Can We Make a Modern Messiah?

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.

Messianic indeed.

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’?

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Can We Make a Modern Messiah?

  1. I think messiahs are made in hindsight, not in the present. My guess would be that The Obama’s may be looked at this way in history. As one person pointed out, it’s not because his policies are so great, but rather it’s how they handle themselves, and how gracefully they live their lives.

    We do have a modern day Einstein, (David)? Wolfram. Of course no one even knows who the heck he is but maybe it will be in hindsight as well.

  2. Obamas. No apostrophe. Autocorrect will not in hindsight be considerd genius…..

  3. Ian

    Thanks Amelie – interesting point. Will (Steven) Wolfram be remembered a future Einstein? Or a pretty successful entrepreneur with a huge ego. You’re right these things only become clear in hindsight. I was more thinking about the untrue claims needed to support a super-human messiah figure, and whether they are difficult to construct when we can more easily check. But you’re right, there are more types than Jesus and LRH. How does an Einstein, or a Lincoln get made, and can we figure who that fame will attach to later? I suspect not, as you point out.

  4. TWF

    When I was debating the veracity of the Gospels with a Christian friend of mine, one thing he brought up a few times is that with the names and figureheads identified within the Gospels, if they were not true, they would have been easily discovered to be false, as anyone could have questioned those still-living-at-the-time witnesses, such as the official of the High Priest who had his ear chopped off, or any of the 500 witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. I tried to make the counter case that it was not so easy to verify as people would have to leave their homes and travel for days investigating the matter. But thinking on it now, I don’t know if that is really the reason.

    As you rightfully point out, anyone living today has a digital history, much of which can be found with a simple search. And yet, Scientology persists.

    So I think that big data has not necessarily killed off the big messiahs. Why? Because, like the old cliche saying goes, “if there is a will, there’s a way”. And that is not so much the will of the potential messiah figure, which certainly plays a role, but perhaps even more importantly is the will to believe in such a figure. As long as we are looking for someone else to save us, we will accept someone else as a savior, without letting little things like facts get in the way. At least that’s the way it looks to me right now.

    Have you seen Kumaré? It’s a documentary about a guy who posed as a (false) Indian prophet. If you happen to have a little spare time and a NetFlix streaming account, you may find it to be pretty interesting overall, even if there is about half an hour of filler. 🙂 I think it sort of illustrates this point.

  5. Ian

    “And yet, Scientology persists.” Sure, but it has maybe 30,000 members and falling. And the actual information is out. And one of the reasons many people leaving the church cite is that they did a simple google search and discovered that the whole story was a lie. There is definitely a will, and Scientology is one of the best resourced faiths on the planet, owning well over $1b in cash and the same in property. But even with that vast resource, and the clear desire to spend it on furthering the lie, they are failing. The church did a very good job of silencing truth for a long time, through lawsuits, huge PR campaigns. But they failed, ultimately. The truth did come out, in detail. So I think there is hope.

    ” if they were not true, they would have been easily discovered to be false, as anyone could have questioned those still-living-at-the-time witnesses” The problem with this is it assumed the stories of Jesus were within a generation. The earliest gospel is a 35 years later, and we have no resurrection stories in it. Matthew and Luke are 45-50 years after the event, and it is still a tiny group of adherents. All we have of any earlier sources are general claims that are ten a penny for countless other figures: they aren’t the legends that make Jesus significant. By the time the church really starts growing into the second century the people are long dead, and no records are around. This argument just holds no water, I think.

    I’ll try to track down Kumare tomorrow.

    I don’t doubt you can still make a small splash initially. Could you now convince a large number of people that a contemporary figure had lead a super-human life? I suspect the messiahs that are viable today will be much more human scale.

  6. I don’t think the super-human life story would be easy although smaller versions happen with ‘healers’ like Braco the Croatian gazer (a hilarious concept). I do think people might be seen as having super-human insight that could survive in story long enough to become a messianic story. It could only happen to someone suitably obscure or someone whose story overlaps with others (confusion to obscure truth).

