Scientology got its start as a tax scam. It’s founder, sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard, needed a way to hide the money he was making as a successful self-help guru via his bestseller, Dianetics, and the notion of forming a “religion” brought on the possibility of earning not-for-profit status from the IRS. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t occur until after Hubbard died, his legacy left to a young upstart named David Miscavige.
Thanks to a premeditated plan of lawsuits and coercion, Scientology got its wish. Now, with less than 50,000 active members in the “church”, the infamous organization can claim nearly $3 billion in value.
Pretty stunning when you consider that this is a faith based on a sham, a set up which claims to help emotional and psychological issues, but actually requires the potential member to spend untold sums of money being “audited” in order to attain an ever-shifting “something” called Clear. It’s then, and only then, where one learns the dogma, Hubbard’s handwritten Creation story — and it’s a whopper.
As he tells it, the Earth was invaded by alien DC-9 airplanes millions of years ago, dropping untold hundreds of frozen humanoids off into the planet’s volcanoes, only to then blow them up with nuclear bombs, sending billions of “thetans” off into the world to latch onto fresh human souls. Via Scientology, it’s E-meter system, and its increasing financial and personal commitment, you can free yourself of these negative influences, like original sin, by putting your faith in Hubbard.
And even after all of this, after making only $0.40 an hour as a member of the Church’s workforce (known as the Sea Org) and suffering punishments ranging from loss of privileges to internment in Scientology re-education camps, people stay. Oscar winner Paul Haggis stayed. So did actor Jason Beghe. Members Tom DeVocht, Sara Goldberg and Hana Eltringham Whitfield stayed, as did high ranking officials Mark Rathburn (Scientology’s former second in command), Office of Special Affairs head Mike Rinder, and one time liaison to one of the organization’s most important members (John Travolta), Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor.
For them, Scientology was an answer to a nagging problem they could never pinpoint. For them, their time in the “religion” was met with initial success and eventual regret. Thanks to Alex Gibney and his fascinating documentary adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s terrific book, we see such a transformation. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief stands as a terrific indictment of this cult, a non-stop series of jaw dropping revelations destined to make you question the sanity of all those mentioned before.
Granted, South Park already mocked almost everything about Hubbard’s hokum, right down to the intergalactic airplane transports and the evil despotic overlord Xenu responsible for the rash of thetans we fight every day, but to see the story of Scientology presented in a no nonsense, serious form, by people who actually believed in it, adds another layer to the lunacy that is the whole faux-faith’s purpose.
It’s rare for such an insider situation to become so “open”. But when faithful like Haggis run head first into some of the Church’s more mean-spirited teachings (in his case, it was the classification of homosexuality as a “disease”) or confusing requirements (Taylor was punished for having a child, but was also asked to get Travolta to attend a gathering), there’s no other choice but to leave.
Not that they do so easily or without issue, since Scientology makes it very clear that, once you join, they retain the rights to your faith. Imagine if you couldn’t go around, as a lapsed Catholic, and tell people about Genesis, or Noah, or the Sermon on the Mount. That’s what happens here.
Since confession is good for the soul, these individuals are using the documentary platform to push their obvious anti-Scientology agenda — and with good reason. They were sold on a Church doing good by the rest of the world. What they got was something much different. The question, of course, is “Why?” Why, if this is nothing more than a path to spiritual and personal fulfillment, are the means of making such a journey so protected, and so problematic? Why, if you learn that your entire belief system is based on what appears to be the lame premise for a bad b-movie, do you not turn and run?
Going Clear illuminates the standards for maintaining the flock: intimidation, embarrassment, alienation and isolation. But it also suggests that someone famous, like Travolta, has hundreds of personal confessions to draw from in order to keep him committed. Or take the Church’s highest ranking, most evolved member, Tom Cruise. For him, Scientology is a wellspring of personal and professional perks, something that even his international fame can’t provide him with. Someone slams his character? Scientology sends in its lawyers. The actor needs a new plane and/or trailer to travel to his next film? L. Ron’s gang foots the bill. Remember those people earning less than a dollar an hour to do the organization’s bidding? They are the one’s installing sound systems in the superstar’s home and picking out his potential paramours.
All fingers point to Miscavige, a growing personal paranoia, and a lack of core leadership post-Hubbard. While the slick charlatan can con Washington out of a simple tax status, he has a more difficult time dealing with the less than happy members of his flock. Thus, we hear testimony about life in “The Hole”, the equally awful camp for the member’s kids (whom Scientology classifies as a “burden”), and the various tortures used to find potential internal enemies to the cause. Again, when you add in the origin story, the NSA like secrecy, the hidden wealth, and the complete lack of transparency, Scientology becomes more like the mafia and less like a legitimate religion.
Scientology doesn’t offer up a god so much as a pragmatic pyramid scheme, which keeps its members goal oriented and constantly seeking something more, for a fee. With all the money coming in, it makes sense that keeping as much of it has possible has always been the group’s primary design. As Going Clear argues, this method of maintaining a religion comes with its own price — the price of people.