Introducing his controversial subject, Lawrence Wright reports that the Church of Scientology claims membership of 12 million, an assertion that has to be regarded as flimflammery. By contrast, “[a] survey of American religious affiliations compiled in the Statistical Abstract of the United States estimates that only 25,000 Americans actually call themselves Scientologists. That’s less than half the number identifying themselves as Rastafarians.”
Why, then, is Scientology such an object of fascination, not only to the American public but across much of Europe as well?
Obviously, the public’s unending worship of celebrity is a partial explanation, and Wright goes to the heart of this matter by devoting a large portion of Going Clear to the stories of Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and others who pass as luminaries in Hollywood today. Throughout its 60-year history, the Church of Scientology has focused laser-like on public personalities that would help it gain wider public attention and recruit new members. Wright’s intensive treatment of the Oscar-winning scriptwriter and director Paul Haggis — a member of the church for 35 years — clearly illuminates this fixation on stars and stardom.
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
But celebrity alone can’t explain the enduring interest in what is, at best, a minor fringe religion, and a particularly kooky one at that. The church apparently possesses a multi-billion-dollar real estate portfolio, with properties scattered across the globe, and the organization generates annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars. David Miscavige, who has been the undisputed leader of Scientology for a quarter-century and calls the shots at every turn, is thus for all intents and purposes a billionaire. Judging from what it costs the church to feed him and his wife, he lives like one, too.
Even so, what fascinates many of us about Scientology are not the halo of celebrity or the Church’s wealth. To me, at any rate, it’s the profound mystery how the Church could have survived so long despite the massive human rights abuses committed by its leaders for more than half a century. Among these are the frequent resort to physical abuse; involuntary confinement, sometimes for years on end; blackmail based on information revealed in Scientology’s equivalent of confession; child labor; and forced abortions when members of the Church’s equivalent of the priesthood, the Sea Org, become pregnant against Church policy. Though widely reported and documented in innumerable interviews and articles, these abuses are routinely denied by the Church — which tends to respond not with simple statements but, typically, with lawsuits. Scientology’s litigiousness is legendary.
The religion’s theology is equally mysterious. Leaked documents and reports by former Scientologists have revealed a litany of incomprehensible and preposterous tales that form the core of the church’s beliefs. The Founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was one of the most prolific writers of all time — Wright reports he is credited with having written more than 1,000 books — and was best known for his science fiction novels and stories. The theology of Scientology revolves around Hubbard’s claim that the universe is trillions of years old (not 13 billion, as scientists assert), and that the roots of humanity’s unhappiness lie in an incident 75 million years ago in the Galactic Federation. There, the evil overlord Xenu and his co-conspirators (mainly psychiatrists) “fed false information to the population to draw them into centers where Xenu’s troops could destroy them. ‘One of the mechanisms they used was to tell them to come in for an income-tax investigation,’ Hubbard related. ‘So in they went, and the troops started slaughtering them.'”
How nutty is that?
The simple truth is that L. Ron Hubbard was what I can only regard as a raving lunatic. A man who worked for years as his medical officer noted his “‘Paranoid personality. Delusions of grandeur. Pathological lying.'” All these traits are easy to see in Wright’s narrative, which reveals other disagreeable aspects of Hubbard’s behavior as well. He spent the last five years of his life in seclusion. “Fleeing subpoenas from three grand juries, and pursued by forty-eight lawsuits, all naming the founder, Hubbard slipped away from public view on Valentine’s Day, 1980.” And Hubbard’s successor, David Miscavige, though a very different person, clearly shares the Founder’s paranoia as well as his tendency to strike out violently at those around him. Hubbard was known to batter his first two wives, and Miscavige, a bodybuilder, has been frequently reported as beating his followers when displeased — hundreds of them, all told. For example, “Gale Irwin says she confronted him, and Miscavige knocked her to the ground with a flying tackle.” Later, Wright reports, a Scientology executive “spoke up about the violence [and] was beaten by two of Miscavige’s assistants and made to mop the bathroom floor with his tongue.”
This leads to the greatest mystery of all: why does no one complain? Oh, there are many former Scientologists who talk freely about all these matters, but literally thousands of others who continue to participate in the Church (by enrolling in courses that cost them tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years). Wright finds the explanation in a simple core belief: “Scientologists are trained to believe that whatever happens to them is somehow their fault . . . The possibility that the leader of the church might be irrational or even insane was so taboo that no one could even think it, much less voice it aloud.” Wright elaborates: “Belief in the irrational is one definition of faith, but it is also true that clinging to absurd or disputed doctrines binds a community of faith together and defines a barrier to the outside world.” This is what Wright terms “the prison of belief.” It’s a terrifying concept that conjures up memories of the self-deluding Germans who followed Hitler.
One of the most publicized incidents in the history of Scientology was the announcement by the Internal Revenue Service in 1993 that it had restored the church’s tax-exemption (which had been removed in 1967). The reason for this IRS action, though undisclosed, was that Miscavige’s church had filed a total of some 2,500 lawsuits against the IRS and assigned private detectives to dig up embarrassing information about the private lives of many top IRS officials. In the face of this assault, which went on for years, consuming inordinate amounts of the government’s limited resources, the IRS caved when Miscavige agreed to drop all the lawsuits and remove the private investigators.
Wright makes it clear that the popular understanding of the IRS case — that the Church of Scientology wasn’t really a church — is in error. IRS staff had never been able to fashion a definition of religion that would exclude Scientology. After all, many, perhaps all other religions also make claims that non-believers find preposterous. I’m certain you and I could name at least a few.
Going Clear seals Lawrence Wright’s place as one of the preeminent nonfiction writers of our time. Just seven years ago his masterful book about Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. If anything, Going Clear represents an even greater accomplishment, putting to shame previous efforts to tell the story of Scientology. Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker.
For further reading
Not long ago I wrote this review about an earlier study of Scientology: Inside Scientology: set up your own religion, and make a billion dollars.
I’ve also reviewed Lawrence Wright’s novel, The End of October—An all-too timely thriller about a pandemic.
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