July 2006

Jennifer Shahade

features

An Interview with J.C. Hallman

J.C. Hallman’s new book, The Devil is a Gentleman (Random House), delves into the worlds of eight different fringe religions in America. Among them are Satanism and Scientology. What we hear from the press is often limited to Columbine and Tom Cruise, so it’s refreshing to read an in-depth portrait of the history and practices of both groups. He also writes about religious subcultures that don’t even make it into the tabloids, like Druids, Christian wrestlers, Unarians and atheists.
 
This is Hallman’s second book. He is crafting a literary style that is characterized by ambitious and creative structures. In The Chess Artist, he connects disparate personalities in the chess subculture, from the megalomaniac dictator Kirsan Ilyumzhinov to the talented African-American amateur Glenn Ulmstead, by interweaving chapters with medieval stories on how the chess pieces came to be. In The Devil is a Gentleman, the 19th century philosopher and psychologist William James’s life and work (especially his 1902 The Varieties of Religious Experience) are used to thread the content together.

Hallman begins by admiring James’s guiding principle of genuine respect and curiosity for other belief systems, even those he did not and would never adhere to. Later as Hallman encounters one interesting and happy fringe believer after another, he does more than just admire James, and opens his heart and mind in a similar way.   

How would you describe your religious beliefs before writing the book?

James wrote Varieties worried that people were rejecting religious phenomena out of hand. I was probably the type of person he was aiming at. I grew up Catholic, rejected that, and went on to college. I soon fell into the category of what James called “clerico-academic-scientific” non-believer with a vague faith in the intellectual community. This category tends to have faith in the things science tells us. For example, most of us today are pretty comfortable with Big Bang theory… but if you listen to string theorists, it’s already of out of date, almost quaint.  

To what extent can you have respect for a belief system that you're 100% sure you won't buy in to? Is it important that there's a tiny sliver of a chance of possible conversion?

No, I don't think so. James argued that you can't understand a system or a belief by standing outside of it. You have to go in and participate. I didn't want to become an apologist for any of these groups, but I did want to spend at least a little time in each one trying to understand them the way they understand themselves. That meant entertaining them critically. Finding a way to respect a belief that you know you won't buy in to is sort of the whole point. How else can we ever achieve a workable pluralism? How else can we reconcile ourselves with the variety the world has always had, and probably always will?

What’s up with the title?

It comes from a Shelley poem. It has to do with what happens when the Christian church decides not to believe in Satan. Up until the Middle Ages, good Christians were compelled to believe in the literal existence of Satan. It’s only when his existence comes into question that the devil becomes more a gentlemanly figure, in Milton, for example. He’s a gentleman, a figure of leisure, precisely because he isn’t able to do anything anymore. James contrasts this with God at one point. The standard Christian god is too aloof, he says. Up in the sky and not doing anything. We need a god who is willing to come down and do things on earth. James calls this “getting dirty.” The title of my book is actually a reference to a James quote, where he says, “The prince of darkness may be a gentleman, as we are told he is, but whatever the God of earth and heaven is, he can surely be no gentleman.”

How do Satanists use those ideas of the devil to their advantage?

Satanists traffic in the lingering fear of Satan. The idea still has a cache and they use this, often on the level of fashion. They make others afraid of them, and the fear gives them power.

You had a couple of “Satanic scares” based on the deep-seated cultural fear of the devil. Did having these surprise you?

I ended up in this Satanic dungeon all by myself way up in rural Canada, not really sure where I was, surrounded by Satanic paraphernalia. There were swords everywhere, freaky symbols and pictures all over the walls, and a ritual chamber hidden a few feet away from where I was supposed to sleep. The house’s exact location was and is a secret. So sure, I was scared!

You got over it at some point?

I was looking at all these groups and how they came to be. I began to get a sense of where Satanists were coming from. They were using rituals to give themselves a sense of power. That’s in line with what James says about God and about truth -- you measure the truth of an idea by the effect that it has. Satanists -- or members of the Church of Satan, anyway -- have internalized this. Their rituals are not faith based; they do this because they believe it is effective. In the initial meeting I had with Church of Satan high priest Peter Gilmore -- we had lunch in New York -- he described what he called “Satanic pragmatism.”  By this he meant that Satanists were realistic, I think, but it’s also an allusion to the lingering influence of William James.

What types of people are drawn to Wicca and Satanism? Is it hard to break into?

You see a lot of teenagers interested in Wicca and Satanism. They’ll find material put out by one of the organized groups. A lot of teenagers are just dabbling and as they get older they fade away from it. In Satanism, there’s tension between adults who have been Satanists for a long time and teenagers who are up and coming. Wicca too is largely made up of middle-aged/elderly women but they’re inundated with applications from young people, many of whom are more interested in the image than the old school teachings. They need to act out a rebel status using those Goth fashions. Satanism makes sure that the people they bring into the fold are more serious whereas Wicca is more nurturing. They would provide people with opportunities for learning.

