When the LA Times put a story today about the Internet assault on Scientology in the Calendar section, was the paper settling the half-century-old debate about the sincerity of Scientology as a religion or just filling a weak entertainment section?
The day before ExScientologyKids.com launched, another inflammatory allegation about the church began to circulate virulently online. “L. Ron Hubbard Plagiarized Scientology,” read a headline at the popular Internet culture blog BoingBoing. The post linked to images of a translated 1934 German book called “Scientologie,” which critics say contains similar themes to Hubbard’s Scientology, which he codified in 1952, according to a church website.
These were just the latest in a series of Scientology-related stories to burn across the Internet like grass fires in recent weeks, testing the church’s well-established ability to tightly control its public image. The largest thorn in the church’s side has been a group called Anonymous, a diffuse online coalition of skeptics, hackers and activists, many of them young and Web-savvy. The high-wattage movement has inspired former Scientologists to come forward and has repeatedly trained an Internet spotlight on any story or rumor that portrays Scientology in unflattering terms.
No corner of the Web, it appears, is safe for Scientology. Blogger and lawyer Scott Pilutik recently posted a story noting that Scientology was yanking down EBay auctions for used e-meters, the device the church uses for spiritual counseling. EBay allows brand owners—Louis Vuitton or Rolex, say—to remove items they believe infringe on their trademark or patent rights. Basically, fakes. But, Pilutik said, the used e-meters being taken down were genuine. Reselling them was no different than putting a for-sale sign on your old Chevy.
“What’s actually going on here,” he wrote, is that the church is “knowingly alleging intellectual property violations that clearly don’t exist.” Within a day Pilutik’s blog had gotten over 45,000 visitors—so much traffic that his site crashed completely.
Facing a steady stream of negative publicity and a growing number of critical voices, Scientology has found itself on the defensive.
The church has referred to Anonymous as a group of “cyber-terrorists” and, in a statement, said the group’s aims were “reminiscent of Al Qaeda spreading anti-American hatred and calling for U.S. destruction.”
“These people are posing extremely serious death threats to our people,” said church spokeswoman Karin Pouw in a phone interview. “We are talking about religious hatred and bigotry.”
Scientology has certainly been under assault lately, from that revealing piece in Rolling Stone to Germany’s efforts to ban it and the war launched against it last month in Hollywood. But Pouw, I think, is reaching when she calls this “religious hatred and bigotry.” This is criticism, something all religions have had to face. And most haven’t resorted to frivolous lawsuits to silence their detractors.