Portrait of a religion drawn in dollar signs

Bloomberg News/September 10, 2011

Forget the “thetans” who dwelled in space a gazillion years ago, though they do add a diverting back story to Scientology, the religion founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s.

What really distinguishes the faith followed by Tom Cruise, John Travolta and other lesser lights is commerce and godlessness.

“The traditional religious bedrock -- worship, God, love and compassion, even the very concept of Faith -- is wholly absent from its precepts,” writes Janet Reitman in “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion.”

“Unique among modern religions, Scientology charges members for every service, book and course offered, promising greater and greater spiritual enlightenment with every dollar spent.”

Reitman draws on interviews with current and former Church members (gruntled and disgruntled), previous reporting by outlets such as the St. Petersburg Times and church documents that have leaked onto the Internet to chronicle the rise and, possibly, decline of a quintessentially American faith.

What began as an alternative to psychotherapy evolved into a theology based on the idea that traumas over many lifetimes have stained our souls and that “auditing” -- revisiting and confronting those traumas with the help of trained interlocutors -- can help make the worshipper “Clear” and eventually bring “Total Freedom.”

Auditing costs money, and members are encouraged to pay for courses as they pursue the “bridge to total freedom.”

The Church of Scientology, like other U.S. religious groups, avoids paying taxes, honors big donors and promises simple solutions to life’s most tormenting problems (suffering, uncertainty, death).

Scientology won a long battle for broad religious tax exemptions in 1993, a time when theocracy was a rising force in U.S. politics and lawmakers were building careers by vilifying the Internal Revenue Service.

Children of Scientologists are put at the service of the Sea Org, the church’s managing body, and must pay for all their “free” courses if they choose to quit and want to remain in good standing (though no one, Reitman says, is compelled to stay with the church).

Reitman profiles a young woman raised in the church who left and became a vocal critic, only to revert to silence to reconnect with her family.

There are also happy stories. The teaching tools Hubbard developed enjoy a good reputation among some educators. Another young woman raised in the church has found it a source of solace and the basis of her personal growth.

And there are wacky stories. To get a message to a loved one past the prying eyes of church staffers, one defector hid a letter and cell phone in a Victoria’s Secret box. The church, which is about as puritanical as any other, had a policy of not inspecting any packages from the lingerie company, Reitman says.

Celebrity culture also gets reviewed. According to Reitman, reclusive church leader David Miscavige miscalculated when he hitched his fortunes to Cruise, who came across as a glassy-eyed zealot, criticizing Brooke Shields’s treatment for post-partum depression, ranting about Ritalin on the “Today” show and jumping on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.

“South Park” ridiculed Scientology and Cruise in typically merciless fashion. Oscar-winning musician Isaac Hayes, one of the few prominent black Scientologists and a cast member of the show, quit after the episode aired, complaining of religious bigotry -- which only made the church seem petty.

But, as Reitman’s book illustrates, what might hurt more than movie-star tantrums or cartoons is something Hubbard the science-fiction writer would have appreciated: the Internet.

The Web is where Scientology’s critics meet and share stories and church documents, where former members find each other, commiserate and even form alternative Scientology congregations.

The book would have benefited from a deeper foundation in the history of American religion, especially faith-healing traditions such as Christian Science. Also, aside from a mention of “Battlefield Earth,” a later work, Reitman fails to mine Hubbard’s bizarre literary output.

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