ReligionSkepticism

Why Travolta’s Tragedy Doesn’t Spell the End for Scientology

There’s currently a story getting big hits on Reddit, linking to the original post on Gawker: Time to Audit Scientology’s Anti-Medicine Stance – The tragic death of Travolta’s son could spell the end of Scientology, sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard’s loopy, medicine-hating cult from the 1950s. (That’s the full link title on Reddit and the headline/first sentence of the Gawker story.) That’s a bittersweet statement, since it reports on the death of an innocent child but optimistically predicts the downfall of a dangerous cult. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.

The Gawker article adequately sums up the mysteries surrounding the recent death of Jett Travolta, who suffered from an illness that some doctors suspect was autism, but which the Travoltas claimed was a rare condition called Kawasaki disease, supposedly contracted through exposure to household cleaners. The article does a good job giving the main points as to why this is all very fishy, but the most notable point is that Scientologists are very much opposed to proper medical treatment of any mental disorder, which has led to senseless deaths in the past. Considering that the Travoltas are affirmed Scientologists – as are the two people put in charge of the disabled son, neither of whom have any training in caring for disabled children – this can be considered a huge, very public black mark on the “religion.”

Unfortunately, it won’t be enough.

In 1952, Martin Gardner published his excellent skeptical tome Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science in which there is a chapter called “Dianetics,” focusing on the “science of the mind” invented by L. Ron Hubbard. Gardner writes near the end of the chapter:

At the time of this writing, the dianetics craze seems to have burned itself out as quickly as it caught fire, and Hubbard himself has become embroiled in a welter of personal troubles. In 1951, his third wife, twenty-five-year-old Sara Northrup Hubbard, sued him for divorce. She called him a “paranoid schizophrenic,” accused him of torturing her while she was pregnant, and stated that medical advisers had concluded Hubbard was “hopelessly insane.”

He goes on to describe the Dianetic Foundation of Witchita declaring bankruptcy the following year, at which point Hubbard fled to Phoenix where he sold pseudoscientific gadgets and mailed out donation requests begging for followers to pay his living expenses.

Little did Gardner realize, Hubbard was preparing at that time to transform his pseudoscience cult into a religious cult using the new keyword “Scientology.” Executives in his company became “ministers,” and offices became churches. The trick worked, and the popularity of the new Church exploded. Hubbard remarried again, and had a son named Quentin, who was homosexual and (possibly as a result) grew up to be deeply depressed. In accordance with the laws of Scientology, Quentin was sent to the church’s rehab instead of getting support for his sexual orientation and real psychiatric help for his depression. In 1974 he attempted suicide, and two years later he succeeded (more info in this Channel 4 biography). It was a very obvious and public tragedy that highlighted the dangers of Hubbard and his Church’s bigotry and rejection of psychiatry.

Scientology has survived incredible amounts of bad publicity, including the deaths of people unknown and unloved, as well as the deaths of those in the spotlight. In the ’70s, Hubbard himself was the one shining star of his religion. Travolta may be the Church’s star these days, but he’s not the only one: Kirstie Alley, Jason Lee, that hot chick married to the fat guy on that one sitcom, and yes, even Tom Cruise, who’s slowly learning to come across as less of a whacko and do less obvious proselytizing, which could benefit both himself and the Churh. Those celebrities and many more are standing by, ready to distract you with their super-happy-perfect-clear-Scientologist lives. The worst part is that Scientology may not need the celebs to succeed. All they need is an unending supply of average Joes who are willing to spend what money they have on a phony chance at happiness.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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42 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting that, Rebecca. I’ve been discussing this on a local sports board, of all things. Good to have that information ready.

    Interesting to hear that the “church” is strapped for cash. That’ll be a bigger blow to it than Jett’s death, if it’s true. But I agree with you — I don’t think that crap is going anywhere soon.

  2. I honestly think the only thing that can destroy Scientology is Superman. Possibly Batman.

    A lot of people have asked me what I think of Jett’s passing (which is really weird question), and when I tell them that I feel his death was most likely preventable had it not been for his parents kooky religion, they look at me like I’m the biggest asshole in the world. Apparently it’s impossible to be rational and compassionate at the same time.

  3. I think this will have zero impact in the UK, where Scientology is growing. Most people here have no knowledge of the philosophies of Scientology, including their anti-drugs stance, and probably wouldn’t associate that with this boy’s death anyway. The BBC is reporting it as Kawasakis and ‘seizures’ without any comment about the validity of those claims, so I don’t think it’s going to make any difference.

    Scientology will end like all religions end. Wait, that’s not right. OK, change that to ‘Scientology will end when the money runs out’.

