Denisa and I had the chance to watch the new HBO documentary on Scientology last night, Going Clear. It’s a pretty darn effective take down of Scientology as a religion and an institution, arguing that the heads of the church are essentially crooks and liars. They make a compelling case. However, this blog post isn’t really concerned with whether or not the documentary is accurate. I’ve encountered plenty of anti-Mormon pieces that tend to make compelling cases as well, so I’m certainly willing to give another religion the benefit of the doubt, from an academic point of view. The fact is that I don’t personally know any Scientologists, I’ve never spoken with a Scientologist, and all of my information on their beliefs has come from sources outside Scientology.
That’s not the way to make your mind up about a system of belief, but it’s more than enough to make me leery of ever really taking Scientology seriously. It’s more than enough to make me have serious doubts about their organization and belief system. If I had a family member seriously looking into Scientology, I would be sufficiently freaked out that I would do what I could to see if I could make them change their mind.
And that’s what I want to talk about in this post. Because, having had experience as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), I know full well that many people view Mormonism as being on the same level as Scientology. When I would talk to people on the street in Germany, they would often dismiss Mormonism as “a cult,” and sometimes get us confused with Scientologists. So when I look at how I view Scientology, I feel like I’m having the closest understanding I can get to how some people view Mormons.
And that is, naturally, upsetting.
But I’m not one to shy away from upsetting topics. So let’s look at this a bit closer. The Mormonism/Scientology comparison brings up two big questions for me. First, is it accurate from a doctrinal viewpoint. Second, is it accurate from a cultural/societal viewpoint. It’s hard to completely separate the two, so I’ll look at different elements of the documentary that were alarming to me, and take each from a Mormon perspective, paying attention to doctrinal and cultural issues.
- Crazy doctrine–Assuming for the moment that everything Going Clear said about Scientology was 100% accurate (for the sake of argument), is Mormon doctrine at the same whackadoo level? With the big disclaimer that anything religious can be portrayed in ridiculous terms (as seen in the “I Believe” song in the Book of Mormon Musical), I don’t think a serious look at Mormonism would result in the same conclusion as this documentary. It’s true that there have been plenty of lampoons of the Mormon belief system, but when you get right down to it, the things Mormonism espouses are fairly basic, fundamental beliefs common to many religions: faith in God, repentance, doing good works, love, etc. Yes, you can start to poke holes at how closely that belief system is followed, but when you look at the actual tenets and requirements of the religion, they’re quite reasonable. (For values of “reasonable” that include “going to church for three hours every Sunday.”)
- Requiring payment for salvation–In the documentary, it says Scientologists have to pay big money to get closer to their equivalent of salvation. Mormonism does have the law of tithing–the idea that members should pay 10% of their income to the church. However, all this boils down to is telling your Bishop that you’re paying a “complete tithe.” There’s no audit. No one’s going to challenge you on how much you’re paying. That’s between you and God. And there’s nothing in the way of “pay now to get saved later” at work in Mormonism. You do have to be a tithe payer to enter the temple, but if anyone tried to argue this is the same thing as what Scientology is doing, I’d have a pretty easy time of shooting that down. Still, I could see how these two principles could be perceived to be equivalent, to non-members.
- Holding back the really nutty beliefs until someone’s deep into the church–This isn’t something Mormons do, by and large. Yes, there’s some zany theories some members might espouse, but it’s nothing central to the religion, and it’s nothing that’s widely accepted by members as doctrine. I see this more as a cultural problem when it comes to Mormonism. Every now and then you’ll meet a Mormon who’s convinced there’s more to the religion than most people are following. I imagine you find this in any religion. My general approach to these people is to smile, nod, and completely ignore them–unless they’re doing something to actively harm other people. In that case, I call them out on it. Then again, you could easily argue that the church has tried to cover up some of the unsavory aspects of its past (the number of wives Joseph Smith had, for example). It’s trying to do better, but perhaps this is an argument that has some merit.
- Requiring members to work for the church for free–The documentary focused a good portion of time to people who end up essentially working for the church for 40 cents an hour, doing menial jobs like sanding and scraping paint. Basically, becoming slaves for the church (in so many words.) Mormonism requires a fair bit of service. I help clean the local church building twice a year, work on snow removal for the building, speak in church, hold church callings–and I do it all for free. It’s service, not work. There’s no comparison here.
- Requiring members to shun people who have left the church–The film depicted families that had been broken up from disputes over Scientology. I’d like to say this doesn’t happen at all in Mormonism, but while I can say it *shouldn’t* happen (from a doctrinal perspective), I know that it does happen from a cultural one. Some people are going to do crazy things for religion, regardless of the religion in question. But would church leaders require Mormons to shun people? No. And if they did, they should be called on it, and I’m confident they’d be told to stop it.
- Blind devotion to doctrine–Here’s an issue where some in and out of Mormonism would definitely say Mormons qualify for. I’ve written many a post disagreeing with it, but the very fact that I’ve felt the need to write those posts tends to only give the argument more strength.
- Physical abuse in the name of religion–Again, doctrinally this is something that should never happen. Can I guarantee it doesn’t happen in Mormonism? I don’t think I can. But I think this is something that is universal to humans. Some humans are abusive to other humans. There are many reasons and excuses for it, but it happens. I can say that issues of abuse that are found in Mormonism would and should be immediately taken care of.
- Idolizing central figures to the religion–Here’s an area where I fear Mormons sometimes start veering too far into unsafe territory. We have a prophet at the head of the church, and we revere him as the spokesperson for God on earth. I’m good with that. I believe that. But I also don’t believe he–or any person on earth–is perfect. We all have flaws and make mistakes. Members often put Joseph Smith on a pedestal as well. Put anyone other than God or Christ on a pedestal, and I think you’re setting yourself up for trouble down the road.
- Funding church leaders’ lavish lifestyles–It’s something some have argued Mormons do, but it’s an argument that I don’t believe has any merit. Certainly nothing of the scale portrayed in this documentary. I’m in a position to see some of what goes on behind the scenes at the upper levels of the church. My family has several connections to high ranking Mormon officials. In all that time, I’ve seen nothing to give these accusations any foundation. But conspiracy theorists are gonna conspiracy theorize.
- Discourage members from befriending non-members–Another area where some Mormons might want to try to do better. It can be too easy to just associate with other believers. I think doing that leads to close-mindedness and a lot of missed opportunities for growth and misunderstanding. But there’s a lot to do in the Mormon faith, which can sometimes leave us with not a whole lot of time to make social connections outside of it.
I’m already well over time on how long I wanted to discuss this. It was a thought-provoking documentary, suffice it to say. Do I feel like I know everything about Scientology now? No. Do I want to know more? No. But I feel like watching this helped me understand other people’s views on religion and the dangers inherent in it in a way I hadn’t fully understood before. I really hope no one views me and my approach to faith in the same light as portrayed in this film. I know whenever people would call Mormonism a cult, it would honestly hurt me. It’s a religion that’s brought me a whole lot of happiness and joy, warts and all. And it’s also a religion I feel free to leave at any time. I’m not coerced, and I’m not pressured to stay. I stay because I believe it’s true, plain and simple.
And I suppose that’s all I have to say about that for now. As is always the case with these posts, if you have something constructive to say, go ahead. But keep the gloves on, and don’t make me delete or ban people.