The Church of Scientology has survived for 60 years by shape-shifting its way into the minds of followers and bullying anyone who dares dissent. That combination of malleability and ruthlessness has fortified Scientology with a fortune in real estate and a portfolio of celebrity defenders.
In the new book Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion, journalist Janet Reitman argues that the Church of Scientology's reign may be in jeopardy unless it finds a way to reform. The church's abusive tendencies appear to be cannibalizing it from within.
Estimating the number of Scientologists is difficult. One 2008 survey by Trinity College put the number of Scientologists in the United States at 25,000. The International Association of Scientologists, Reitman writes, "to which virtually all dedicated Scientologists belong," has 40,000 members, according to reports. She writes, "At most, experts say, there are probably no more than a quarter of a million practicing Scientologists in the world today."
Members are leaving "in droves," according to her sources. Among them is Academy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis (Crash), who has become an outspoken critic.
Two prominent defectors from Scientology's inner sanctum have accused church leader David Miscavige of physical abuse, a charge the church denies. According to Reitman's sources, the FBI is investigating abuse allegations, as well as accusations that Miscavige has "personally enriched himself with church funds."
Yet if there is any lesson to be learned from the breadth of this book, it's that Scientology can reinvent itself from even the most devastating scandals.
Inside Scientology grew out of Reitman's 2006 article in Rolling Stone magazine. With the book, she set out to pen the first modern history of the Church of Scientology. Much of this story has been told before. Reitman's contribution is to weave together Scientology's complex characters and events — the founder and the leader, the beliefs and inner workings, the followers and the celebrities, the scandals and the victories.
She addresses even the most heretical questions surrounding the life of founder L. Ron Hubbard and whether the religion he invented is a religion at all. The portrait that emerges is that of an authoritarian organization that peddles a pricey brand of spiritual self-help in a relentless quest for power and wealth. The eternal freedom Scientology promises doesn't come cheap. "People don't believe in Scientology," she writes. "They buy into it."
The church's story unfolds against the backdrop of American history. The genius of Scientology has been its ability to re-craft its message in keeping with the times. In the 1960s, Scientology billed itself as anti-establishment spiritual enlightenment. In the greedy 1980s, Scientology was promoting "self-improvement" and "Invest in Yourself."
In the celebrity-obsessed 1990s, Tom Cruise and John Travolta became the face of Scientology. During the past decade's era of terrorist attacks, disasters and recession, Scientology was the good neighbor, renewing its civic engagement and focusing on humanitarian efforts.
Scientology is especially adept at identifying the vulnerabilities of potential converts. The church has targeted insecure young actors just breaking into Hollywood and older celebrities whose star power is fading. Fawning and praise win them over. Hubbard even suggested scanning newspapers for victims and then dispatching ministers to their aid. Years later, Scientology's Volunteer Ministers did just that in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
The city of Clearwater features prominently in the book. One disquieting passage describes Clearwater through the eyes of newly arrived Scientologist Lisa McPherson. With Scientology shops and restaurants, Scientology schools, Scientology newspapers written in Scientology lingo and directories for Scientology-friendly businesses, Clearwater, for McPherson, was "like utopia."
Reading the details of McPherson's 1995 death is no less disturbing today than it was 13 years ago when the state of Florida filed criminal charges against the Clearwater church. No doubt Scientology leaders are none too pleased to see this chapter of church history dredged up. The church closed the books on the episode years ago after criminal charges were dropped and a settlement was reached with her family. However, McPherson's death remains a scar on the city.
At times, Scientology's history reads like that of some jungle guerrilla movement, plotting a vicious war of its own making against a not-quite-real enemy. One of the book's strengths is connecting the church's bizarre behavior to the source, Scientology's founder. Hubbard's infamous paranoia is indoctrinated in Scientology philosophy and its organization. A good Scientologist tattles when others make even the smallest misstep. The church constantly polices for potential troublemakers, inside and out.
Scientology's latest battle involves high-profile figures in the organization who have left the church. Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder, once among Miscavige's closest associates, went public with their allegations of his abuse in a 2009 St. Petersburg Times series.
Some of those who have left the church remain committed to Scientology's teachings. They have formed a splinter movement described by Reitman as "people who've remained true to the original theories and teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, though not to the current management of the church."
Reform is needed if the Church of Scientology is to survive, Reitman concludes. Given the history of the church's leadership, that seems unlikely. More likely is another clever repackaging of Scientology to lure new believers and feed the church's growth.
Reitman hints at another possibility for the long term. Real change may come from an altogether different group of Scientologists, a younger generation that came of age with church scandals and perhaps acknowledges the truth behind some of the criticism. These young Scientologists may reshape the organization yet again into the church of their imagination.
Deborah O'Neil covered the Church of Scientology for the St. Petersburg Times from 2000 to 2002.