  7. Fun post, Ian, thanx. Some thoughts:

    (1) Dense Information decrease Messiah probability
    I agree. Just as it does for miracle gullibility. But will they still occur? Sure, as TWF says “where there is a [lack of] will, there is a way.” So messiahhood is still possible for someone who grows up with a small data-print, or hides their dataprint (as orange says) or deceives a small group. But you covered all those. So I totally agree with your point: The more data, the less messiahs [and miracles].

    (2) Mohammed Exaggerations
    Did you have a source or two you enjoyed telling of Mohammed mythology — the mismatching biographies?

    (3) Youngest Eagle Scout
    (a) See my photo here, I too, like Lord Hubbard, was a Scout at age 13. And, as an embarrassing confession, I always remember thinking myself the youngest Boy Scout in Ohio to receive Eagle — either in that year or ever. Damn, if only I kept a diary — I think I may have been great messianic material — lots of magical thinking to fill pages.

    (b) BTW, Eagle Scout should be capitalized! — what sacrilegious negligence! I suppose you spell God with a small “g” too.

    Conclusion: Data is good. The more we have, the less theological arguments are needed to wake people up. (including ourselves — but I think I may continue thinking I was the youngest Ohio Scout too, if it is alright with you folks) 🙂

  8. TWF

    I’d definitely agree, Ian. Easy data access has been and will continue to be even more limiting to the total number of adherents to any modern messiah, so there will not be a “big messiah” in that manner. However, more to the point of what I was suggesting, my guess is that the miraculous claims of such modern-mini-messiahs will be no less grandiose that those of old. In that sense, they will still be big, larger-than-life figures.

  9. Ian

    @Sabio – well done on the Eagle scout at 13! I read that article you linked to. As a father yourself, do you feel pathos for your father’s experience of ‘loosing you’? Though not a criticism of your behavior, I confess I had a sudden twinge of heartbreak reading that line.

    I think the problem with LRH’s claim to be the youngest wasn’t his age, per se, but just that there was no self-critical process to transform a 13-year-old’s tendency to think these things into an adult’s well adjusted sense of self. Even as a man in the navy, his official reports showed him being recommended against promotion because of his tendency to grandiose self-importance and lack of awareness of his actual (in)competence. I scored well on an IQ test when 11, compared to my peers, and proceeded to tell everyone of my unmatched brilliance. But if I’d still be using that as part of my biography by 16, let alone now, it would say much about my ego and self-importance.

  10. Ian

    @TWF, thanks. Yes, good points. The character of a messiah may change. I wonder if, not just despite modern data, there now exists the possibility of constructing a messiah that wouldn’t have been possible before? I can’t imagine it off the top of my head. But it strikes me that might make a good short story.

  11. It would be interesting to compare Sabbatai Zevi (17th century), Joesph Smith (19th) and LRH (20th ) and see how the miracle claims and astounding feats that surround them are different.

    On Einstein: Einstein, Edison, Tesla, and other scientific heroes were famous during their lifetimes and extremely popular with the media. They were already folk heroes well before they died. I’m not sure that a truly obscure figure can turn around and become a messiah. You need a “base;” a population of people who are interested in telling stories about their hero.

  12. John Clavin

    Ray Kurzweil says we will have true artificial intelligence by the year 2037. I say maybe by 2050. Now there is our next messiah. It will absorb the collective consciousness of all humanity and lead us forward to a new world of enlightenment.

  13. Ian

    @Vorjack,
    Thanks, yes the Smith comparison is a good one. I’m not familiar with Zevi’s story, so there’s something to read up on for me, always appreciate homework! There’s probably quite an interesting research project in here, though the amount of information that would need marshalling would be vast.

    @John,
    Although I don’t buy Kurzweil’s predictions, I think the point is really important. Perhaps the next big messiah will use the technological, data-driven world, rather than hiding from it. Though I’ve not got the imagination to figure what that might look like.

  14. Beau Quilter

    If, in the future, scientologists succeeded in seizing the government and creating a multi-national theocracy through much of the world, then proceeded to control media for the next two thousand years, so that the only 20th century documentation of Hubbard’s life that survived would be that which supported his position as Messiah (or that which had been edited to do so) …

    then you would have a good analogy for how the stories of Jesus have been passed down to us.

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