Monday, January 28, 2008

Preaching to the converted, ranting to the rest of us

Slow as ever, I’ve just got round to watching the Tom Cruise scientology video. I honestly don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Yes, his confidence is in inverse proportion to his coherence. Yes, watching celebrities zealously pontificate on life, the universe and everything can be pretty funny. But, simply put, he comes across as nothing more than a bog-standard American megastar who’s got religion. The only reason people are laughing and gawping in such numbers is that it’s scientology, which is a ‘non-standard’ belief system.

A religion is a cult whose founder is long dead. Time and good PR bring familiarity, which renders the absurd mundane.

But it’s hard for that to happen nowadays. Christianity, for instance, had the fantastic stroke of luck of getting official endorsement from Constantine, and then being spread as orthodoxy throughout the empire. The frenetically diverse free media that exist today in pluralistic democracies make such a thing all but impossible. New belief systems can spread, certainly, but it’s harder for them to become mainstream, let alone dominant.

If Jesus had been crucified in the 1990s, St Paul would now be recording podcasts for the Corinthians. And they’d mostly be laughing at the poor quality of them, and putting spoof versions up on YouTube.


Matt M said...

I'm going to play God's advocate here.

"A religion is a cult whose founder is long dead. Time and good PR bring familiarity, which renders the absurd mundane."

I kinda agree with you here - Once an idea becomes a tradition it gains a level of respectability that it otherwise lacks, but not all cultish practices and ideas become tradition. In order for them to do so they need a) fairly widespread acceptance, and b) the potential for even wider acceptance.

I have no real idea where I read it (though I'm thinking it's maybe from Bertrand Russell), but there's an argument that the reason Christianity was so much more successful than the various other Jewish sects around at the time is because it not only focused on generalities rather than laws (accept Jesus into your heart as opposed to only eat fish while upside-down on a Tuesday - at least initially) but it was also open to all, regardless of your background.

Scientology will probably never take-off and gain the respectability of Christianity, as it offers very little that can't be found in New Age ideas elsewhere and tends to focus on a small group of people (i.e. the rich and famous).

I suppose what I'm saying is: All religions are strange, but some religions are more strange than others.

(There's a Scientology group near where I live. They have a little stall outside the main shopping centre, offering free "Stress Tests". The only way you know it's anything to do with Scientology is that they occasionally (try to) sell L. Ron Hubbard books - they know they're ideas would be ridiculed too much if they were open about it.)

Tom Freeman said...

You’re right, and I’m being too glib there. Some narratives just are catchier than others, and a religion that isn’t ethnically slanted is likely to spread more broadly.

Do you think the various famous scientologists help that much with recruitment? I bet they do, among a certain class of impressionable idiot [insert clich├ęd riff about celebrity culture – I was going to use the phrase ‘cult of celebrity’ but that’s a little too apt].

I occasionally wonder if stopping at my local scientology place (Tottenham Court Road) would be entertaining or just embarrassing. Probably the latter I reckon.

Matt M said...

I think that the various celebrity Scientologists will actually do more harm than good in the long run.

Although you've got a small group of people who, in their desperation to become rich and famous, will follow celebrity trends, for most celebrity endorsements will just make it seem tacky. Tom Cruise can draw a lot of people to a film, but few look to him as a model for how to live their lives.

Celebrity endorsement puts it in the same category as manbags and... I can't actually think of any other celebrity trends, but you get my point. they can generate interest, but will put off more serious-minded people, the kind needed to give a belief-system the respectability it needs.

Matt M said...

I stopped and answered a few questions from a Scientologist a couple of years back. As I recall, he asked me what I did, where I saw myself in five years time, etc. but made no effort to hide the fact that all his clipboard held was a sheet of paper on which the various answers he was given were just scribbled down at random. After a few minutes of this pointless charade he asked if I wanted to step into the Scientology building.

I politely declined.