In a four-year-old video that was much watched on the internet this week, the actor Tom Cruise mentioned various leaders he had met around the world. “They want help,” he said, “and they are depending on people who know, and who can be effective and do it, and that’s us.” The “us” in question is the Church of Scientology, the newfangled faith founded by the late American science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1953. A recent biography by Andrew Morton asserts that Mr Cruise has risen to the number-two post in the organisation. The Church, based in Clearwater, Florida, denies that, dismissing the book as “bigoted”, but the famous are certainly a mission field for Scientology. The Church runs “Celebrity Centres” in North Hollywood and Bayswater, and the actor John Travolta is also a member.
Scientology has gained global reach and millions of adherents but western authorities have come to no agreement on what it is. Is it a religion? A cult? A business? Or something else altogether? In the US, it regained its tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service in 1993 after a quarter-century of having been treated like a business. The confusion is acute in the European Union. Britain and France deal with the group under their laws on foundations. Last month, two big European countries reached opposite conclusions: Spain’s high court accorded Scientology the status of a religion, while Germany’s interior minister recommended banning it.
How Scientology gets treated is important. Hybrid organisations – which look religious from one angle and secular from another – are not what our laws on freedom of religion anticipated. When a Muslim charity gives money to, say, Hamas, or when a Bible-belt church starts a business, the line between sacred and secular gets harder to draw.
Scientology’s doctrines are based on Hubbard’s writings and programmes, sales of which are a considerable source of income for the Church. Some of its scriptures are “confidential”. They reportedly involve extraterrestrials who lived 75m years ago and sent spirit clusters (called “thetans”) to earth. The basic practice is “auditing”, which has been compared to Catholic confession or to self-help “talking cures”, but which is directed by a church member. Its goal is to eliminate “engrams” – negative mental pictures that block human development. It should not be confused with psychiatry, to which the Church has a special hostility, and which Hubbard considered a form of terrorism.
Readers Digest, Time magazine and others have reported that the Church keeps records of its confessional “audits” in case a member should turn against it. Defectors from the group have claimed that they were subjected to psychological pressure and, in some cases, lost their life’s savings. Scientology is rich. It has a real estate empire in Clearwater, Florida and desirable properties in the major cities of the world, along with reported assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Scientology “devotes vast resources to squelching its critics”, Time magazine wrote in 1991 – and this was before Scientology sued Time Warner for $416m over the article in which that passage appeared. In 2001, the US Supreme Court, in refusing to revisit Scientology’s failed suit against Time Warner, cited a 1984 California Superior Court case that found: “The Church or its minions is fully capable of intimidation or other physical or psychological abuse if it suits their ends. The record is replete with evidence of such abuse.”
The Church repeatedly sued a US watchdog group called the Cult Awareness Network until it went bankrupt in the 1990s. And Mr Morton told the Toronto-based Globe and Mail this week that his biography of Mr Cruise had not been published in Britain “because the publishers, Pan-Macmillan, felt the costs of defending any action outweighed any kind of freedom of expression”.
Authorities have often appeared confused about whether to deal with Scientology through its doctrines or its practices. In Australia and the US, Scientology is frequently criticised for its negative attitude towards psychiatry. This is a weak argument. No one is required to hold any particular attitude on psychiatry and one cannot criticise a religion for its doctrines on such a matter without threatening freedom of opinion and freedom of speech.
In Germany, where vigilance against secretive movements has prevailed since the second world war, the Church has been kept under surveillance for a decade by authorities responsible for defence of the constitution (the Verfassungsschutz). Last summer, the German defence ministry sought to block the filming at military sites of Valkyrie, a film about the German Resistance hero Count Claus von Stauffenberg, when it discovered that Mr Cruise would be in the starring role. Berthold Graf von Stauffenberg, the count’s son, called Scientology a “totalitarian ideology”. The US state department has criticised Germany for its heightened scrutiny of the group. But if it is true the organisation engages in systematic intimidation and harassment of its adversaries and doubters, then the German government is right and the US is wrong.
The liberal tendency in freedom of religion is to err on the side of neutrality, to accept as religious anything anyone says is religious. But this allows organisations with worldly dynamism (networks, wealth, an agenda and a willingness to play hardball with dissident members and sceptical outsiders) to claim protections designed for unworldly churches. In such circumstances, a liberal understanding of freedom of religion can have consequences that are not liberal at all.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
More from this columnist at www.ft.com/christophercaldwell