In mid-January, The Atlantic, which famously pledged in 1857 to be “the organ of no party or clique,” was caught renting its good name to the Church of Scientology. The magazine ran an online advertorial for the church, labeled as “Sponsor Content” but formatted to look like an Atlantic story. “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year,” it boasted, claiming that Scientology is expanding at “a growth rate 20 times that of a decade ago.”

The advertorial seemed timed to preempt the release of Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, which hit bookstores later that week. The church has a long history of aggressive PR campaigns against journalistic critics. In 1991, for instance, Scientology spent $3 million to run several weeks of ads attacking Richard Behar and Time magazine for Behar’s scathing expos√©, “Scientology: The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power.” (Among other things, the ads accused Time of being soft on Hitler.) But as Wright explains in his book, ad campaigns are downright benign compared to some of the tactics, legal and extra-legal, that Scientology has used in its attempts to silence journalists and other critics over the years.

In Going Clear, Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier book on Al Qaeda, sets out to explain why people believe in Scientology. His research is rooted in documents provided by the church itself, interviews with senior Scientologists who defected from the church, court records, and the voluminous body of investigative reporting that has grown up around the church over the years. But in order to understand what people get out of Scientology today, it’s important to understand what its founder got out of it.

Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was a prolific pulp science-fiction writer who went on to make a fortune with the secular self-help book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, before turning his theories into a full-blown religion in 1954. Hubbard promised his followers that “going clear,” i.e., releasing traumatic memories stored in their bodies through “auditing”—a form of guided talk-therapy—would give them perfect memory, perfect eyesight, and other physical and psychological benefits.

It’s easy to imagine a jaded pulp writer cynically repackaging his
sci-fi potboilers as spiritual doctrine to make a buck. However, Wright thinks that Hubbard believed at least some of his own teachings. From the beginning, Hubbard was obsessed with trying to solve his own myriad psychological problems. Even after Scientology became a thriving sect, he continued to churn out new doctrine at an astonishing rate. Its ever-evolving, increasingly baroque teachings, according to Wright, reflect Hubbard’s attempt to control his own frenetic mind. He failed to rein in his paranoia, but he succeeded in monetizing the effort.

Today, Wright explains, there are three tracks within Scientology, with people on each track getting something different out of the church. Wright’s star case study is the screenwriter Paul Haggis, who spent 34 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars as a celebrity Scientologist before breaking with the church after its reported opposition to gay marriage caused him to investigate various criticisms of Scientology. Celebrities like Haggis, Tom Cruise, and John Travolta, who represent one track, are aggressively recruited and enjoy privileged status within the church.

Another track, the Sea Organization, is an elite corps of Scientology clergy who sign billion-year contracts to serve the church. Its members are typically recruited from devout Scientology families, often while still in their teens. They are often underpaid and ruthlessly punished when they fall out of favor with their superiors. Finally, there are the rank-and-file or public Scientologists, ordinary people who take Scientology courses and deduct part of their auditing fees on their income taxes. The book succeeds in explaining why the elites of Scientology join, and what keeps some of them in abusive conditions after they’ve joined, but it has less to say about what rank-and-file Scientologists get out of their religion.

And Scientology is a religion, Wright argues. Almost any pathological characteristic you can find in Scientology has a counterpart in some major world religion, current or historical. Though some Scientology critics will surely be offended by Wright’s constant use of the word “church,” the term seems apt. History shows that there’s nothing intrinsically benign about churches or religions. Scientology holds no monopoly on corruption, or secrecy, or avarice.

But as far as I can tell, Scientology is the first religion to make litigation a sacrament. Hubbard wrote that lawsuits were important tools for bankrupting and demoralizing enemies of the church. He taught that critics were “fair game,” meaning that the faithful had a spiritual duty to ruin them by any means necessary. Though Hubbard eventually retired the term “fair game,” the underlying policy never changed.

Lindsay Beyerstein is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn and the co-host of the Point of Inquiry radio show and podcast