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The Prison of Belief

February 20, 2023

I have to admit, I have stolen this title from Lawrence Wright’s superb book about Scientology, “Going Clear.”  Part of the reason this is on my mind is due to the fact that over the past few weeks I have been watching Leah Remini’s show on the Aftermath of Scientology, which she co-hosts with fellow former scientologist Mike Rinder.  Mr. Rinder also frequently invokes  that phrase since it patently describes what life is like as a scientologist.

If you aren’t familiar with Mike Rinder, he was a scientologist for 46 years–and was an important, high ranking member of the church until his departure in 2007.  He was raised in Scientology as a child, and knew nothing else–his entire family were members.  And when he left the church, his family (as is common practice) refused to have any contact with him and dismissed him as “evil”  in media reports.  In spite of this, Mr. Rinder has made a good life for himself, remarrying and having children, and devoting his life to educating the public about Scientology and assisting other members of the church who have departed and also been disowned by their families.  Mr. Rinder is honest about the awful things he did in Scientology, and has worked hard to make amends with those he harmed.  What I have learned about Scientology from Ms. Remini and Mr. Rinder reminds me of a quote from physicist Steven Weinberg: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”

I bring all of this up because I think it provides insight into our current politics. The “Prison of Belief” is not confined simply to cultish institutions like Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Unification Church (known as the Moonies).  I think this prison can manifest itself today with the likes of QAnon, Proud Boys, and even benign sounding organizations like Moms for Liberty. 

The Proud Boys being…proud, I suppose.

Many such conspiratorial organizations are not simply expressing a view or a vision of what society should look like that might be different from mine, or yours, and any number of people.  Indeed, factions with differing visions of what the country or civilization should look like go back to the founding of the nation.  Of course, there have always been extreme factions uninterested in compromise or having their thoughts enter the “marketplace of ideas” as Justice William O. Douglas would later put it.  Such compromise was not possible because those who differed with the views of extremists were considered “enemies” “traitors” and, of course,  “evil.”  Historically, this was not always a cause for alarm, because such groups were fringe religious cults or hate groups largely confined to the margins (the Ku Klux Klan’s early 20th century resurgence being something of an exception).

Today, the margins have moved to the center of the page. QAnon has elected its adherents to Congress.  The President of the United States implores the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Moms for Liberty candidates win school board races, and in one case in Georgia, fire a superintendent without cause.  These groups bear a remarkable resemblance to Scientology and other cults–those that oppose them are satanists, a cabal of child traffickers, school officials “grooming” straight kids to become gay or trans.  It is tempting to simply laugh them off, but they too are imprisoned by their beliefs. It is difficult–if not impossible–to have any sort of dialogue with individuals from these and like-minded organizations.  Every counterexample is either a lie or more evidence of the conspiracy.  

Scientology leader David Miscavige

Of course, members of QAnon or Moms for Liberty don’t suffer the same consequences for leaving as those of Scientology.  They are not necessarily cut off from all of their friends and family whilst trying to navigate through the world without an education or much in the way of life skills.  Those who are contemplating a departure from Scientology know what the cost is, and that awareness often keeps them tethered.  Whereas someone mired in QAnon is staying not because they fear the consequences of leaving, but because they believe they are correct.  This, I think, is far worse. 

Being a professional educator, I know that I am among those who are viewed as wicked, traitorous or abusive.  The facts do not matter, and it is difficult to protest otherwise; as attorney Marc Elias says “there is no middle ground between an arsonist and a firefighter.”  I would love to be able to say that there is a solution to this problem, or simply dismiss it as a select few, and comfort myself with the fact that these views are not majority opinions.  As scientologists are a small number, so too are the Proud Boys and the Moms for Liberty.  

But that’s the thing–there don’t have to be a lot.  There just has to be enough.  

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Lucy Simard permalink
    February 23, 2023 12:41 am

    Kevin, this should be submitted for publication in a magazine such as the New Yorker. It is so intelligent and well written. It completely grabbed my attention and spoke to so many fears I have had about snowball effects that come from the ignorant, uneducated groups/cults who are threatening so much of our society. And who are trying to tell teachers what and how to teach, to ban books, fail to teach the true history of our nation, etc. etc. It is frightening. Have you thought about doing a podcast, Kevin?

    • February 28, 2023 10:07 pm

      Thank you very kindly for your thoughts. I am very glad you enjoyed the piece. I have not thought about doing a podcast. I think that would be fun, but I really don’t need one more thing to do right now. 🙂

      • Lucy Simard permalink
        February 28, 2023 11:04 pm

        Ha! You can do podcasts when you retire!  😂 How many years have you taught, Kevin? I hope the year is going well for you! Do you mind the commute?

        Sent from my iPad


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  2. Candis O’Hearn permalink
    February 25, 2023 3:02 am

    Well said and very well written! Reality can be scary sometimes for what the future might become.

  3. March 12, 2023 11:39 pm

    Yes, perhaps I’ll do that when I retire. Overall, year is going fine. Commute’s not bad at all–and I love living two blocks from the water.

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