Neil Macdonald: Scientology and the cloak of religion

Author Lawrence Wright's new book unmasking celebrity-fuelled Scientology and its decades of dirty tricks should be a warning to all about what an organization with enough money and zealous acolytes can do, Neil Macdonald says.
The bastion-like Church of Scientology in Los Angeles, firmly entrenched in the land of the celebrity. (Reuters)

Scientology is a religion. Of that there is no doubt.

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service says so, and in this country, that's pretty much the final word.

The designation means a lot legally, but as a matter of objective fact it is neither a laurel nor a pejorative.

It merely lumps Scientology in with all the other belief systems, from the Big Three of monotheism, with their billions of followers and hundreds of sub-sects, right down to self-proclaimed prophets seeking to found new faiths.

To each his own gods and rituals. For those of us who live wholly in the secular world, no religious doctrine is more or less credible, or worthy of ridicule, than any other.

The law must look upon all religious belief with indifference, and does, at least in most Western nations.

But, after reading Lawrence Wright's searing new investigative book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, my usual indifference has given way to concern.

On second thought, make that fright. And not just about L. Ron Hubbard's secretive army of adherents.

Because Wright's book demonstrates in granular detail what an organization with enough money and zealous acolytes can do once it has wrapped itself in a religious cloak: assault, conspire, burgle, forge, perjure, spy, bully and intimidate anyone who gets in its way.

Convince your flock that they are above earthly laws, and they go about their task with, well, religious ferocity.

Dirty tricks

In Scientology's case, as Wright explains, the church targeted any and all opponents to an almost unimaginable degree.

It coordinated campaigns to smear and frame investigative journalists, driving one courageous author, Paulette Cooper, to waste away and contemplate suicide (until the church file on Cooper was uncovered by the FBI).

Defectors from Scientology were tracked down and punished. In one case, an apostate died during her "treatment" — extended solitary confinement and controlled diet.

Then the church targeted the medical examiner who had refused to rule the death an accident. (She changed her ruling to "accidental," satisfying the church, and then retired, becoming a recluse.)

In fact, if Wright's meticulous research is correct, Scientology's nasty methods triumphed in just about every case.

Not only could the U.S. government not protect the individuals from the savagery of Scientology's dirty tricks department, it couldn't even protect itself.

After the FBI uncovered evidence in the 1960s that Scientology had systematically infiltrated government departments with church spies, Scientology's tax-exempt status was revoked, triggering a two-decade war with Washington.

According to Wright, the church in that time filed 2,500 lawsuits, swamping government lawyers. Scientology agents dug into the private lives of IRS staff, looking for evidence of drinking or marital cheating, then planted news stories on them.

It offered a $10,000 reward for dirt on the tax agency.

Body armour

Eventually, the IRS backed down, defeated. But fight any temptation to cheer.

Actor Tom Cruise, one of Scientology's more prominent adherents, gives a speech at the inauguration of a Scientology church in Madrid in 2004. (Paul Hanna / Reuters)

Effectively, what we have here is a profit-making machine that disregarded the law to pursue restitution of its tax-exempt status, which in turn made it even more potent, even more immune to the rules that govern the rest of us.

Yes, other big profit-making entities push government around, too — just take a look at Wall Street — but none has the body armour of a church.

Skeptical? Ask yourself this: If it were proved that senior employees of Microsoft, or Bank of America, had been sexually assaulting minors worldwide for decades, overwhelmingly young boys in their care, and senior company management had been complicit, either ignoring the abuse or actually taking steps to cover it up in order to protect the company's image, how long would it be before that company would be facing a Justice Department strike force? Or bankruptcy?

Yet the Roman Catholic Church was, at most, dented by such horrific revelations. Individual priests have been charged worldwide, yes. But efforts to hold the church hierarchy responsible for the crimes that were covered up have been exceedingly rare.

Inevitably, that is because of the severe pushback that any large religious organization can command if it feels threatened.

Populated by aliens

A signal moment for Scientology came in the mid-1980s, during a lawsuit that threatened to make public some of its doctrinal secrets.

Scientologists believe Earth was formerly called Teegeeack and was populated with aliens by a dark lord named Xenu, who stuffed them into volcanoes and destroyed them with hydrogen bombs.

The spirits of these aliens subsequently attached themselves to humans, but they can be shaken free by a series of very expensive counselling courses offered by, of course, Scientology. Such courses can easily eat up life savings, and have.

The church believed that the public revelation of these secret beliefs would hold it up to ridicule, perhaps even permanent damage.

So Scientologists attacked the lawyer suing them, bugging his home and infiltrating his office. They harassed the judge, going so far as to involve his son, who was gay.

When none of it worked, they tried to flood the legal process and gum up release of the documents, which were nonetheless published in the Los Angeles Times.

But the church was wrong about the damaging potential of its secret doctrine. The revelations caused some tittering, and vanished.

Perhaps that is because while the doctrine might have indeed been fantastical to some, it's hardly unusual.

Tens of millions of Americans take other such stories as the literal truth: Mormons with their belief in extraterrestrial life and the supernatural qualities of their undergarments; Christians with their talking snake and virgin birth; Muslims with their flying horse and human ascension to heaven; the Raelians with their group sex, spaceships and swastikas.

The list is infinite. But in a democracy, the state must regard all such ideas as equally valid.

And the fact is, no one has anything to fear from religious parables and doctrine, as long as they remain in church.

The trouble almost always begins when people begin to think that divine laws supersede those of their fellow human beings. The fact that religions enjoy certain immunities from taxation, and from what goes on between spiritual adviser and believer, doesn't help.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.