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Scientology: A Religion, but a Threat to Mental Health?

Hope the Moose don’t mind if I share the English language version of an article for the Polish weekly magazine Krytyka Polityczyna about Scientology. The story of my father is the subject of my next book for Unbound, which should go live in the next two weeks. This is a more impersonal take the religious claims of Scientology which will also form the basis for a talk I have to give in May. Comments therefore very much welcome, both for that and the forthcoming book

Crossposted at Daily Kos

Though it claims to be one of the world’s fasting growing religions, and now holds over $1 billion in liquid assets, last year wasn’t great for the Church of Scientology.  The news that its most famous public adherent and advocate, Tom Cruise, was divorcing fellow actor Katie Holmes brought with it a rash of renewed criticisms of the futuristic religion, including a tweet from the media mogul Rupert Murdoch that it was “creepy – maybe evil’.  This year started out even worse with the publication of a major expose into the practices of the religion. Lawrence Wright, who won the Pulitzer prize in 2007 for his analysis of Al Qaeda, The Looming Towers, has just released his next big opus: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. The book isn’t available in the UK thanks to our draconian libel laws, but Wright’s damaging allegations about bullying, mismanagement and intimidation have been widely reviewed and publicised. Rarely, in its 60 year history, has Scientology’s reputation in its American heartland and homeland been at such a low.

Nonetheless, a greater threat to the new age church may not lie in US free speech but in European legislation. A month ago, after five years of investigation, Belgian prosecutors announced they were charging the church as a ‘criminal organisation’ on the basis it practiced extortion, "pseudo-medicine" and the keeping of records that contravene privacy laws. Though there are only a five hundred Scientologist s in Belgium, Brussels houses the church’s European HQ, and the legal case could be crippling to the group in Europe.

Scientology has been controversial ever since it was founded in the early fifties when science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics – a mixture of self-help, technobabble and psychotherapy. For decades the main complaint about the faith and its organisation was that it was a ‘cult’ rather than a religion. Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Mexico, Russia, the United Kingdom have all refused to recognise Scientology as a religious movement and accord it charitable status.  But from 1983, when the Australian senate ruled that ‘charlatanism’ wasn’t enough to deny it religious exemptions, to  1993, when U.S tax authorities recognized it as an "organization operated exclusively for religious and charitable purposes" Scientology has gone from strength to strength  –  accorded full religious protection in the US, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Italy.

Germany has been a key battleground. In 1997 an interior ministry investigation labelled the organisation ‘totalitarian’ with “objectives that are fundamentally and permanently directed at abolishing the free democratic basic order." But the federal inquiry backfired.  Many Germans found the government intervention in the matter of personal faith troubling.  An open letter to Chancellor Helmut Kohl  in 1996, signed by luminaries such as Oliver Stone, Gore Vidal, Dustin  Hoffman and Mario Puzo, made the parallels with previous “religious discrimination” explicit.

“In the 1930s, it was the Jews”, said the letter. “Today it is the Scientologists.”

This ‘persecution defence” has been a very effective  strategy for the wannabe church ever since. When, in 2007, the British TV reporter John Sweeney tried to make an investigation of Scientology for the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Panorama, the church’s main spokesman Tommy Davis (son of the Hollywood actress Ann Archer) consistently called Sweeney a ‘bigot’.  Davis deployed this Wickerman strategy ( straw man argument combined with incendiary claims of martyrdom) so brilliantly that the reporter completely lost it, and exploded on camera. Sweeney has just published an account of the trolling and harassment that led up to his outburst in The Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology but it was still a PR disaster.

So questioning the religious status of Scientology over the decades has not only failed – it’s backfired, A cursory comparison of the movement with other accepted and protection religions quickly explains why.  In essence, there is no theological or philosophical criticism of Scientology which couldn’t be levelled at most forms of religious faith.

