Film Review: Going Clear, HBO’s Documentary on Scientology

My favorite line from Casablanca is uttered by Captain Renault, exclaiming that he is “shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on in here!” right before a casino employee hands him his winnings.

The makers of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, shown on HBO last Sunday, are equally shocked to discover that religion is going on inside the Church of Scientology. They allege a great deal about Scientology that, if true, ranges from comical to appalling, but there is not a single scandalous teaching or practice that isn’t surpassed by other widely accepted religions.

Here’s a quick review of Scientology’s purported crimes:

Silly theology: At higher levels, Scientology is said to have a central myth about a lost race of humans whose evil spirits now infect every newborn child until they can be driven out by Scientology’s expensive therapy. The film portrays all this as ludicrous, which isn’t hard. But compared to traditional religious tenets like the virgin birth, the evil of eating shrimp, and the eternal erection of Muslim male heaven, Scientology looks downright thoughtful.

False biography: Filmmaker Alex Gibney documents some outlandish statements founder L. Ron Hubbard spread about his war record, which are contradicted by official reports. Do you think all the claims made in scriptures about Jesus and Muhammad are true? They can’t possibly be, since the scriptures themselves are so riddled with self-contradictions.

Reincarnation: Gibney seems quite amused by Hubbard’s claim to be the reincarnation of Italian and Phoenician princes. Yet no one makes movies ridiculing the Dalai Lama, who has led a life of prominence and ease (when he wasn’t starting wars) by virtue of his own alleged reincarnation.

Underpaid labor: Scientology is accused of paying its followers pennies per hour for backbreaking work for the benefit of its bigshots. Have you ever heard of Catholic or Buddhist nuns? Whole societies have been built around the exploitation of these women in education and healthcare, for the benefit of political as well as religious elites, on a far grander scale than anything Scientology ever dreamed of.

Physical beatings and torture: According to the ex-Scientologists interviewed, a number of high-ranking Scientologists who irritated the current leader, David Miscavige, were imprisoned at the church’s Los Angeles headquarters and subjected to “re-education” designed to make them more submissive, including physical abuse rising to the level of torture. If they were not free to leave, this would indeed be a serious crime—but one affecting only people who joined and worked their way up in the organization of their own free will. Contrast this with the abuse meted out at Ireland’s far less voluntary Catholic orphanages. Ever heard of Saudi Arabia’s religious police, who attack innocents on the streets? But Islam is a religion of peace, and Scientology is just a cult.

Pressure for abortion: One of the more persuasive techniques used in the film is showing actual Scientology memoranda with key passages highlighted. One of these supports the claim that Scientology didn’t want its hard-working women to be distracted by child-rearing, and thus encouraged abortions. That is truly revolting—every bit as revolting as when televangelist Ernest Angley did exactly the same thing.

Opposing same-sex marriage: Hang onto your hat—the California chapter of Scientology actually opposed the Proposition 8 same-sex marriage initiative! Who ever heard of any other religion doing something as despicable as that?

Family breakups: A long segment is devoted to the allegation that Scientology helped break up the relationship between Tom Cruise and nonbeliever Nicole Kidman. How many Jews, Catholics, Hindus—members of every religion, for that matter—have faced similar pressure, or worse, against romantic involvement with someone who is “not our kind”? In Islam, they have “honor killing” for this kind of offence. (The film strains credibility, though, when it says that Tom Cruise sought the church’s help in finding a new girlfriend. If there’s anyone on the planet who does not need that kind of help, it’s Tom Cruise.)

Harassing apostates: There is compelling evidence of the surveillance and harassment of those who have left the faith, including enforced “disconnection” with close family members. What they don’t have evidence of, though, is the systematic murder of such individuals, as is commanded (and practiced) by that “religion of peace.” As for disconnection, the Scientology version pales in comparison with the “shunning” practice among the Amish—perhaps they could take some lessons.

Blind faith: Ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis, director of the Oscar-winning movie Crash, complains that “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 looked. If we can just believe something, then we don’t have to really think for ourselves, do we?” Which religion is not like that?

Money: The real reason that older religions are upset about Scientology is that it has been financially successful, grabbing lots of money from the gullible that might otherwise have wound up in their own coffers. Gibney makes the poorly-substantiated claim that Scientology has a net worth of some three billion dollars, and features an ex-Scientologist whining that “It’s all about making money.” Well, duh! What religion is not all about making money? Scientology has nowhere near the wealth of the Mormons, which has been estimated at far over $35 billion dollars. As for the Catholics, the single diocese of Cologne, Germany self-reports assets of some €3.35 billion euros (about $3.6 billion dollars). It’s chump change compared to the wealth of the theocratic kingdom of Saudi Arabia whose “constitution” is the Koran.

Nonetheless, the film belabors the argument that Scientology doesn’t deserve the same tax-exempt status that other churches enjoy. The “logic” for this distinction given by one ex-Scientologist is that “A Buddhist, or Christian or Jew can describe what they believe in a minute or two. You need to be in Scientology for seven or eight years to finally learn the back story.” Yet there is certainly less complexity, and less internal contradiction, to Scientology than there is to traditional religions that have spent over a thousand years building up mountains of theological mumbo-jumbo. This argument doesn’t make any more sense than Paul Haggis condemning Scientology as a “cult”: “Cults, they prey on people, suggesting that you should be able to think for yourself, and then tell you exactly how you have to think, or get out.” As if Baptists, Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and other tax-exempt “cults” don’t do that?

Religions sell the idea of making people feel better, at least some of the time. So does Scientology, at least in its earlier stages, where its therapy of encouraging people to talk through their painful experiences with a sympathetic stranger may well have some positive aspects. There really is no reason to dispute the IRS conclusion that Scientology is as much a religion as anything else. There is every reason to condemn the law itself, though, for giving enormous financial and other special privileges to religion as a form of economic activity that is far less beneficial to humanity than most honest businesses, like growing food or selling shoes.

I was struck by a brief exchange with John Travolta at the beginning of the film, where he says “Probably my favorite concept of Scientology is a world without war, a world without criminality, a world without insanity. You name me another philosophy, religion, or technology, that one of its main goals, besides the three I mentioned earlier, where joy is the operative concept.” Well, John, there’s this lifestance called humanism, which draws heavily on the thinking of the philosopher Epicurus, who was all about happiness as the central “operative concept” of human existence. And we do it a heck of a lot more cheaply than Scientology does. You should check us out.