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Stranger Than Fiction: A Review of the HBO documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Apr. 01, 2015 by | Comments (22)
Promotional poster for Going Clear (2015), from HBO Documentary Films

Promotional poster for Going Clear (2015), from HBO Documentary Films

“You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, start a religion.”

—attributed to L. Ron Hubbard

On March 29, HBO aired its highly anticipated documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. (US readers may view a trailer here.) The television premiere received huge media attention, provoking an escalation of the Church of Scientology’s already gigantic PR counter-attack. Having previously taken out full-page advertisements against the film in the New York Times and other papers, Scientology took the battle online using paid promotional tweets and (as discussed by INSIGHT’s Tim Farley) targeted Google ads. This ferocious media storm is a sure sign that they view the film as a threat to their world (and their fears are justified). Ironically, their ham-fisted onslaught on Twitter and other media just gave the film more publicity, and made more people want to see it. Someone in the Church should look up the “Streisand effect”!

Created by respected documentarian Alex Gibney, it is based on the 2013 book of the same title (a finalist for the National Book Awards) by Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright. Gibney read the book, then enlisted Wright as a co-producer, and managed to get extraordinary access not only to damning footage about Scientology, but especially to many high-ranking defectors who told their stories to the camera. The film originally aired at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2015, where it was the hit of the festival and received standing ovations from SRO audiences. Now it has been released in theaters, and on HBO—perhaps the only network able to tackle such a dangerous topic. (All the major broadcast networks were reportedly too frightened of the Church even to license material for inclusion in the film—perhaps unsurprising, considering its chilling tactics.) Yet thanks to this wide release, the genie is now well and truly out of the bottle. The film’s reach and impact will only continue to expand online.

Although most of the material in the documentary has been written about before (some of it on the pages of Skeptic magazine, such as this story by Michael Shermer), and covered in numerous books (including Wright’s, on which the documentary is based), there is a big difference between written exposés and a much hotter, more visceral medium like video. As described on

The cult is right to be scared. Going Clear is spectacular stuff. Literally. Scientology thrives on spectacle, and one big advantage the film has over the book is that it can show us footage of Scientology’s big “events,” which look like Nazi rallies crossed with Hollywood awards shows. It can also show us video footage of the church’s leaders dissembling and evading when confronted by reporters. Seeing is disbelieving: Watching this stuff, instead of merely reading about it, somehow makes Scientology both more ridiculous and more chilling.

The documentary revisits many of the numerous shocking events that have already been revealed about the cult. These start with the way in which the cult manipulates members with their “auditing process”. They hook them up to an ordinary galvanometer (they call it the “e-meter”) to measure the involuntary galvanic skin response, and then puts them through intense interrogation, pressuring subjects to confess to things they did or didn’t do and have “recovered memories” of things that didn’t happen. Once you are hooked, they soak you for money over and over again, making you spend money on more and more courses and auditing sessions to reach  higher levels of the church ladder. Only after years of auditing (and thousands of dollars) do they reveal the bizarre mythology that their founder, pulp science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, cooked up to explain their belief system. As summarized by Newsweek:

Seventy-five million years ago, according to Hubbard, people lived in a world very much like 1950s America, save for Xenu, the tyrannical overlord of the 76-planet Galactic Confederacy. Xenu sought to solve a burgeoning overpopulation problem by freezing people with glycol injections after luring them in under the auspices of “tax audits.” The frozen bodies were then shipped in boxes via space planes to the prison planet Teegeeack (Earth), where they were dropped into volcanoes and blown up with hydrogen bombs. Being immortal, these disembodied spirits (“thetans”) were then trapped in an electromagnetic ribbon and placed in front of a “three-D, super colossal motion picture” for 36 days, where they were forced to look at images called R6 implants. “These pictures contain God, the Devil, angels, space opera, theaters, helicopters, a constant spinning, a spinning dancer, trains and various scenes very like modern England,” Hubbard wrote. “You name it, it’s in this implant.”

As Paul Haggis comments in the documentary, his first reaction on learning this story was “What the fuck are you talking about?” He then wondered if they were testing him to see if he would believe this silly 1950s-style bad science fiction or not. But they are dead serious about this crazy myth, although they deliberately don’t tell it to you until you are high in their system and deeply committed. They tried to keep it secret for many years lest it scare away the converts.

As INSIGHT’s Jim Lippard wrote for Skeptic magazine about L. Ron Hubbard:

There once was a man who considered himself an explorer, a military hero, a mystic, a philosopher, a nuclear physicist, and an expert in human nature. In fact, he was none of these things. He was an adventurer, a writer of pulp fiction, and a teller of tall tales. He was a college dropout, a bigamist, convicted of petty theft and fraud, and named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a plot to infiltrate and steal information from U.S. government agencies. Despite his unimpressive physique, he was a larger-than-life, charismatic figure who persuaded thousands of people to believe in and pay large sums of money to learn more about a view of the world he constructed from a foundation of pseudoscience, bad philosophy, science fiction, and space opera. He came to believe his own claims of developing the power to shape the world to his tastes and improve one’s physical and especially mental states through specific techniques he invented that precluded all psychiatric drugs, and yet he died alone with matted hair and rotting teeth, with the anti-anxiety drug Vistaril in his system.

