"Going Clear," "Under the Banner of Heaven," and the BIG QUESTION

I just finished reading Lawrence Wright’s “Going Clear,” an epic look at the formation, history and current inner workings of the Church of Scientology told through the prism of an apostate’s story. I was struck by how much my reaction upon finishing this book was so similar to my reaction on finishing Jon Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven,” which is a similar examination of the Mormon church.

My most salient reaction wasn’t, “Wow, what a bunch of freaks.” Before reading either of these books, I thought there was plenty of freakiness in the origin stories and practices (or what I’d heard of them) of both of these religions. And it’s true that both books offer plenty of riveting detail about the religions’ improbable origins, unsavory history and questionable practices.

But the question in my mind when I began reading both of these books was not, “Is this stuff as freaky as I think?” Because I don’t read books to tell me things I think I already know.

I read these books because the question I had about these two religions was: “Why do reasonable people continue to believe?”

It’s a question I feel both books do a great job answering. I finished both books thinking, “OK, in spite of everything, at least I understand why reasonable people might ascribe to these religions.”*

Because guess what? There ARE reasonable people who ascribe to both of these faiths.

On the Internet, where it’s so easy to commune only with people whose belief systems virtually overlap our own, people tend to think in absolutes, like, “This is a stupid religion founded by a crackpot and evil things have been done in its name. Anyone who has anything to do with it is stupid, evil, or both.”

But in the real world, we have real encounters with real people, and they usually aren’t wearing labels. The asshole who cuts you off in traffic, what religion is he? The customer who always goes out of her way to be nice to you, what about her? You don’t know. The asshole may ascribe to a belief system exactly like yours. The nice lady could be a Mormon, or a Scientologist, or a Catholic, or a Satanist. Or anything.

Because by and large, when it comes down to the individual, faith is pretty private. It’s something people rely on to get them through their days. It’s easy to look at a belief system we find flawed and think, that’s stupid; no one should believe that. It’s much harder to look into the eyes of a real person struggling to get through life just like you are and think, “She shouldn’t believe what she believes, even though she finds comfort in it.”

Why, in spite of everything, do these religions have sincere, well-meaning adherents among the people I might encounter in my daily life? For me, that is the big question that Krakauer and Wright’s books help to answer.

*Regarding the question of whether Scientology is an actual religion, Wright asserts that for all practical purposes, it is, because the IRS has designated it as such. In other words, if you say your faith is a religion and the IRS agrees, it’s a religion.