A 2008 survey by Trinity College estimated there are about 25,000 committed Scientologists in the United States. As the study’s authors admit, their estimate could be off target. But even if the number of Scientologists were twice as large, Scientology would still be the smallest religion people bother to loathe. There are more Wisconsin Synod Lutherans than Scientologists—most likely by a factor of ten. There are more Hasidic Jews of the Bobover sect. There are more Wiccans. There are, I am certain, more people who thought the world was ending on May 21, 2011, than there are people who believe in this sci-fi religion of e-meters, thetans and a prehistoric cosmic warlord named Xenu. When I say “Scientologist,” half the time people think I mean “Christian Scientist.” L. Ron Hubbard, Mary Baker Eddy: what’s the difference?

Yet we can’t ignore Scientology, if only because the Scientologists won’t let us. You can go a lifetime without being invited to a Roman Catholic Mass, but sooner or later, especially in urban areas, the Scientologists will find you. They open recruitment centers all over the world. They place leaflets beneath windshield wipers, invitations to take free “stress tests.” They brag of sending missionaries to disaster areas like Ground Zero and post-earthquake Haiti. For many years, the church relentlessly harassed journalists, sued critics and fought the Internal Revenue Service over its tax status. Its proud Hollywood adherents include, besides small fish like Jeffrey Tambor and Jenna Elfman, box office whales like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, both quite vocal about their love for the church. Other celebrities express their support with money. In 2007 Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, was reported to have given $10 million to the church.

Scientology is, in other words, aggressively evangelical, and how one reacts to an encounter with it says a good deal about how one views religious freedom generally. We tend to think that freedom of speech and freedom of religion both live in the American soul, but the truth is that most of us value free speech far more than we value freedom of religion. Ask yourself: Should practitioners of Santería be allowed to sacrifice chickens? Should Native Americans be permitted to ingest sacramental peyote? Would you let Catholics send their children to parochial schools to learn their faith, or allow fundamentalist Mormons to take multiple wives? At various times, Americans have answered no to these questions. Even liberals for whom “tolerance” is a sacrament will find reasons consenting adults may not ingest harmless plants or enter plural marriages.

One danger of what might be called Abrahamic ecumenicalism—the idea that Protestant, Catholic, Jew and Muslim can all get along—is that it sets the bar for tolerance rather low. In the United States, where by the third generation every immigrant family succumbs to the English language and a pop-culture religion that venerates Angry Birds, Lady Gaga, Wiz Khalifa, Harry Potter and Entourage, most followers of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad can find a way to get along. Eventually, they locate a moderate mosque, a Reform temple or a prosperity-gospel megachurch. After worship, they agree by text message to meet up at Mickey Dee’s.

But what does the United States say to religious people who remain resolutely weird? That they may practice their beliefs but must expect to face bigotry and harassment? That they deserve legal rights but should also keep their distance—staying in Clearwater, Florida, a major seat of Scientology, but steering clear of our beach communities? Or do we, just maybe, fully accept these religious outliers, knowing that they are not just the price but the fruit of true toleration?

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Still, embracing the free market of religion requires that we be discerning buyers. We can be grateful that America is the country where Scientology may flourish, but we need not be grateful for Scientology. All religions have bloodstained garments, but in Scientology there is more blood on fewer garments, more pints per believer. That, anyway, is the ineluctable conclusion of Inside Scientology, Janet Reitman’s harrowing history of the movement founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954. Scholars and journalists have written articles about Scientology almost since its inception, and there have been memoirs by disaffected believers. But this heartbreaking book is the first thorough investigative treatment of Scientology. Inside Scientology is not the last word; Reitman, who first wrote about Scientology for Rolling Stone in 2006, does a poor job of placing it in the context of postwar American history, and she does not recognize how it is typical of 400 years of American religious experimentalism. But if she cannot give us the aerial view of Scientology, that is only because she has ventured deep inside it and is working hard to light the way.

One problem with being a young religion is that muckrakers can easily get the goods on the founder. We know Muhammad had either eleven or thirteen wives, but we don’t know the details of their marriages. L. Ron Hubbard had three wives, and we know he was briefly bigamous with the first two, that he told the FBI his second wife was a communist and that he tried to have her declared insane. This was in the 1950s, well into Hubbard’s career as a cad, mountebank and all-around louse.

Lafayette Ronald Hubbard was born in 1911 in Nebraska, and as a young man in the 1930s he made a name for himself as a pulp fiction writer. After a World War II career that he would later exaggerate to heroic effect, Hubbard abandoned his first wife and their two children and moved to Pasadena, where he crashed with the wealthy, eccentric rocket scientist Jack Parsons. An occultist who, like many gullible people with an excess of sentiment, enjoyed reading the English “black magick” practitioner Aleister Crowley, Parsons was, Reitman writes, “witty and sophisticated…a ladies’ man whose dark wavy hair and good looks lent him an air of danger.” (Reitman’s subjects are often sketched like characters in a melodrama, but in the case of the self-dramatizing Parsons and Hubbard, this tic makes sense.) “By 1944, Parsons had turned his eleven-bedroom home into a boarding house for the eccentrics of Los Angeles,” she writes. He advertised for “artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists, or other exotic types.” In 1945 Hubbard came to the house as the guest of another boarder, and he moved in immediately. Hubbard and Parsons would often fence in the living room; when Robert Heinlein dropped by, they would discuss science fiction. Later, Hubbard was Parsons’s second in experiments to conjure up a female partner. (When a comely redhead appeared at the door, success was declared, and soon Parsons married her.)

