist becomes the deity-figure of his own planet. It was suddenly all very familiar.

I suppose that an entire literary discipline exists where the religious outlooks of authors are extrapolated from their writings. Deeply held values are difficult to mask, even in fiction. When I read for relaxation, however, I don’t look for such information. I must admit that my view of Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard’s fiction nevertheless forever changed when I learned of their belief systems. This is, I suppose, a danger of compartmentalized religion. As a youth I believed everyone should wear their religion on their sleeve. As an adult I know how divisive and dangerous this would be. Whether in the far distant future or in the right now, we take care to hide our religion. Not only does it keep us safe from those of other religions, but often also from those of our own flocks as well.