After the recent release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology-inspired film The Master, the controversial religious organization is once again a topic of debate. Donald Braxton, professor of religious studies, answers some questions about cults, Scientology, and the film:
Q: What is the difference between a cult and a religion?
A: Cults are what we call religions we don’t like. Religions are what we call organized social groups that we think are legitimate. It’s basically a value judgment. The word “cult,” in everyday discourse, is meant to be derogatory. It has its roots in a Christian tradition, when Christianity was grounded in a kind of triumphalist attitude toward non-Christian religions. Now, we do use the “word “cult” in religious studies in an academically neutral way, where we talk about the cult as the kind of material and ideological context in which religious behaviors occur. It includes things such as a tradition of fire dancing, or masking, or ceremonial robing, or certain kinds of songs. Most people, when they use it colloquially, actually mean something derogatory by it, that it’s some kind of brainwashing. I tend to steer away from the use of the word “cult.” It’s just not a useful term.
Q: How would you classify Scientology?
A: I would classify Scientology as a marvelous religious invention. In the United States, we have basically two homegrown kinds of religion that we invented. One is Mormonism and the other one is Scientology. And it’s not for trying. We have actually tried to invent many different religions, but they’ve all proven to be fairly unsuccessful and have gone extinct. But those are the two religions that we’ve tried, one in the 19th century and one in the 20th century, that seemed to have staying power. And if you look at them, they do a variety of different things that fulfill the kind of template or recipe for a successful religion. n.
Q: What do you think of the portrayal of Scientology in the media?
A: The media portraits of Scientology range from fairly accurate to fairly sensationalist and inaccurate. My guess is that there’s a lot of day-to-day behavior that occurs that would look quite normal to you and me and would not look at all cultish or anything like that. The media tends to be attracted to those things that really stand out, and as a result it is attracted to the most sensational aspects of a religion. I don’t think these religious organizations are any more or any less corrupt than any of the other main institutions of our society. For example, how well would the Catholic practice of the Eucharist, or the Buddhist belief in the ability to achieve non-egocentric consciousness, bear up under scrutiny? Are they any less or more crazy than Scientology’s galvanic skin response machines that they use to determine past lives or traumas?
Q: Do you think that the group in the movie The Master is based on Scientology?
A: Yeah, Scientology is without a doubt the baseline from which the film started. I haven’t seen it, but from what I’ve read, the film is not interested in doing a kind of peepshow on Scientology, so much as it is interested in talking about the dynamics of community and being willing to go along with things to be a member of a group. You don’t leave the film knowing this religion is stupid or this religion is good. You leave it wondering whether you could ever be caught up in something like this yourself, you leave it wondering whether or not this ought to be outlawed, or whether it should be allowed in a free society. You come away from the film without easy answers.
Q: Do you think there should be more films like The Master?
A: I’m a huge fan of this director, and I really like this kind of film, that avoids making judgments but tries to get you inside the heads of people. The reality is, everybody get up, and says, I’m going to sort out my life and my reality based on the best available information I have at the moment. For some people, the best available information they seem to have at the moment is to join one of these religious groups. That doesn’t mean it’s going to make sense to you, or make sense to me, or make sense to anybody else, but it does mean that if you’re really serious about actually understanding these people and what’s motivating them, you need to find ways to get inside their heads, not just judge them. I would like to encourage people to go to watch it, because I am a big fan of this director.
-Laura Bitely ’14, Juniata Online Journalist