Staff Reviews

Understanding Scientology

A look inside the controversial church.


The last several years have been rough ones for the Church of Scientology. Since 2008, a number of high-ranking defectors have come forward to condemn the church's current leadership. There's a growing list of books by ex-members that detail a shocking array of abuses within the church. Withering exposés of Scientology have appeared in The St. Petersburg Times and on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, while the faith's innermost secrets were mercilessly ridiculed in a 2008 episode of South Park

Most recently, the church has been the focus of three major books: my own academic work, The Church of Scientology (Princeton), and two journalistic accounts: Janet Reitman's Inside Scientology (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and Lawrence Wright's Going Clear (Knopf).

Of these last two, Wright's book is arguably the more balanced, thoughtful, and empathetic, offering not an "exposé" but rather an attempt to understand the effects of religious beliefs in people's lives, exploring the allure, the benefits, and the perils of involvement in this complex new religion. Indeed, at certain points, Wright bends so far over backward to be fair to the church that he risks undermining the credibility of his own narrative.

Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker, begins his account by focusing on one ex-Scientologist, movie director Paul Haggis. Wright uses Haggis' case to introduce the initial appeal of Scientology, the church's powerful role in Hollywood, and also Haggis' progressive disillusionment with the contradictory, unsettling, and bizarre aspects of the movement.

Wright then offers a remarkably sensitive portrait of Scientology's enigmatic founder, L. Ron Hubbard, telling in a compelling way how a penny-a-word pulp fiction author wrote a tremendously popular self-help book, Dianetics, then went on to create one of the most successful new religions of the 20th century. While the Church of Scientology presents Hubbard as the most important man who ever lived and critics denounce him as a madman and a charlatan, Wright offers a more complex and human portrait, trying to account for the tremendous influence this figure has had on millions of readers. In Wright's narrative, Hubbard appears as neither a monster nor a saint but as a man who was often surprisingly insightful, yet also egotistical, manipulative, and abusive. Wright narrates particular pieces of this tale especially well, such as the suicide of Hubbard's gay son, Quentin, after which Hubbard allegedly complained, "He's done it to me again!"

The heart of Wright's book is part two, "Hollywood," which explores the church's success among celebrities and entertainers, at once attracting stars with the promise of unleashing their unlimited creative potential and exploiting their star power for public relations and advertising. Wright details John Travolta's early entry into the church in the 1970s and provides the fullest account to date of Tom Cruise's intimate relationship with the church's current head, David Miscavige. Not only does Miscavige regularly work out and ride motorcycles with the actor, but apparently he also ordered an elaborate search for a new girlfriend for him after he broke up with Penélope Cruz.

Wright remains poker-faced throughout the book, even when narrating the more astonishing allegations of violence, abuse, and just plain weird behavior. Thus he provides graphic yet calm descriptions of the church's infamous disciplinary program, the Rehabilitation Project Force, where members have allegedly been crowded into pitch-black basements, dressed in black boiler suits and filthy rags, and deprived of food, sleep, and rest. And he calmly narrates what is surely one of the most surreal episodes in American religious history, when Miscavige allegedly forced his senior executives to play a brutally violent all-night game of musical chairs to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Wright works so hard to present a fair and balanced account of Scientology that in some places the reader may have trouble keeping a straight face. In his concluding remarks, Wright offers the following assessment of Hubbard's work: "It would be better understood as a philosophy of human nature; seen in that light, Hubbard's thought could be compared with that of other moral philosophies, such as Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard, although no one has ever approached the sweep of Hubbard's work." L. Ron Hubbard compared to Kant and Kierkegaard? Even for a sympathetic scholar of comparative religions like myself, these sorts of statements are difficult to take seriously. I suppose Hubbard's work is greater in its sweep if we include his elaborate speculations about the past history of the universe and space-opera adventures on other planets going back 60 trillion years. Even so, I don't see it being read in college philosophy classes any time soon.

A second problem with Wright's book is methodological. Throughout his narrative, Wright relies heavily on the accounts of ex-Scientologists, whose versions of history he appears to accept largely at face value. Certainly the official accounts provided by the Church of Scientology need to be read skeptically and critically, and Wright rarely takes Hubbard's or Miscavige's versions of history at face value. But it is less clear that he has applied the same critical analysis to the accounts of ex-members, who surely also have agendas, axes to grind, and simply their own subjective views of events.

