Religion is a pyramid scheme: Scientology and the lasting lesson of "Going Clear"

Alex Gibney's new documentary is more than an exposé. It's an urgent reminder that salvation is big business

Published April 2, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

The Church of Scientology of Los Angeles building.                  (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)
The Church of Scientology of Los Angeles building. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet In America, salvation is big business, and he who dies with the most souls wins. Plenty of lives are wrecked along the way, but no matter. When consumer capitalism meets religious yearning, the sky’s the limit of what can you can get away with. That’s the subtext of Alex Gibney’s latest film, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and screened on HBO on March 29.

L. Ron Hubbard, or LRH, as he liked to style himself, was an American of unprepossessing origins in search of meaning and money. Possibly he found the first, and is just now cavorting with intergalactic spirits in the sky. Most definitely he found the second, riding a rocket ship of wacked-out ambition to create what is now essentially a tax-free shell company with $3 billion in assets and real estate holdings on six continents.

Gibney doesn’t give us LRH as a madman, or even a simple huckster. The penny-a-word pulp fiction writer could have just been another loser who couldn’t manage to finish college and whose less-than-stellar naval service went awry when he inadvertently used a Mexican island for target practice and was deemed unfit for command. Going Clear traces the young man’s early perambulations through California occultism and various hare-brained moneymaking schemes to the Jersey Shore, where he washed up exhausted and plagued by anxiety. Another man might have just given up. But not LRH.

Instead, he marshaled a smattering of knowledge from various strains of psychological and philosophical esoterica to gin up a mental health self-help system he named Dianetics, which he introduced in a hugely successful book in 1950. For a while it seemed like LRH had finally found his pot of gold, but alas, the Dianetics fad faded like the hula-hoop craze, its foundations disintegrating into debt and disorder.

Then came the epiphany, shared with his second wife Sara Northrup, who appears in the film as the shell-shocked survivor of LRH’s dreams. “The only way to make any real money,” he told her, “was to have a religion.”

Shazaam! When he wasn’t terrorizing Sara (once at gunpoint, she claims), LRH set about grafting Dianetics onto a space opera of cosmic conflicts going back trillions of years, much of the details mined from his pulp novels. He added messages of freedom and progress that fit neatly with the values of late capitalism, sprinkled in a little New Age hoo-ha, and called it Scientology.

Behold, a moneymaking scheme for the ages was born.

LRH reasoned that if he could turn Dianetics into a religion, the U.S. government couldn’t take away any income from him in the form of taxes. Surely he’d soon be swimming in it. He grokked the American zeitgeist well enough to bet that a seeker of spiritual relief could be transformed into a steadfast consumer who would empty her pockets for the promise of conquering the anxiety of being human in an uncertain and often hostile world.

“How would you describe your business model?” Gibney asks one former high-ranking Scientologist. “Rapacious,” he answers with a sly grin. The trick is to get would-be members to pay for higher and higher levels of training and “auditing” — a process for clearing the person of nasty spirits called “engrams” which were hanging around in the body causing trauma. After an auditing session, many acolytes poured out testimonies of euphoria. And plenty of money.

Lifted by the spirit capitalism, LRH saw how shockingly easy it was to exploit the labor of true believers. If salvation is the reward, people will scrub floors, sleep on soggy mattresses, or in the case of Nazanin Boniadi, a young Scientologist once groomed to be Tom Cruise’s bride, even clean toilets with a toothbrush on their hands and knees. In these revelations, LRH merely hit upon a holy formula that many a religious conman before him had discovered, but his particular genius was taking the show to Hollywood, where his Church of Scientology Celebrity Center became a magnet for actors facing constant rejection and roller-coaster careers. Scientology promised them succor and supernatural attainments; they couldn’t sign up fast enough. He grew expert in leveraging their fame for marketing and advertising, and later, when plumb prizes like John Travolta and Tom Cruise came along, they were treated as Lords of the Scientology universe, served by underlings paid 40 cents an hour to trick out their high-priced toys and flatter their egos.

LRH knew how to pick his allies. He knew how to pick his enemies, too, most especially the United States Internal Revenue Service, which he faced off in an epic Earth-based battle lasting several decades and continuing after his departure from this life. Going Clear reveals that when the IRS stripped the Church of its tax-exempt status, LRH figured out that the best defense was a good offense. In a burst of moxy it’s hard for Gibney not to admire, LRH and his successors let loose thousands of lawsuits against the service until it was harassed into humbled compliance. In 1993, Scientology was granted the status of a religion, with all the attendant rights, protections and free money implied therein.

Many saner countries of the world have refused to recognize Scientology as a religion. In Chile, it is considered a cult. The Finns, the Danes, the Israelis, and the Czechs do not buy the religious line Scientology is selling. The Germans can’t seem to decide. In 2010 in Russia, some of the works of LRH were included on the official list of banned extremist materials, but removed in 2011.

In the U.S., however, what is clearly a commercial entity operated for the benefit of its executives, is free to continue, now under the leadership of David Miscavige, to extract huge fees from members, engage in horrendous labor practices, abuse and torture its members, and resort to bare-knuckles tactics to protect its interests, all in the name of religion.

Yet all is not exactly well within the Scientology universe. As AlterNet’s Kali Holloway has noted, the Church is alarmed by Gibney’s film, and has responded to the criticism of Going Clear with aggressive smear campaigns and a media blitz that has included a full page in the New York Times and a Super Bowl ad costing millions.

Gibney’s film is a valuable exposé of an international racket steeped in mystery. There’s no mystery, of course, in the protection of greedy, exploitive organizations in America, so long as there’s money to be made. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi found that out when Scientologists raised funds for her last re-election campaign.

But Scientology may have met its biggest threat in the form of the interconnected digital universe of the Internet. For a long time, the Church was able to seclude its members from news and information from the outside world. Now it’s not so easy, and critics spread stories of what they have witnessed behind the Cosmic Curtain. Scientologists have responded by aggressively buying up Google ads and engaging in various online campaigns to discredit critics and bury unflattering portrayals. But the details of its nefarious practices are seeping out. You can’t audit an entire population.

But even if we got rid of Scientology, somewhere, out there in America, is another young hustler searching for meaning and money. Someone with charisma, stratospheric ambition and a few screws loose. As surely as the sun rises, her religion is just now slouching toward Hollywood waiting to be born.

By Lynn Stuart Parramore

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alex Gibney Alternet Capitalism Going Clear L. Ron Hubbard Scientology