Gods in the brain: Old vs new religions

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 25, 2013 22:30 hrs

It is unwise to mock Scientology for its beliefs. The Church, sometimes called a cult and sometimes seen as the world's youngest religion, believes that a tyrannical overlord called Xenu imprisoned quasi-gods called Thetans and shipped them to the planet we now know as earth.

The aim of Scientology – set up by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, gifted at coming up with names like Xenu and Teegeeack – was to return us Thetans to our divine state as we progressed through various stages of enlightenment. 

This process is known as Going Clear, the title of Lawrence Wright's powerful book on Scientology. Despite the layperson's reaction to the idea of Xenu and frozen Thetans, there is little unusual about Scientology. 

If you can believe in a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and talking snakes, or in the idea that a lotus flower springing from a God's navel creates the Creator of the Universe, Xenu is as good an explanation as any for the human predicament.

The difference between studying old and new religions, though, is that it is easier to criticise, and examine, new belief systems. 

Scientology exercises, according to both Mr Wright and another author, Jenna Miscavige, enormous control over its members; has waged an internet battle for credibility; and is liberal with its lawsuits against critics. B

ut it is still a new faith; old religions often harden to the point where their beliefs cannot be questioned without threatened riots, wars and acts of sabotage carried out in the name of the defence of the faith.

Old religions are remarkably effective at discouraging any serious inquiry into their core beliefs; new religions have not yet reached the point where their beliefs become universal dogma. 

The Church of Scientology may not like it, but it's a young enough faith to be dissected and held up to the light.

Ms Miscavige grew up in the Church — her parents were high-ranking members of the Sea Org, the inner core of the Church, and her uncle, Dave Miscavige, now leads the organisation. Her life was spent at The Ranch, where children of Scientologists were trained into the tightly controlled ways of thinking of the Church. Ms Miscavige, who felt damaged by Scientology, left the Church and wrote about her experiences in Beyond Belief.  

Mr Wright, an outsider to the Church, has an interest in closed organisations, and in the workings of belief, loyalty, belonging and faith: examining Scientology came naturally to the man who'd investigated Al Qaeda. 

He was not out to expose Scientology; instead, he's genuinely curious about what draws people to certain forms of order and faith. Between him and Ms Miscavige, the answers turn out to be remarkably complex.

The lure of Scientology, for all of the determined stamping out of individuality Ms Miscavige describes, lies in its promise of a better, more intellectually responsible, more ethically sound life. Those who go Clear work towards making the world a better place — even if that involves creating scary Tom Cruise-like celebrities. 

(The argument could be made that by keeping Tom Cruise gainfully occupied, the Church does us a public service by restricting his couch-bouncing craziness to the occasional prime-time TV show.)

Over the last few years, some writers and thinkers have tried to understand religion itself, shifting away from questions about individual faiths and priesthoods towards larger questions about why we need belief, why it is so persistent among humans, and what the uses of God might be. One set of explanations – and these will be fiercely contested for years – is emerging out of neuroscience.

Vilayanur Ramachandran theorised that there was a God centre in the brain, and studies on epileptics demonstrate a link between religious experience and certain kinds of damage to the right parietal lobe. Conversely, neurological studies of meditation have gone a long way to prove that some kinds of belief and practice – some kinds of spiritual experience, for want of a better term – might be beneficial to the brain.

Jonathan Haidt argues that religiosity is an adaptation, rather than the "cultural invention" that Richard Dawkins and company believe religion to be. Instead of the virus theory of religion, Mr Haidt argues that religion might be a feature that fosters survival and growth, by lessening a certain kind of competition.

Both Mr Wright and Ms Miscavige look at the unhealthy side of faith as well. Ms Miscavige raises the urgent question of why we would overlook abuses carried out in the name of religion, especially those perpetrated on children, when we would give no other human structure that kind of free pass. 

Mr Wright raises uncomfortable questions about the human need for belonging, and how that need might be exploited. But this young religion, in the end, also offers the same dream as its older siblings: the hope of a better, finer world. That's an addictive drug, more dangerous than heroin or crystal meth.

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