Listening to ex-Scientologists

dianeticsSay what you will about the Church of Scientology, but its members are tenacious. I have some friends who left the church 30 years ago and they are still occasionally contacted by members who encourage them to be careful with what they say. And what’s interesting about that is that my friends actually have many positive things to say about the church and what they got out of it.

Last year I highlighted a captivating three-part series on the church that ran in the St. Petersburg Times. The reporters spoke with four former members, some of whom were very high ranking, and wrote about their claims of mismanagement in the church. One former member had previously made news as the public relations official who was videotaped in a confrontation with a BBC reporter.

That series marked the first time a major paper had dealt substantively with claims of physical and mental abuse by Scientology’s current leadership. It broke news and it gave the Church of Scientology ample space and time to respond to claims. For their part, church officials discounted all the former members’ allegations as coming from poor performing employees who inflated their importance. To bolster their claim, the church opened up former members’ “ethics files” and showed records of their “confessions, contritions and laments that the church keeps to document their failures.”

This weekend, New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein took on the issue. She speaks with two other former members who raise a separate complaint about the Church of Scientology:

Raised as Scientologists, Christie King Collbran and her husband, Chris, were recruited as teenagers to work for the elite corps of staff members who keep the Church of Scientology running, known as the Sea Organization, or Sea Org.

They signed a contract for a billion years — in keeping with the church’s belief that Scientologists are immortal. They worked seven days a week, often on little sleep, for sporadic paychecks of $50 a week, at most.

But after 13 years and growing disillusionment, the Collbrans decided to leave the Sea Org, setting off on a Kafkaesque journey that they said required them to sign false confessions about their personal lives and their work, pay the church thousands of dollars it said they owed for courses and counseling, and accept the consequences as their parents, siblings and friends who are church members cut off all communication with them.

Writing about the Church of Scientology can be difficult. The church takes a strong interest in its public relations and fiercely fights any negative stories that appear. And the claims made by former Scientologists are always strongly disputed by church officials. Goodstein handles this simply by quoting the opposing sides. She says that former members are calling for a Reformation. Here’s a sample response from the church:

The church has responded to the bad publicity by denying the accusations and calling attention to a worldwide building campaign that showcases its wealth and industriousness. Last year, it built or renovated opulent Scientology churches, which it calls Ideal Orgs, in Rome; Malmo, Sweden; Dallas; Nashville; and Washington. And at its base here on the Gulf Coast of Florida, it continued buying hotels and office buildings (54 in all) and constructing a 380,000-square-foot mecca that looks like a convention center.

“This is a representation of our success,” said the church’s spokesman, Tommy Davis, showing off the building’s cavernous atrium, still to be clad in Italian marble, at the climax of a daylong tour of the church’s Clearwater empire. “This is a result of our expansion. It’s pinch-yourself material.”

Reading this story, I’m reminded of something I’ve said before about Goodstein. She manages to pack so much information into so few words. She writes very clearly and concisely. Here she gives a view from above:

Scientology is an esoteric religion in which the faith is revealed gradually to those who invest their time and money to master Mr. Hubbard’s teachings. Scientologists believe that human beings are impeded by negative memories from past lives, and that by applying Mr. Hubbard’s “technology,” they can reach a state known as clear.

They may spend hundreds of hours in one-on-one “auditing” sessions, holding the slim silver-colored handles of an e-meter while an auditor asks them questions and takes notes on what they say and on the e-meter’s readings.

By doing enough auditing, taking courses and studying Mr. Hubbard’s books and lectures — for which some Scientologists say they have paid as much as $1 million — Scientologists believe that they can proceed up the “bridge to total freedom” and live to their full abilities as Operating Thetans, pure spirits. They do believe in God, or a Supreme Being that is associated with infinite potential.

The story allows Ms. Collbran to discuss her journey from a child raised in the church to a former member. It’s a fascinating personal story that includes many of the reasons why they say they couldn’t be members any more. One thing I learned from the piece was that Scientology doesn’t permit Sea Orgs to have children. Ms. Collbran intentionally got pregnant and waited until the end of her first trimester to inform the church since, she said, she’d known workers who had been kicked out when they refused to have abortions.

