Published on: April 2, 2015
It seems appropriate that during this week when the question of religious freedom vs. civil rights has been front-and-center of the political discourse, that HBO has been showing a new documentary, "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief," written and directed by Alex Gibney, based on a similarly titled book by Lawrence Wright. There seems to be a lot of attention to the subject: the Hollywood Reporter
has said that the film has been much seen, garnering strong ratings for HBO during its initial showings.
The ratings are justified, because the movie is mesmerizing. Broken essentially into three parts, the movie looks at the lure of Scientology (especially to celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta), the history of the organization and its founder (L. Ron Hubbard), and allegations of misconducts against its current leadership, especially David Miscavige, who has run Scientology since Hubbard's death. These allegations are largely delivered by people who have left Scientology and subsequently been subject to various forms of harassment.
To me, it seems utterly clear that Scientology is more cult than religion ... but having said that, I must admit that we all draw the line in different places. If religion is defined as "the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods," Scientology is defined by this movie as being far more about the worship of Hubbard and Miscavige, each of whom is painted in, shall we say, less than flattering terms.
While I find any belief in Scientology's tenets to be utterly mystifying and the organization's alleged strategies and tactics to be abhorrent - especially its practices of intimidating and humiliating believers into complete subservience , and forcing members to disassociate from friends and families who do not share their convictions - the subtext of the film really is about the nature of belief and the essence of faith. While I may scoff, do I have a right to judge?
There is an email today in "Your Views" in which a reader suggests that all the debate in Indiana over religious freedom legislation really reflects a "clear bigotry against evangelical Christians." Now, I disagree with that completely ... and couldn't committed, sincere Scientologists argue that this documentary reflects a clear bigotry against their religion. (Would evangelical Christians argue that Scientology deserves the same freedoms and considerations enjoyed by their faiths?)
I am troubled by all this. Not by the fact that we're having the debate, but by the hazy lines often drawn between public policy and private belief, and the difference between how my head and heart are reacting to all this.
In my heart, watching this film, I am appalled. Even if the film is only half accurate (and I suspect it is far more accurate than that), I find Scientology's belief system to be warped in the extreme, its practices to be exploitive, its claim to be a religion absurd, and its right to be called a religion (and get all the attendant tax benefits) highly questionable.
In my head, though, I have to wonder if Scientology has any less right to the protections and advantages of the law than Catholicism, Judaism, or Islam. And I also have spent a lot of time thinking not about the leaders of Scientology, who seem to be basking in worship and riches, but rather about the followers - ordinary people who are seeking direction, looking for faith (in something or anything), and who seek meaning and personal definition in some higher or greater power. They hardly are wrong or alone in having such desires; the question is whether they've bet their souls on the wrong horse.
I don't know.
But I am thinking about it. In provoking this kind of thought, "Going Clear" is a highly successful piece of work. It is hard-edged, opinionated, and utterly fascinating. I urge you to watch it, think about it, and talk about it. As we've learned this week, there sometimes may be a disconnect between matters of public policy and private faith, but there always is a place for a civil discussion of these issues in the public discourse.