First, the bizarre backstory and cosmology; Scientology claims to free the human spirit through a process of ‘auditing’ until you receive L Ron Hubbard’s ultimate mind-bending insight into the human condition at ‘Operating Thetan Level Three’. All our troubles are due to an ‘incident’ 75 million years ago when an intergalactic tyrant called Xenu  punished the free-spirited Thetans by transporting them to Earth, sealing them in volcanoes, and then blowing them up with hydrogen bombs.

There’s really nothing in this science fiction epic which could not be found in Babylonian myth, the Vedas, or the punishments of Prometheus or Lucifer. Add to that a spattering of Eastern mysticism – Hindu reincarnation and Buddhist detachment – and you have a perfect synthetic 20th Century religion. There’s no God, only self-improvement.  The apocalypse isn’t some moral revelation but a physical cosmic battle. Paradise Lost, remade as a Hollywood B movie. Bizarre it may be: original it is not.

The second charge levelled at the Church of Scientology – that it’s secretive and arcane – is hardly exceptional either. Sweeney uses this line of attack when he declares that “Xenu is a logic bomb inside the Church of Scientology’s claim to be treated just like any other religion…” Sweeney writes that “A ‘religion’ that hides its core belief from the world is not a religion because a true religion must be open about itself to all.” But where is the evidence that ‘true religion’ has to be open about itself?

For centuries the Bible was only comprehensible to scholars who read Latin, and the Qu’ran to those who understood classical Arabic. Despite the populistic claims of Mohammed towards his Ummah, or Jesus of Nazareth to his congregation, secret sects and Sufi-style mystical insights abound in Abrahamic religions.  Indeed, one of the key characteristics of most religious practices from the ‘mysteries’ of Osiris to Free Masonry has been exclusive access to the inner holy of holies and decoding of scripture. Indeed, one could define most organised religion by its hieratic secret practice:  you can’t blame scientology for copying that trick.

The last major charge against Scientology as a cult rather than a religion it financial imperatives

and this has a painful personal resonance for me because my father was a Scientologist from the late fifties to mid-seventies  by which time he’d suffered a second bankruptcy, leaving his family homeless The church charges for its auditing sessions – up to 100,000 Euros to  become an Operating Thetan Level Three- and the pressure on recruits to get discounts on the cost of the services by recruiting new members of the church has often been described as form of spiritual ‘pyramid selling.’

However, even this fails to distinguish Hubbard’s movement from mainstream religion. As anyone who have has the collection box or plate jingled at them in a recent church wedding or funeral will know, pecuniary motives go hand in hand with the most sacred occasions. ‘Tithes’ and other forms of parishioner income tax have built most the places of worship in the world The parallel ‘materialist’ idea, that members of a religious group get financial or career benefits through a ‘network effect’, is surely one the attractions of faith groups. The trust within them explains the historic global networks in high value goods created by Hasidic Jews, Zoroastrians, Armenian Christians or Confucian Chinese. If this works with diamonds, gold  and silk, why should we resent Hollywood actors bringing some religious trust to their high stakes but lucrative industry?

It’s obvious therefore that the ‘cult not a religion’ attack was flawed from the outset, partly because our definitions of religion are so broad, opaque and opportunistic.  It gives the smart lawyers an easy target to knock down. As Lawrence Wright told The Chicago Tribune: ”  hey can bring in a Franciscan monk who lacerates himself on Fridays in imitation of the suffering of Jesus on the cross and who has no belongings at all. Well, that’s a religious manifestation, and it’s very difficult to be against such a thing in this country.” `

Secularism means freedom OF religion, as well as freedom from religion and this spirit of tolerance is cleverly exploited in the Helmut Kohl letter.  To criticise Scientology is, in a sense, to criticise all religious faith and – no matter how delusional we may consider them –  no society can patrol private beliefs without resorting to a form of absolutism or – as Queen Elizabeth 1st put it during her attempt to reconcile Protestantism and Catholicism in 16th Century England – making ‘windows into men’s souls’.

