Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is a man renowned for delivering. Having crafted the coke and cock epic Boogie Nights by the age of 27, he also elicited from Tom Cruise perhaps the best performance he is ever likely to give, in his 1999 masterpiece Magnolia. Now his sixth feature, The Master, is already being hailed as the greatest film of the 21st century to date.
Charting the path of a lowly drifter who falls for the charms of dramatist-turned-demagogue-turned-demigod Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), The Master mirrors, opaquely, the story of L. Ron Hubbard and the blistering ascent of his Scientology movement. While Anderson has downplayed his film's connection to Scientology, the only thing more certain than The Master's success is the ensuing flagellation of its assumed source of inspiration.
The contempt with which Scientology is discussed is fascinating. Yet in many ways it is no different to the older religions which many of us are so reluctant to malign in print or in mixed company. On paper, if anything, Scientology is less controversial. It does not condone the mutilation of genitals in the name of sanctity. There have been relatively few accusations of sexual abuse brushed under the carpet to maintain an illusion of propriety. No children have been shot in the head in its name because of their reasonable and fundamental desire to seek an education.
That said, it is far from golden. Primarily there are the persistent suggestions that Scientology is a commercial enterprise masquerading as a spiritual one, as well as (strongly denied) allegations of intimidation campaigns launched against naysayers (try Googling “Operation Freakout”).
The most interesting aspect of Scientology, however, is that it grants us a three dimensional view of religion, one which wasn't available until now.
Most of us accept as fact the strength that faith can bring, having witnessed it firsthand. Nonbelievers may liken this to the proven benefits of placebos in medicine, yet even the most ardent atheist would be unlikely to initiate a discussion on the existence of God in, say, a hospital waiting room. But whereas many of us know somebody who has found solace in a hurried grasp of the rosary beads or a passage from the Koran are high, in Britain at least, not so many of us are in contact with those that have achieved the same serenity from the teachings of Mr. Hubbard. Scientology is a religion of widespread renown, yet it has little bearing on most of our everyday lives, and so it allows us to separate the ritual from the personal with minimal collateral damage.
Because Scientology was founded within living memory, we feel we have some kind of authority over it. It was invented before our very eyes. Scientology came to be in a world that had already mastered medicine, television, advertising, rock and roll. We have an understanding of the Universe both before and after Scientology's genesis in 1952, and an understanding too that it just doesn’t fit. Because the 21st century world in which we live does not need this abstract thing. Does not need the theories and the maybes and all those what ifs. We have evidence. We have roots. We have a beginning and a middle and an end already worked out. With Scientology the curtain was pulled back once and for all. And there was not a wizard, but an angry old man- zealous, feverish from his own didactics- fractured and fallible and all too human.
Scientology has provided many of us with the framework, the vocabulary, and the certainty with which to deconstruct and criticise all the other religions of the world. For this - and this alone - we should be grateful.