on January 14, 2014 at 5:22 PM, updated January 14, 2014 at 5:39 PM
Lawrence Wright grew up in Dallas, and while he realized early on that one can't be "a Methodist extremist," he also experienced the fiercely seductive nature of religious conviction.
In his subsequent tours of journalistic duty in the Middle East -- Wright won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9-11" -- and the American back roads, he saw lives rearranged and unhinged by faith and zealotry.
"Again and again, I began seeing the influence of religion, driving people toward good and bad ends," the staff writer for The New Yorker said Tuesday at the Heathman Hotel.
And Wright saw far too little reflective coverage of what he calls "the effects of religious beliefs on people's lives -- historically, a far more profound influence on society and individuals than politics, which is the substance of so much journalism."
That's what eventually brought him to confront the Church of Scientology in "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief."
"The thing you have to keep in mind about Scientology is that people go into it for the best of reasons," Wright said. "They want to change the world. They're idealistic. They're willing to sacrifice."
Then they sign billion-year contracts, willingly accept sadistic levels of isolation and humiliation, vanish behind the delusional wall. "The belief system, like with all religious beliefs, acts as a barrier to the rest of the community," Wright said.
"Sometimes, the crazier the beliefs, the higher the barrier, and the more solidified the community inside it."
In journeying to Oregon this week for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, Wright returned to the scene of L. Ron Hubbard's great World War II heroics -- in 1943, Scientology's founder claimed to have destroyed not one, but two mythical submarines while commanding a harbor patrol ship off Cape Lookout -- and the infamous "Battle of Portland."
That's the 1985 spring gala in which John Travolta and another 12,000 Scientologists descended on the Multnomah County Courthouse, claiming they were being persecuted for their religious faith in a suit brought by a young woman, Julie Christofferson Titchbourne, who argued she had wasted $3,200 in college savings on counseling.
After the jury awarded Titchbourne $39 million in damages, Judge Donald Londer declared a mistrial, ruling -- Wright notes -- that her lawyers "presented prejudicial arguments to the jury by saying that Hubbard was a sociopath and that Scientology was not a religion but a terrorist organization.
"Church members who had been in Portland would always feel an ecstatic sense of kinship."
Wright is clearly intrigued by that kinship. "Religion is always an irrational exercise, no matter how ennobling it may be to the human spirit," he writes in "Going Clear," but Hubbard -- who got his start writing science fiction and died in 1986 -- had "an incorrigible ability to float above the evidence."
Hubbard argued Earth "was part of a confederation of planets under the leadership of a despot ruler named Xenu." He wrote in "Dianetics," first published in 1950, "However many billions America spends yearly on institutions for the insane and jails for the criminals are spent primarily because of attempted abortions done by some sex-blocked mother to whom children are a curse, not a blessing of God."
Give the guy credit, though: From the very beginning, Hubbard insists, "If it's not true for you, it isn't true," brilliantly anticipating the mantra of climate-change denial.
Wright calmly lays out the byzantine history and manners of Scientology in "Going Clear." "My work is grounded in reality," he told a group of Oregon writers at the Heathman.
"'Truth is stranger than fiction' has always resonated with me."
So has religious conviction. "There is no point in questioning Scientology's standing as a religion; in the United States, the only opinion that really counts is that of the IRS," Wright notes, and after stripping Scientology of its religions tax exemption in 1967, the agency reversed itself in 1993
What he questions, instead, is why so many souls lock themselves inside such a prison of belief. Is it Hubbard's arresting voice? Tom Cruise envy?
Or is it the genius of "finding the ruin" in every potential recruit, as Scientologists have long been trained to do, then offering that lost soul the refuge of belonging, even if that community is a padded cell?
"We can hold strong political views, and it may not affect your behavior at all," Wright said Tuesday. "Strong religious views are different. People often rearrange their whole lives around those beliefs, and it may go unnoticed by journalists.
"Maybe I thought I served a purpose in calling attention to that."
-- Steve Duin
Stolen entire from The Oregonian.