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Scientology, America’s most secretive religion

The Scientology building in Los Angeles, CA.
The Scientology building in Los Angeles, CA.
jasmined/Flickr (cc by-nc-nd)

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Despite its significant following and its high-profile adherents like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, the ins and outs of Scientology remain for the most part a well-kept secret. Rolling Stone journalist Janet Reitman spent five years researching the organization to uncover what lies behind its fortress of mystery. In her new book “Inside Scientology” she recounts the life stories of current and ex-members as well as the story behind the controversial founder of the Church, science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

Los Angeles has become a hot bed for Scientology, due in part to the presence of Hollywood and also because of the experimental mentality of Californians. Southern California has a history of embracing new ways of thinking; exploring new religions, concepts of psychology and self-help, Reitman said.

Reitman said the church claims to have between 8 and 11 million members worldwide, but she estimates the number is a modest 250,000. Reitman accounts for this difference by saying the church's number includes anyone who's ever bought a Scientology book or taken a Scientology class.

Reitman sheds light on various intriguing aspects of the spiritual corporation, ranging from the tactics they used to gain their tax-exempt status to why she thinks their celebrity-oriented marketing is causing their popularity to wane.

Scientology has been extremely shrewd over the years about attaching itself to whatever fad is popular at the time, Reitman said, including pop psychology, self-help and new age.

"It's attached itself in certain ways to education reform, drug reform policy — it has a prison reform agenda," Reitman said. "It's very good at subverting the fact that it's Scientology and presenting itself as something more innocuous."

Known for its attacks on psychiatry and its requirement that members pay thousands for salvation, the Church of Scientology has drawn attention and scrutiny to its use of litigation to intimidate its critics.

Reitman said this is one of "dirty tricks" used by the church against the IRS in an effort to acquire a tax exemption. It was a long battle before Scientology got their billion-dollar exemption in 1993 after multiple individual Scientologists brought suits agains the IRS.

Reitman’s exhaustive research chronicles this and also explores the Church’s huge financial holdings.

Scientologists are "servants of the church" Reitman said, and it's extremely difficult for members to leave the church due to financial, physical and psychological constraints.

"They don't understand Heaven and Hell. They don't pray," Reitman said. "It has to do with guilt and personal responsibility."

Many disaffected members Reitman spoke with reported being constantly followed and watched, and indicated physical abuse at the hands of certain elder Scientologists.

CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY STATEMENT Janet Reitman’s book “Inside Scientology”