This week’s New Yorker has a lengthy (but fascinating) article on Scientology which has set the Internet abuzz. It’s worth a read; what I found particularly interesting was not the absurd theology, but the oppressive and secretive institution which has developed around the nascent “religion.”
Every major religion operates according to a theology that is, rationally, laughable: whether it’s a bearded man in the sky, choirs of angels, burning bushes, reincarnation, elephant deities — the details are irrelevant to the fact that these have no logical basis whatsoever. But religions are more than just foundational mythologies; they are human institutions. Those who focus on the improbability of a faith whose creation story centers around an alien lord named Xenu overlook the fact that a compelling narrative wrapped around a few simple truths about humanity can inspire even the most intelligent among us to indulge in the fantastical. No, the real issue in Scientology has little to do with text and everything to do with the religion as an institution (which is under federal investigation for human trafficking). To think otherwise is to make the same mistake as those who find it necessary to denounce the Koran in order to denounce Islamic terrorism: a story is just a story, and ideas are just ideas, until a power structure is built to uphold those ideas at any cost. Although religion is a potent source material for this stuff, fables of national identity, natural law, or a whole host of other mythologies can fuel this same drive. Americans are just as guilty of this as anyone, and not just the Scientologists.
The common thread amongst any oppressive power — Scientology, the Spanish Inquisition, Hosni Mubarak — is a lack of humor. My mother constantly questions why I do comedy, why I don’t take seriously the sacred things in life, but it’s precisely for this reason: to resign the definition of the sacred to institutional authority is, plainly, to resign oneself to oppression. I find great beauty throughout the world, but that beauty is a sacredness which I have discovered, not one which I have received. I realize this is a uniquely contemporary Western philosophy, but life’s too short to be in thrall to myths, power, or their too-common combination; laughter is easier to share than secrets or harsh judgement, and so much more necessary.