Professor Hugh Urban Responds to Tony Ortega’s Stereotyping of “Religious Studies Types”

I’ll hand this to Tony, whenever it is to his own advantage, he does make stabs at being intellectually honest. In this case, he published a response to his criticism of professor Hugh Urban and his stereotyping of all social scientists who study religion as “religious studies types”.

Professor Hugh Urban is the Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Ohio State University and Professor at the Department of Comparative Studies there. He holds a Ph.D in the History of Religions from the University of Chicago. Here’s Dr. Urban’s response to Tony’s earlier take-down of him and all other “religious studies types”.

I guess I should be flattered that Tony Ortega has taken the time to read and comment on my work. However, I also found many parts of this piece problematic, and I would like to respond briefly to several points that are inaccurate and misleading. For the sake of space, I will limit my comments to the following three.

1. Let’s begin with the title and my alleged search for Scientology’s “warm and fuzzy side.” Anyone who has read my book and the ten or so articles I’ve written on Scientology knows this is pure nonsense. There is neither fuzz nor warmth in anything I’ve written about the church – if anything, I’m usually accused of the opposite. After writing a very positive review of my book, interviewing me at length, and extensively discussing my article on Scientology and the occult, Ortega obviously knows this. I can only conclude that the title here is purely a means of attracting readers with a provocative, titillating headline. But it is extremely misleading and (it would seeming) knowingly so.

2. Ortega took issue with my review of Lawrence Wright’s “Going Clear,” particularly my suggestion that the book focuses too heavily on celebrities and doesn’t discuss the lives of ordinary, non-celebrity Scientologists. He writes: “we find that religious studies academics tend to fetishize the idea of a mythic ‘ordinary’ Scientologist who isn’t caught up in the craziness of David Miscavige and his ruinous campaigns of intense fundraising and terroristic disconnection. Somewhere, these academics assert, there must be examples of simply content Scientologists who are the real, pure example of the faith. ” I’m not sure which academics Ortega is talking about here, but it is not me (this also reflects a common pattern in Ortega’s article, which is to lump all academics together, as if we are all the same and all think the same way). To say that there exist non-celebrity Scientologists is surely not the same as saying that they are more “real or pure” than celebrities. They are roof contractors in Columbus and insurance salesmen in Cincinnati, with as many problems and failings as anybody else. If anything, a genuinely critical analysis of Scientology would want to spend more time on the question of why these types of individuals become involved with and remain in Scientology – even in spite of its increasingly problematic activities and controversial reputation.

(Side note: If he hasn’t already, Ortega should read Donald Westbrook’s recent dissertation, “A Peoples’ History of the Church of Scientology” [2014], which interviews 69 such “ordinary,” non-celebrity Scientologists, most of whom have not progressed to the OT levels).

Much ink has been spilled on the question of why John Travolta would be drawn into and spend millions on the church; but why would a slate-roof contractor in central Ohio? This is not to gloss over the problematic aspects of the church or KSW or any of the rest of the awful stuff that is now well-known; on the contrary, it is to ask the more difficult and complicated question of why this movement has attracted those who are not super rich or famous and has managed to keep them involved for decades, despite a history of extremely problematic behavior?

3. The last section of Ortega’s piece is a critique of my article on the OT VIII materials. Here, I think there is simply some misunderstanding that is based either on a superficial reading of the article and/or on a misleading presentation of short sections that don’t reflect the broader argument. He (mis)characterizes my argument as follows: “But then Urban goes further and says that the upper OT levels are now ‘irrelevant’ as the church no longer really promotes them.” This does not accurately reflect what I said. My point was not that the OT levels are no longer important – of course they are – but rather that, since their leak in the 1990s due to the Fishman case, they have become an increasing source of embarrassment for the church. When I said that the OT levels were downplayed, I said explicitly that they were downplayed in the church’s more “exoteric” materials such as websites and documents meant for public consumption: “In its promotional materials and websites, Scientology now typically emphasizes the more public and ‘exoteric’ aspects of the Church, such as its ability to help personal lives, build families and further careers, as well as its outreach and charitable work.” Obviously, the OT levels are still important for upper-level Scientologists and are still part of the church’s financial bread and butter. But my point was that the public rhetoric surrounding them has shifted due to the history of litigation, exposé, and satire (“South Park,” etc) that they have generated since the 1990s.

Ortega makes the valid observation that the OT VIII text with the controversial “anti-christ” material was released only for a brief period before being withdrawn and replaced by the more innocuous OT materials. This is a good point to highlight, but it only confirms the larger argument of my article – which is that there has been intense controversy and debate surrounding OT VIII from the very beginning, and it has undergone numerous revisions, reframings, obfuscations, and rhetorical maneuverings over the last 30 years. That’s really the whole point about the complex “history of a secret” that is at the heart of my article.

One final and perhaps most important observation: In general, it seems to me that journalists and academics have a mutual interest in providing as much accurate, detailed, and nuanced information as possible about problematic movements such as Scientology. I don’t think it’s productive to that larger end to attack one another, particularly based on misleading and inaccurate characterizations of one another’s work.

— Hugh Urban

Here’s more on Professor Hugh Urban, another social scientist who studies and publishes about religion in general, and Scientology in particular:

One of the good guys.