  4. I’m thinking Xenu could bring them down, he’s /it’s been underground now for 75 million years now. I’m sure he’s/it’s been building his army and has easily infiltrated scientology’s inner circle softening it up for it’s fall.

    Or maybe people will just wise up and realize it’s a scam.

  5. @Ooxman: It’s interesting, isn’t it? The most compassionate thing, in the long run, is to figure out what happened and focus on preventing it from happening to others. If Scientology played a part in this, it’s worth reducing the Church’s influence in the future.

  6. You know I haven’t paid much attention to Travolta since he was a Sweathog, and I can’t think of anything I care less about than his career or even his well being. If this were just a case of harm befalling him, I’d say the gene pool was thinnning, and I’d move on. But these cases of indoctrination going bad, or innocent children dying because of their parents’ idiocy make me ill.

    I doubt Scientology will be hurt by this. It will go away eventually, but it’s clear we need to continue to teach critical thinking skills and emphasize how important it is for everyone to use them.

  7. What I find both funny and sad is the fact that not a single reference I can find shows anything about Kawasaki disease having anything to do with seizures. I’m scanning the medical lit now but it seems to be an acute disease not a persistent condition.

  8. Yes, prematurely proclaiming the End of Scientology is probably neither accurate nor constructive.

    But I do think the Church’s growth is probably hitting a wall. The growth of the Internet, and the Anonymous protests, has shed a light on some of Scientology’s more, uh, unconventional views. A high-profile death that can be attributed to some of these views would not do well for them in the PR department.

    In my opinion, the only thing that keeps the Church going is its money and its high-profile celebs. If one of these starts to dry up, the Church will start to wither. Even if they go completely bankrupt, they’ll probably keep going on some level–but without much of their political and financial power, which is the main thing that concerns me.

  9. When you want to believe something badly enough, all disconfirming evidence can be explained in a way to protect the core belief. Sadly, Scientology won’t be hurt by this any more than it was hurt by Hubbard’s death himself.

    If Jett’s death was preventable but for Scientology’s irrational anti-science, it makes me incredibly sad. No one deserves to die an easily preventable death, least of all a child.

  10. I was talking to my mother and husband yesterday (who are not skeptics) about it and mentioned that I wouldn’t be surprised if because of Scientology, the Travolta’s child wasn’t receiving proper medical treatment if he had any sort of seizure disorder. Interestingly enough we were laying in bed listening to the radio last night when a brief news report was broadcasted on the subject. In the report it was stated that there are now some rumors that the kid was taking medication for his seizures but treatment was discontinued several years ago on the advice of their physician because it didn’t seem to be working. I’m not sure if that is true or not but I hope that if it is, the truth comes out. It would be even more tragic if because of their harmful beliefs their child was not treated properly and the lack of treatment contributed to his death.

  11. Unfortunately I think the Cult of Scilon is here to stay. I also find it hard to believe it is strapped for cash considering all the high profile hollywood nut jobs that support it. But who really knows when it comes to these guys. Their propaganda machine knows few equals. We will NEVER know the truth behind what ailed Jett Travolta, nor will we know the actual cause of his death. It is sad.

  12. The only difference between a cult and a religion is money and political power. Scientology has both and knows how to wield them.

    My parents live in Clearwater, FL, where the scam, I mean church, is headquartered. They tell me that the entire city political establishment, including the police, is both fearful of and deferential to, the Scientologists. We all know what happens if you cross them: lawsuits, rattlesnakes in your mailbox, etc.

    IMHO, they should be investigated by the FBI as a corrupt organization that is undermining local government under the RICO statute, but that’s just me.

  13. I also don’t see how this could affect Scientology.

    Unless JT sees “the light” because of this tragedy and comes out against the church, this will just be a speed bump, to them. I don’t look for that as likely.

    He’s already in denial mode about the anti-seizure drugs losing there effectiveness. He reportedly quit using them with a doctor’s approval. ( Don’t real doctors look for other drugs in that event?) No. I don’t think we’re going to see any lasting good come out of this and that’s unfortunate to say the least.

    On the bright side, Anonymous looks like it’s more effective than Scientology would like to admit.

    Because of activism I think there’s still some hope that we’ll see the “church” go back to the basement where it belongs, in our lives.

    We’ll see,

    rod

  14. @Ooxman :

    “A lot of people have asked me what I think of Jett’s passing (which is really weird question)”

    I’ve always thought that was a weird question too. Enough so that one day I decided to see what would happen if I gave a very unusual answer to that question. When asked (by a close friend who I knew wouldn’t take offense at what I was about to say) what I thought of a celebrity’s passing I said I was “all for it.”

  15. I was really bummed when I learned Travolta was a Scientologist, and even more bummed when I learned Beck was — I like Beck. Now I learn he’s a moron.

