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 exposé, “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.

When Paulette Cooper revealed Hubbard’s bogus educational credentials and the church’s vindictive treatment of defectors in her 1971 book The Scandal of Scientology, Cooper reported that her phones were tapped; a delivery man attempted to shoot and strangle her cousin, likely mistaking her for the author; Scientology officials accused her of sending a bomb threat to the church. Cooper was indicted on that trumped-up charge.

And when Richard Behar of Time called Scientology a “cult of greed,” he said that the church sent private investigators to illegally obtain his phone and credit records, and sued him all the way to the US Supreme Court. Scientology lost, but not before costing Time more in defense costs than any other case in the magazine’s history up to that point.

Scientology has issued an official rebuttal to Going Clear, which claims to document some 200 errors in the book. No perceived oversight is too small to merit comment. Scientology excoriates Wright for mischaracterizing the volcanic island of Madeira as an atoll. Atolls are ring-shaped and made of coral, volcanic islands are made of rock. Point: Scientology.

With its rebuttal, Scientology seems to be laying groundwork to argue that Wright did not follow standard journalistic practices in his investigation. (As the church writes: “These represent errors, some large and others small, but all of them a result of reporting methods that lacked factual accuracy, avoided the Church and relied on individuals who display their disdain for their former religion and could hardly be qualified as reliable or ‘expert.’”)

But what’s amazing is how much of Wright’s account goes unchallenged in Scientology’s rebuttal. Wright quotes a handwritten memoir of Hubbard’s from the late 1940s in which Hubbard confesses to being a chronic liar, a malingerer, a military shirker, and a conflicted masturbator. Wright explains that when the document first came to light in 1984, the church’s lawyers initially acknowledged Hubbard’s authorship but claimed the document shouldn’t be taken seriously because it was just a form of “self-therapy.” Later on, Wright says, the church claimed without evidence that the document was a forgery. This time, church leaders just let it pass without comment.

The author weaves the normally hidden fact-checking process into the action of the book, dramatizing a showdown between The New Yorker’s factchecking team and senior Scientology officials. Hubbard claimed that he used Dianetics to heal himself of wounds he suffered in combat during World War II. In the factchecking meeting, a Scientology official named Tommy Davis vehemently defends the story, saying that if Hubbard was never wounded and never healed himself, then Dianetics—and thus all of Scientology—would be based on a lie. Wright presents overwhelming evidence that Hubbard was neither wounded in battle nor healed of blindness after the war; he argues convincingly that the documents Scientology cites to “prove” Hubbard’s war wounds are clumsy forgeries. Point: Wright.

Davis was the public face of Scientology and the head of the church’s Celebrity Centre International in Los Angeles—a sort of social club for celebrity members which also runs Scientology classes and “auditing” sessions—until he mysteriously disappeared over a year ago. His responsibilities involved the care and feeding of Tom Cruise, the world’s most prominent Scientologist. The church went to extremes to please Cruise—hand-building luxurious vehicles for him, even scouting out a Scientology-approved girlfriend. This special treatment puts Cruise and other celebrity Scientologists in a kind of bubble, shielding them from the seamier truths of their oft-vindictive faith. “I was in a cult for 34 years,” Paul Haggis told Wright after his defection. “Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.”

Since its founding in 1954, Scientology has weathered countless scandals, any one of which might have been enough to sink the nascent religion. It’s clear that the church has survived in part by diligently defending its image and attacking its critics. Thanks to books like Going Clear, and to increased public scrutiny, that façade is starting to crack.

The Atlantic advertorial was removed less than 12 hours after it went online, amid merciless mockery on social media. The magazine apologized—not for partnering with Scientology per se, but rather for not considering the implications of partnering with Scientology. At the end of January, the magazine issued revised guidelines for sponsor content and advertising, stipulating that “The Atlantic will refuse publication of such content that, in its own judgment, would undermine the intellectual integrity, authority, and character of our enterprise.” Point: journalism.

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