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Literary review / Cult cock-OUP

Title: Literary review / Cult cock-OUP
Date: Friday, 17 April 2009
Publisher: Private Eye (UK)
Main source:
Alternate and/or complementary: link (565 KiB)

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Edited by James R. Lewis
(Oxford University Press, £18.99)

THE clock starts striking 13 very early in this book, which claims to consider Scientology from a standpoint of scholarly objectivity.

In the opening essay, "Birth of a Religion", J. Gordon Melton sets out "an overview of the life of L. Ron Hubbard anchored by the generally agreed facts". The general tone can be deduced from his conclusion: "After a suitable pause to acknowledge the founder's life and accomplishments, the church continued its forward march." In another chapter, David G. Bromley claims that "the basic outline of L. Ron Hubbard's life is not contested".

What poppycock. Scientologists believe that LRH was a war hero who fought in all five continents, a great thinker and a man true to his philosophy that modern psychiatric drugs are bad for you. The sceptics, with evidence, say that LRH lied about his war record, wrote pulp science-fiction books, then came up with a cock-and-bull story about Lord Xenu and the Thetans, called it a religion, made millions and died with his bottom pin-pricked with a psychiatric sedative used for anxiety-ridden geriatrics. Everything about Scientology's founder is contested, though no one reading this book would realise that.

Take the war record. In Scientology, Melton asserts that LRH's ship, sub-chaser PG815, did heroic work, sinking a Japanese sub off the coast of Oregon, Russell Miller's biography, Bare-Faced Messiah, tells a wholly different story. Miller, backed by US Navy records, says that a panicky Hubbard ordered depth charges against a blip on the radar caused by magnetic deposits on the seabed. A few months later, LRH's ship fired its three-inch guns at goats on uninhabited islands off Mexico. He was then relieved of his command, his admiral rating LRH "below average" and noting that he lacked "essential qualities of judgement, leadership and co-operation".

None of this merits a mention in the OUP's Scientology. Nor will you find Judge Breckenridge's ruling in the Los Angeles Superior Court in 1984: "The organisation clearly is schizophrenic and paranoid... its founder... virtually a pathological liar." Or Mr Justice Latey's ruling in the high court in London in the same year that Scientology was "immoral, socially obnoxious, corrupt, sinister and dangerous... because it is out to capture people and indoctrinate and brainwash them so that they become the unquestioning captives and tools of the cult".

Evidence of editorial mumbo-Jumbo comes thick and fast. On page four, editor James R. Lewis lambasts an unnamed critic of Scientology for being a computer scientist rather than a sociologist or a religious studies scholar. Yet at the very end of the book there is an astonishingly uncritical essay entitled "Pastoral Care and 11 September: Scientology's Non-traditional Religious Contribution", co-authored by Justine Digance, who is a senior lecturer in, er, "tourism management" at Griffith University Queensland, Australia. Digance praises Scientology's "own self-understanding" of its role at Ground Zero, quoting its claim that firefighters attributed their lack of injuries as they crawled over mountains of twisted steel to the "assists" received from volunteer ministers of Scientology.

No surprise there: far from being a neutral scholar, James Lewis is a veteran apologist for cults, or "new religions" as he prefers to style them. "Many of us in academia," he has said, "look on the anti-cultists as being far more dangerous to liberty than the so-called cults." Several contributors to Scientology worked on his previous white-washing jobs such as Sex, Slander and Salvation (1994), a sympathetic study of the Children of God (now rebranded as The Family), the cult notorious for child sexual abuse and "flirty fishing". Melton liked The Family so much he later appeared in a PR video for the sect, praising its "very positive view of sexuality".

After the lethal Sarin gas attacks on Tokyo subway passengers in 1995, Lewis flew to Japan to defend the Aum Supreme Truth cult, which had perpetrated the crime. He told an audience of disbelieving Japanese hacks that the cult was innocent and benign, a victim of religious persecution and police pressure. It could not have produced the Sarin used for the murders, he insisted. How did he know? The Aum Supreme Truth cultists had told him so. They also paid his airfare, hotel bill and living expenses.

Lewis seems never to have met a cult he didn't like. That's his prerogative. What is utterly mystifying is why one of the oldest and most respected publishing houses in the world chooses to give its imprimatur to this tendentious drivel. Did anyone at OUP read it before pressing the print button? "Certainly this book was peer-reviewed," an OUP spokesman assures the Eye, without revealing who the peers were. Lord Archer and Lord Black, perhaps?

[Note: OUP=Oxford University Press]