By Eric Thomas
Lawrence Wright’s expose into Scientology was hailed as the definitive record on the religion when it dropped in early 2013. Late in the year it was nominated for Non-Fiction book of the year. Many reviews claimed that Wright finally revealed the truth about Scientology’s fallacies, and the church recoiled in anger at the sight of their secrets exposed on page after page of well researched and footnoted bombshells. Some reviews rode on their high horse, speaking angrily about Scientology’s crimes against humanity.
For me, it was one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, published by Vintage last year, was pure fun. In the end, I found myself very sympathetic of Scientology and Scientologists in general. My perspective might be a little different than most because I’m not a person who’s ever adhered to any religion. I view Scientology and other more mainstream religions through the same lens, and I would never begrudge anyone their beliefs regardless of what form they may or may not take.
Scientology begins with L. Ron Hubbard, and so does Going Clear. I enjoyed every page of Hubbard’s story. He’s one of the best characters I’ve ever read in any book. He reminds me of Don Quixote, bumbling his away across the landscape with his mind driven mad by fiction. He decided early on that he was a great man, although he couldn’t quite define how, and launches across the country in search of his own greatness. The section concerning Hubbard is easily the book’s best, with laugh out loud scenes—Hubbard becomes a Satanist; Hubbard convinces people to take a boat trip which never even makes it out of the harbor; Hubbard joins the Navy, somehow manages to take command, and the results are disastrous—and a life of stops and starts.
Hubbard threw his full commitment into every endeavor no matter how small. It seems like his convictions could lead him in any direction, and whatever his interest, he threw his full self at it with an intensity usually associated with Braveheart-style military charges. He had the ability to draw followers in almost every aspect of his life, because people easily confuse certainty with intelligence; but while Hubbard was excellent at drawing a flock, he never really had anywhere to lead them.
This isn’t to say that Hubbard winds up as a sympathetic figure; far from it. He had a habit of starting families and leaving them, completely severing ties from his children when he walked away. When Scientology takes hold and Hubbard is literally adrift as the captain of Sea Org (it takes too long to explain Sea Org, read the book if you’re interested) he launched an effective espionage campaign against governments called Snow White. He started the ignominious practice of destroying Scientology’s detractors through any means necessary. Hubbard, according to Going Clear, intentionally destroyed people who criticized him. Followers are imprisoned, detractors are bankrupted, and Hubbard’s own son commits suicide.
Lawrence Wright does an excellent job being even handed with Scientology. Throughout the book, he points out that the religion’s origins aren’t that different than other more established faiths. Theologists point out that young religions often go through a rebellious phase, where they commit outrages against their own followers, detractors and others, citing plenary indulgences and the inquisitions specifically. The only difference, of course, is that Scientology happens in modern times, when when the distance of time doesn’t blur the origins.
The book takes a slightly more sinister turn after Hubbard’s death, when the hot-headed David Miscavige assumes the head of the church. Scientology is well established by then, with dungeons for misbehaving followers and rumors of Miscavige resorting to physical violence against people close to him (rumors that the Church vehemently denies). It also chronicles Tom Cruise’s time with the church, and the multi-millionaire actor doesn’t come off well. He’s presented a view of the Church that other members don’t see. While Cruise is presented with cabins filled with fresh picked flowers and catered meals prepared by an expert culinary chef, Scientology’s other followers are thrown into dungeons for crimes which are never fully articulated to them.
Even though the Church clearly treats its flock with a certain cruelty, it should be noted that their followers have a choice to walk away. Much of the book is presented from the perspective of a self described apostate, Oscar nominated writer and director Paul Haggis, who joined the Church at a young age and decided to walk away when he found out that the Church donated to anti-gay causes. Any of Scientology’s followers could do the same at any time. While they live in fear of being shunned by family and friends, all of the people in that transaction do so at their own choice. It’s not Scientology itself which breaks families apart; it’s the people within the itself Church who choose to adhere to such rules. No religion is evil; no religion is good. Every person within a church has his or her own choices, and the choice to leave is always available regardless of anything else.
Going Clear is a great book. When I reached the end, I found a deep appreciation for the history of Scientology as a religion. There are obvious warts along with high crimes and misdemeanors—Miscavige’s own wife has been “missing” since 2007—but what religion doesn’t? You meet many followers among the pages of this book for whom Scientology has been a tremendous benefit. We live in a country that guarantees citizens freedom of religion, and if Scientology gets them through the day, who are we to judge?