Secrets of the Scientologists: Why people do horrible things for belief

"Going Clear" gives a glimpse into how indoctrination really works. A 20th century tragedy reveals even more.

Published April 17, 2015 9:59PM (EDT)

Tom Cruise, in a still from "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief"         (HBO)
Tom Cruise, in a still from "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief" (HBO)

“My goal wasn’t to write an exposé, it was simply to understand Scientology.”

So says Lawrence Wright at the beginning of HBO's blockbuster documentary “Going Clear.” The film, which Wright adapted from his bestselling book of the same name, describes Scientology as a criminal cult that harasses former members who become critical of the church; physically and emotionally tortures some current ones; and once strong-armed the IRS into granting it tax-exempt status as a recognized religion. Beneath the sensational and harrowing stories, however, “Going Clear” amounts to a study of belief more broadly -- of “why people believe one idea rather than another,” as Wright puts it.

One by one, former church members recount their involvement in the Church with a mix of shame, puzzlement and resignation. “I was really stupid,” says Academy Award-winner Paul Haggis, one of Scientology's most famous apostates. “I was part of this for 30 years before I spoke out. […] Why didn’t I do it earlier?” Others are even more self-critical: “Maybe my entire life has been a lie,” says Spanky Taylor, an ex-Scientologist who alleged that, as a pregnant mother, she was held in a “prison camp” and punished with grueling physical labor for objecting to the way the church “denied medical treatment to her boss.” Their embarrassment about their pasts becomes even easier to understand when Wright describes the church’s creation myth: A galactic overlord Xenu expelled hordes of people to a prison planet (Earth) 75 million years ago, dropped them into volcanoes, then dispersed their spirits (or “thetans”) with nuclear bombs. These spirits still possess humans to this day, and Scientologists expend a great deal of energy and money trying to exorcise them.

But “Going Clear” avoids the trap of incredulity. Those interviewed for the film, while eccentric, are accomplished, well spoken and, most of all, sincere. Parallel to their stories of abuse and warped belief are understandable explanations of their choices: Haggis explains that as a young man, worried about his relationships and anxious to get his start as a documentary filmmaker, he was partially seduced by Scientology’s reputation for advancing careers, and was comforted by their undogmatic facade. Indeed, the Church’s website still boasts that “[u]nlike religions with Judeo-Christian origins […] Scientology does not ask individuals to accept anything on faith alone.” As a curious and hopeful 21-year-old, he contributed a modest $50 to begin his training. Like many of those interviewed for “Going Clear,” he says that Scientology more resembled a self-help organization at first glance.

But, while there seems to be an unbridgeable gap between self-help and alien exorcisms, Scientology’s rigid, diagrammatic structure provides a clue to how one idea can lead to the other. According to the documentary, after signing up, a Scientologist embarks on something called “The Bridge,” a step-by-step course of spiritual advancement, through which one could eventually achieve a "Clear" state of mind. (“Every step to 'Clear' had a price tag,” notes the film’s narrator.) Along “The Bridge,” Scientologists attend compulsory and successive “auditing” sessions, which Wright describes resembling a sci-fi version of Freudian therapy. Scientologists discuss the most intimate details of their lives during auditing, details which the church records diligently -- and can later allegedly use for blackmail. It’s only after years of training, after they have told the church every private fact about themselves, that Scientologists hear about Xenu and humankind’s alien origins. Unsurprisingly, even after many years, Haggis and others still found the creation myth hard to stomach. Haggis even wondered if it was an “insanity test.”

Curiously, none of those interviewed in the film exited Scientology at that junction. As Haggis put it, “you have already paid for the next [session],” your social life centered around the church, and, besides, you weren't required to believe it. “If you were told [about Xenu the galactic overlord] on day one,” wonders the journalist Tony Ortega, “how many people would join?” He describes the Scientologist strategy as a “bait and switch.” But Scientology has perfected something more nuanced--a technique that separates the process of investing in belief from that of belief itself: By the time Scientologists are told about the creation myth, they have many persuasive emotional reasons to believe in it, or rather, to try to believe it.

In Philip Gourevich’s study of the Rwandan genocide, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families,” he describes another case where acts proceed beliefs. When the Hutu Power movement led mass killings of ethnic Tutsis in the mid-'90s, the true measure of allegiance was not belief, but action. “Everyone was called to hunt the enemy,” says Theodore Nyilinkwara, a survivor interviewed for the book. If a Hutu was reluctant, the militias required him to attend massacres, then, later, to kill a Tutsi. “So this person who is not a killer is made to do it,” says Nyilinkwara. “And the next day it’s become a game for him. You don’t need to keep punishing him.” Once a person has killed for an idea, their ethical opinion of themselves relies on embracing that idea. Vicious, conspiratorial state radio broadcasts spoke of outlandish Tutsi plots against the Hutus that people readily believed because they partially justified the violence.

In the language of the Mafia, says Gourevitch, “a person who has become invested in the logic and practices of the gang is said to be owned by it.” When Jason Beghe, an actor and ex-Scientologist featured in “Going Clear,” describes the strange sensation of self-policing -- “the best traps are when you get a guy to keep himself in jail” -- he sounds remarkably like Nyilinkwara. Once a person has acted on a belief, they don’t need to be continually pressured. Ex-Scientologists who alleged that they were placed in “The Hole,” a holding facility in California where upper-level church members were held and beaten, found themselves actually fighting to stay there. If the FBI came to rescue them from what some described as a “prison camp,”  says one of the captives, Tom De Vocht, they would have responded: “We’re doing this voluntarily. We like living in these conditions.”

The technique is so effective that it appears to be at work on L. Ron Hubbard himself, the science fiction writer and founder of Scientology. According to his ex-wife Sara Northrup, he once cynically claimed that “the only way to make any real money was to start a religion.” But as his power over others grew, she says, “he began to believe that he was a savior, that he really was this god figure.” Over time, “he degenerated into a really paranoid and terrifying person.” “If he were just a fraud,” adds Wright, “at some point he would have just taken the money and run.” Marty Rathbun, a former high-ranking Scientologist, says that the current leader David Miscavige “has to believe because, if he looks at it rationally and sees that it is as I say, it will destroy him.” “He’s done a lot worse than I’ve done,” he adds.

Scientology’s persuasiveness is not in the logic of its beliefs but in its ability to control behavior. People believe in Xenu and thetans because it becomes exceedingly difficult not to in light of all they have committed to the church. At the close of “Going Clear,” Haggis reflects on his time within Scientology: “We lock up a portion of our own mind. We willingly put cuffs on. We willingly avoid things that could cause us pain if we just looked.” Each time Marty Rathbun is confronted with his past, he keeps “dying deaths. I don’t know how many more deaths I have left.”

By Darragh McNicholas

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

David Miscavige Faith Going Clear Indoctrination Paul Haggis Religion Rwanda Scientology Tom Cruise