Escape from Freedom
I’m reading an interesting book, Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm. I love the title. He wrote the book in 1941, after the rise of Hitler, exploring why people give up their freedom to follow a totalitarian fascist like Hitler. I’m reading it because I’m interested in why people will give up their freedom to follow an authoritarian religion like Scientology, ironically in the name of attaining freedom.
In the book, Fromm traces the historic roots of our modern concepts of freedom. In the Middle Ages, he notes, there was not a lot of freedom. People were separated into castes and classes, and if one was born into a certain class, one stayed there. If your father was a farmer, likely you would be a farmer. Nobles were nobles, serfs were serfs. And as far as the broader questions of life, death and salvation, that was the province of the Church. God was in Heaven and if you were good and confessed your sins and went to Church, you would expect to go to Heaven.
With the Reformation, the rise of the middle class, the appearance of modern capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, everything changed. Man gained a lot of freedoms. He could rise from poverty and become rich. He could travel. He could change his profession. He could even change his religion. But with these modern freedoms came insecurity, aloneness and doubt. Fromm says:
“This identity with nature, clan, religion, gives the individual certainty. He belongs to, he is rooted in, a structuralized whole in which he has an unquestionable place. He may suffer from hunger or suppression, but he does not suffer from the worst of all pains – complete aloneness and doubt.
“We see that the process of growing human freedom has the same dialectic character that we have noticed in the process of individual growth. On the one hand it is a process of growing strength and integration, mastery of nature, growing power of human reason, and growing solidarity with other human beings. But on the other hand this growing individuation means growing isolation, insecurity, and thereby growing doubt concerning one’s own role in the universe, the meaning of one’s life, and with all that a growing feeling of one’s powerlessness and insignificance as an individual.”
With the freedom to think, to speak, to associate, to choose how to live one’s life, comes uncertainty, insecurity, isolation. And thus man can seek to “escape from freedom.” Fromm again:
“…in our effort to escape from aloneness and powerlessness, we are ready to get rid of our individual self either by submission to new forms of authority or by a compulsive conforming to accepted patterns.”
I did a lot of surveys in my career in marketing for Scientology. And there were certain “buttons” that always came up tops: “confidence,” “self-respect,” “certainty.” That’s what people wanted. Frankly, I never fully understood these things. We did surveys as to what made people feel like that, and it never found anything conclusive. It just seemed to be part of the fabric of modern life.
Before I got involved with Scientology, I would never have described myself as “insecure” or “powerless.” But no question, there was a certain rootlessness about the 1960s. With the openness and freedoms of that era also came a longing to belong, to know the answers, to find a purpose. A lot of people went in search of wise men or gurus. And part of the appeal of Scientology to me was feeling that I was becoming part of a group of like-minded people, a group who had answers, who had a purpose, who knew what they were doing. It felt good, it felt solid, certain. And I was willing to give up some of my freedoms to preserve that kind of certainty and purpose.
And I became part of a new culture, where people were willing to sacrifice anything out of a compulsive sense of duty, to make their lives a tool for the accomplishment of the higher purposes of Scientology. The only freedom that mattered was spiritual freedom, as defined by Scientology and as achieved only by paying for and following the exact path laid out in Scientology. All other freedoms, all personal freedoms, could be and should be sacrificed to that goal.
And, of course, eventually I gave up most of my freedoms. I ended up living in a virtual slave colony, working round the clock, seven days a week, for an insane, authoritarian dictator.
While most Scientologists never experienced that extreme, every Scientologist gives up many freedoms. The freedom to think, the freedom to speak, the freedom to associate with whoever one wants to, the freedom to live one’s life and make one’s own choices.
And sure, when you leave Scientology, you have to make all those life decisions and choices yourself, you have to think things through yourself and decide what is right and true for you. You don’t have all those pat answers and quotes to fall back on. And with that freedom can come uncertainty, questions, doubts. And so, many people choose to escape freedom once again, into some new ology or ism, some new pat set of answers, some new authority.
For me, I’m done escaping from freedom.
Fromm describes something called “positive freedom” in these terms:
“…he can relate himself spontaneously to the world in love and work, in the genuine expression of his emotional, sensuous, and intellectual capacities; he can thus become one again with man, nature, and himself, without giving up the independence and integrity of his individual self.