Getting back to the issue of competing truth claims, I thought this was a good way to handle the competing claims of Mr. Collbran — who says that Scientology is shrinking — and those of the church. After quoting Mr. Collbran saying that the Ideal Org he set up in Johannesburg was nowhere near self-supporting, Goodstein talks to the church officials:

The church is vague about its membership numbers. In 11 hours with a reporter over two days, Mr. Davis, the church’s spokesman, gave the numbers of Sea Org members (8,000), of Scientologists in the Tampa-Clearwater area (12,000) and of L. Ron Hubbard’s books printed in the last two and a half years (67 million). But asked about the church’s membership, Mr. Davis said, “I couldn’t tell you an exact figure, but it’s certainly, it’s most definitely in the millions in the U.S. and millions abroad.”

He said he did not know how to account for the findings in the American Religious Identification Survey that the number of Scientologists in the United States fell from 55,000 in 2001 to 25,000 in 2008.

I mentioned above that the former Scientologists I know have many good things to say about the church. In fact, some of them really think the media have done a horrible job explaining what’s good about Scientology. Usually described as little more than Xenu and thetan science fiction, many former Scientologists say the auditing is a strong point. And they continue to use the auditing technology after they leave.

Goodstein actually gets into this a bit by quoting church detractors speaking highly of the “old” Church of Scientology and in this description. And Ms. Collbran says she still receives auditing from other Scientologists who defected. Mr. Collbran, on the other hand, says he wants nothing to do with the religion at all.

Whenever we cover stories about Scientology, we get quite a few comments from anonymous — an anti-Scientology group mentioned in the story — and church members. I’m curious what those two groups think about this series. I suspect that the church members might not be happy with this piece — it’s highly critical of the church — but I’d like to know what the specific journalistic complaints are, if any.

Remember, we are interested in complaints about the journalism.

Print Friendly

  • Jay Connery

    I would like to see more journalists insert the top ten signs of a cult when covering scientology.

    Also, include information that basics in scientology that members say are helpful are 1) basic self help that can be obtained in many other sources, often for free and 2) the few good self help in sci was stolen by Hubbard from various sources, and mishmashed together 3) what little good there is in it, is miniscule compared to the extreme harm in it, so considering you can get self help elsewhere, it’s a much better idea.

  • david

    I enjoyed reading both the St. Pete’s series and their follow ups in November as well as the recent piece in the New York Times. The only thing I’m miaaing ia a closer examination of the tax exemption. I don’t believe it’s justified. And I also miss a police investigation into these allegations, but that’s not an issue with the reporting.
    I believe ex-scientologists when they say they got something out of it and have no issue with the freezone or folks like Rathbun as long as they don’t build organizations similar to the Church of Scientology even if I completely disagree with their point of view. The issue with Scientology aren’t the beliefs, but the actions, the organizational policies and their consequences. Do auditing all day long if you enjoy it, but don’t put people in penal camps, take away their passports and make them work insane amounts of time… or harass your critics.

  • ben

    Journalists should ask Scientology spokespeople more questions about L Ron Hubbard’s policy letters. These letters answer many of the question regarding the cult’s aggressive behavior with both the “parishioners” and the critics.

  • Dave

    What is currently happening is journalists actually having done desk research before talking to Scientologists spokespeople. So when it is claimed that Scientology has milions of folowers, the journalist can actually counter with the ARIS research that puts the number of Scientologists in the US at 25.000 (which is a number with a huge statistical error margin by the way).

    This should happen more. Pretty much anything a Scientologists sais is a lie (which he may or may not believe himself) and well-prepared journalists go a long way in exposing that.

    I also agree with Jay – all parents know to warn their kids not to go home with strange men. Somehow, we don’t warn our kids for cults when they are young adults. A shame, because the way cults operate is well documented and easy to spot – if you know what to look for.

    And one more thing I’d like to be discussed more often: the tax exempt status. The IRS is giving Scientology tax breaks no other religion enjoys, therewith violating the establishment clause in the first amendment of the US constition (go to Youtube and search for Sklar IRS to hear a judge admonish the IRS about this fact during a trial).