There is nothing admirable about the young Hubbard, but there is a lot that’s charming and familiar. He is a recognizable figure in American religion, the spiritually promiscuous autodidact, ill educated but up for anything, so long as a spell or a funny name is involved. Like Mormonism founder Joseph Smith, Hubbard began with a youthful zeal for spirituality in varied forms, particularly occult or magical practices, and distilled it into something new, which he expressed in a long, boring book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, published in 1950.

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Reitman does a good job summarizing the argument of Dianetics, which became the central teaching of Scientology. For Hubbard, the mind is “a simple mechanism which works very much like a computer,” she explains. “Its main processor, called the analytical mind, is like Freud’s conception of the conscious mind, in charge of daily events and decisions and the management of information.” But the analytical mind is undermined by the “reactive mind,” which promulgates “glitches, or ‘aberrations,’ which manifest as fear, inhibition, intense love and hate, and also various psychosomatic ills…. Painful or traumatic moments are recorded in the reactive mind as lasting scars, which Hubbard called ‘engrams.’” By undergoing auditing, in which a professional auditor asks questions designed to summon, and thus overcome, these traumatic incidents, the patient is rid of engrams and can eventually become “a Clear.”

Dianetics became a bestseller. College students talked about it, suburban couples held auditing parties. Reitman suggests that an anxious cold war population was ready for a do-it-yourself talking cure, especially a kitschy hipster remedy that originated in the dreamland of SoCal. Some auditors started private practices, and Hubbard opened branches of his Dianetic Research Foundation across the country. But problems soon arose. Medical boards investigated auditors for practicing medicine without a license, and psychiatrists denounced and ridiculed Hubbard for his pseudoscientific theories and what they saw as his bogus therapy. Hubbard was a terrible businessman, freely spending the money his far-flung enterprise made. Several early followers defected. In 1951 Hubbard wrote to the FBI, denouncing more than a dozen of his followers in Chicago, New York City and California as possible communists. One was Sara Northrup, the second Mrs. L. Ron Hubbard.

In 1952 the Dianetic Research Foundation went bankrupt, and its remaining assets were sold to a wealthy supporter named Don Purcell, whom Hubbard accused of being bribed by the American Medical Association to destroy Dianetics. In what Freud would have called a case of the narcissism of small differences, Hubbard, who had been a great evangelist for something that looked an awful lot like the talking cure, settled into a lifelong enmity toward psychiatrists.

Hubbard did not get mad—he got back on his feet. That same year, he announced to eighty loyal followers that he had “important new material” to present. The new discovery was the e-meter, a little black box with two metal handles that measures an auditing patient’s galvanic skin response. “It was, essentially, a lie detector, operating on many of the same principles,” Reitman writes. “And it would be used, said Hubbard, in the practice of what he called a brand-new science: Scientology.”

Equipped with the principle of engrams in the reactive mind, and the claim that a skilled auditor using an e-meter could help a willing patient get clear, Hubbard began to rebuild. He wrote pamphlets, internal memos, curriculums and eventually a cosmogony. Access to Hubbard’s growing corpus of secret truths, more of which he discovered, or invented, all the time, isn’t free. The Scientology stuff that gets mocked on South Park—the Galactic Confederation; the prison planet of Teegeeack; our primal souls the thetans, attached to our earthly bodies—is associated with a mental state known as Operating Thetan 3, or “OT 3,” revealed by Hubbard in the late 1960s. OT 3 is a level of learning that takes many years and, according to one scholar of Scientology, tens of thousands of dollars to achieve. “The original goal of Scientology and Dianetics—becoming Clear—was now only the beginning,” according to Reitman. Eventually there were eight OT levels, “each one promising a higher level of personal power and spiritual enlightenment…. Scientologists did not have to believe in OT 3. They had to do it.”

To this day, Scientology is about doing. Local Scientology centers offer books, self-help classes and auditing; if someone reads well, studies hard, gets audited and has the money to keep on keeping on, he may become clear, and then become an Operating Thetan. That is what is to be done. The average Scientologist has not read every word of Hubbard’s, and may have learned about Xenu from television or the Internet, where all the top-secret material has been posted by saboteurs and defectors. The Scientologist need not be a literalist; like Jews and Christians, Scientologists can do metaphors. But the Scientologist probably does believe that Hubbard made real discoveries about the workings of the human mind, and that ascending “The Bridge to Total Freedom,” going beyond clear and becoming an Operating Thetan, is a worthy goal. This “fantasy was sold so effectively,” Reitman writes—at about $3,000 for a complete package of OT levels in the 1970s—“that ‘going OT’ became for Scientologists the equivalent of reaching nirvana or finding the Holy Grail.” After all, even Jesus and the Buddha were not OTs, Hubbard once said. They were “just a shade above clear.”

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.