Scientology and the Presumed Fragility of Unconventional Beliefs

fragile belief1982 | On the Presumed Fragility of Unconventional Beliefs | David A Snow and Richard Machalek | Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 21 (1) 15-26
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To an outsider, it is an understatement to say that the doctrines of Scientology appear implausible and lack credibility. A common question from people who encounter them for the first time (for example the Xenu story) is, ‘how can anyone believe this nonsense?’.

Scholars tend to assume that because such ideas are easily disproved, belief in them is “fragile” – this is, it may be broken or lost at any time. They have developed various theories  to explain why it often persists despite this fragility.  Most hold that fringe groups exert powerful social pressure on believers, who rationalise away their doubts in a psychological process known as cognitive dissonance.

The authors of this paper observe that scholars are (by nature and training) analytical and sceptical –  and  that this may be a form of bias. They suggest ‘true believers’ do not share these characteristics, and may have no difficulty in holding weird beliefs. In other words, scholars are over-thinking it, and inventing complex theories to solve a problem which, in fact, only exists for them.

They turn the tables on scholars and ask, “perhaps it is disbelief, rather than belief that is in need of attention”.

This is a genuine, well-argued, minority viewpoint.  I think it has some merit – but is dangerously inappropriate when applied to Scientology (which is one of their examples).

Chanting for New Car – ichantNam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo

Snow and Machalek open their paper by describing a typical reaction to people promoting the bizarre beliefs of a Western organisation called Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo  – “how can they believe this nonsense?”

Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is named after a mantra which is chanted in Nichiren Buddhism to help the practitioner achieve enlightenment. The Western group have re-interpreted this doctrine in consumerist terms. They teach that anything that you want or need can be acquired by chanting while concentrating on the desired object.

‘Students’ pay a fee to chant together, and learn the mantra.  Sincere Nichiren Buddhists would doubtless find the focus on acquiring material things (e.g. a new car, or high-definition television) rather than enlightenment appalling.

Snow and Machalek argue that “unconventional beliefs” like this are acquired and sustained by the same processes as more commonplace ideas, principally ‘self-validation‘.


circular-reasoningScientology doctrine provides a perfect example of self-validation.  Scientologists are taught that, if you follow Scientology practices to the letter, without question, they will improve your life. The only possible reason for failure is that you have not applied “The Tech” correctly.

Once this idea is accepted, it is logically impossible for Scientology ever to be wrong. If Scientology seems to succeed, the credit belongs to L Ron Hubbard. If it fails, it is your fault. Heads I win, tails you lose .

The believer in Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is in a very similar situation. The only acceptable reason that his or her chanting can fail is that they did not do it correctly, or did not focus properly on their desired object.

Snow and Machalek go on to mount a complex argument, which draws examples from Scientology and various other fringe groups, that belief systems which display a high degree of self-validation are more likely to be successful.

So far, so good.

Cognitive Dissonance and Unconventional Beliefs

Snow and Machalek also refer to a study of occult belief (pg 22) to suggest that “[”’] cognitive dissonance may be less of a problem for the believer than the researcher”.

They report that a researcher called Benassi presented “[…] strong disconfirming evidence to believers in occult phenomenon and  showed that their belief  was quite durable without the need for explanations such as cognitive dissonance.

[…] the subjects apparently never experienced dissonance because they ‘simply failed to absorb the fact that that these beliefs were being challenged’ […] the pattern, then, was of subjects blandly ignoring input rather than resisting it.

Snow and Machalek support this with their own observations. They report that converts to Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyodo  would chant for success in converting people before proselytising on city streets. The fact that they often “returned empty handed”surely suggests that their chanting had failed, and provoke dissonance . However, when these people were interviewed, this was not found to be the case.

[…] we do not deny that mechanisms for reducing dissonance […] are inoperative in maintaining belief. Rather we argue that belief is often maintained because disconfirming evidence, however compelling to the nonbeliever, goes unnoticed by the believer.

The Difference Between ‘Hobby Cults’ and High-control Groups

Snow and Machalek may well be right when they claim that some bizarre beliefs  (for example occult phenomenon and Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyodo) do not always require heavy duty social-psychological explanations. However, relatively harmless ‘hobby cults’ such as these only require only a small commitment of time and money, and involvement can improve the believer’s self-esteem.

Their thesis completely falls down when it is applied to Scientology – which is a high control group. The Church of  Scientology exercises and maintains extensive powerful control over the behaviour of members as well as their beliefs.Disconnection

For example, as Scientologists ‘advance’ through the secret teaching of the Church of Scientology the fees required can rise to crippling levels, and the level of commitment demanded gradually becomes total. For example, a Scientologist may be required to ‘disconnect’ from a spouse, relatives and friends who have criticised the organisation (an extreme form of ‘shunning’).

As the Church of Scientology gradually acquires greater control over the individual member, belief is replaced by compliance.  In fact, there are a growing number of (nominal) Scientologists who no longer believe. These people continue to pay lip service to the Church only because, if they did not, family and friends may be ordered to ‘disconnect’ from them.

Sustaining Belief in Scientology

However, the subject of this paper is ‘belief’.  Snow and Machalek propose that unconventional beliefs (e.g. Scientology) are not “fragile”, and do not need heavy duty social-psychological ideas (like cognitive dissonance) to explain why people hold them.

However, they go on to offer just such an explanation – self validation.  While it is arguable that this might be sufficient in the case of ‘hobby cults’ it does not work for high-control groups.

The idea that  ‘ordinary’ people are simply oblivious to the extreme injustices and contractions of organisations like Scientology is not credible (and condescending). Surely, being ordered to ‘disconnect’ from your husband or wife cannot “go unnoticed by the believer”, in the same way as the failure of ‘chanting for recruits’ did.

Scientology and Cognitive Dissonance

If belief in Scientology is indeed fragile, then how is it sustained, and do ideas such as cognitive dissonance theory offer an explanation? Consider the situation of committed Scientologists. Compared with casual believers in ‘occult’ phenomenon they:

  • Have made a considerable personal investment (in self-esteem, time and money)
  • Are subject to Church ‘discipline’ which can be punitive
  • Were promised that Scientology training would bring personal benefits that never, in fact, materialise

Despite this, many recruits  do not become disillusioned and  leave, but continue to believe. Cognitive dissonance theory originated as an explanation for precisely this kind of situation, and does help the outsider understand the mindset of the ‘true believer’ in Scientology.


The authors make a fair point about ‘hobby cults’. However, Scientology is a  a high-control group, and one of the least appropriate examples that they could have used to support their thesis. This may have been a careless choice, or they may have been genuinely unaware of just how controlling the Church of Scientology actually is.

Either way, this is a major flaw in an otherwise interesting argument.


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