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Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

April 5, 2014


In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer makes the point that often what separates socially accepted religions from heretical, outlier belief systems is the passage of time. Religions that have been around for hundreds or thousands of years have had the opportunity to refine their rituals and myths, while relatively new religions, particularly in the age of mass media, are often lambasted and portrayed as quackery. But even as religions go, it’s hard to see Scientology anything but quackery.

The conception of science fiction writer, charlatan, narcissist and dabbler in the occult, L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology has a particularly bizarre mythology that reads like a treatment for a Star Wars knock-off. Hubbard developed a pseudo-psychological practice called Dianetics, which, according to the Church of Scientology’s website, “can help alleviate unwanted sensations and emotions, irrational fears and psychosomatic illnesses.” Achieving this state is referred to as “going clear.” Hubbard also created the Sea Org, which serves both as Scientology’s inner circle (over 6,000 members currently) and what has been called a “private navy.”

Scientology gained its controversial status as a religious organization (primarily for the tax advantages) in 1993, after a prolonged operation to harass and dig up dirt on individual IRS employees. Over the years, it has successfully incorporated various practices of self-help programs, corporations, organized crime and religious cults to build an empire of incredible wealth and influence around the world. It uses intimidation, blackmail, extortion, and physical and mental abuse to control its members and threaten anyone it sees as an enemy of the church. And then there are the celebrities—most notably Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley and Greta Van Susteren, who serve to varying degrees as mouth pieces and “proof” that the church can help one succeed in life.

I try not to judge anyone for their personal religious beliefs. We all have peculiar mythologies that help us make sense of the world. But what Wright sheds light on here in dozens of stories is not just how much of a bizarre cult Scientology is, but the amount of money and influence it has amassed over the years. He examines the nature of cults, how and why they can be alluring to certain types of people. But scientology has cleared the hurdles that cause many cults to implode early in their lifecycle, and with its establishment as an official, tax-exempt religion, it has achieved a significant mark of legitimacy. This for an organization that was described in a 1982 Science Digest article as practicing what “may be the most debilitating set of rituals of any cult in America.”

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