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In the Clear: On Scientology | The Nation

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In the Clear: On Scientology

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I have known several Scientologists, and they are normal, functional people. Listening to them describe their religion is no more or less discomfiting than listening to a Mormon missionary or a Jewish student of Kabbalah discuss his beliefs. Because Scientology does not require one to renounce other religious ties, there can seem something capacious and inclusive about it. In this respect it is a bizarre but ultimately nonthreatening self-help organization. You can take some Scientology classes, and do a little auditing, all the while staying involved with your Presbyterian church. Scientology will count you among its “millions” of members—the number is inflated because Scientology counts occasional dabblers and even those who have joined its mailing list—but your life can proceed otherwise unchanged. You do not have to sever ties with your mom. You are not in a cult.

Inside Scientology
The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion.
By Janet Reitman.
Buy this book.

The Church of Scientology
A History of a New Religion.
By Hugh B. Urban.
Buy this book.
 

About the Author

Mark Oppenheimer
Mark Oppenheimer (markoppenheimer.com) writes the “Beliefs” column for the New York Times and is working on...

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Such is the life of the casual Scientologist, who like the casual Jew or casual Catholic wears her religion as a fashionable scarf, something that lends a little warmth and decoration but can be tossed onto the coat rack or stuffed in a drawer if it feels restrictive. The problems begin when the Scientologist starts to take it seriously: when the religion starts to matter.

Then she might decide to commit a son or daughter to the Sea Org, the militaristic organization that began as Hubbard’s crew in the 1960s, when he sailed the world on his private yacht, writing Scientology dogma and taking on OT students when docked at various ports. Today, Reitman shows, the Sea Org is an authoritarian order that indoctrinates young people into a life of hard labor, poorly compensated, with scarce contact with non-Scientologists. Sea Org members are not permitted to have children; some former members told the St. Petersburg Times that in the 1990s they were coerced to have abortions. Reitman reports that some Sea Org members who have tried to leave their base have been forcibly detained and harangued until they change their minds and stay.

Or she might spend so much time with Scientologists, become so dependent on them for a social life, that she allows them to choose her friends. Scientologists may be pressured to break off contact with an “SP,” or suppressive person, somebody perceived to be an enemy of the church or an impediment to one’s progress as an OT. SPs within the church may be subject to Maoist interrogations and re-education campaigns, which Reitman describes in awful detail. If they are expelled, other Scientologists, including friends and relatives, are expected to break off contact with them.

Or she might, following church teachings, reject psychiatric help and the drugs that might make her well. She might find herself having a psychotic break, suffering from dehydration; being bruised, emaciated and cared for only by inept Scientologists who refuse to call for proper medical care. That was the situation in which, according to Reitman, Lisa McPherson found herself in 1995, having been bled of tens of thousands of dollars by a church whose current leader, David Miscavige, eventually proclaimed her “clear.” After McPherson undressed herself in the middle of a Florida street and was taken to a hospital for observation, she was escorted out two hours later by six members of the Church of Scientology. Two weeks later, she was wheeled into the trauma room at Columbia HCA Hospital, in New Port Richey. She was dead, and her body was so thin that one emergency room nurse thought she had AIDS.

Two years later, state investigators recommended that three Scientologists be charged with manslaughter, although the prosecutor settled for charging the church with neglect and the unauthorized practice of medicine. The medical examiner later recanted her original report, and the charges were dropped. When McPherson’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, the church was forced to disclose logs kept by church members who had looked after the patient in her last days. Only then did the church admit that McPherson had been ill. But, church lawyer Morris Weinberg said, the caretakers “knew they could not take her to a psychiatrist because of their religious beliefs…. People weren’t trying to hurt her; they were trying to help her.”

At times Reitman’s book reads like a catalog of Scientology’s horrors: financial shenanigans, brainwashing, emotional torture and the harassment of local authorities and federal revenue agents who have dared to investigate or tax the church. Reitman draws on and adds to a hard-won and courageous body of journalism, which includes years of reports by the St. Petersburg Times, the major newspaper closest to the church’s Clearwater operations; the Los Angeles Times; Time; and, recently, The New Yorker. She uses published records and many named sources, and she seems judicious in her use of anonymous sources and documents leaked on the web, the veracity of which cannot be established with certainty.

