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.