In your first book, Chess Artist, you interview Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who treats chess as a religion capable of reviving Kalmykia. You also see a lot of similarities between chess and religion in that book, especially the part in which Glenn says that he doesn’t believe in God, but he does believe in “passed pawns.” After researching more fringe religions in America, have you altered your thoughts about chess as a religion?

In the Chess Artist, I was looking at the chess subculture and the discipline it requires and celebrates. I interviewed Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and heard him claim that he wanted to turn chess into a religion. I tried to decide whether that was a good or bad thing. At least for his people, I was sympathetic because it gave them something to believe in. Thirty per cent of the Kalmyk population was considered physically disabled. And they didn’t have a lot of claims culturally. For them I was sympathetic. But for Kirsan, I wasn’t so sympathetic. I just didn’t believe him. He was like a tyrant using a faith to convince people that they should follow him. It wasn’t genuine. In this book, I’m back to trying to find genuine communities that seem to embody something that James is talking about in making truth work. Like him, I wanted to try to discover the strength inherent in variety.  

There is a scary chess moment in this book. Satanists liked chess because they thought it was unforgiving. I played a Satanist in the book. He didn’t like a move I played, and said, “damn you.“  

Mostly you were honest with your intentions as a journalist. The only group you deceived was the Scientologists. Did you fear you wouldn’t get access if they knew you were a writer?

Yes. Scientology has had an interesting relationship with the media over the years. There have been many accusations, and a lot of documentation of their efforts to quell interest from the press. I describe this in the book, but Scientology would probably disclaim this at this point.

A small UFO group that I went to in California, Unarius, took the opposite approach. All of the claims that Scientology is a UFO movement is something that Unarius openly embraces. They understand that if one of their members goes onto a radio show it’s likely that the host will mock them. They don't care, because they figure someone out there will be listening and get the message.

Scientology decided on a different strategy. L. Ron Hubbard, the founder, decided that they should sue at the slightest provocation. The threat of a lawsuit would prevent any coverage; they preferred to remain unspoken of. They wanted to have control over what was said about them. That Scientologists should “attack” those who attack the church was still part of an ethical code that was posted on a wall of Hollywood’s Celebrity Center when I visited there in 2004. So, yes, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be granted access if I told them I was a writer.

Amazingly, when you went to an informational session and took some tests, the Scientologists guessed that you were a journalist. That must have freaked you out.

They didn’t really guess. I went in and I took all the tests and they didn’t confront me and say, “are you a journalist?” But they did say, had I ever thought about writing, because my test results showed high aptitude. They also worried that because I wanted to take classes immediately, maybe I was going about it “journalistically.” It did feel a little sketchy. Still, the guy working there was working on commission so he was anxious to get me to sign up for the classes.

You write that it’s natural that actors are attracted to Scientology. Why is that?

James wrote that people are attracted to beliefs that appeal to their “personal susceptibilities.” At the beginning of my chapter on Scientology I look at the origin of God laid out by Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes argues that language and narration were crucial to the emergence of consciousness. I was less interested in the theory than I was in the fact that a number of writers seemed attracted to it -- his theory appeals to their personal susceptibilities. In the same way -- and probably by design -- Scientology appeals to actors. Their therapy includes a kind of role-playing in which you explore memories by entering the personalities of different people from your past. You act out things that have happened to you, and take on different roles while you do it. Scientology appeals to the skills actors already have. 

You seem to come away with the most negative feelings toward Scientology, leaving in the middle of the “Birthday Game” celebration of the religion’s expansion, yet you also near a personal revelation in an auditing session. What are your thoughts in retrospect?

What they’re doing is a combination of psychotherapy and hypnotism, but it’s performed by laypeople talking to one another. It’s about thinking about your past experiences carefully. On one level, it’s hard to imagine why carefully considering your past, the formative events in your life, would be a bad thing. It starts to get strange when you begin “auditing” memories from neonatal experiences and past lives. That and the business side of Scientology was the distasteful part to me. The name of the therapy is big business.

Whose pockets are deepening?

The amount of money that I report in the book is what they’re making from auditing. As of 1990, they took in $300 million of annual income from auditing alone. The money is going to the church itself. The IRS went after Hubbard once, claiming that he was profiting from the movement. Now, I don’t know who is profiting besides the church. To be fair, the Catholic Church is hugely rich and nobody complains about that. The Catholic Church is wealthier than the top five Fortune 500 companies combined. Scientology is not alone.

What are some religious trends you noticed?

The data from the past 15 years is interesting. The American Religious Identification Survey, from CUNY, shows that from 1990 to 2001 the number of Christians fell by about 9 per cent. We tend to think after 9/11 that there’s been a Christian ricochet. But the percentage of Christians has been going down and many are moving into the non-believer category or into fringe religions. There are still more Christians because the population is going up. And clearly, they have more influence.

I think the most comic portrait in your book is the atheist convention you attended outside Chicago. What type of atheist attends an atheist convention?  

