Michael Kinsley was no doubt delighted to get his latest NYTimes book review assignment:
… Wright’s book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” makes clear that Scientology is like no church on Earth (or, in all probability, Venus or Mars either). The closest institutional parallel would be the Communist Party in its heyday: the ruthless struggles for power, the show trials and forced confessions (often false); the paranoia (often justified); the determination to control its members’ lives completely (the key difference, you will recall, between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, according to the onetime American ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick); the maintenance of something close to prison camps where dissenters, would-be defectors and power-struggle rivals were incarcerated in deplorable conditions for years and punished if they tried to escape; what the book describes as mysterious deaths and disappearances; and so on. Except that while the American Communist Party, including a few naïve Hollywood types, merely turned a blind eye to events happening in faraway Russia, Scientology — if Wright is to be believed, and I think he is — ran, and maybe still runs, a shadow totalitarian empire here in the United States, financed in part by huge contributions by Tom Cruise and others of the Hollywood aristocracy. “Naïve” doesn’t begin to describe the credulousness and sense of entitlement that has allowed actors, writers and directors to think they were helping themselves and the world by hanging around the Scientologists’ “Celebrity Centre,” taking “upper level” courses and gossiping about who was about to be labeled a “Suppressive Person” (bad guy).
Wright’s last book, “The Looming Tower,” a history of Al Qaeda, won the Pulitzer Prize. He is also the author of, among other books, a charmingly presumptuous premature autobiography, “In the New World,” published in 1987. He belongs to a small cult of his own — an Austin-centered group of writers dedicated to preserving long-form narrative journalism. With this book, he’s certainly paid his dues for a few years…
As a person of faith (animist) on a largely pro-secular site, here’s my personal theory: For whatever cultural-social-biogenetic reasons, quite a significant portion of the existing human population has a bias towards “faith”. Since America no longer has a generally accepted state religion — just a strong political bent towards a bland and broadly misunderstood patriarchal monotheism — people biased towards “faith” are presented with an enormous potluck Religion Buffet from which to pick and choose. Of course, while most adults know what to look out for at your communal potluck (never eat anything in a mayonnaise dressing, especially Aunt Mae’s tuna surprise; never join a religion that requires a monetary subscription up front) community newcomers & the susceptible are going to get some nasty surprises. (Also, some of the less popular cooks are deliberately using salmonella as a food ingredient.)
While most of us understand Scientology’s roots as a particularly “modern”, all-American grift, that doesn’t mean the average Scientologist isn’t perfectly sincere in their faith, or at least their faith community. So the ordinary Scientology donor is probably as interesting to read about as any other orthodontist or real estate agent. But the church’s origins are so recent — and so voraciously capitalistic — that there’s plenty of jawdropping material to be mined, by the right researcher. Here’s an earlier NYTImes article on author Lawrence Wright:
…In a statement, Karin Pouw, a Scientology spokeswoman, said Mr. Wright and his publisher refused to provide a copy of the book in advance and “showed little interest in receiving input” from the church. “The portions you cite from the book are preposterous lies,” she said, adding that “the allegation about Mr. Miscavige is false and defamatory.”
But Mr. Wright insists that he did not set out to write an exposé. “Why would I bother to do that?” he said. “Scientology is probably the most stigmatized religion in America already. But I’m fascinated by it and by what drives people to Scientology, especially given its image.”
He added: “There are many countries where you can only believe more or you can believe less. But in the United States we have this incredible smorgasbord, and it really interests me why people are drawn to one faith rather than another, especially to a system of belief that to an outsider seems absurd or dangerous.” …
In 2011 Mr. Wright published a profile of Mr. Haggis in The New Yorker, and in the course of the fact-checking process Tommy Davis, the international spokesman for Scientology, did Mr. Wright an unwitting favor. He showed up in The New Yorker offices with four lawyers and 47 white binders full of material about the church.
“I suppose the idea was to drown me in information,” Mr. Wright recalled, “but it was like trying to pour water on a fish. I looked on those binders with a feeling of absolute joy.”