After a spectacular introduction, the documentary does a good job of summarizing the unsavory and dishonest past of L. Ron Hubbard, and how he dreamed up the entire Scientology scam to get rich. It is full of damning clips and quotes, many in his own words or in the words of his wife at the time, Sara Northrup, who helped him. It then goes through the recent years of Scientology since Hubbard’s death in 1986, while it has been ruled with an iron fist by his successor, David Miscavige. All the well-documented scandals are there: the widespread abuse of its members, who have gone through slave labor and bizarre tortures when Miscavige demands it; the way they harassed the IRS until they got tax-exempt status as a religion; their cozying up to celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta to gain positive media attention; and their brutal secret police which use any tactic in the book, from lawsuits and publicity attacks to spying to physical intimidation, all to protect their organization. There are also some shocking stories that have not received widespread attention, including how they actively undermined Cruise’s marriage to Nicole Kidman to pull him back into the Church, and even groomed a “girlfriend” for him who was a Church loyalist; how they use the slave labor of their members to trick out Cruise’s many cars and motorcycles and airplanes, and give him anything he wanted (but there is no mention of how Katie Holmes has spoken out about the Church’s effect on their marriage); and how they use dirty secrets to keep John Travolta in line. All of these allegations are made by highest-level defectors with many years inside the Church, including their former #2 man and enforcer, Marty Rathbun, who was a direct witness or agent in some of the most shocking allegations; their longtime spokesperson, Mike Rinder; Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis (famous for writing Million Dollar Baby, Crash, Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Casino Royale, and Quantum of Solace), a member for 35 years; actor Jason Beghe, once one of their most publicized figures and a member for 13 years; Spanky Taylor, who was the liaison to John Travolta; SeaOrg co-founder Hana Eltringham, who breaks down on camera because the Church will no longer let her see her family; and several others.

After two hours of this unremitting dirty laundry, you find yourself stunned that this kind of organization could get away with so much for so long—and puzzled as to what keeps believers locked into an abusive relationship with their Church. The latter answer is standard across all cults: they hook you with something innocuous at the beginning (you feel good after a light auditing session, just as you would after spilling your problems to your therapist); then, once you become part of their tight-knit community, it’s very hard to get out—in part because they have so much dirt on you, and because they will intimidate and harass you and cut you off from your loved ones still in the Church.

But  how did they get away with it for so long? For decades, their ruthless tactics against anyone who would reveal their secrets or defect kept everyone in a conspiracy of silence about their Dark Side, while they generated positive PR with their appealing ad campaigns (see their 2013 Super Bowl commercial for example) and celebrity endorsements from Cruise, Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Beck, and others. In the days of print media, a book or a magazine or newspaper article might criticize them, but had a limited readership. But the biggest factor changing this Code of Silence has been the internet. No government can control it or completely silence it (even in China or North Korea or other oppressive regimes), and no religion can censor it either. For almost 15 years now, one secret after another has been revealed and gone viral, so they have a huge media trail that is only a Google search away. As the secrets began to come out, more and more people came forward, and the mainstream media became bolder. In one highly damaging example, the South Park cartoon dedicated an entire episode to mocking Scientology. (The Church attempted to dig up dirt on creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone in retaliation, but without success.) Going Clear raises the stakes by putting all the Dark Side of Scientology in one powerful documentary, and it will live in cyberspace forever.

Not only is the internet more powerful that the Church’s secrecy, but lately their PR efforts have been a disaster. Cruise’s antics, from jumping on Oprah Winfrey’s couch to attacking psychology in many interviews, have made him look more and more ridiculous in the public eye, and reflect badly on the Church. So has John Travolta’s recent behavior. These actors are still working and getting decent movie roles, but many people no longer admire them or want to emulate them. Scientology no longer even gives press conferences because they don’t want reporters asking hard questions. For some cults and churches that recruit among the poor and less literate, a media scandal might not be important. But for Scientology, it is crucial, because their recruiting depends on hooking relatively affluent, young members who are searching for spiritual answers. These people are internet-savvy and likely to read about the Church online and watch the damning videos before they get hooked. Indeed, there is much evidence that even as the Church gets richer (over $3 billion in assets from milking its membership while paying no taxes, mostly invested in pricey real estate), it is also losing membership at an alarming rate. Even though the Church claims it has millions of members, more reliable sources indicate only about 40,000-50,000 worldwide: maybe 25,000 in the U.S., and just a few thousand in a few other countries. If this wave of bad publicity on the internet continues, especially with the widespread release of Going Clear, expect the religion to decline to just a lot of expensive buildings with almost no one in them.

In many ways, the story of Scientology is similar to another cult which misappropriated the cachet of “Science” in its name: “Christian Science” (which is neither Christian nor scientific). When it was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879, its message of faith healing was powerful, and it became a large organization with hundreds of thousands of members. But today it is virtually extinct, with lots of property (“Christian Science Reading Rooms”) but almost no one occupying their rooms. Estimates made in 2009 suggested that there were fewer than 50,000 remaining members, worldwide. At a plausible attrition rate of 4000 lost members per year (extrapolating from declining Christian Science Sentinel subscription rates), Mary Baker Eddy’s once-powerful church could well be extinct within a decade. What killed it? Modern medicine. When it was founded, medicine was primitive and often detrimental to a patient’s health. Just as in the case of homeopathy, harmless placebos like faith healing or homeopathic “cures” often were just as effective as real medicine. But a century later, real medicine has made enormous advances, while Christian Scientists keep dying off by refusing it. They are also very stodgy and conservative (“reading rooms” rather than internet presence), and not very active in recruiting. Will Scientology follow Christian Science into extinction? If present trends continue, it’s very likely.

Donald Prothero

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

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