One advantage of starting a religion in antiquity is that Rolling Stone was not around to ask awkward questions about Moses or Jesus or Muhammad.
By contrast, Janet Reitman — a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and author of its 2007 cover story about Scientology — has brought the modern arsenal of investigative journalism to bear on the Church of Scientology, which she calls a “shape-shifting” organization that can be described as “alternative to psychotherapy, social movement, transnational corporation, cult, religion.” Now Reitman presents her findings in an exhaustive but fascinating book, “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: $28).
Reitman maintains a scrupulous journalistic discipline, and she cannot be fairly accused of attacking “America’s least understood new faith.” She never actually says that it’s a “dangerous cult,” and she doesn’t wonder out loud whether it ought to be called a religion at all, but she certainly reports when others do so. Her goal, she insists, is “to write the first objective modern history of the Church of Scientology.” Her research may be unimpeachable, but her point of view is unmistakable.
“The traditional religious bedrock — worship, God, love and compassion, even the very concept of faith — is wholly absent from its precepts,” she writes. “And, unique among modern religions, Scientology charges members for every service, book and course offered, promising greater and greater spiritual enlightenment with every dollar spent. People don’t ‘believe’ in Scientology; they buy into it.”
The story begins with L. Ron Hubbard, whom Reitman describes as “salesman, guru, sea commodore, spymaster, poet, recluse, tyrant, and, last but not least, a very rich man” and whom she calls “one of the most effective hucksters of his generation.” A prolific writer of science fiction, he penned a self-help book titled “Dianetics” in 1950 and then transformed it into the sacred text of a new religion — “Book One” is what the Scientologists call it today. Although Hubbard died in 1986, the author points out that Hubbard remains very much alive in the imaginations of his followers. “I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form,” Hubbard once confessed, and Reitman shows how fully he has achieved his aspiration.
Reitman goes on to show how the science-fiction underpinnings of Dianetics — the use of an “E-meter” to “audit” the human mind and to thereby liberate the imprisoned “theta beings,” if I have correctly grasped the fundamentals of Scientology — were put to use in the founding of a new religion. “This reframing from the ‘mental science’ of Dianetics to the religion of Scientology was a typically canny move by Hubbard,” Reitman writes. “It was probably not lost on L. Ron Hubbard that the most popular therapist and self-help guru in America, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, was also a minister.”
Above all, however, Hubbard had found a way to place Scientology beyond the reach of the law. “As practitioners of ‘mental science,’ Dianetics and Scientology auditors had been scrutinized for lacking the appropriate medical or psychological licenses,” Reitman explains. “[A]s clergy, they could counsel whomever they wanted, under the protection of a church. They could also claim tax-exempt status.”
By the 1960s, Scientology appealed to certain of the baby boomers who were challenging all of the old assumptions, including religious ones. “Had the sixties never happened,” writes Reitman, “Scientology might have gone the way of other fringe movements and died a quiet death. Instead, repositioned as a mystical quest rather than an alternative health therapy or religious movement, Scientology rode the countercultural wave.”
Scientology regarded a number of conventional sources of authority, including psychiatry, journalism and government, as deadly enemies. Fearful of scrutiny by law enforcement, IRS agents and reporters, Scientology adopted a policy designed to detect and purge unreliable members and organized “a clandestine army of informants” to conduct counter-espionage. Hubbard himself went into hiding and was never seen in public after 1980.
After Hubbard’s death in 1986, the focus of the book turns to his disciple and successor, David Miscavige, whom Reitman describes as “volatile and driven.” Miscavige presided over a landmark settlement of IRS tax claims against Scientology: “The war is over!” he proclaimed to a gathering of 10,000 Scientologists at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in 1993. “The future is ours.” But, as Reitman points out, he also headed the organization as it confronted new crises, including the criminal prosecution that resulted after the death of a member who had been forcibly confined for treatment of a mental illness.
Miscavige, she writes, is “a relentless promoter, cooler and less eccentric than L. Ron Hubbard,” and “under his leadership, Scientology’s brand would become flashier.” His greatest coup was the recruitment of Tom Cruise to serve as the spokesman for Scientology: “This guy is so famous,” exulted Miscavige, according to one of the author’s sources, “he could change the face of Scientology forever.”
The chapter about the “seduction” of Tom Cruise is the juiciest tidbit in the whole book. When the initial “audit” of the young action star revealed that he was afraid of guns, Miscavige took him skeet shooting at Scientology’s secret base at Gilman Hot Springs in the California desert. Still, when some of the “hidden truths” of Scientology were finally revealed to Cruise after seven years of membership, he “freaked out and was like, ‘What the f—- is this science fiction s—-?’ ” or so says one source. Still, Cruise fulfilled his promise as a proselytizer: “Tom talked and acted as if he were a clone of David Miscavige.”
Reitman makes no prophecies about the fate of Scientology, which she characterizes as a “fundamentalist” faith with its own apostates, many of whom were happy to speak with her. (To its credit, so was the Church of Scientology.) “Whether it will endure in spite of that rests on whether its basic mission — to ‘clear’ the planet and thus create a Scientology world — remains vital to its flock, and to their children.” The rest of us, thanks to Reitman’s work, can only watch and wonder.