One final disappointment is Wright's almost exclusive focus on the role of high-profile Hollywood figures in the church. As Wright sees it, "Scientology orients itself toward celebrity, and by doing so, the church awards famousness a spiritual value." Obviously, this is what most general readers will want to hear about, and Wright does narrate this piece of Scientology's tangled history in an engaging, thoughtful and entertaining way. Yet by continuing to focus our attention on the church's comparatively tiny celebrity side, Wright perpetuates the most common stereotype of Scientology and also obscures the lived reality of the vast majority of ordinary Scientologists. What is it like to be a non-celebrity Scientologist in Cincinnati or Akron, someone who never "goes Clear" and neither knows nor cares about the Xenu story? What is it like to grow up as a child in the Sea Org, which Wright himself tells us is the true inner core of the church?

These and many others aspects of this complex movement remain to be explored and understood. We can only hope that another writer as thoughtful, even-handed, and eloquent as Wright takes up these other chapters in the long, strange story of Scientology.  

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  1. The most interesting aspect of Scientology is the break-out groups of believers who just reject the official Church of S. A lot of them seem like nice, harmless people who want to worship in their own way.

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    2. What is missing here is how the “Church” of Scientology gets away with FAR more “religious freedoms” than other churches do. I have to get a prescription for a “dangerous medical device” known as a “lung flute”, which is nothing but a cheap plastic flute; a toothbrush is more invasive into my body that a flute is. Yet the Scientologists use a quasi-medical device known as an “E-meter”, in violation of Government Almighty court order, no less, which has been going on for decades. See…..p?id=41507 ? And also…..s-than-god is excellent, it clearly shows that in the USA we have separation of Government Almighty and ALL religions EXCEPT for Scientology, which is darned close to the official religion of Government Almighty. Clearly then we are in need of my new church, see the link buried in my name up top ?

  2. I’m more interested in understanding why anybody gives a shit.

    1. I used to. I was fascinated by the bizarre history of the church, the bizarre beliefs of the practitioners, the bizarre behavior of the leaders, the dirty tricks, the people who broke out and the people who stayed, all that crap.

      At some point I realized that there’s nothing essentially different from any other church. There are leaders who abuse their power, there are followers who are well-meaning but believe things that are wrong, there are followers who are nuts, and there are former followers who realized it’s a bunch of bullshit. And now I don’t care so much.

      1. The major difference between Scientology and other religions is the price tag.

        1. And the spaceships…

          1. Is it necessary to castrate ourselves before committing suicide if the spaceship we’re hopping a ride on isn’t the one hiding behind the Hale Bop comet?

        2. How so? At various points in history various flavors of Christianity have demanded a lot more than the “Tithe” we consider traditional. So have most other ‘religions’. At the same time, religions clearly deal with a basic human need, or so called ‘atheists’ wouldn’t fall for so much pseudo-scientific claptrap. The test of a religion, it seems to me, must be what kind of society does it foster, over time. By that standard, Protestant Christianity comes of as slightly better than Judaism, the secular ‘religion’ of socialism, the Japanese Shinto beliefs, and the Roman Catholic Church, and one whole hell of a lot better than Islam, Communism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Paganism.

  3. watched The Master and Pluto Nash last night. Pluto Nash was much better.

    1. Scary!

    2. That’s interesting considering how many people died in the aftermatch of Pluto Nash.

      Never Forget.

  4. Religion is for the weak-minded and gullible. Religion for the sheeple!!

    1. “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness;”

  5. Thank you for pointing out how Write obscures the lived reality of an everyday scientologist. You can paint the picture anyway you want, that is freedom of speech. Everyday, good, positive things happen in and out of every group on this planet, bad things happen too.
    The question is, what are you going to focus on?
    There is not one person on this planet that doesn’t have some dirty laundry.
    Can we get some real insight into the lives of the person? or do we
    only take the broad strokes good or bad filtering the story the way
    we want it to be, interject our own opinions and so completely alter
    the true story, just to make sensational headlines and sell a book.
    How Write got a Pulitzer is a good question, considering his hack job on Scientology. Sure he can craft words but to use your craft to do harm to gain fame? Surely his soul is a bit blacker.
    I wonder who financed him, and why? I am sure that in 10 years we
    will find out, but too late to revert the impact.
    Such is true of so many underhanded chicaneries in our world.

    1. “How Write got a Pulitzer is a good question, considering his hack job on Scientology.”

      Uh, this sort of “hack job”?
      …”Wright offers the following assessment of Hubbard’s work: “It would be better understood as a philosophy of human nature; seen in that light, Hubbard’s thought could be compared with that of other moral philosophies, such as Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard,”…

      You wouldn’t be a bleever, would you?

