January 13, 2009 -- Jett Travolta, the sixteen-year-old son of actors John Travolta and Kelly Preston, died recently of what the autopsy found to be a seizure. The boy had a history of seizures, and unconfirmed reports suggest that his parents acted responsibly to ensure he was on medication to mitigate his condition.
We don’t know yet what caused the seizure—a change in medication or dosage, or a worsening of the underlying condition that caused the seizures.
I’ve held in my arms a dear loved one during her seizures, someone who fortunately now survives and flourishes thanks to modern medicine. Thus I can identify personally with the dangers of such conditions and appreciate the imperative to understand and treat them.
And we can all have sympathy for Travolta and Preston and hope that progress in medical science can reduce the number of such tragedies so that other parents can be spared terrible grief and suffering.
But there’s a sad irony here: Scientology, the religion to which Travolta and Preston belong, and other irrational belief systems have, in principle and practice, always stood in the way of such progress.
Scientology was created by sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard. Its secret teachings apparently maintain that 75 million years ago, the galactic tyrant Xenu anaesthetized billions of his enemies, flew them in spaceships to Earth, dropped them into volcanoes and nuked them, and collected their ghosts—called “thetans”—in giant theaters to show them movies that left them thoroughly confused and wandering aimlessly on our planet.
“So what?” you might ask. “All religions have weird beliefs.” True! Mormons believe that God lives around the star Kolob with his wife. Catholics believe that the bread they eat at communion is the actual, real, no-fooling flesh of Jesus. And Muslims believe that Mohammad flew to heaven on a winged horse.
But Scientologists believe that all of what they deem as psychological and mental problems stem from thetans that inhabit each of us from birth, and that such problems should never be treated with medication. Actor and high-profile Scientologist Tom Cruise made headlines in 2003 for denouncing actress Brooke Shields for taking the drug Paxil for her postpartum depression.
It is probably true that too many in the psychology field pass out pill bottles rather than deal with patients’ underlying problems, and that over-medication causes some suffering. There is a need among health professionals, those who suffer such problems, and their families and friends for serious critical thinking and study about abuses of drugs.
Yet serious critical thinking is just what Scientologists reject. Their beliefs are not based on evidence, serious thought, or a search for the truth. Rather, they are based on a refusal to question critically, their own self-delusions, and, many would argue, outright brainwashing. Can an honest individual really believe the Xenu nonsense? Do Hubble telescope photos, archeological finds, or MRI brain scans support this belief? Of course not!
Yet Scientologists argue against the use of medications for psychological and mental problems not based on sound science but, rather, on their own bizarre fantasies. They favor a pseudo-science practice called “auditing” that is supposed to clear individuals of those pesky thetans.
In point of fact, research on the brain in recent decades reveals the biological basis for many aspects of human behavior and for many psychological and mental problems. That research is allowing us to refine the way we treat these problems, sometimes involving medications, sometimes not. Many lives have been saved and much suffering—for example, from clinical depression—has been mitigated by such treatments.
“So what?” you might ask again. “Scientology is a small, fringe, flying-saucer religion that attracts eccentric Hollywood types.”
To begin with, the adherents to this cult and their family members can suffer from the substitution of quackery for proper medication. But my more general point is that our twenty-first century culture is still riddled with outrageous beliefs that result from a rejection of the rational path to knowledge. Beliefs in astrology, palm reading, tarot cards, and numerology waste time and might cause only limited harm to the individuals who buy into them. But Creationism results in attempts to force schools to teach fairytales alongside the hard-won knowledge of evolutionary science, as if they were equally valid; such a curriculum would undermine respect for the rational approach to knowledge. And the consequences of Scientology and Christian Science—why do science’s opponents expropriate the term “science”?—can be deadly.
Life, health, and prosperity on this earth require a commitment by individuals to objective reality and a critical approach to knowledge, as well as a culture to support that commitment. How can we promote such a culture? One way is to treat those who advocate beliefs—whether religious, ideological, or otherwise—not based on or subject to reason and critical thinking the same way we should treat those who hate others purely because of race or some other accident of birth: Their ideas should be legally tolerated but their irrationality treated as ugly and immoral.
It’s always sad when a young life like Jett Travolta’s is ended so prematurely. For those who value life, such tragedies should reinforce the commitment to reason, our basic tool for survival and flourishing in this world.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.