Because of the church’s secrecy, and its prolific spawning of angry apostates, writing about it is like entering a hall of mirrors: it is impossible to see straight, but if you concentrate you can find your way. There is no totally reliable view, either from within the church or from dissidents. And journalists’ vision is from the start warped by fear. Those of us who have written about the church have heard stories like that of Paulette Cooper, author of the hard-hitting book The Scandal of Scientology, published in 1971. Two years later, church operatives stole her stationery and used it to send bomb threats to the New York Church of Scientology; Cooper was arrested and faced fifteen years in prison. Later, the church tried to frame Cooper, who is Jewish, for sending bomb threats to Arab consulates, Henry Kissinger and President Ford. She never went to jail, but she could have.

* * *

In recent years, the church has been on a charm offensive with journalists, I would guess as part of an effort to improve its public image. I receive frequent e-mails from a publicist in Los Angeles, inviting me to watch web videos of Scientologists from all walks of life: a Scientologist dancer, a Scientologist fitness trainer, a Scientologist sky-diving instructor. I have a cordial relationship (and the cellphone number) of the head of the New York church, who in the past answered my questions at length. But while writing this article, I received a nasty e-mail from David Miscavige’s lawyer, insinuating that repeating some of Reitman’s charges would expose me to a lawsuit. And Karin Pouw, the church’s spokesperson, refused to speak with me on the phone, although she sent me letters saying Reitman’s book was biased and filled with errors. 

But I have good reasons, besides being in the foxhole with Reitman, to endorse her book. She is far more scrupulous about the truth than church officials are. Anyone susceptible to a false relativism—“The church has its version, Reitman has hers, who can tell?”—should read Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker article, from February, about former Scientologist Paul Haggis, the screenwriter and director. It is a long read with a thrilling peroration, when Wright confronts Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis with L. Ron Hubbard’s lies. Wright has overwhelming evidence that Hubbard was semi-educated and an undistinguished soldier, but Davis looks away from the truth as if it could blind him, or worse: “His voice filling with emotion, he said that, if it was true that Hubbard had not been injured, then ‘the injuries that he handled by the use of Dianetics procedures were never handled, because they were injuries that never existed; therefore, Dianetics is based on a lie; therefore, Scientology is based on a lie.’ He concluded, ‘The fact of the matter is that Mr. Hubbard was a war hero.’”

He would have to be, wouldn’t he?

Like the Wright article, Reitman’s book is prurient and educational at once. It is religion porn, and it is American history. It is the most thorough book about Scientology, but it is not the final word. Two perspectives, in particular, are missing. First, Reitman does not include the perspective of the everyday Scientologist, the casual student who goes in for auditing now and again, when he has some change to spare. Inside Scientology reminds me of the best books about the priest scandals in the Catholic church: it’s true, but it’s not all that’s true.

Since 1986 Scientology has been led by David Miscavige, a reclusive, shadowy character who, in Reitman’s persuasive portrait, occupies himself by sucking up to Tom Cruise, physically abusing his subordinates and not granting interviews. He has encouraged a culture of fear, secrecy and, worst of all, celebrity worship. Think of Miscavige as one of the most depraved popes ever. But just as the pope does not make Catholicism, Miscavige, who is the black heart beating in Reitman’s book, does not make Scientology. There are trusting Catholics who cannot imagine life without their church. They know nothing of what goes on in Rome. They know only that Catholicism makes sense of their lives. The local priest baptizes, marries, hears confession, gives last rites. What has the College of Cardinals to do with that? And what has David Miscavige to do with the Scientologist next door? Reitman does not have an answer to that question.

Nor is Reitman particularly interested in addressing the theoretical questions Scientology poses about religious liberty and what counts as a religion. For that, one should turn to The Church of Scientology, Hugh Urban’s slim, thoughtful investigation of Scientology as a uniquely American religious phenomenon, one whose history has a great deal to teach us. If journalists are intrigued by all that is dark and unseemly about Scientology, Urban and his fellow scholars of new religious movements (to use the academic term) treat Scientology quite gently. By their trade, professors of religion are disposed to like religious diversity, and to find the latest religion an intriguing curiosity—and the odder, the more provocative it is, the better. They are aware that definitions like “religion” are less expressions of hard fact than reflections of power relationships and prejudice. Everybody thinks her faith is a religion—the other person’s is a cult.

The great virtue of Urban’s book is that he is entranced by Scientology, and generous toward it, without being a dupe. Urban knows the weight of the evidence against Scientology, the near-proof that Hubbard was an opportunist and liar, and that the church is a bit too profitable to seem sincere. But he is more interested in how the church has reflected and influenced currents in American history. After World War II, when Americans were preoccupied with aliens, UFOs and the threat of nuclear war, Hubbard crafted a sci-fi religion. During the McCarthy era, Hubbard was preoccupied with Manchurian Candidate–style mind control, and with ratting out possible communists in his own organization. In the late 1960s and ’70s, when American parents worried that their children were susceptible to fringe movements and cults, Scientology bore the brunt of their fears.

