Thursday, February 12, 2015

HBO Versus Scientology

There's a fine line between a New Religious Movement and a cult. While the term "cult" is sometimes thrown around to mean any religion that one doesn't happen to approve of, there is also a more technical definition that describes specific harmful practices. Such cults generally separate people from family and friends during their involvement, and then ostracize anyone who decides to leave. They demand that members donate extravagant amounts of money. They subject members to varying forms of punishment which are doled out on a whim and to which the only alternative is to leave the group. And so forth.

Perhaps the largest organization that arguably fits this second definition of "cult" is the Church of Scientology. While representatives of the church claim that it's just another new religion, reports of cultish behavior have been coming out of the organization for years. Now HBO has gotten in on the action, with a new documentary that claims to expose the truth about the organization. The documentary is based on the bestselling 2013 book Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, who interviewed many former members of the church and compiled their stories.

Among the bombshells asserted by eight former church members: Scientology intentionally broke up Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman; it tortured some of its members in a prison known as "the hole" and subjected others to hard labor; it harassed those who left the organization and forced their family members to cut off all contact.

The film offers an intimate portrait of founder L. Ron Hubbard (or LRH as he's referred to by members) and follows the rise of current leader David Miscavige, alleging his misuse of power and that he physically abused several members.

The film also claims that Hubbard beat and threatened his first wife and kidnapped their daughter, leaving her in Cuba in the care of a mentally disabled woman. It also detailed Hubbard's elaborate cosmology incorporating space aliens, invading spirits, volcanoes and other elements that his sci-fi writing had contained.

As usual, the church claims that the book contains fabrications by disgruntled members while at the same time issuing legal threats to HBO and the producers. To be fair, it wouldn't surprise me to find that some of the stories are at least exaggerated. The problem is that there are so many of them from so many different people. It seems that the only way they could all be false is if everyone involved were part of some enormous conspiracy to discredit the church, which simply strikes me as implausible. And none of the individual stories make Scientology look like a benign religious movement.

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