What is a religion? In the recent documentary Going Clear, filmmaker Alex Gibney asks this question of Lawrence Wright, the author of the book on which the movie is closely based. As Wright says in the film, the only authority in the US empowered to decide this question is …the lawyers and accountants that make up the Internal Revenue Service. So the classification is not about theology; it’s about behaviour.
Once the IRS favoured a group with religious status, however, that group gains the full protection of the First Amendment: “trade secret” books filled with gibberish become scriptures, celebrity beneficiaries and spokespeople become missionaries, and attacks on the organization become hatred and bigotry. Gibney and Wright estimate that the Church of Scientology is both losing membership – they put the number of adherents worldwide at under 50,000 – and growing financially at an exponential rate. A program of using the money that arrives in tranches of up to $25 million from wealthy devotees to buy real estate around the world has created an empire estimated at $3 billion. It could all have been so different. If the IRS had not granted the CoS tax-exempt status in 1993, it would have had to declare bankruptcy. The IRS’s bill for back taxes: $1 billion. CoS’s assets at the time: approximately $250 million. In the settlement, CoS paid $12.5 million, and then announced the win at an event of Olympic closing ceremony proportions, shown in the movie, dominated by current leader David Miscavige, and overseen by Scientology’s creator, L Ron Hubbard (initials elided in speech to “EllerH”).
Both the movie and Wright’s book – which drew on sources such as the Wall Street Journal and Janet Reitman’s 2011 book, Inside Scientology – explain the strategy that provoked the settlement: the equivalent of a distributed denial of service attack on the IRS in which 2,400 CoS members individually sued on the basis that their donations to the CoS should be tax-deductible. Faced with the cost of all those court cases, the IRS caved. And thus was the Church of Scientology made a religion.
In making the movie Alex Gibney seems to have been largely content not to stray beyond Wright’s book’s admittedly generous boundaries. One group that complains on the internet about being left out is the group of Scientologists who are disaffected with the Church but still believe the teachings, a group whose existence I discovered first in 1994, when I was researching “alt.scientology.war” for Wired. Some of the former Scientologists I interviewed suggested that this was a phase those middle-ground folks would grow out of as they became able to admit to themselves that they’d been sold a load of Xenu.
More surprising is Gibney’s omission of post-Wright material. Wright’s book, published in 2013 simultaneously with Panorama journalist John Sweeney’s book, The Church of Fear, draws copiously on almost every prior work on the subject. Gibney includes interviews with some familiar faces from Sweeney’s 2007 and 2010 BBC documentaries: former Church spokesperson Mike Rinder, Marty Rathbun, and actor Jason Beghe, as well as many other former Scientologists, some of whom, like Hana Eltringham, were in Hubbard’s inner circle. Gibney could, however, have also taken advantage of later material such as Beyond Belief, the 2013 book published by Miscavige’s niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill, or the experiences of TV star Leah Remini, to incorporate something of the experience of children raised in the Church. Remini, who left with her family in 2013, has staged open group discussions of these issues on her subsequent reality TV show, It’s All Relative. The movie prefers to focus on John Travolta and Tom Cruise. How, it asks, can they possibly still not know what’s really going on?
Late in the film, Wright suggests that what distinguishes a religion from a cult is that a religion’s adherents can say what they believe in a simple sentence or two. Not so in Scientology, he and the film argue, where people join to help humanity but instead wind up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to read EllerH’s writings on evil galactic overlords and/or scrubbing floors with a toothbrush as a punishment. Travolta’s take, from archival footage, says Scientology aims to create a world without criminality, war, or insanity. That’s a simple enough sentence, but describes an ambitious action plan, not a belief. “There’s no other group with such clear goals, where joy is the operative concept,” Travolta says. There’s also no other movie with so many disclaimers – at the beginning, after key interviews, after key claims, at the end, suggesting an arduous legal road to release.
Perhaps it’s time to simply do away with “religion” as a tax-exempt classification and instead focus on an organization’s purpose, behaviour, and financial practices – for tax purposes, either it’s a charity or it’s not, in other words. If decades of Scientology’s critics’ exposures are right (the CoS of course says they are not), it would likely fail that test in the US, as it has in most of the world including the UK.