I’ve been studying Scientology more over the last month, reading books and articles about its history and doctrines. It is fascinating stuff. Fascinating for both its totalitarian structure, and for its pseudo-scientific theology. But most fascinating is the story of L Ron Hubbard, the man who founded the religion.
I won’t detail the story here, because it is far better told elsewhere. The key part that interested me is the mismatch between the official church biography of the man, and the independent historical evidence: such as official records, his own contemporary diary entries, and reports of his colleagues and friends.
The official story is thoroughly messianic. LRH was a prodigious rider, breaking broncos by three years old, a blood brother of the Blackfeet tribe while still a child, the country’s youngest eagle scout. He was travelling the orient on his own in his mid-teens, being schooled in ancient wisdom from gurus and lamas. He was one of the first nuclear physicists, and lead vital scientific expeditions to the amazon. On the eve of war he enlisted and a meteoric rise saw him commanding a fleet of ships into WWII. He was gravely wounded in battle, and healed himself totally of his injuries using the techniques he developed. He made numerous hollywood movies to support his research, before his breakthrough Dianetics book made him fabulously wealthy. He then spent his life discovering the true nature of reality, dodging persecution, and creating the world’s first complete and workable religious technology. When he could no longer continue his research in his earthly body, he deliberately left it behind, to continue his work as an eternal soul. But he will return again in the future and lead mankind onwards once more.
I suspect the same process is at work in all messianic biography-building. Historical Jesus studies point to the clearly mythological extrapolations and exaggerations in the gospels. Critical works on the biographies of Muhammad likewise focus on the likely distance between the myth and the real man.
But, by and large, we have no direct evidence that Jesus wasn’t a virgin-born sinless miracle worker who fed thousands with a few fish, commanded storms to still, and rose from the dead two days after his execution. Even for relatively recent messianic figures (say Baha’u’llah, the messiah of the Baha’i faith), we have limited ability to go back and check.
But that’s not the case for anyone born now. The chances of anyone reaching adulthood without a sizeable information trail is pretty slim.
LRH certainly hasn’t got away with it. There’s too much evidence that basically none of the above information is true. Where kernels of truth exist they have been stretched out of all recognition. We have the records. The church of Scientology claims they are fabricated, of course, but they are well documented and well disseminated.
Now there have always been polemic and insinuations against messianic claimants. There have always been counter-evidence. But the kind of information density we have today is something that has never existed before, not even nearly. It is no longer the case that the only systematic information someone can easily access about a messiah, is the claims of that messiah’s followers.
I wonder if it is possible to construct a messiah now, for anything but a tiny number of adherents. I wonder if the empirical power of data means that building a religion around a super-human figure isn’t a much harder task.
What kind of messiah could we create nowadays? Is it naive to think the era of the ‘big messiah’ is lost to the era of ‘big data’?