The secrets of Scientology are not so secret anymore. Magazine articles, personal testimonials and even a “South Park” episode have exposed the deepest doctrines of the belief system espoused by Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Beck. For his new book, “Going Clear,” journalist Lawrence Wright conducted hundreds of interviews with current and former Scientologists to discover what life is like inside the church community.
Scientology plays both sides of the net: Its doctrine is very faith-based, but it claims to be scientific. Do you, like the IRS, consider it a religion?
It’s very difficult to define what a religion is, as the IRS has learned. Once the IRS has determined that a church is actually a religion, then everything else is just commentary, because they enjoy all the benefits of first-amendment protections, which are considerable, and the tax benefits.
The church has gone out of its way to recruit celebrities. Does that help Scientology seem more legitimate?
If you’re a young aspiring actor in Hollywood, and you look at people associated with Scientology, that’s very attractive. But to people who are not inside that circle, a religion full of celebrities has a superficial air to it. In some ways, that’s provided immunity from serious examination.
So many things you write about are disturbing — violence, coercion.
The thing that really stood out for me was the exploitation of children. They’re recruited at young ages and taken out of school, put to work. They sign a billion-year contract and spend their lives in this organization, often secluded, separated from society, working for practically nothing.
You also try to pinpoint what might be positive about Scientology. Why?
I thought it would be pointless to write another exposé of Scientology. I wanted to see what it offered to the people who have been drawn to it. They seem to have gotten something out of it, and like most Americans, I was just completely mystified about what that something would be.
Were you worried about retaliation or intimidation from the church?
I knew what had happened to some other writers — lawsuits, harassment, private detectives. But I haven’t experienced that. My last book was about al-Qaeda. At least Scientology’s not a terrorist organization.
Explainer: Operating Thetan Level III is a sacred Scientology doctrine. It explains that 75 million years ago, an evil being named Xenu killed millions of people, froze their bodies, dumped them in Earth’s volcanoes and bombed them. Their souls (“thetans”) floated out and were forced to watch a movie that brainwashed them. The confused, sad thetans now roam Earth and cluster in our bodies, making us confused and sad. Through auditing, Scientologists believe, we can rid ourselves of thetans, a process called “going clear.”Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Thu., 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)