      1. First off I don’t operate on belief. I operate on,does it work, does it answer questions, does it increase our abilities.

        “A philosophy of human nature” how quaint,
        and how shallow that is. Hubbard’s works plum the very essence of life. A full codification of the mind and life, that when applied properly will give predictable results. No one in the history of man has even approached this level of detail, exactness and workability. No one. You can scorn the management, you can blast the idiots who haven’t learned it well enough to apply it correctly,(we do that with doctors, lawyers, engineers, mechanics, employees, managers all the time) but the work is far more then just a “belief”, and the name Scientology is well picked. It means, Knowing how to know.And if you haven’t noticed, that skill, or ability, is highly lacking in our education system.

        1. Firefly| 6.15.13 @ 8:43PM |#
          “You can scorn the management,”

          No, I’ll just mock the idiot bleevers; that’d be you.

          1. And my point is made.

            1. Firefly| 6.16.13 @ 7:11PM |#
              “And my point is made.”
              Correct: You’re an idiot bleever!
              Tell us about those spaceships, idiot bleever. Love to hear the story.

        2. “Scientology is well picked. It means, Knowing how to know.And if you haven’t noticed, that skill, or ability, is highly lacking in our education system.”<<br /
          How ironic, given that Hubbard’s “Study Tech”, which he claimed was the answer to all the problems with education, is roundly dismissed by education experts outside of Scientology as being a few concepts cribbed from other sources, with Hubbard’s own form of grooming children to become Scientologists slipped in there.
          Nope, Scientology is not the answer to life’s problems, despite the fact that some people (a rapidly shrinking number, I might add) have been duped into thinking it deserves credit for anything good that happens to them, while blaming any misfortunes on “suppressive people” or the “psychs”.

        3. Dude, get some serious professional help. You don’t have to be an idiot nut-cult zombie. Many people have escaped, and you can too.


    2. and, here come the clambots!

      Scientology is a vicious, criminal nut-cult, and their crimes were personally ordered by Hubbard.


      1. And your the saint come to save us?

        Or are you just another apostate that harbors ill will, built off your own stupidity and ignorance.

        Success breads such jealousy in all areas of life.

        1. Firefly| 6.16.13 @ 7:20PM |#
          “Or are you just another apostate”

          You make the claim you’re not a bleever and then you call someone an “apostate”?
          Stuff it up your butt, you lying asshole.

        2. Or are you just another apostate

          Why no, clambot. I was never stupid enough to fall for the line of bullshit that Hubbard sold you.


      2. John C. Randolph| 6.16.13 @ 4:23PM |#
        “Scientology is a vicious, criminal nut-cult”

        It’s no longer a cult to the gov’t’; it can deliver too many votes.
        So it’s now a religion like are mythologies and firefly is an idjit bleever.

  6. The “ordinary” scientologists I’ve met are also well meaning and generally good people.

    However I’ve experienced or witnessed examples aggression, deception, defamation and attempts at entrapment. Since this behaviour was directed at critics of the church of scientology I can only put it down to the church of scientology’s doctrines.

    One young scientologist asked me if it was “all just a game” I said in a way you could view life as a game, with hindsight I should have realised she was trying to confirm a justification she’d been given for some action she’d been asked to take by the church of scientology. A week later she claimed a critic assaulted her and he videoed the act; the police raided his house and he spent time in the cells, assault charges were dropped. I don’t believe she’d have done this had I taken more time to work things through with her.

    The church of scientology is self serving, it usurps natural desires to “help make a difference”, of “self improvement” and to be a “better person” to make peole do wicked things. It is the epitome of the quote “Good people do good things, bad people do bad but to get good people to do bad you need religion”. It is not alone in doing this but that doesn’t justify it’s actions and it’s on the extreme end of the scale.

    To understand scientologists you have to understand why people take up illogical belief systems, it’s human nature.

    1. “Good people do good things, bad people do bad but to get good people to do bad you need religion”

      It’s good to test such platitudes against reality. Atheist regimes force plenty of “good” people to do bad things, and some of them go along with good intentions.

      One could say that many of today’s atheist dogmas count as “religious”; Jeremiah the prophet refers to some pagan beliefs that man descended from animals and came forth from rocks..

  7. The uninitiated might enjoy reading about Jack Parsons, founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, whose wife was stolen by L. Ron Hubbard, shortly before he was blown up by his carelessly stored chemicals:…..de_Parsons

    1. Well, I guess 6 years isn’t “shortly,” and Sarah was his mistress, but what I meant to get across was that Parsons is the more interesting character of that crew.

