The curious thing about religions, at least from my point of view, is that anyone can start one. The trick is to have your religion ‘make it’, becoming a perpetually self-sustaining entity that exists long, long, long after you’re dead. That’s how you “win” the religion game. The prize? Immortality.Well, sort of. Your name will live on long after you’re dead, and if you’re really good people will be changing their behaviours based on things you’ve said.
Come on… who wouldn’t be into that? It sounds brilliant!
It is, perhaps, ironic then, that so many religions have at their core beliefs in the ability to live on after death. Whether or not people can isn’t something I’m going to answer here (oh, sod it, the answer is “no, they can’t”) but in many ways being a prophet or leader of a religion will often have people assuming you’re off being immortal somewhere, doing all immortally type things like.. um… counting grains of sand in the Sahara Desert for the 1,004,232nd time or making out with each other. Or is that just Vampires? Bloody vampires have all the fun.
But I’ve digressed. If the BBC’s documentary about Scientology last night is right then Official Scientology is losing followers, not gaining them. I doubt, somehow, that they’re going to have a cash-flow problem, and their survival isn’t really in doubt – but it seems incredible that recruitment wouldn’t be getting harder as details about their practices leak into the wild.
The religion game is survival of the fittest. It’s a microcosm of evolutionary theory whereby religions that operate in a way that promotes their growth survive, while those that don’t do not. As far as models of faith go, the Abrahamic faiths (for example) are phenomenally successful, which is unsurprising. Many are expansion packs for Judaism which, itself, has proved to be very very resilient.
The question for Scientology is why they seem determined to avoid moving to a model that’s proven to work in the long, long, long, long term? It’s in territory that puts it outside of that sweet spot enjoyed by the really successful religions, and as David Allen Green points out, the Internet is proving to be a fundamental obstacle to the Church’s long term growth plans. The problem is simple: If you keep your secrets secret, you can’t really have a go at people for calling your secrets stupid. If they’re out in the open then when people call them stupid you can go down the tried and tested route of calling them intolerant of religious belief.
As a model that actually works perfectly well. Give away your “secrets” for free and charge people for belonging to the community, for attending your churches. That’s worked for thousands of years. It’ll probably work for thousands of years more.
You might be worried. You’re thinking, “Damn! If they find out our secrets they’ll think our Church is stupid!” but, seriously, you’re wrong. People can believe just about anything if you give them enough of a reason to. Be a cool bunch of awesome people and tell people all they have to do to join you is believe that there’s some sort of alien space god hiding inside teapots and, fuck it, people will. They really will. In fact, it’s better than that. They don’t even have to believe it – they just need to say they do and never, ever, ever admit to anyone else that they don’t. That’s practically the same thing for your purposes.
The religions that have been going for thousands of years have survived because they’ve been flexible enough to adapt to a world changing very quickly and they ‘fit’ with human psychology quite nicely. The religions that survive the Internet will, I’ve no doubt, be even harder to shift than ever (for those that try. Personally I think once you’ve thrown people to lions and that’s not worked, you give up or go mad.)
I’ve no doubt that Scientology, with the right changes, could become a perfectly viable religion like any other. Whether or not they do depends on whether or not they’ve learnt the lessons of the ones who’ve already made it. Religion is a game – learn to play, noobs.