    This should incense people and should be more focus of journalists.


    PS Just a little correction – The SP times series involved more than 20 people, not four.

  • Marc Abian

    Journalists that have covered Scientology in-depth have so far been excellent at it, from Australia’s Today Tonight, the St Petersburg Times, the BBC, Nightline, KESQ TV, and now the NY Times.

    Once difficulty that a reporter faces is the sheer incredulity of how badly Scientology abuses its members, since one wonders why if it is so bad do people not simply walk away? Perhaps this is why the NY Times gentler approach is more effective at introducing the abuses to someone who may not yet have been exposed.

    Another difficulty is that Scientology has honed its facade for 50 years, and has developed stock answers to every possible objection. A truly in-depth investigation would examine how Scientology contradicts itself in the media.

    When convenient, it’s a religion and its critics are religious bigots. When convenient it’s a business and it presents itself as such in court to protect its copyrights. On CNN it’s spokesperson Tommy Davis claimed there is no such thing as disconnection, in the recent 4 Corners TV program he admitted it exists. On the same CNN program he denied the existence of Xenu and body thetans, but in interviews with KESQ and with Nightline’s Bashir, he admitted that it was in fact a secret tenet of Scientology.

    In the next exposes of Scientology I would like to see journalists expose past interviews and articles whenever Scientology gives an answer that contradicts what they had previously stated.

    One last point is that Scientology calls all ex-members who speak out liars. They have been doing so for 50 years now, and there is a list of almost 1000 ex-members who relate quite similar stories about fraud, broken families, emotional abuse, forced confinement, forced abortions and on and on… The list is here:

    I would like a journalist to ask how Scientology accounts for the fact that so many people have independently spoken of the same sorts of abuses, all around the world, and over the past 50 years?

  • Carol

    The Scientology Cult is not the only one. There are more “ministries” that tear apart families and destroy the core values of Christianity. I know. I fell prey to one and amost lost my children and my husband. The journalist is on to something here…but believe me it does not stop here with this sect. It is frightening and monstrous but alive and well and recruiting everyday. Congratulations for your journalistic bravery.

  • Jayne

    Questions I would like to see journalists address:

    1. The organization charges fees for past counseling sessions to defecting members. Does the “church” have any legal standing to do this, as a non-profit?

    2. The “church” blackmails current and former members that they can (and do) reveal ethics file confessions. Is this legal? or is it blackmail? Is it also a violation of state laws protecting patient privelege?

    3. The “church” holds sea-org member passports hostage. Is this legal?

  • Jeremy

    FYI a major report on Scientology was aired on ABC (Australia) TV at:

    it includes former members of Sea Org

    The Australian Senate is considering launching an inquiry into Scientology in Australia, following claims by former members aired by Senator Nick Xenophon in the Senate


  • Dave

    Dave’s comment #4 is from a different Dave.

  • Optimisticate

    The biggest problem with scientology that I have seen mentioned repeatedly by critics is that scientology is working as planned. The abuses were happening under L Ron Hubbard, not just David Miscavige. There are stories abouse Hubbard that are actually much, much worse than any I have heard about Miscavige. David Miscavige has simply taken the original abuse and amplified it.

    I do not understand why people cannot separate the self-help books from the policies and official statements made by the church. Just use the book if they need it so desperately to get through life. Reformation and going back to the days of Hubbard should not be an option. They must stop the abuses and throw out ALL scientology policies to “reform the church”. When that is done, it then becomes a mere book club as it should be.

  • Optimisticate

    *And the journalists are only looking at the tip of the iceberg and sticking only with that visible portion. Why not poke your head underwater and look at the rest of it? The media and journalists should know there is more to the story than first appears.

  • Lisa

    The fact that some religions including Scientology & some political systems despise been investigated shows their totalatarian tendencies that would oppress investigation of them if they would be in control.
    All undemocratic sytems of control oppress opposition to them because these type systems always believe that they are always right.
    Continue to investigate such types of control including Scientology otherwise if & when they could come to control the right to investigate them would become legally oppressed.

