What I Read This Week – 6/7 – 6/13/12

13 Jun

As a resident of the city with the largest Scientologist population and massive Scientology centers/churches, I have always been interested to find out more about what it’s all about. I had heard rumors of odd, clannish behavior at churches (no outside photography allowed!), billion year service contracts and hard sell, unsettling recruitment tactics, but I had no proof of any of these allegations.

Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion has received great reviews for not just her writing, but her desire to stay as unbiased as possible. She interviews not just angry Scientology dissenters and those who have left, but also those who have stayed within the church (well, the few that would agree to meet with her, at least). She goes through Scientology’s history in great detail, from the very early days when it was portrayed as an alternative to the popular psychoanalysis of the 1950’s to the self help era of the 1980’s to the “religious” movement it is today. Scientology has always been wily and changeable, which has contributed to its popularity.

It’s hard to be sympathetic to the Scientology organization. Former members point out many egregious mistreatments by Scientology, including punishments such as forced labor and seclusion. There have been allegations of women being pressured into getting abortions. Censorship is rampant. The outside world and information is off limits to members. When collected all in one place, the allegations are overwhelming. Plus, people have to pay for all the spiritual services that Scientology provides. Scientologists can go tens of thousands of dollars in debt to the church, and have to work for them to pay it off. It’s basically 21st century indentured servitude. The fact that Reitman would try to give Scientology a fair shake is laudable; I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it.

What I took away from the book that is most helpful in my understanding of Scientology was that Scientology is less a religion, and more of a self-help/self-realization movement. Scientology sued the IRS like CRAZY in the 80’s in order to be classified as a religion for tax exemption purposes. L. Ron Hubbard told his followers that it wasn’t a religion though. When you toss out the religious origin story (ALIENS WHAT), it becomes more obvious how people could get in to Scientology. People, especially the young and moorless, are always going to be looking for help in becoming their best selves. Scientology steps into that gap…and then asks the seeker to pay thousands of dollars for the answers they provide.

The book was a bit of a slog at times, especially when it was going through detailed organizational histories, but overall it proved to be helpful first step in understanding this organization. I do recommend it to anyone who has been interested in knowing more about this movement.

Or….you could just watch this clip of the Scientology origin story from South Park. It pretty much sums it up.

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