Going Clear: Scientology vs. Mormonism

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.

9 thoughts on “Going Clear: Scientology vs. Mormonism”

  1. Lived in Utah all my life as non-practicing mormon and just watched this. Do you have the experience of being on the outside? If not otherwise your perspective is as skewed as those true Scientology believers. The parallels are uncanny and it pretty confirms to me that Mormonism is a cult. Maybe not to some of the extremes shown in the film but the principles are the same. Your points above and attempt to deflect is noble but only further solidifies my opinion as i’m sure it will others as well.

  2. I think you kind of missed the point of my post, which was essentially to say what you just did. Watching the Scientology documentary is the closest I can come to understanding how some non-Mormons view Mormonism. And at the same time, knowing how badly Mormonism is misportrayed by some outside groups, I’m reluctant to accept everything that’s being presented as factual in this documentary.

    I try to err on the side of not being derogatory to anyone else’s belief system.

  3. I don’t think i missed your point at all. I haven’t read any of your other posts and your bio doesn’t mention your history but since you didn’t answer the question of whether you have always been a member i am assuming so. Therefore, IMHO you lack the objectivity to honestly address most of the issues you speak of. So try as you and others may it’s always hard to defend that which is indefensible. I don’t think most people will base their entire opinion of Mormonism or even Scientology upon this documentary, it merely confirms people’s idea that it’s a ridiculous concept based upon a fictional story that cannot possibly be true.

  4. Gilbert Gripe

    ” 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”

    Therefore the proper way to find out about…. say North Korea or Iran…. is to only get your information from their official sources. DO NOT talk to anyone who defected. That’s just not the way to get good information. /s

  5. Bryce, the comments between you and Johnny are perhaps more illuminating than you initially realize. You,an outsider, are made uncomfortable by the (accurate and fair) portrayal of scientology and feel it’s worth avoiding. You realize that’s how nonLDS see you. Then, you go o but if only they could see it like I do and get the real picture! You should be wondering how the true believers of scientology see themselves, and how they could overlook the contents of the doc (that’s not how it should happen, even if it does sometimes.) or how they’d avoid the doc altogether as anti material, or disregard the opinions of those who warn them of the dangers. Scientologists shown the documentary would likely retain their faith, just as you do with issues in the church and the church’s past, despite how glaringly obvious it is to someone who’s not already feet deep in the conditioning.

  6. Gilbert Gripe

    But seriously…

    Mormonism absolutely was a cult in the Utah Territory days. The church isolated members away from the rest of world. It was run like a totalitarian dictatorship. Members were assigned to towns and occupations/positions in business own by the Brethren. All mail going in and out was monitored. To hinder escape (those who managed to get out did call it an escape) all food and goods were locked away in Bishop Store Houses, this ensured that no one could get their hands on enough food for the three months journey. The perpetual emigration fund and the storehouses operated to keep members in perpetual debt to the church, so they could not leave. (New members consecrated all they owned to the church for the privilege of coming to Zion.)

    People who were critical of the church and this system would often meet with a bad end. (See Potter Parrish Murders/ Murder of Jesse Thomas Hartley / Murder of Franklin McNeil / Murder of Dr. J. King Robinson /Confessions of John D. Lee, Porter Rockwell, Wild Bill Hickman) All of which is justified under the doctrine of Blood Atonement.

    Men of higher priesthood office laid claim to more women and more property. (There’s a terrible shortage of women when you practice polygamy, they took them as young as 12 down to the temple for marriages.) The church ran the court system, its rulings invariably protected the well connected of the Mormon Hierarchy and punished non Mormons and defectors. The moral code of the church included the idea of honor killings so the courts ruled many domestic killings as “justified”.

    The Mountain Meadows Massacre was just the largest most famous massacre. It was the “big score” of an institutionalized system of looting. The system of Mormon settlements was laid out to control the cross roads of the continent. Americans who passed through the control of Mormonism reported that they had to pay protection money to the Mormons for safe passage and yet in the night small raids occurred and animals would be picked off after the protector left them during the night. The Fancher Baker party may have been the wealthiest wagon train to ever cross the continent and that is why they were targeted. None of the property was ever recovered or accounted for.

