Uncovering Scientology

scientology recruiterGive me your first guess. What publication would devote nine months to report on a super-secret, cult-like group that claims millions of adherents along with some of Hollywood's most famous people, namely Tom Cruise? Well if you're thinking Scientology and guessed Rolling Stone magazine, you'd be correct.

In one of the most thorough accounts I've ever seen on Scientology, Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman goes to great lengths to get inside the group, and she has 13,660 words to show for her work. It's an incredibly long article, but well worth the read. I suggest chewing on it in segments. Otherwise it's a bit overwhelming on the eyes and the morale.

Much could be said on this article. I'm hoping my fellow GetReligion bloggers will chime in when they get a chance to read the piece along with you all with comments. Please focus your thoughts toward the journalistic issues contained in the piece.

To begin with, Reitman brings the reader inside the reporting process, explaining what she had to do to obtain interviews with people inside the group and why most of the former members quoted in the story had to be renamed or mentioned anonymously (they fear retaliation, according to Reitman).

scientology crossUnlike many Rolling Stone pieces on religious issues, the article does not immediately dismiss Scientology as completely "out there." In this case, Reitman allows the religion to speak for itself:

Scientology is also America's most controversial religion: widely derided, but little understood. It is rooted in elements of Buddhism, Hinduism and a number of Western philosophies, including aspects of Christianity. The French sociologist Regis Dericquebourg, an expert in comparative religions, explains Scientology's belief system as one of "regressive utopia," in which man seeks to return to a once-perfect state through a variety of meticulous, and rigorous, processes intended to put him in touch with his primordial spirit. These processes are highly controlled, and, at the advanced levels, highly secretive. Critics of the church point out that Scientology, unique among religions, withholds key aspects of its central theology from all but its most exalted followers. To those in the mainstream, this would be akin to the Catholic Church refusing to tell all but a select number of the faithful that Jesus Christ died for their sins.

In June of last year, I set out to discover Scientology, an undertaking that would take nearly nine months. A closed faith that has often been hostile to journalistic inquiry, the church initially offered no help on this story; most of my research was done without its assistance and involved dozens of interviews with both current and former Scientologists, as well as academic researchers who have studied the group. Ultimately, however, the church decided to cooperate and gave me unprecedented access to its officials, social programs and key religious headquarters. What I found was a faith that is at once mainstream and marginal -- a religious community known for its Hollywood members but run by a uniformed sect of believers who rarely, if ever, appear in the public eye. It is an insular society -- one that exists, to a large degree, as something of a parallel universe to the secular world, with its own nomenclature and ethical code, and, most daunting to those who break its rules, its own rigorously enforced justice system.

ron hubbardOne thing you cannot miss in the article is the financial drive of the organization. Nearly everything costs money. Lots of money. The second thing you'll notice is the secretive nature of the organization. The article portrays the organization as desperately attempting to squelch dissent among and outside its ranks. Finally, one definitely gets the sense that everything in the church centers on founder L. Ron Hubbard.

One thing I was wondering about was the explanation given for Hubbard's authority. I know some people say he is (he never died, according to Scientologists, he just left his physical body) the "coolest guy ever," but that's not enough for me. Christians derive their faith from Jesus Christ, Muslims from Muhammad. Ron Hubbard was a science-fiction writer. What's the spiritual draw there?

Another thing I think Reitman could have given more attention to was the legal angle. An organization of this size must leave some type of legal imprint, or crater -- especially considering its battle with the IRS for tax-exempt status in 1993, and the number of people who have alleged exploitation and retaliation. Nevertheless, the size of the Scientology movement (is it even a movement?) is certainly up for debate:

Church officials boast that Scientology has grown more in the past five years than in the previous fifty. Some evidence, however, suggests otherwise. In 2001, a survey conducted by the City University of New York found only 55,000 people in the United States who claimed to be Scientologists. Worldwide, some observers believe a reasonable estimate of Scientology's core practicing membership ranges between 100,000 and 200,000, mostly in the U.S., Europe, South Africa and Australia. According to the church's own course-completion lists -- many of which are available in a church publication and on the Internet -- only 6,126 people signed up for religious services at the Clearwater organization in 2004, down from a peak of 11,210 in 1989. According to Kristi Wachter, a San Francisco activist who maintains an online database devoted to Scientology's numbers, this pattern is replicated at nearly all of Scientology's key organizations and churches. To some observers, this suggests that Scientology may, in fact, be shrinking.

time cover on scientologyBut discerning what is true about the Church of Scientology is no easy task. Tax-exempt since 1993 (status granted by the IRS after a long legal battle), Scientology releases no information about its membership or its finances. Nor does it welcome analysis of its writings or practices. The church has a storied reputation for squelching its critics through litigation, and according to some reports, intimidation (a trait that may explain why the creators of South Park jokingly attributed every credit on its November 2005 sendup of Scientology to the fictional John and Jane Smith; Paramount, reportedly under pressure, has agreed not to rerun the episode here or to air it in England). Nevertheless, Scientology's critics comprise a sizable network of ex-members (or "apostates," in church parlance), academics and independent free-speech and human-rights activists like Wachter, who have declared war on the group by posting a significant amount of previously unknown information on the Internet. This includes scans of controversial memos, photographs and legal briefs, as well as testimonials from disillusioned former members, including some high-ranking members of its Sea Organization. All paint the church in a negative, even abusive, light.

The article suggests that the organization has incredible powers of intimidation (as the South Park incident illustrates). Is this why other media organizations have not taken a closer look at the group? I wonder. Could this article change that?

Two final questions with which I leave you: why haven't other religiously oriented publications tackled this subject? And why did Rolling Stone run with this and spend nine months and 13,660 words on it?

Time magazine devoted a cover story to the subject back in May 1991, stating that "Scientology poses as a religion but is really a ruthless global scam -- and aiming for the mainstream." (Because I am no longer a subscriber, I was unable to access the entire article, so those of you with access, let us know what you think.) Is Scientology arriving in the mainstream? And if this is true, one would think journalists would burn some shoe leather and spill some ink in order to poke away at this group that poses as a religion, yet demands incredible sums of money from its followers.

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