Scientology's apostates

So 25,000 words on religion -- from The New Yorker--makes me pretty giddy. OK, it's about Scientology, which continues to keep journalists fascinated for its celebrity draw and secrecy. But hopefully this kind of piece shows how religion can make really compelling journalism. You'll find a little bit of everything in this piece: celebrities, money, abuse, family, sex, power, etc. Religion often touches all of that and more. Lawrence Wright's new cover story hooks on why screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, who directed Crash and wrote the screenplay for Million Dollar Baby, resigned from the Church of Scientology in 2009 after 35 years. Haggis, who has two daughters who are lesbians, departed after the church declined to publicly stand against Proposition 8, the California proposition that stated that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

The author carefully presented his reporting in historical context, drawing from numerous interviews and original sources. For the most part, he tries to plainly present some of the details, allowing the Church of Scientology to respond, and leave it to the reader.

The article cites a survey suggesting that only 25,000 Americans actually call themselves Scientologists. "That's less than half the number who identify themselves as Rastafarians," the author writes. The church does not offer an official membership number. Despite its small size, journalists (think the St. Petersburg Times' and Rolling Stone) have found the secrecy and the celebrity side (think Tom Cruise and John Travolta) fascinating. Here's a section that exemplifies the interest in celebrities.

Josh Brolin told Wright he once witnessed John Travolta demonstrate Scientology healing powers on Marlon Brando at a dinner party. According to Brolin, Brando arrived with his leg cut. Travolta touched Brando's leg, while Brando closed his eyes. "I watched this process going on--it was very physical," Brolin said. "I was thinking, This is really f****** bizarre! Then, after ten minutes, Brando opens his eyes and says, 'That really helped. I actually feel different!'" Travolta denies it ever happened.

Normally, I'd love to pull out more sections to look at the good, bad and ugly, but this piece is too massive to do that. I suggest listening to the author's fantastic NPR interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross for those behind-the-scenes details. For instance, The New Yorker assigned five fact checkers to the story (one fact checker full-time since August) and sent the Church of Scientology 971 fact-checking questions. Wright also explains why he loves to pursue religion-related stories, saying he loves to try to understand why people choose to believe what they do.

Wright also says that one of the most interesting parts of a meeting with a Church of Scientology spokesperson was discussing the founder of Scientology's medical records. L. Ron Hubbard said that he was blind and a 'hopeless cripple' at the end of World War II, healing himself through measures that later became the basis of Dianetics, the book that became the foundation for Scientology.

Eventually, Davis sent us what is called a notice of separation--essentially discharge papers from World War II--along with some photographs of all of these medals that [Hubbard] had won. ... At the same time, we finally gained access to Hubbard's entire World War II records [through a request to the military archives] and there was no evidence that he had ever been wounded in battle or distinguished himself in any way during the war. We also found another notice of separation which was strikingly different than the one that the church had provided."

Beyond celebrities, this essentially challenges the whole story upon which Scientology was built. There are also several allegations that leader David Miscavige abused his staff. Wright says that he's spoken to 12 people who say they've either been beaten by him or have witnessed him beating other people. Then there's the alleged disappearance of his wife.

Miscavige's official title is chairman of the board of the Religious Technology Center, but he dominates the entire organization. His word is absolute, and he imposes his will even on some of the people closest to him. According to Rinder and Brousseau, in June, 2006, while Miscavige was away from the Gold Base, his wife, Shelly, filled several job vacancies without her husband's permission. Soon afterward, she disappeared. Her current status is unknown. Tommy Davis told me, "I definitely know where she is," but he won't disclose where that is.

The Church of Scientology released an official statement to the article, calling it "irresponsible" and saying Wright rehashed already disproved allegations to "garner headlines for an otherwise stale article."

Annoyed that he didn't think to call Haggis first, executive editor of Esquire Mark Warren decided to whine a little bit, calling for a moratorium on coverage of the Scientology "creeps," for five years when there are "bigger creeps" in the world.

Why all the fuss over Scientology, when your resources and time might better be directed at the finances, earthly corruption, and raw power of, say, the Catholic Church, an institution that wields influence incalculably greater than Hubbard's itty-bitty religion?

...As much good and necessary journalism as came out of the Catholic pedophilia scandal, it still has been just piecemeal and fragmentary compared to the monstrous size of this global crime. And when compared to the ink spilled over Scientology during the same period, the coverage of Rome shrinks even smaller.

Maturity in action.

Back to the piece, I also listened to The New Yorker's weekly mp3 where the author discusses some of the journalistic uniqueness of covering Scientology. Because the leaders are so secretive, reporters tend to be more limited to writing pieces that uncover often negative details. Also, reporters tend to talk with people who have left Scientology or want to reform it, so that often presents a particular point of view. Mark Oppenheimer, for instance, wants more access.

So add this piece to your evening/weekend reading via e-mail, Kindle, iPad, Instapaper/Read it Later (or print it out, if you're into that) and tell us what you think. If other blogs are any indication, I'm anticipating the same comment from someone named Louanne who copies and pastes responses about the "thinly veiled tabloid piece." Welcome, Louanne. If you do chime in, please keep comments specific to the facts.

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