Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, a documentary in the US documentary competition at the 2015 film festival is an history and expose of the Church of Scientology that seeks to unmask the faith as the cult that many people believe it to be. The film includes interviews with a handful of formerly prominent members of the faith (Sorry, Tom Cruise did not submit to an interview though he is featured extensively in archival footage.) as as well as a couple of the only filmed interviews Church founder L. Ron Hubbard ever participated in. As an investigation into the structure of the strange, Modern—and I use that in the philosophical sense—belief system, Going Clear is fascinating.

Being that it is an expose of a particular practice that calls itself a “religion,” the film raises many questions about what makes a religion a religion. A big part of the documentary details the Church of Scientology’s efforts to gain official recognition from the IRS that they are, in fact, a religion (and the tax exemptions and First Amendment rights that go along with such a distinction. Two of the film’s main explicit claims against the Church’s claims to religion are its fantastic cosmology and theology and its apparent sole focus on amassing as much money as possible. Similar claims could be leveled against any of the world’s widely accepted religions (even Christianity), though the film goes out of its way to differentiate between Scientology and the world’s three major, monotheistic faiths – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Going Clear’s principal accusation against the Church of Scientology is abuse of power by the Church’s leaders, both L. Ron Hubbard and David Miscavidge. Story after story after story is told of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse church members have suffered at the hands of the Church’s leaders. These former Church members are angry because their leaders took advantage of their power and took advantage of them.

All of this—the space aliens, the litigation, the lie detector tests, the kidnapping, Tom Cruise’s crazy smile—makes Christianity with its Creator God who died on a cross, rose from the dead, and sent the Spirit into the world seem really normal to me. Even transubstantiation makes more sense than a thousand dead aliens clinging to your soul until you shake ‘em off by recalling your past lives.

The one part of the documentary that did prompt a little self-reflection on my part is early on when the author who wrote the book the documentary is based on mentions that in all his research into Scientology. radical Islam, and other cults, the one common factor he found was that all these extreme faiths feature a “crushing sense of certainty.” He says they have no room for doubt, which means they have no room for questioning, which means adherents are easily taken advantage of by their leaders.

The eradication of doubt in favor of certainty is how I used to understand faith in the context of Christianity. I thought I had to be “sure and certain,” to borrow a couple of words from the translation of Hebrews 11 I was most fond of when I was younger, for my faith to be genuine. I’ve since learned that the NIV’s is a poor translation of that sentence in this case, and that faith and doubt aren’t enemies. They’re partners. True faith is struggling to believe and yet doing the things you would do if you believed. When there are no more doubts, there is no more use for faith. Furthermore, allowing doubt and the questions that accompany it to persist is evidence of greater faith, because it is evidence of trust that the truth is more constant and real than one can comprehend.

Scientology has no room for doubt. Going Clear makes this perfectly clear. The faith requires devotees to “disconnect” entirely from anyone who questions the Church. Refusing to do so is grounds for dismissal. To me, more than the abuse, the greed, or even the space aliens, this complete abhorrence of doubt is evidence to me that Scientology isn’t a true faith. How could it be? Faith doesn’t exist without doubt.