That’s what is so effective about the Belgian prosecutors new move. They have bypassed the tired arguments about whether Scientology is a cult or religion, which bogged own Time Warner for nearly 10 years in costly litigation with church, and closed down the Cult Awareness Network. Instead of the private beliefs they have targeted Scientology’s public affairs – especially when it comes to the privacy of its members and claims for medical cures.

The church will have a hard time defending itself against this. Often central to the Scientology’s message is the claim it can improve health and defeat disease. In 2009 Scientology was convicted of fraud in France for "[pressuring] members into paying large sums for questionable remedies": that conviction was upheld in a French appeals court in February last year. One the church’s most hailed charitable public activities is anti-drugs programme called Narconon, which has dozens of facilities in several countries. However, there’s no scientific evidence to suggest the “Hubbard Sauna Detox” can really counter hard drug dependency, and there have been several investigations into unexplained deaths at the flagship Narconon Arowhead rehab centre in Oklahoma.

Drug addiction is only the tip of the iceberg : Scientology ‘s medical claims include a  much wider desire to replace the current mental health establishment.  Various biographies describe L. Ron Hubbard as having disturbed episodes, and in a post mortem in 1986 his body was found to contain a high dosage of a prescription anti-anxiety drug hydroxyzine hydrochloride. Yet Hubbard reserved his greatest contempt for psychiatrists. Indeed, the exhibition that made John Sweeney fly off in uncontrollable rage in 2007, is a Scientology exhibit called ‘The Industry of Death’ which argues that modern psychiatry is a Nazi pseudoscience, and responsible for the ultimate horrors of the holocaust. Interviewed by Ted Koppel on ABC 20 years ago, Hubbard’s successor as leader, David Miscavige, explained the church’s battle with the shrinks in even more cosmic terms: “There are a group of people on this planet who find us to be a threat to their existence, and they will do everything in their power to stop us. And that is the mental health field. I didn’t pick a war with them."  The casualties of this imaginary war include my father who, having been discharged as a manic depressive from his high flying army career, never once sought proper psychiatric help but instead sought solace in Scientology’s pseudo-science and mumbo jumbo.

Religions reserve their strongest invective for their greatest competitors, and Scientology’s antipathy to psychiatry and psychotherapy suggests a huge hidden dependence. The core practice of the church is the ‘auditing session’ –  a quasi-therapeutic interview where the subject is wired up to a primitive skin conductivity  detector (the ‘e meter’) and asked probing  questions by an auditor about his or her sex life, traumas, anxieties, nightmares.  Signs of stress, measured by fluctuations in skin conductivity, are noted as ‘floating needles’ and pursued vigorously during sessions. This is effectively psychoanalysis with a lie detector. But the ‘tech’ doesn’t end there.

These auditing sessions have traditionally been recorded, and in the latest auditing suites such as the Scientology global HQ in Clearwater, Florida, the interrogations are filmed using hidden cameras, amounting to a form of psychic surveillance.

Other confessional environments, such as the therapist’s  couch or the priests confessional box, have long  established rules of confidentiality and legal privilege.  The growing literature on Scientology records dozens of occasions when the secrecy of auditing sessions have been breached, and the personal revelations there used to manipulate or blackmail. Vanity Fair allege that the secrets of the scientology confessional were broken in the case of Nazanin Boniadi, and Iranian-British actress who was groomed to be a bride of Tom Cruise before Katy Holmes.  But though a scientologist, Nazanin was going out with another scientologist. “According to a knowledgeable source  Vanity Fair reported “she was shown confidential auditing files of her boyfriend to expedite a breakup”. Lawrence Wright claims the current leader of Scientology, David Miscavige, threatened to expose the sexuality of their former poster boy, John Travolta: “He’s a faggot – we’re going to out him.”

I still shudder to think how my mentally unbalanced father would have responded to these apparent manipulative abuses of psychiatry, but he disappeared in 1996, and we discovered only recently he was buried in 2008 near the British scientology HQ in East Grinstead. However, evidence of allegations of privacy breach, extortion and potential blackmail will be tested in the Belgian courts, rather than unprovable claims about past lives, and Scientology will finally have to publicly account for its behaviour.

