January 30th, 2013
01:18 PM ET

Author of Scientology book: ‘There have been a lot of tears in this story’

By Todd Leopold, CNN

(CNN) - To Scientologists and their supporters, L. Ron Hubbard is a voice of wisdom and the church is the way to enlightenment. To antagonists and skeptics, Hubbard is a con artist and fraud, and the church is a mishmash of Freudian psychology and science fiction, a celebrity-laden scam.

Lawrence Wright doesn’t buy either generalization.

In his new book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Looming Tower” delves into the life of Hubbard, the writer-turned-prophet, and the church he created – one which, he says, arose out of an atmosphere of spiritual ferment in post-World War II Los Angeles. Hubbard, he says, was “a very interesting man and a man who had certain disturbing influences in his personality” – but not a con man: “If he really was just in it for money, somewhere along the line he would have taken his money and gone to Monte Carlo. He never did that.”

And the church? A religion with a rich sense of community, but also one that has allegedly engaged in questionable behavior with some adherents. Wright alleges that managers were forced to live in “the Hole,” part of a desert compound the church maintains, in which they slept on an ant-infested floor; that there were child labor abuses; and that the church’s leader, David Miscavige, browbeat and assaulted members.

Award-winning author Lawrence Wright delves into Scientology in his latest book, earning buzz - and church blowback.

The church has disputed Wright’s findings. “The stories of alleged physical abuse are lies concocted by a small group of self-corroborating confessed liars. The hard evidence clearly shows that no such conduct ever occurred and that in fact there is evidence that shows it did NOT occur,” the group’s spokesperson, Karin Pouw, told CNN’s Miguel Marquez.

“Regarding the claim that the Church made children work long hours, the Church diligently followed, and continues to follow, all child labor laws in every state or country in which it operates,” Anthony Glassman, an attorney for the Church of Scientology, told CNN.

All Scientology responses to Wright’s book can be found on CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/22/us/scientology-response/index.html) and at a dedicated website (http://www.lawrencewrightgoingclear.com/). The church is also considering legal action.

For Wright, however, the Scientology story fits into his fascination with faith in general, particularly the tensions between faith and modern society. He spoke to the Belief Blog about his interests, the conflicts between fundamentalism and modernity, and the future of Scientology. The following is an edited transcript.

CNN: Why pursue this book?

Lawrence Wright: I’m irresistibly drawn to a great story, and that’s what this is. It may be the fact it has such an electrical charge around it, (that) it was formidable and intimidating and kept some other reporters away, (that) left it more intact for me.

CNN: I was particularly struck with the biography of Hubbard – there are a lot of contradictions in the man.

Wright: I think his image is so complicated by these competing narratives about who he was and what kind of life he actually lived. If you’re in the church, he’s the most valuable man who ever lived, and if you’re outside the church, he seems like a crank and a fraud. But I reject the idea that he was a fraud. He spent his whole life articulating this religious philosophy and eccentric bureaucracy he created to support it.

CNN: I didn’t realize he was such close friends with (science fiction writer) Robert Heinlein, whose own writings have a devout following based on Heinlein’s perceived libertarian beliefs.

Wright: It’s fascinating to think about how that little circle of science fiction writers had such influence. Isaac Asimov was also in that circle, and Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese terrorist cult, grew out of a yoga teaching of a single individual. Asimov’s books – the Foundation trilogy – were very much at the basis of that group. It’s intriguing to think that these men who may have been writing to follow their own imaginations and write popular novels had this echo in the spiritual world for many people.

CNN: What do you think is behind that? What is it in the human soul that can take harmless ideas to extremes?

Wright: I think that piety is a very dangerous emotion. I think it’s fine to have religious ideas. But there’s a competitive aspect to belief, and that’s where piety comes in – being more of a believer than your neighbor. And that becomes a matter of enforcing the dogma and creating a holier-than-thou environment. That’s where religions begin to get rigid, inflexible and dangerous.

When I was writing about al Qaeda (in “The Looming Tower”), you could see people in that organization have powerful religious motivations. But a lot of them are rather poorly informed about what the Quran actually says. In Islam there’s a body of work called the Hadith, which are the sayings of the Prophet, and there are levels of how authentic they are. And many of these disputed Hadith are at the root of al Qaeda’s teachings, but not actually in the Quran. I find the same thing true in fundamentalist Christianity. For instance, if you read the book of Leviticus … well, even fundamentalist Christians don’t adopt (all its laws). I think most religions have to make room for modernity, and that means discarding some of their outmoded theology. That’s something Scientology has a very difficult time doing. …

My feeling is that there’s only one opinion that matters in the question whether Scientology is a religion – and that is that of the IRS. Now, the IRS is an agency very ill-equipped to make theological distinctions. (But) in the face of (an) avalanche of lawsuits, the IRS crumbled – gave Scientology the imprimatur of being a religion and protected under the vast guarantees of the First Amendment. After that, everything else is just commentary.

CNN: Reading the book, I just felt so sad for so many of these people who signed billion-year contracts and gave up their lives and underwent such pain.

