“Some will doubt you,” said the unseen, deep-voiced narrator. “Let them. Dare to think for yourself …”
During this year’s Super Bowl, the Church of Scientology bought commercial time to feature an ad calling on “the curious, the inquisitive, the seekers of knowledge.” But recent accusations against the church, might prove too much for one 30-second ad spot to overcome. Despite the group’s claim to offer the way to enlightenment, many still view it as nothing more than a celebrity-laden scam.
Since its founding in 1954, the Church of Scientology has been the subject of journalistic exposés, government investigations, and denunciations from former members. Several recent books indicting Scientology’s public image and practices have reignited speculation. Critics question how influential the organization really is, with antagonists and skeptics contending that beneath Scientology’s glittering surface lies a twisted web of deceit, paranoia and abuse.
Three new books about Scientology are currently on the market, including The Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology, by journalist John Sweeney, and the tell-all memoir, Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, by Jenna Miscavige Hill.
Another highly publicized release is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief. The book provides a sweeping look at the Church of Scientology, tracing the religion from its founding by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard to its current leader, David Miscavige.
Wright’s avowed reason for writing Going Clear is to discover why Scientology—a religion known for its secrecy, far-fetched claims and draconian punishment system—has appeal. Based on more than 200 interviews with former and current Scientologists, his book reveals a church in which the founder fabricated military exploits, staff are regularly abused and children sign billion-year contracts to work for low wages under poor conditions.
“What do its adherents get out of it?” asks Wright. “How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible?”
Scientology has dedicated a website to correcting what its leaders say are errors in Wright’s book. In a statement to ABC News, the church called Going Clear “a work of fiction” filled with “ever-changing bizarre tales invented by a handful of confessed liars.”
An esoteric religion, Scientology teaches that humans suffer from negative memories of past lives. By applying Hubbard’s theories—which involve hours of study and one-on-one “auditing” sessions—members can achieve a state of “clear” and live as Operating Thetans, pure spirits.
According to a recent CBS News survey, however, 70 percent of Americans doubt Scientology is a true religion. The church has been viewed as a moneymaking enterprise because of its landmark real estate and expensive membership fees. On its website, Scientology claims growth of more than 4.4 million adherents each year. But skeptics put the number much lower—tens of thousands, and falling.
“Scientology is actually a very small organization,” said Tony Ortega, a former Village Voice editor who spent almost two decades reporting on the religion and is currently writing his own book about the church. “Several independent lines of evidence suggest the total number of active church members around the world numbers only around 40,000.”
Despite its apparently modest size, Scientology has garnered more media attention than other groups because of celebrity members. In a CNN interview, author Lawrence Wright affirmed the church’s founder viewed celebrity as a kind of “spiritual value,” helping the religion attract recognition. In the 1960s, Scientology built The Celebrity Centre in Hollywood specifically to court artists and actors.
“If you subtracted Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley and John Travolta and others from the list of Scientologists, I don’t think people would really know what the organization is,” Wright told CNN.
Ortega adds that Scientology’s “bullying tactics” and odd beliefs about past lives and space opera (a term for extraterrestrial civilization and alien interventions) also make it a source of fascination. But Scientology has undergone greater criticism in the last five years due to former members reporting abuse, Ortega said. The new books by Sweeney, Hill and Wright are a blow to a movement already in crisis.
In Ortega’s view, Scientology has had little, if any, effect in America because of its small size, deep secrecy and “terrible” reputation. He believes its presence in the religious landscape will only diminish as more critics speak out and the media becomes bolder in reporting on the group.
“The bottom line is, Scientology is in serious trouble,” Ortega said. “It just has a lot of money. And it uses it in shocking ways, to punish people it perceives as enemies. If there's one thing the members of other faiths need to know about Scientology, it's that.”