Peter Jukes is a journalist, author and screenwriter. His book on the hacking scandal Fall of the House of Murdoch was published last year. His next book Son of Scientology: Dad, L Ron and Me will be published later this year. He lives in London


54 comments

  1. mahakali overdrive

    of cults, unfortunately. But I would like to draw attention, strong attention, to something I have not seen widely disseminated on the Left blogosphere despite the fact that the Left has been used as a vector to disperse these Scientology-views: there are a number of fairly common and fairly benign medications which have been increasingly legislated in the U.S. and U.K.

    This has specifically been due to the efforts of Scientologists. They have introduced anti-Psychiatry driven legislation through a number of front groups, including the CCHR. The CCHR is a worldwide organization with incredibly strong Scientology interests. It is biased toward anti-Science, and it is only one of many groups like it. These groups help pass legislation, help “re-educate” doctors with Scientology-slanted medical information, help “inform” the public about these ideas through Left-wing news blogs and sites where those who are concerned with “natural health” often then accidentally join into some ideological grouping with the Scientologists’ extremist views on pseudo-psychiatry.

    I am concerned by this. Gravely.

    We are being legislated by a cult, worldwide, regarding the matter of mental health, and issues of stigma, access, treatment, social views, and even what some medications can — and cannot — do; I have recently heard medical doctors parrot Scientology talking-points to me. Twice now. In a matter of months. One gave me a manual of information and studied which I took home, researched in depth, and found originated with a fairly witless Progressive-Leftist sort of CCHR/Scientology “vector” in the UK.

    What’s happening is terrifying, IMHO.

  2. pittiepat

    program last week about a woman who spent 24 years in its thrall.  What she went through was horrifying.  She and her husband were both sent to (I forget what it was called) what was essentially a re-education facility.  In this case it was a walled off portion of the parking garage in their office building.  They were not allowed to eat, only leftover scraps from the plates of others.  She was 7 months pregnant, compelled to live in darkness and exhaust fumes and forbidden to use the buildings restrooms.  She had to seek out restroom facilities in businesses outside the Center’s building.  No explanation ever given for her treatment and as awful as it was, it took her many more years (and a psychotic breakdown) for her to finally break away.

  3. bill d

    I am sorry that it has hurt your life and it is nice to see the  Belgians going the Al Capone route and get him by way of one of the tangential routes.

    Thanks for the write up, I look forward to your book and I pan on getting Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief soon.

  4. Wee Mama

    there are people who say of themselves, “I’m a recovering X-ist” By that definition Scientology is a cult. Scary stuff.

  5. jlms qkw

    i read your whole diary and thought “that’s just like the lds church” and “this is just like the lds church”.

    the problem is not whether the lds church is a cult or not.  the problem is that millions of people give weekly charitable offerings, and this money is funneled into a business empire, including media.  the problem is that polygamy and child abuse is lightly tolerated.  and the problem is that people get bossed around and assigned to stuff they might never choose for themselves.  and if you don’t toe the line, you are ostracized.  oh and the political influence disproportionate to the population.  

    the preceding is problems i have with leadership of the LDS church, and not any indvidual members like my neighbors.  

  6. Wee Mama

    maybe (though people pay a bundle for its services), and so (marginally) a non-profit. But religious? There’s no claims about god, about transcendence – it’s a techno-psychology with a weird back story. Many Buddhists would also say that Buddhism is not a religion but a practice and a philosophy.

  7. What about Judaism?

    As far as I know, the Jews have never prohibited translation of the old testament into the vernacular, and have, indeed, encouraged Jews to learn Hebrew.  

  8. Vistaril

    In essence, there is no theological or philosophical criticism of Scientology which couldn’t be levelled at most forms of religious faith.

    I dispute this assertion and point to the French court case where much of Scientology’s “scripture” formed the basis for the legal decision there. In short, the French courts found that in the carrying out of its essential functions, Scientology was, in fact, committing fraud.