    Why has Scientology become the religion-of-choice for celebrities?

  16. Despite heaps of evidence to the contrary , the believers will keep believing the crap. The day the Travolta’s son died Scientology put out a story of Tom Cruise claiming “Scientology Teaching cures Dyslexia” http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20090104/ts_alt_afp/entertainmentusfilmpeoplecruise
    Complete nonsense but as you can see Scientology is hard at work with it’s trickery trying to put a positive spin on its reputation in all the entertainment publications (doubt you will see that story in any science journals though). I just wonder if they will tell Travolta that is was Jett’s fault or the family’s fault for dieing…that he had too many “thetans” or maybe if they had just payed a little more $ for auditing this tragedy wouldnt have happened. That is what they would tell the average Joe. Jerks. I sooooo hope that after some time has passed that perhaps the Travolta family will realize that anti-seizure medications and treatments banned by Scientology’s teachings could have helped their son and then they will speak out against the church. No believer is going to listen to a bunch of skeptics ranting on blogs but millions would listen to Travolta.

  17. @9bar:

    My mother was one of the people who asked me what I thought of Jett’s death. I responded that it didn’t really affect me, seeing as how I never met the kid. She looked at me like I was a heartless monster.

  18. @sylvan.nak:

    Why has Scientology become the religion-of-choice for celebrities?

    I think Steve hit the nail on the head; it’s the other way around. Celebrities have become the recruits of choice.

    For decades, the Church has put a lot of effort into recruiting celebs, and Travolta was just one of the early adopters. With each movie star, the Church gets a leg in the door to recruit more; Tom Cruise, for example, funds a Scientology tent at movie shoots he’s involved in.

    Celebs are wined and dined at the LA “Celebrity Centre,” told about the good works the Church does, maybe even given a free personality test. You can bet your bottom dollar that celebrities are not given the same recruitment routine that the Church gives to the average dude-on-the-street.

  19. @sylvan.nak: I tend to give Beck a break, firstly because he’s second-generation Scientology (his parents were early converts, he was born and educated in a Scientology commune), and that makes it much less idiotic of him. He merely failed to break away from a lifetime of indoctrination, rather than the worse idiot-crime of converting to it in the first place.

    Secondly, a person’s personal beliefs or indeed their actions don’t impact on their ability to produce art I like. Indeed, you could argue that Beck’s lyrics come from his experience and philosophies, and that might somewhere include Scientology (although equally you could argue they’re irrelevant), so without Scientology we might have no Beck music at all. And that would be a shame. An aural response is the same whatever the religion of the music-maker, although an emotional response may not be. Most of my favourite artists (Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Larry Graham) aren’t/weren’t just religious, some of their best songs are about their beliefs. I listen to Donny Hathaway’s Magnificent Sanctuary Band over and over, and sing along, lyrics about JEEESUS, with nary a hint of irony. It’s just a corking good tune. Whether or not I agree with the sentiment expressed is not relevant. Whether I find the bassline inspiring is.

    Just my two pence worth, anyhoo.

  20. @sylvan.nak: Why has Scientology become the religion-of-choice for celebrities?

    ——————–

    Because it’s the religion of choice for other celebrities.

    In the larger picture, I don’t think that there is any evidence that religions are negatively affected by the falsehood of their claims. People who think that Scientology could be harmed by a story like this either don’t think it’s a “real” religion, or they are willfully ignoring everything that has ever happened in the entire history of religion.

  21. Doesn’t Chrsitian Science still survive, despite all the children that have perished in it’s name?

    Real estate agents have trademarked the word Realtor, shouldn’t it be possible for scientists to band together to trademark Science® in order to stop it’s meaning from being abused or diluted?

  22. @tkingdoll: I see what you’re saying. Islamic art is gorgeous, and wouldn’t exist without the injunction against graven images (people and animals). I love Mindy Smith’s song “Come to Jesus,” and I can’t explain why she doesn’t disappoint me but Beck does. Maybe because “Jesus” was right there so this emptor had her caveat. With Beck I was a little bit shocked.

    I’m quite sure I’ll still listen to Beck, but … sigh. It was just easier to enjoy him when I didn’t know what he believed. It helps to know he’s 2nd generation.

    Here’s a Beck quote, on Scientology:

    “What it actually is is just sort of, uh, you know, I think it’s about philosophy and sort of, uh, all these kinds of, you know, ideals that are common to a lot of religions….There’s nothing fantastical…just a real deep grassroots concerted effort for humanitarian causes. I don’t know if you know the stuff they have. It’s unbelievable the stuff they are doing. Education…they have free centres all over the place for poor kids. They have the number one drug rehabilitation programme in the entire world (called Narconon). It has a 90-something percent success rate…When you look at the actual facts and not what’s conjured in people’s minds that’s all bullshit to me because I’ve actually seen stuff first hand.”

