It’s worth pointing out that people in the wider world (you and I included) share these psychological quirks.
Attribution theory reveals a bias which is both used against Scientologists when they are in the Church, and works against them after they leave.
Attribution theory reveals a special case of cognitive dissonance.
People would like to believe that they live in a safe, stable and orderly world – a just world. Such a belief provides them with comfort and security. However, headlines constantly demonstrate that we really live in a world where bad things happen to good people (‘charity worker diagnosed with terminal disease’) and good things happen to bad people (‘convicted rapist wins lottery millions’).
This perspective explains a lot about how Scientologists see themselves, and how the wider world views Scientologists.
The conflict between what we need to believe about the world and the way it really is can lead to people rationalising away facts that make us feel insecure. An example of this process was offered by Elliot Aaronson and concerns the reaction to shootings which took place at the Kent State University, in the USA, in 1970.
During a politically charged student protest, members of the National Guard, standing by to keep order, shot and killed four unarmed students and wounded nine others. Several of the victims were not involved in the protest, simply watching or making their way between classes.
The Scranton Commission, which subsequently investigated campus unrest, concluded that the actions of the national Guardsmen were completely unjustified:
Even if the guardsmen faced danger, it was not a danger that called for lethal force. The 61 shots by 28 guardsmen certainly cannot be justified. Apparently, no order to fire was given, and there was inadequate fire control discipline on Blanket Hill. The Kent State tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators.
However, in the aftermath of the shootings rumours spread that the dead girls were either pregnant, had syphilis or were filthy, and a Gallup Poll taken immediately after the shootings revealed that 58 percent of respondents blamed the students, while only 11 percent blamed the National Guard.
The townspeople wanted to believe that their National Guardsmen were honourable and competent. It was easier to cling to this comforting belief (in the face of all the evidence to the contrary) if the victims were wanton and dirty – not innocents, but people who deserved death.
As Applied to Scientologists in the Church
It is an unquestionable matter of faith within the Church of Scientology that Scientology always works – when properly applied. Also, advanced Scientologists are thought to be ‘Operating Thetans’ – beings in touch with their immortal essence, and capable of controlling the mundane world by will alone.
Senior executives are held up as examples of what a person can achieve through Scientology. Their instructions (called “Command Intention”) are, by association, treated as infallible.
Consequently, if a Scientologist does not report that Scientology training has improved their life, or fails in a task given them by the Church, it is by definition their fault. Despite their experience, they must have miss-applied Scientology, or be deliberately sabotaging the Church. Management, and Scientology itself, always remain blameless no matter what actually happens.
When a Scientologist ‘fails’ in a task, and is punished other members of the Church witness their humiliation. They can either conclude that there is something wrong with their faith – or that their fellow believer failed because they were a bad person. This conclusion dovetails perfectly with Attribution theory. The doctrine, organisation and application of Scientology exploit a human weakness – the tendency to ‘blame the victim’ – perfectly.
As Applied to Scientologist after They Leave the Church
The popular press has always dramatised the threat of ‘Cults in our midst’ because these stories sell newspapers by making people feel insecure. Readers ask themselves, ‘are my children safe?’ and ‘could I be brainwashed by these bizarre individuals?’ Once again, the unpleasant feeling of cognitive dissonance is created in the mind of the reader.
Readers can regain their feeling of security by choosing to believe that Scientologists are not like them – that they lack judgement, are weak-willed or mentally ill – the reasoning goes:
Only crazy people would believe this stuff, therefore Scientologists are all mad.
I’m not mad, therefore I’m safe.
In other words the a significant number of ordinary people react to coverage of Scientology by blaming the victim, not the Church.
The fact is that Scientologists, as a group, are no different from the rest of the population – and there is no simple answer to the question of why some individuals become committed to the Church while others walk on by. One thing is certain – it is a very bad idea for the general public to dehumanise Scientologists in this way.
The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion (Critical Issues in Social Justice)