Added Note: As I looked around on the Internet for the paper from Donald Westbrook that professor Urban mentioned above I found this comment from Tony Ortega on the UCLA Facebook Page for the Study of Religion featuring a lecture by Donald Westbrook:

tony ortega calls donald westbrook a shill

And Tory Christman pipes in and calls him a “quack”.

This is the kind of hysterical stereotyping and personal attacks that anti-cultists generate for any reasoned discourse on Scientology.

So much for the intellectual honesty of Tony Ortega, I guess.

18 thoughts on “Professor Hugh Urban Responds to Tony Ortega’s Stereotyping of “Religious Studies Types””

  1. Shill, n. Someone who discusses Scientology in a way Tony Ortega doesn’t agree with. See also “carrying water”.

    Very sad to see Tory joining in the chorus. The amount of former OSA ops who now just talk about Co$ in the way they used to talk about squirrels and SPs should not be surprising, since I’ve seen so many shrill Communists become shrill anti-Communists.

    • I never became a critic of Scientology to act like Scientologists do to their “enemies”. Criticizing Scientology was always about the truth. And even though I got into heated arguments sometimes, I tried never to leave some positive aspect of Scientology unacknowledged.

      Using the word “shill” to describe someone who is sincerely researching or arguing a point is the same tactic a Scientologist uses to call a critic a “bigot” in order to try to discredit them and shudder them into silence.

      Tony Ortega is such a disappointment. He just doesn’t get what any of this is actually about.

      And he never will.

    • Tory tends to agree with the majority. She used to hassle me about my not divulging my case level in public, my screen nick, my avatar, and on and on. Then she’d be surprised when I responded. She’s not a bad person, but she follows the mainstream. She was a thorn in my side for a while til she finally stopped with the nonsense. So, no, I’m not surprised.

  2. There is this comment by Tony Ortega:

    Tony Ortega Mod • 2 hours ago
    It’s never fun to be criticized, and I understand if Hugh is not happy with the points I’m making. Like I have said numerous times in this piece and the previous one, I consider him much better than most religious studies types.

    If I didn’t think the problems with what he said in this paper weren’t serious, I wouldn’t have said anything. Also, if I didn’t think he was an important figure in the field, I wouldn’t have bothered.

    So please, disagree with him or disagree with me. But don’t be shitty about it.

    (Would have said something sooner but I’ve been away from the computer all day.)

  3. I believe George M. White, “Path of Buddha” mentioned that he has been in contact with Hugh Urban. George did the original OT levels and is a long time Theraveda Buddhist. He mentioned that it might surprise scn-ists that religious scholars would have no problem understanding the esoteric concepts of scn.

    • I’m guessing that George and Hugh had a few conversations about the original OT8 which George did. Those would have been interesting conversations to listen in on. Somewhere in the past Tony had a post which featured George and his take on OT8.

      • Prior to George’s confirmation of the original OT 8 on Marty’s blog, the consensus among critics of Scientology was the same as the Church’s statement about it – that the “I am Lucifer, the Light-bringer” version of Hubbard’s OT 8 was a forgery.

        But if you knew anything about gnosticism, you knew that Hubbard’s spiritual belief system, in fact the whole philosophical viewpoint behind Scientology, was a gnostic viewpoint. When I read the original version of OT 8, I knew it was something that Hubbard would have called “Truth Revealed”.

        When I read it, first getting out of the Church, so much fell into place about Scientology for me about what Hubbard was really up to. He waited to deliver his Big Reveal at OT 8 because his real religious orientation (gnosticism) was so heretical and “out-reality” for the society at the time. To me, it was confirmation that Hubbard really did believe that.

        There is a version of ancient Gnosticism that is almost the exact opposite of today’s mainstream Judeo-Christianity. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent is not Satan who came to tempt Eve with the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but the One True God who was there to save Adam and Eve and return them to knowledge of their true spiritual nature.

        Gnosticism taught that we are are spiritual beings trapped in a material world, and the God of the Bible was not the one true god, but only a jealous demi-god who wanted to keep us trapped and fooled by the material nature of this world. And that’s why he forbade Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil – lest they be as gods.

        Scientology is set up on the exact same principles. And Hubbard’s underlying religious belief system, Gnosticism, is why.

        I have great gratitude for George White for coming forward and verifying that document on Marty’s blog. If he hadn’t, not even critics of Scientology would have spotted this.

        And Miscavige would have gotten away with it.

        • Genesis 3:22 And the LORD God said, “the man has now become like one of us, knowing both good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever.”

          Sounds pretty suppressive to me (LOL).

  4. How DARE someone disagree with the ‘expert’ Ortega!! He’s been studying Scientology for over 20 years! Oh wait, that’s not true. He has a history of journalistic integrity, ethics, and honesty when he worked at other publications. Oh wait, that’s not true.

    Me thinks the green eyed monster is always prepared to strike those he feels ‘challenges’ his manufactured standing.

    • Hola – Miss Tia!

      Good to see you back here!

      Wasn’t it right around a year ago when you broke free of the Underground Bunker?

      I’m curious if you’ve realized anything new since crawling up out of the Bunker and running around in the open air and sunshine for a full year now.

      • You are correct! I’d have to check emails, doctor visit summary sheets for an exact date, but mid-May I believe. I should probably celebrate my bunker free year in some way. 😀

        I love that phrasing “…since crawling up out of the bunker and running around in the open air and sunshine…” Yes, I have realized a few new things and I have taken notes to revisit my ‘Goodbye to all that’ post.


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