Religion & Beliefs

The Scientology Clamshell Starts to Crack

When you write about religion – as I do – one of the things people ask you about the most is Scientology. Because of Scientology’s many celebrity members (John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Juliette Lewis, Beck, and Chick Corea, just to … Read More

By / July 5, 2009

When you write about religion – as I do – one of the things people ask you about the most is Scientology. Because of Scientology’s many celebrity members (John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Juliette Lewis, Beck, and Chick Corea, just to name a few), their love for lawsuits against anyone who writes about them, a brilliant South Park episode that gave insight into exactly what the religion’s main beliefs are, and the hard work of activist group Anonymous, people who three or four years ago might have dismissed Scientology as just a weird but harmless celebrity religion a la Kabbalah are now asking serious questions about the Church and its practices. While there have been vocal critics – primarily former members who have "blown" (left the church) – on websites like Operation Clambake and The Ex-Scientologist Message Board for decades, it took longer for the mainstream media to investigate the Church. (Notable exceptions would be coverage of the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who died while undergoing a controversial Church process known as the Introspection Rundown, and a landmark 1991 Time magazine article entitled "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power.")

Now, the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times is running a three-part series on some of the innermost workings of Scientology. Why St. Petersburg? One of Scientology’s two largest U.S. centers, the Flag Land Base, is in the nearby town of Clearwater. Residents of the town have often clashed with their Scientologist neighbors, including Shawn Lonsdale, a local photographer and videographer. Lonsdale, who was often harassed by Scientologists when he attempted to take pictures of public spaces in Clearwater, began to research the religion and then became an outspoken critic. He died in a mysterious alleged suicide last year. The Times has often covered Scientology and won a Pulitzer Prize for previous reporting on the Church in 1980.

The first of the three articles was published on June 21 and marks the first time that two former high-ranking Church executives – Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun – have publicly spoken out against the Church they once were willing to give their lives to. Rinder and Rathbun were, like all Scientology executives, members of the elite Sea Org, in which members sign one billion year contracts. Both blew within the last few years, and until now have remained low profile. Video of both men sharing their experiences – and admitting to committing illegal acts or ordering others to do so – is available on the Times’ website alongside the article. However, they reserve their harshest words for David Miscavige, Chairman of the Board of the Religious Technology Corporation (the company that owns the rights to all Scientology trademarks as well as the writings of Church founder L. Ron Hubbard) and the head of Scientology since Hubbard’s death. Rinder, Rathbun, and the other ex-Scientologists interviewed for the article, Amy Scobee and Tom De Vocht, talk about how Miscavige repeatedly used physical violence against them and other Church executives, including a sadistic game of "musical chairs" where all losers were informed they’d be sent away to remote Scientology outposts and separated from their families.

While the musical chairs story and other ones like it were well known to critics, this is the first time it has been documented in the mainstream press. Miscavige himself rarely appears in public – although he did serve as best man at Tom Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes – and refused interview requests from the paper, leaving longtime Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis to do the dirty work. Davis, the son of Scientologist actress Anne Archer, has also reportedly been a victim of Miscavige’s emotional and physical abuse.

As someone who has been following Scientology for some time, I highly recommend reading the St. Petersburg Times’ well-written and researched reportage. The second part of the series deals with Lisa McPherson’s life and death, and the third with more staff abuses. What never fails to surprise me is how, now that so much information about the inner workings and criminal behaviors of Scientology is now public, why they have not yet been investigated by the U.S. government. At the very least, I can hope that articles like this one help educate the public and drastically reduce the number of new converts to the Church.