    Among the many aspects of Scientology “theology” considered by the court is the philisophical statement: “MAKE MONEY. MAKE MORE MONEY. MAKE OTHER PEOPLE PRODUCE SO AS TO MAKE MORE MONEY” (caps in original) which comes from a 1972 Policy Letter. Other material considered was the “Dissemination Manual” which talks about the use of “acceptable truths” (i.e., lying) and the “Hard Sell” pack which details how to use information gleaned from “auditing” to leverage the extraction of cash for more Scientology services. Special mention of the “Hard Sell” package was made in the French judgement when Judge Ch√Ęteau said it was “beyond fanciful” (plus que fantaisiste) that Scientology’s defence of that “scripture” was “taking care of people”. And then there’s the hideously dangerous “Purification Rundown” material . . . and so it goes on; many Scientology “teachings”, much judicial scorn.

    Yes, there was some success in defending the cult from a “religious persecution” perspective back in the 1990s when people like Tom Cruise were lobbying the US state department and President Clinton, but that mendacious manipulation is now being seen through by authorities. As you mention, Belgium, has charged the cult with fraud and extortion in December last year. Much of the basis for its charges stems from the teachings of L Ron Hubbard, including several tracts of “scripture” which provide explicit instructions on how to use personal information gathered in “auditing” sessions.

    Its frustrating that much of this information was already on record with previous Court decisions. In 1984, for example, Justice Latey in the UK said in his judgement (Re B & G (Minors) [1985] FLR 134 and 493:

    . . . Contrary to the assurance of confidentiality, all auditing” files are available to Scientology’s intelligence and enforcement bureau [the Office of Special Affairs] and are used, if necessary, to control and extort obedience from the person who was audited. If a person seeks to escape from Scientology his auditing files are taken by the intelligence bureau and used, if wished, to pressure him into silence. They are often so used and uncontraverted evidence of this has been given at this hearing . . .

    I suggest that Governments are (once again) catching up with the public in viewing Scientology not as a religion, nor as a kooky but harmless UFO cult, but as it actually is: an ongoing criminal conspiracy to defraud; something it has been since 1950 when L Ron Hubbard said he used Dianetics to cure war injuries. As Scientology’s international spokesman Tommy Davis famously said to Lawrence Wright: if it was true that L Ron Hubbard had not been injured (in WWII), 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.”

    IMHO, your defence of Scientology in that it is, basically, “just like any other religious faith” is a nonsense borne of indolent research and it is particularly unhelpful when it comes to dismantling the cult and ending its abuses.  

  9. sricki

    I’m sorry for your father’s experience. Sorry for the illness he was born with, and sorrier still that he did not seek help due to the ravings of religious extremists.

    For myself, I will say this. If I had been a religious person and my religion had demonized and discouraged psychiatry/medication/counseling… I would have been dead right around my 21st birthday. I have zero doubt of this.

    And I grieve for those who (due to religion or ignorance or stigma or any number of other external factors) never get the help they need.

  10. LabWitch

    that they are a dangerous cult with way more power than they should have.

    i know of no religion that advances you according to the amount of money you give them.  all religions ask for money and promise heaven, but scientology, from what i know of it, promises nirvana through cash transactions.

    it sounds more like a confidence scheme than anything else.  a dangerous one that can destroy lives as well as bankrupt members.

    i don’t even think L. Ron thought it should be run like this, i always felt he thought it was a giant con game, but a benign one.  his son, now, that’s the guy that put it where it is now and is making a pile of cash tax free off of it.

    heck any of us could do this, but not one of us would because we have a respect for basic social decency.

    that’s all i gotta say about this one.  

  11. LabWitch

    and, having studied many other religions, i’m very interested in your forthcoming book.  if there is anything i can help with regarding opinion or input, i’m happy to lend you my own take on the subject.  

    in any case, i’ll definitely obtain a copy of your book once published.

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