    The doctrines are of course filled with the typical cult dichotomy. Only the church has the truth and those that reject its truth cannot attain glory. The pinnacle doctrine is the Temple endowment and Temple marriage. In the endowment you take oaths to consecrate EVERYTHING you are or will be to the church (like a priest or a nun except you’re expected to as many children as possible and raise them Mormon. Side note: there is a teaching that if your children do not remain in the church the sin is on the parents.) Up until 1990 you agreed to forfeit your life if you revealed the secret handshakes of the temple (psst – same handshakes as the Masons).

    And don’t get me started on the racism and misogyny.

    But riddle me this. When did it STOP being a cult exactly? When did all the pernicious elements become eradicated?

  7. From my experience, I would say that real Mormonism is not as extreme as Scientology (at least, how Scientology is often portrayed). It’s much more tame, and it probably has far fewer aspects that are very harmful. However, I’d like to respond to a couple of points.

    Crazy Doctrine- You neglected to mention Kolob, or the astronomy of the Book of Abraham. Doctrines of polygamy, becoming gods, and eternally having children may also shock outsiders, and are saved for later. The biggest example is the Mormon temple, which Mormons are not allowed to speak of outside the temple itself. New members do not know the ordinances or promises that other members make in the temple until they go there to make those promises themselves. In addition, members agree to make the promises before even knowing what the promises are.

    Requirement to pay for salvation- You can’t get into the temple or the Celestial Kingdom without paying 10% of your income. It’s true that no one will track you down if you don’t pay, and it is possible to lie in order to get a temple recommend. However, a good Mormon will not do that. A good Mormon wants to be honest and right with God, so they will either pay, or live knowing that their salvation is in jeopardy.

    Idolizing central figures to the religion- I agree.

    Funding church leaders’ lavish lifestyles- I can’t imagine that tithes are being used to make Thomas Monson very wealthy. I really doubt that the payments and benefits that church authorities are extreme. However, since the church has absolutely no financial transparency, it is impossible to fully defend against these charges. Since you claim to have had a lot of experience with high level church authorities, can you please tell us more about how compensation works? How are they paid? How much? Are there gifts, loans, business deals, books, housing stipends, living expense benefits, etc.? Does property change hands? How does this work? If the church would only provide financial transparency, maybe a lot of these accusations would stop.

    Discourage members from befriending non-members- I agree, partially. In my experience, Mormons are very friendly to non-Mormons. There are only a few exceptions. The biggest exception is for ex-Mormons, or apostates. Mormons are taught in no uncertain terms to avoid associating with apostates. In fact, in order to enter Mormon temples, you must promise that you do not associate with such individuals. To be allowed into a Mormon temple, you must answer “No” to the following question, as part of a “temple recommend” interview:
    “Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?”
    In addition, members are taught that apostates are wicked, deceived individuals who are under Satan’s power. This is a frequently repeated theme in church lessons and literature. Now, does this mean the Mormons shun ex-Mormons? No. Most are much more civil than that. However, these ideas often prevent some Mormons from forming close relationships with ex-Mormons. It also causes a great deal of pain for families with individuals on both sides of the split.

  8. Oops, I mislabeled one section in my comment. Instead of “Crazy Doctrine”, I meant “Holding back the really nutty beliefs until someone’s deep into the church”. The examples I gave are doctrines or ideas which are not immediately disclosed to new or potential members. I witnessed this many times while serving an LDS mission. Missionaried purposely give “milk before meat”, which is to say, don’t teach anything that is really hard to believe until the prospective member is highly committed.

  9. Thanks for this, I found this because I was curious about…well exactly your point of view and what you are talking about.

    I know many Mormons and certainly feel no need to get out the pitchforks, but I don’t even remotely get it either.

    I do think there’s a bit here that skirts an issue. I’ve heard quite a few stories like this one: http://www.cracked.com/personal-experiences-1326-5-hardcore-realities-my-time-as-mormon-missionary.html, By splitting stuff up the way that you did you don’t have to talk about similar stories because they don’t fit clearly in a category that you defined, but they are still very much the same vein.

    Again, I don’t personally have anything against Mormonism, just pointing out a blind-spot in your attempt to see it from am outsiders’ point of view.

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