* * *

Most fascinating is Urban’s argument that Scientology has been instrumental in shaping how the US government defines religion. Beginning in 1967, when its tax-exempt status was revoked, the church fought a lengthy battle to have its exemption restored, infiltrating the Internal Revenue Service and harassing agents; in 1993 the IRS caved, offering Scientology a full tax exemption, sweetheart terms on back taxes and an unusual promise of secrecy (the deal was eventually leaked to the Wall Street Journal). Urban seems disheartened that Scientology bullied its way to victory—in Reitman’s book, IRS commissioner Fred Goldberg Jr. emerges as either a coward or a fall guy—but Urban powerfully makes the point that the IRS should not be in the position of deciding what is and is not a religion.

“The United States does not register religious groups and has no official hierarchy of religious organizations,” Urban writes. “And yet, federal income tax law does provide exemption for religious organizations, and, therefore, there must be some means to determine whether a group claiming to be religious is ‘genuine’ for purposes of tax-exempt status.” Supporters of religious tax exemption argue that it promotes religious charitable giving and prevents entanglement of government and religion. But if the government is going to grant religions special treatment, somebody has to approve that treatment, and it has turned out to be the tax man.

In 1977 the IRS promulgated a thirteen-point list of criteria for religious exemption (a recognized creed and form of worship, a formal code of doctrine and discipline, a literature of its own, etc.). It is probably no coincidence, Urban argues, that these guidelines were written “during the height of Scientology’s efforts to reemphasize its religious profile,” to complete its transformation from a philosophy, or self-help group, or whatever, into a religion. The IRS surely would have clarified its rules about religion over time, but it seems clear that the conflict with Scientology forced its hand. Urban writes, “As such, the complex legal and extralegal battles between the church and the IRS have been central to the shifting definition of religion itself.”

It would not be startling if, years from now, Scientology’s main legacy was its substantial contribution—if it can be called that—to tax law. The body of the church is not well. Thanks to Reitman, we now know what has long been suspected: that the leadership of Scientology, and what might be called its clerical order, stinks. They stink the way the Catholic hierarchy stinks. Reitman writes that “a growing majority of today’s Scientologists…were born or raised in the movement.” She does not cite her source for that claim, but if she is right, then the religion truly is sitting on the anxious bench, waiting to see if it will be saved or damned. If most believers today were raised in the church, then we can assume that recruitment is way down. If so, then Scientology could dwindle, like the Shakers and other American religions that lost their appeal. On the other hand, cradle believers can be a sign of a religion’s health: if there are growing numbers of multigenerational Scientologists, then Scientology may be less like other midcentury fads—the Hare Krishnas, for example—and more like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Scientology may be one of those native religions that at first seems bizarre but adapts, grows and eventually thrives in our country’s fecund, undepleted spiritual soil.

Would that be a good thing? In many ways, no. It would mean more people reading L. Ron Hubbard’s tedious books when they could be reading real literature. It would mean more people suspending critical judgment, ignoring the factual record and insisting that Hubbard was a great warrior, adventurer, intellectual and teacher. It would mean more dollars misspent on auditing, instead of on good psychotherapy, badly needed prescription drugs or some really helpful classes at a community college.

On the other hand, if Scientology is still around in fifty years, some lucky Americans will discover in its practices the right cure for what ails them. For whatever reasons, either auditing or Hubbard’s “study tech” or Scientology communication classes will give them what public school—or a Freudian analyst or Judaism or Christianity or the Quaker meeting or the local Masonic lodge—could not. Scientology will give them a community. It will give them a way of life. Yet I remain worried about Scientology, worried enough that I can say this: I hope, fifty years from now, it’s not my children or grandchildren who turn to the church. But I also believe that freedom of religion is necessary. Without it, freedom of speech is a hollow guarantee.

Scientology may not last, but there will always be something like it. Reitman’s and Urban’s books are gifts to all religious people, especially Scientologists. They pay Scientology’s hierarchy the simple courtesy of holding them to adult standards of truthfulness and ethical behavior, and they confront Scientology lay people with some hard truths about their church. They also make the case—Urban’s book, explicitly so—that government and religion do not mix, and that perhaps it would be better, less entangling, to tax religious organizations. Reitman and Urban offer religions the respect they deserve in the form of the scrutiny they require. The Constitution, guarantor of free press as well as free religion, offers nothing less.

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