I’ve always been curious and perversely fascinated by Scientology; not in the sense that I want to join, but rather that I want to understand what exactly it is and how it came to be. We’ve all heard stories about L. Ron Hubbard and how the religion he invented was actually the result of a lark stemming from a bar bet or something like that, where he succeeded in tricking people into buying into a theory that we’re all the spawn of aliens who landed in a volcano millions of years ago, etc. Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion, by Janet Reitman, is the result of years of painstaking research and analysis by the author in her attempt to publish the first-ever comprehensive history of Scientology.
Reitman’s book starts with a biography of Hubbard, the science fiction writer who invented Dianetics in the early 1950′s as an alternative to psychotherapy and then lost Dianetics through bankruptcy but re-emerged by repackaging his theories as Scientology. Based on how his life is described by Reitman, how anyone believed anything Hubbard said or wrote is absolutely beyond me.
While he may have been a charismatic and engaging guy, he is portrayed as a pathological liar who never even came close to doing one tenth of the things he claimed to have done. He told people he was a former explorer, researcher, war hero, sea captain, and a multitude of other glamorous titles, none of which were true. But that didn’t stop people from buying into his theories of self-exploration and self-help. After his health began to deteriorate, he secluded himself in a secret compound in California. When he passed away in 1986, the organization was taken over by David Miscavige, by all accounts a less “crazy” but seemingly more ruthless leader, who seems to have focused far less on thinking of Scientology as a religion, but instead as a business. And he appears to use and abuse his power to exercise unrelenting control over the Church and its members.
While this book is heralded as the first full journalistic history of Scientology and as an evenhanded account, even the most objective, evenhanded reading of it can’t mask the fact that Scientology seems to fit every stereotypical characteristic of a cult. It is absolutely terrifying to read what people who’ve been indoctrinated into Scientology have gone through, and even more terrifying to think that sane people can be held captive the way that they are.
The Church of Scientology has got money coming out its eyeballs. It was able to get itself classified by the IRS as a religious organization and thereby achieve tax exempt status (and the ability to maintain its books as confidential). If you think you’ve felt pressured to tithe beyond your means by your church, you have no idea. Individuals pay freakish amounts of money to be “audited”, something they must do to reach “Clear” status and advance along “The Bridge to Total Freedom”.
As members advance, more and more secrets of Scientology are revealed to them, and they apparently become even more eager to learn what’s behind the next level of advancement. I would say that you can’t make this stuff up, but apparently you can, and apparently people will buy into it. And all along the way, the Church of Scientology is just collecting that money and supposedly using it to further its mission to “clear the planet”. But as you read this book, you see how that money is used for selfish, crazy purposes to satisfy the whims of Church leaders, and how the hierarchy of the Church fosters corruption and abuse of power.
There’s an entire chapter in the book dedicated to Tom Cruise, the most outspoken of the celebrities who’ve joined the Church of Scientology. Celebrities have long been an avenue the Church has used to grow its appeal, and the things it does to court celebrities would blow your mind — complete with spending millions of dollars to renovate one of its compounds before Cruise’s first visit there. The leaders who meet with Cruise fake their way through a bunch of stuff specifically to make it look like Scientology is perfect for Cruise, and they continue to cater to him outside of the normal protocols until he’s hooked. Of course, when he reaches OT3 level and learns that the stuff about the aliens is actually for real, he freaks out and backs away. But they get their hooks back into him and allegedly mastermind his divorce from Nicole Kidman. It’s just bizarre — even more bizarre than you can imagine.
Scientology has reportedly used spies and secret operatives (including the largest domestic espionage case in history), fraud, frivolous litigation, and all sorts of other unscrupulous means to continue its growth, gain more power, and build more wealth. This book explains it all through anecdotal evidence and data collected from current and past members. Absolutely fascinating stuff. A must read for anyone with any interest in American culture. If you’d like a taste of what the book has to offer, check out Reitman’s original article for Rolling Stone that lead to this book.