Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
This time last week, I only knew a few basic rumors about Scientology. I heard that it is a cult that brainwashes its adherents and doesn’t allow them to leave.
But I had no idea how Scientology succeeds in controlling its members or how it continues to get away with bad behavior while still maintaining its protected status as a tax-exempt, government-sanctioned religion.
The wonderfully substantive HBO documentary “Going Clear” answers these questions and more. Now I feel like an expert on Scientology – and I’m genuinely afraid to publish this review.
Master documentarian Alex Gibney argues that Scientology isn’t a true religion that has gone astray: it was a scam from its inception. The founder – science fiction author L Ron Hubbard – told his wife that the only way to make real money was to establish a religion. And with his 1950 best selling self-help bible Dianetics, Hubbard did just that.
The scam is simple: church members pay the church to undergo audits. Audits are like psychiatry sessions where a church insider encourages you to reveal your innermost secrets while a contraption called an E-Meter measures your brain response.
The more audits you pay for, the higher your level in the church. If you reach a high enough level, you get to read L Ron Hubbard’s secret history of the universe – which is effectively a sci-fi story about the evil alien overlord Xenu. If you are able to afford the fees to reach the highest level in Scientology, you are promised a clear soul. And maybe super powers.
So, what’s the big deal? If you don’t like Scientology, you can just leave, right?
Not so fast. The church carefully labels any friend or relative who is not pro-Scientology as a Suppressive Person (SP) and pressures the church member to disconnect with them permanently. If it looks like you are about to quit, church leaders pour through your audit records to find the most embarrassing secrets that you revealed and threaten to expose you if you leave.
And if the isolation and blackmail isn’t enough, they punish former Scientologists by harassing them for years – especially if they dare to criticize the church.
The difference between a decent country and a bad country is that a truly bad country will build walls and fences to prohibit citizens from leaving. The same goes for a truly bad religion.
In the 1990s, Scientology faced an existential crisis. The government was threatening to strip the organization of its tax-exempt status and collect $1 billion in back taxes.
The church didn’t just defend itself; it fought back hard. In a clever and diabolical gambit, the church filed lawsuits against the individual IRS agents who were working their case. Before long, the IRS was eager to get the heck out of there and leave Scientology’s leadership alone to work their scam in peace.
And maybe that was the right outcome. “Going Clear” makes a strong case that the church exploits, imprisons, and even tortures its members. But no one argues that Scientology is destructive to society at large. As long as you and your family stay the heck away, Scientology will never be a problem for you.
Or maybe I just wrote that conciliatory conclusion because I’m worried that the Church of Scientology will be enraged by my column and come after me. It really is a scary organization.
[this column was written entire by max abrams and in no way represents the opinion of the owners, staff, or publishers of the Washington World newspaper.]