      What I don’t get is why more people don’t plainly see the Church of Scientology as Hubbard’s tax shelter.

  8. Scientologists are also responsible for buying up all of the Direct Metal Mastering lathes in the US:…..ich-better

  9. What if the Roman Emperor Diocletian or Judas wrote diatribes concerning Christians? Would you write a critique on their writing ability and publish their hatred without any research data as to what Christianity is about?
    Why don’t you, Mr. Urban, write an article on Mein Kampf and explain to us how well Hitler wrote concerning the condemnation of the Jews without explaining what Judaism is.
    Your article contains absolutely no Scientology research data at all, just your own, apostates, and Mr. Wrights prejudice. Shame on you, especially as a professor of religious studies. I believe you owe Scientology a big apology.

    1. Surely you can’t be serious…right?

    2. That was his criticism of Wright’s book.

    3. Ah yes, the old Scientology claim that any criticism of Scientology’s many scams and abuses is just like Jews being persecuted by Nazis.
      The trouble is, Scientology is a for-profit corporation trying to sell pseudoscience as a product. Judaism is not.
      Also, notice the claim that any information that comes from “apostates” (ex-members of Scientology) is unreliable. The Scientology PR machine tries very hard to convince people that the only source of info on Scientology should be its own overblown sales pitches and overpriced books and courses. Too bad for them that these days people are able to get plenty of info on the scam of Scientology without spending a dime. That’s part of why Scientology is losing membership faster than ever.

      1. More unsubstantiated overblown allegations
        backed by no facts or basis of reference.

        Gee, did write a book too that I can run and buy?

        1. Deny, deny, deny. That’s all Scientology defenders seem to do these days. Too bad all the info backing up everything I said is easily researched. Start with “Scientology Controversies” on Wikipedia and go from there. Are you “free and able” enough to do so?

        2. Firefly| 6.16.13 @ 7:30PM |#
          “More unsubstantiated overblown allegations
          backed by no facts or basis of reference.”
          More stupidity from the idjit.
          Go ride on your spaceship, bozo.

          1. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them–in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

    4. Blow it out your ass, clambot. Ever since your criminal nut-cult tried to delete alt.religion.scientology from USENET, thousands of people have learned what you’re all about.


      1. Wow, I feel so much better knowing that.

        Thanks for the education, I will go off and be quiet now.

        1. Firefly| 6.16.13 @ 7:32PM |#
          “Wow, I feel so much better knowing that.”

          You’d feel better finding a brain cell, asshole.

  10. When looking around the world at all of the death and destruction brought about by this madness called “islam”, why in the Hell should anyone worry about Scientology?

    1. I agree, there is definitely a need for the people of Islam who are not radical,
      to stand up against those within their religion who make such a shame for what is otherwise a good influence.

      Scientology crosses vested interest worth trillions. How they go about black balling it is a great documentary to be sure. Getting the common people to fight it, is a key pillar of the plan.

      1. Islam today, as a life-governing philosophy, is worth about as much as Christianity was at about the same age – which is to say a vast pile of ignorant shit.

        Societies that control their religions always have ‘better’ religions, and get more social value and justice out of their religions, than societies that are controlled by their religions. And that is Islam’s fundamental problem today.

        Scientology and Mormonism (a cult sharing remarkable parallels with Islam) are religions that did not spark in a political vacuum like Islam, hence the founding megalomaniac could not truly run amok, but were forever emasculated from true temporal power.

        When religion, any religion, gets a crack at animating a polity it rapidly goes totalitarian, ignorant, and murderously corrupt. Every time.

        1. “When religion, any religion, gets a crack at animating a polity it rapidly goes totalitarian, ignorant, and murderously corrupt. Every time.”

          The reason for this is obvious. Idjit bleevers like firefly bleeve they’ve found the ‘one true path’!
          Logic be damned; they’ve FOUND IT, and they’re willing to enforce it!
          1917 all over again. Many deaths to follow…

      2. Good luck with that “plan”, as Scientology seems to be its own worst enemy most of the time, since it is a slave to the paranoid, exploitative, outdated methodologies of L Ron Hubbard.

        The “common people” have learned to recognize a scam when they see one, and that’s got Scientology’s leaders very nervous.

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  13. L Ron was a freaking genius. He straight up told Robert Anton Wilson he needed to start a religion to make money, because his sci fi books just didn’t sell.

    And you know what? L Ron did just that. He cooked up a crazy sci-fi money making scam that made him ludicrous amounts of cashola.

    Yes its very creepy stuff, but credit where its due – L Ron got his paper, yo.

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