  • Anawnymoose

    Er, you say you want to know what “anonymous” thinks of all this and I spend half an hour writing a comment only to have it deleted. Bah!

    “Anonymous” is happy about this, as it is about any coverage that exposes these abuses. Despite their claims, scientology is not “like any other new religion”. An example? Sure! Look here:

    You may notice that they’re conducting an independent investigation of these allegations. What does the Church of Scientology do when criticized? Universally attack the credibility of whomever criticized them. Amazing that EVERY SINGLE PERSON to ever say a bad thing about scientology is an apostate or downright evil, isn’t it?

  • Fromer

    Scientology tries to have it both ways regarding membership.

    In one way, they denounce people who leave and still believe as apostates and traitors, and say that real Scientologists are active paying members of the cult, ONLY.

    Yet, when they are asked about number of Scientologists, they want to claim “millions” as in anyone who has ever been duped into taking one course, including people I know who took one course, saw it as a money trap, and still can’t get off their junk mail or phone solicitation list.

    With the astronomical fees they charge, they know very well how many people are taking courses in each of their facilities. With exposure on the web of their top secret Xenu material, as well as the testimonies from hundreds of ex-members, Scientology’s new membership is drying up.

    They have so much money, from the people they’ve scammed through the years, that they are running on propaganda, fumes, and star power. Paul Haggis left. They lost their orientation guy, Larry Anderson, who had the famous lines in their introductory video about the two suggested alternatives to Scientology: blowing your brains out or diving off a cliff.

    I think that orientation video encapsulates what Scientology is about: Extreme coercion and promises offered to vulnerable people for the purpose of getting their money and controlling them to get even more people into Scientology, which they believe is the ONLY answer to a doomed planet.

  • Fromer

    May I comment again…I realize I didn’t address the question about the journalism.

    I would agree with Marc Abian and other posters who point out how much of a chameleon Scientology is, shifting its position to suit a question. Therefore journalists should cite past responses and the inconsistencies. Never heard of Xenu…Xenu not important…part of our secret scriptures…can’t discuss.

    Yet, it is their ORIGIN STORY. Without Xenu, a person doesn’t need Scientology!

    I think more journalists need to confront them on this basic issue and flaw in their comic book theological cloaking. From when Dianetics the “science” changed into Scientology the “religion.”

    A journalist needs to ask the hard and obvious question:

    “How can you hold off the Xenu story, to well above the $100,000 level, with threats of pneumonia and possible death, according to Hubbard, when if it weren’t for Xenu, and exploding the dead space alien souls onto everyone here on Teegeeack, the prison planet, there would be NO NEED FOR SCIENTOLOGY!”

    Then play the recording of Hubbard telling the Xenu story. (He sounds like a lunatic.)

    There is a difference in doing it this way, rather than saying, “Tell me about Xenu” and then just having a Scientologist clam up, or start talking about being offended or the sanctity of the ecclesiastical sacred scriptures.

  • Fromer

    Some more thoughts. Scientology spokesperson Tommy Davis is trained to lie. As someone else mentioned, they know the questions that will be asked, and they know how to distract from the questions.

    Another good audio, would be Hubbard’s lecture on how religions are “implants” meant to deceive the world.

    Only Scientology, Body Thetans and Xenu are REAL.

    OF COURSE, this is revealed only to higher level Scientologists, and they will deny it or not talk about it just as they won’t talk about Xenu.

    Ted Koppel played the tape of Hubbard talking about his trip to the Van Allen Belt, for David Miscavige, his last interview years ago.

    Journalists should stop treating Scientology like it is an ancient religion. We don’t know what Jesus said. We know what Hubbard said because there are hundreds of recordings of him talking about these things, including why smoking more cigarettes PREVENTS cancer.

    Lastly, ALL journalists should prepare for an interview with Scientology, by reading Russell Miller’s BARE-FACED MESSIAH. It is full of biographical details and documents about the Hubbard’s life and the development of Dianetics and Scientology.

    Just because Scientologists are brainwashed to not look at these facts, doesn’t mean a journalist shouldn’t know them.