That was an interesting event to go to. So many more people are saying that they have no religion. The CUNY survey shows that “no religion” was the third highest entry after Catholic and Baptist. But there are only 3,000 members of American Atheists. But they’re doing important work. Organized atheists are basically activists. For instance, the atheist chapter in Michigan organized a “godless march” on Lansing, partly to protest a bill that would allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in public. They’re worried that people equate religion with having a satisfied life. The woman who I attached myself to in atheism took it upon herself to show me that “atheists knew how to have fun.” And she was a wild character, a very lively grandmother. They formed a positive community, while at home they were forced to argue atheism with people who were believers. James believes that in the individual mystical experience you get a sense of the divine. Ironically, and almost invariably, the atheists reported a moment of clarity that told them “there was nothing out there.”  

They saw the light!

Right. But they probably wouldn’t like it put that way.

A big debate in atheism is whether or not it should be classified as a religion. Some atheists are willing to accept it, but the ones I visited were vehemently against it. At one point, they were looking for slogans to express this point and one woman came up with, “If atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color.”
 
It’s amazing that you got so much access to these groups.

I didn’t have any group say no to an interview. Some of them are small enough that they recognize that media attention is one way to get their message out. They’re not evangelical, knocking on doors or camping out in airports, so they see this as an easy way to spread their beliefs.

How’d you get started on this book?

I read online in December 2001 about the Unarian prophecy that aliens would land in 2001. I thought it might be interesting to visit them after the aliens failed to arrive. I had only a few weeks to decide whether or not to go. I went, wrote about it, and that became a sample book chapter. I was well on my way to a book proposal.

The work and life of William James is a thread that runs through your book. Why’d you decide to do that? Of all the groups you surveyed, which do you think he’d be most sympathetic to?

When I had the first impulse to go to Unarius, it seemed ridiculous not to visit Heaven’s Gate as well.  The house where the Heaven’s Gate members killed themselves is gone, but the land and the foundation are still there, and I trespassed onto it to look around. Which was also kind of spooky. I’d had the thought even before I left that together the two UFO groups might speak to one of the human bifurcations James laid out in The Varieties of Religious Experience: the sick souls and the healthy-minded folk. I knew about this from an old psych class, as do many people -- it’s entry-level psychology and philosophy stuff. While I was out there, I bought the book again from a little used bookstore near the Unarius Star Center (an ex-furniture store they used as a meeting place). I started the book there, and immediately it began to explain why religion was interesting to me even though I didn’t consider myself particularly religious. James understood my curiosity. From there, he pretty quickly became both my guide, and, to some extent, my subject matter.

James probably would have been sympathetic with all these groups to some extent. They would not have surprised him. He would have entertained them, but he would not have subscribed to any of them. It was James’s intellectual generosity that I admired most -- that and his ability to see the strength in variety. “The notion of the ‘one’ breeds foreignness and that of the ‘many’ intimacy,” he wrote. It’s that spirit that I tried to convey.

How did your own beliefs change through the process of writing this book?
 
I did learn to appreciate the variety of all these religions working together. Celebrating that variety can be a religion in itself. The whole spread of religion becomes easier to comprehend with James in your pocket. James thought that a science of religions would sprout after his book. To some extent that’s true -- we have comparative religion departments at universities. But James also predicted that the person who was best at delineating all these faiths would have the hardest time finding faith. The most attractive group to me was the Monks of New Skete. In addition to being an offbeat brand of orthodox Christianity, they raise dogs professionally. I admired their lifestyle. James said that faith conferred a certainty and contentedness to the faithful that was impressive no matter how odd the belief. The monks had that. I just liked hanging around, helping with the puppies. I liked the days ended by prayer. Life felt full at New Skete. Still, it wasn’t exactly something I was ready to dive into.

What kind of work did you focus on at Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop?

I went to the Workshop very young. I was eight or nine years younger than the average person there. I was just beginning to learn to write stories.

So you didn’t write nonfiction back then?
 
That’s right. I started out as a fiction writer and came to nonfiction late. I was at the Workshop from 1989 to ‘91. I was just talking to Charlie D’Ambrosio about non-fiction produced by fiction writers. This has been growing for 30 or 40 years, coming more to the fore lately. I think it has something to do with listening to the world with the fiction writer’s ear and watching actual events happen and perceiving them on the level of theme, rather than as a reporter.    

Do you like writing nonfiction?

Nonfiction is very hot right now. And I won’t deny that that’s exciting. I’ve been lucky to find subjects that pique my imagination. I had an interest in games for a while and a curiosity about religion that I’d begun to discover long before I decided to write books about chess and fringe religions. A helpful trait of the fiction writer getting a start in non-fiction is that fiction writers are used to working on something out of curiosity, not just because it’s been assigned to you. It was an act of faith to go to that Unarius meeting. I trusted that it would pay off eventually.

Jennifer Shahade is the author of Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport(Siles). She is the web editor of the new, interactive www.uschess.org.