Wright: There have been a lot of tears in this story, more than any I’ve ever worked on. The sense of loss and shame and outrage is so pronounced among the ex-members, and the church discredits them for that because they consider them apostates. Many of the people were at the highest levels of the church and had attained the very peak of the Scientology spiritual ladder. So they’re the products of Scientology. They know better than anyone else what’s going on inside that circle.

CNN: Do you have sympathy for Scientology the religion or Scientologists as people?

Wright: I have sympathy for the people in it. A lot of the popular understanding of Scientology (is that) it’s full of cranks and superficial celebrities. But my experience is that there were smart, intelligent, skeptical, interesting personalities involved in the church. Personally, whatever people want to believe is fine with me. Why people gravitate to different expressions of faith is quite intriguing to me, and I don’t condemn them for what they choose to believe.

But the behavior of the church towards its critics, towards reporters, towards defectors, and especially towards members who are inside the clergy – in particular children who are recruited at appallingly young ages to sign these billion-year contracts and surrender their alternative lives to a life of poverty and isolation – those practices worry me considerably. And I think there’s an accounting the church of Scientology is going to have to face, if it wants to survive.

CNN: Do you see a Martin Luther kind of figure arising at this point?

Wright: There’s a large, independent Scientology movement. These are people who have left the church but still regard themselves as Scientologists. There are others who’ve left the church and feel conned or deluded and they want nothing to do with the teachings of Scientology.

But a considerable portion of the people who’ve defected really still think of themselves as Scientologists. They believe the official church of Scientology has been hijacked from the original teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, and they want that back. So there is kind of a church in waiting, and I think if there was a change at the top of the church, then those people would stream back in.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Books • Scientology

soundoff (232 Responses)
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    December 13, 2013 at 1:51 am |
  2. Sivick

    nope, still a creepy cult for weirdoes. honestly if you're going to join a sci-fi themed cult you can do better. I suggest Jedi or star-trekism. Live long and prosper.

    December 4, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
  3. Noyb

    I read this book. Thanks Lawrence wright. I beleive you did a bigger fave than you know for Americans.

    December 1, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • Noyb

      I think I've encountered some of these nutcases. They're much more prevalent in the celebrity world than you know, and that they admit.

      December 1, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
      • Noyb

        Amd they're every bit as abusove and threatening and violent as mentioned.

        December 2, 2013 at 9:13 am |
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    Author of Scientology book: ‘There have been a lot of tears in this story’ – CNN Belief Blog – CNN.com Blogs モンブランケーキ http://www.pslcbi.com/montblanc.html

    November 30, 2013 at 6:28 am |
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    兔费注册即送彩金娱乐城 http://www.sunshine-china.com/js-0251/mlindex.aspx

    November 11, 2013 at 2:57 am |
  6. crazy is as crazy does


    October 31, 2013 at 10:38 am |
  7. just how lost can Californians get

    How long does the Sci-fi Zombification process typically take? I'm guessing, if they charge for each session, it could take quite a while.

    October 31, 2013 at 10:28 am |
  8. Bob OHearn

    Humans think up the darnedest stuff!

    October 17, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • Miss Demeanor

      When people don't understand something, they'll make up shizzle to explain it. I imagine it all started with a caveman who lost his business to a volcanic eruption or earthquake and, needing a steadier cashflow figured out that selling protection-from-the-almighty's-future-wrath was easy money. It's the perfect form of fraud... you can't prove it either way.

      October 31, 2013 at 10:33 am |
  9. BKmart

    Scientology is a cultish mishmash created from whole cloth by a not very good SciFi writer as a money making scheme. At that it has been very successful...

    August 28, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • William Bramblett

      Kind of like Christianity, Islam, and every other "religion" on Earth.

      November 30, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
  10. bookman90069

    You start picking at the fabric of any "religion" and they all start to unravel. They're all mythology. Scientology is just a more contemporary mythology. My favorite? The cosmic Jewish zombie who promises you eternal life if you symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood and meditate to him telepathically to be your master so he can remove an evil force from your soul that exists in all mankind because a middle eastern rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat an apple from a magic tree.

    Sound familiar to anyone?

    August 14, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
    • BKmart

      Nope, doesn't ring a bell, can you give me a hint? I'd guess Islam, am I warm???

      August 28, 2013 at 11:17 am |
      • Mack

        You're close. The answer originates from the same place as Islam, so it's equally fallacious, but keep guessing.

        September 5, 2013 at 9:39 am |
  11. ROSCO

    Its the religion of the stars. Tom Cruise can not be wrong.

    August 1, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
  12. ellid

    Hubbard admitted to one of his editors that the only way to get rich was to found a religion. This is not in dispute, so why anyone would defend this money-grubbing cult is beyond me.

    June 12, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
    • John Davis

      You know, ellid, I don't believe Hubbard said this. Or, if he did, the quote is completely out of context, or it was a joke. As Lawrence Wright states, if he was only in it for the money, why didn't he take off to Las Vegas?

      He didn't. He was researching and writing most of his waking hours right up to the end.

      If you don't believe this, take a look at the sheer volume of work he put out.

      No, Hubbard was genuine. And a genius.

      There is no doubt about that.