    Musically talented, perhaps, but not the sharpest pencil in the box.

  23. @Cleon: Why did the church go after celebrities all of a sudden? For the money? Why wouldn’t all churches go after celebrities then, and why would Scientology win out over the others? It still doesn’t explain the disproportionate # of celebrity Scientologists. Maybe it is just peer pressure, that’s sort of what I hear you (all) saying.

    My FIL speculated that it’s because actors spend their lives in fantasy, so this religion is perfect for them … but my reply is: what makes Scientology any more fantastical than Christianity?

    @Sethmanapio: “In the larger picture, I don’t think that there is any evidence that religions are negatively affected by the falsehood of their claims.” Well said!

  24. In re: celebrities and Scientology, don’t forget that critical thinking skills are not exactly necessary for their work or their lives. An actor’s job is to imagine being someone else to the extent that they can make an audience believe that they are that other person. No wonder some of them are reality-challenged.

  25. Um, I hate to sound like I’m defending Scientology, because I don’t want to, but…

    do we have any evidence that Scientology had anything to do with Jett’s death? I haven’t seen one confirmed report on whether he was on seizure medicine or not, or what his treatment was one way or the other. Are piling on without all the facts here? Please point out links if I’m wrong, I just haven’t seen anything yet.

  26. So sad, weird and confusing. Creepy too. Lots of conflicting info. An innocent sympathetic person dead. In short, a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. I feel really bad for his fam, kookiness or not, they’ve lost their kid, and I can’t imagine what they are going through.

    BTW The article is mistaken- Depakote can cause liver damage. Big time. So much so that liver function tests are ordered on a regular basis for depakote patients.

    @Sethmanapio: “In the larger picture, I don’t think that there is any evidence that religions are negatively affected by the falsehood of their claims.”

    Very true! They are in fact, negatively affected by the crappy acting skills of the church members. I mean, Tom Cruise is playing a GERMAN GENERAL in that new Nazi biopic, yet he speaks with NO ACCENT!!! It was like they pulled Maverick outta that plane, put him in Gestapo gear and said, “kick it, man! ” (I watched the preview to that turd and I imagine his excuse: “L Ron came to me in a dream told me not to worry about actually trying to be authentic! I’m perfect just the way I am- I can fly!!!”) It totally makes me hate Scientology that much more!!!

  27. BTW, on Skepchick Teen, my husband is in the process of photoshopping Edward from Twilight’s head onto Wooderson’s body from Dazed and Confused and posting it. Immature? Sure, but that’s how we roll.

  28. The Scientology “Vatican” is right next to my psychiatrists office building in Los Angeles. I get a kick out of that every time I go for a med check.

    Oh, don’t anyone tell Tom that I take psychiatric meds. He won’t respect me, but I guess that beats being dead like my dad, mom, and brother.

    BCT (“crazy” enlightened redneck)…..

  29. @sylvan.nak:
    It still doesn’t explain the disproportionate # of celebrity Scientologists.

    Are you sure there actually IS a disproportion?
    Or is it that they’re just more visible anyway, and so like the hardcore fundie X-tians they sound like there’s a lot of them when there’s only a handful.

    Perhaps they also draw more attention because being a scientologist is something out of the ordinary, while being a christian is the default.

    @Saber:
    Blame Costner, he opened the door to that kinda thing with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
    Acyually, I heard it’s speculated that Medieval English probably sounded more like modern day “American” English and less like Shakespeare …

  30. The Scientologists parade their pet celebrities around for PR reasons. Too many are easily swayed by the “If my favorite actor is a (blank), I should check it out, too,” kind of thinking. Obviously, parading around a bunch of “nobodies” does them no good…

  31. Scientology is a dangerous cult that utilizes brainwashing and bullying tactics to keep their members in line. As long as Tom Cruise is involved with Scientology only supervised visits with Suri should be allowed. Google Shelly Miscavige and see what they do to women that disobey their husbands. Shelly is the wife of Scientology leader David Miscavige who happens to be Cruise’s best friend and best man at his wedding to Katie Holmes. Shelly carried out Scientology orders without getting David’s approval and she has not been seen since 2006. When you sign up for Scientology you sign a billion year contract and allow them to lock you up if they feel you disobeyed or went against them. If I were on Katie’s legal team I would petition the court for a paternity test to see if Cruise is actually Suri’s biological father. While he was married to Nicole Kidman they adopted 2 children, Nicole went on to have a biological child with her new husband. I do not think Cruise can father a child.

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