      June 13, 2013 at 3:56 am |
      • James

        His love for science fiction was also his religion.

        August 4, 2013 at 10:40 am |
        • Mark S.

          And very BAD science fiction, I might add, speaking as a fan for about 50 years now, no matter how many copies of the more recent trash novels released under his name after his death (written by who knows whom?) that Scientology adherents bought to drive up the numbers.

          August 29, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
      • patty

        Well John, he did say it. "Researching" and "writing" about manipulating vulnerable people= like you.
        MANY hundreds of hours of tape exsisit of him speaking , mostly incoherently= what, you got a net-nanny on you and you can't check that out?

        September 3, 2013 at 9:41 am |
      • Azeeker

        His "research" was just making up stories. He was a prolific writer and could spew out yarn a mile a minute.

        He did not utilize the Scientific Method (see Wikipedia).

        The scientific method helped pull Europe out of the
        dark ages and into the enlightenment and all the advances in science,
        math, engineering and medicine. Hubbard NEVER allowed the scientific method (including
        independent verification, submission of data, and repeatability by other
        researchers) to be applied to dianetics or scientology because he knew
        it would never stand up to impartial scrutiny.

        Instead, all we hear are anecdotal stories (which can have numerous causation) and enforced "success stories."

        He consistently pulled statements out of his ass and stated them as FACTs. Theory stated as fact.

        Lets see some impartial 3rd party testing of those supernatural OT
        abilities, huh? He actually forbid this, calling them "parlor games."

        If they could really do what they claim, wouldn't that be a game-changer?

        September 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
      • you must be a californian

        I doubt it. Now what? I think what you mean is, "there is no doubt in my mind because I have been drinking their kool-aide"... big difference.

        October 31, 2013 at 10:36 am |
      • Eric Hill

        Hubbard was "genuine" and a "genius"? Really? I'm currently working on a book about how he "borrowed" much of his ideas for Scientology from Aleister Crowley via Marvel Whiteside Parsons (pioneer of JPL), how Crowley and others at the Parsonage distrusted him as a con man, how he eventually stole money from Parsons (as well as his girlfriend, whom Hubbard married and then physically and emotionally abused) to start Scientology, which is ALL about making money (and if you dispute this, consider how their administrative model works) by duping those who are gullible and wealthy enough to afford buying into a religion based on poor science fiction writing, thinly veiled Freudian analysis married to pseudo science, and abusive mind control practices. Yeah, he was a regular guy, all genuine and smart. Read his early writings on the Chinese and other nonwhite groups. Take a look at his Navy record. Or look at his lies about his upbringing and tell me he was smart and genuine. Do some research before you open your pie hole.

        November 27, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
      • Noyb

        Why would he leave? His money conitued to come from making sure people continued following him. If he took off, there goes his money source. Lets see. Stay and convince people he was a leader amd prophet, riding yachts all over the med, with anything he wanted at his reach, or leave and have his financial source dry up. Which do you think he'd choose?

        December 2, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • Steven B

      John Davis, I'm so tired of seeing you shill for Scientology all over the web. What happened, did Louanne Lee finally throw in the towel? Did she "blow?"

      L Ron Hubbard was a criminal and an ignoramus who thought radiation couldn't pass through a human (it does) because it encounters resistance when it meets his soul; no wonder he couldn't graduate college.

      But hey, better to be a college flunk-out than a high school drop-out like your current leader David Miscavige!

      June 13, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • Atheism is for everyone

      @ John Davis – L Ron is on recorded tape stating that sentence. There is NOTHING to debate NOTHING to question. He was a con man who took advantage of fools. This is the story of EVERY religion ever believed.

      July 3, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • ME II

      @Atheism is for everyone,
      I wasn't aware that there was a recording. Do you have a citation for that?

      July 3, 2013 at 10:32 am |
      • Eric Hill

        It isn't necessary. You can find plenty on Hubbard through his own writing and those who knew him. The man was about as disingenuous and corrupt as it gets.

        November 27, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  13. TiredOfPaying

    I learned everything I needed to know about this cult back in 1978. I was walking down a street in Ann Arbor, MI and a Scientologist was preaching to people passing by. He wanted me to read this wonderful new book called Scientology. He handed me a copy and I said I'd read it. As I walked away, he stopped me and said 'That book is $7.95'.

    I handed it back. To this day I know its just a money-grubbing cult. Revoke its religion status!

    June 11, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • Mack

      In the hierarchy of religions and how "cultish" they are, there are certainly some that come to mind. I like having Scientology on the list as an official religion because it makes the others look foolish to be in such company.

      September 5, 2013 at 9:42 am |
  14. Cali Crazee

    I have a theory about why Hubbard chose science fiction as a basis for his 'religion'. He could have taken the easy path and based his 'religion' on mere fairy tales but that would have led to being derided as 'Mother Hubbard'.
    Seriously though, why have so many Californians believed the cult leaders that gravitate for that state... shysters that the rest of the world automatically snickers at? When you believe life is all about money and things I guess you're in pretty sad shape inside. I remember an earlier Cali-cult that neutered the male followers. Maybe that's a good place to start.

    May 20, 2013 at 11:47 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.