Last year, former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder predicted that 2015 would bring his former employer “pain.” And it sure was a tough year for David Miscavige and his followers. With Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear and Leah Remini’s book Troublemaker, more people than ever are learning about Scientology and its controversies.
But not everyone is apparently happy about that. Back when Gibney’s movie was first getting a lot of publicity, we heard from a couple of national figures who criticized the idea of singling out Scientology for examination. One of them was Reza Aslan, a rising star in the religious writing field and a frequent presence on television. Here’s what he told CNN:
I don’t think it’s fair to refer to Scientology as a cult. I mean, really the difference between a religion and a cult tends to be how long the religion lasts. Christianity was a cult for three hundred years. Mormonism was considered a cult for a hundred years. In fact, there are people today who still refer to Mormonism as a cult. Is it somehow different than other religious traditions in the way that it deals with its internal structure, in the disaffection of its former movement members? No, I don’t think so.
That’s easily the most frequent criticism we run into when Scientology is exposed as a cynical, nefarious organization that hurts its members: Well, religions are all the same. (And we’re not even going to go into L. Ron Hubbard’s exploitation of “the religious angle” and whether Scientology deserves to be called a religious organization at all. Also, Aslan’s statement is exactly why we avoid using the word ‘cult.’ It causes more confusion than understanding.) As we explained to Alex Gibney in his movie, why this common complaint fails is that Scientology’s essentially deceptive nature is what sets it apart…
Anyway, the reason we bring this up is that the new year is bringing a lot of predictions for what 2016 will bring Scientology. And while there’s more controversy on the way — particularly the upcoming memoir by Ron Miscavige Sr., “If He Dies, He Dies” — you can also expect something of a backlash to the criticism Scientology has been receiving.
And one place to expect it from is Reza Aslan and CNN.
Last year, it was announced that Aslan would be hosting a new CNN series in 2016, “Believer.” In its announcement, CNN was clearly anticipating the solid ratings it gets whenever it panders to religious viewers. And here was a chance to have a series featuring good news about different faiths around the world, including Scientology.
We were contacted by a producer for the show in the summer, who tried to convince us that the episode on Scientology will talk about the organization’s controversial past. That may be so, but Aslan is apparently trying hard to find nice things to say about L. Ron Hubbard and his followers. Here’s an email he sent Karen de la Carriere, for example, which she allowed us to show you…
My name is Reza Aslan. I’m a scholar of religions, an author, a frequent media commentator, and host of a new CNN documentary series called Believer. Think Anthony Bourdain but “faith” instead of “food.” I’m immersing myself in religious traditions around the world – without judgement or criticism – as a way of understanding other world views, of drawing bridges between believers and unbelievers, and of trying to make what some people may find strange and unfamiliar less strange and more relatable.
I am contacting you because we are filming an episode about people in the FreeZone community. I am interested in the lived experience of normal, everyday Independent Scientologists and members of the Free Zone who have left the official Church of Scientology. I am looking for people who have been helped by the philosophies of L. Ron Hubbard, his ideas and practices, why and how they came to it and how it has helped them in their lives. That’s why I’m reaching out to you: to see if you’d be willing to speak to me about your beliefs.
I understand you may be wary – I would be too considering the treatment of Scientology in the media. But I assure you I have no interest in further amplifying the voices of Scientology’s critics. They’ve been heard plenty. The show is called Believer because it focuses on believers. I myself am a believer – a Muslim – a follower of a religion that is only SLIGHTLY less misunderstood and feared than Scientology So I have no intention of treating other believers, regardless of their religion, with skepticism or revulsion. I want to show the beauty and appeal of other religions because I honestly and truly believe these are all different paths to the same destination.
So what do you say? Will you talk to me? I hope so.
This was followed up by an email from one of the show’s producers, who told Karen, “We had great experiences talking to people in the Freezone and independent communities in LA, Reno and Israel.”
Reno was where the Freezone held its annual convention in June. And Israel must refer to Dani Lemberger’s breakaway mission in Haifa.
Back in 2012, one of our favorite stories was our lengthy and non-judgmental story about Dani and his ardent belief in L. Ron Hubbard’s ideas. We have always found the “independent” movement interesting, at the same time that we have taken an unsparing look at Hubbard and his ideas. But is the “indie” movement really a news story except as a foil to the Church of Scientology itself? If the church did not exist, would anyone care that a tiny group of people think that science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard was on to something about past lives and superhuman powers?
We just wanted to make something very clear. On occasion, we are asked whether it makes sense to pay attention to an organization, the Church of Scientology, that has only about 40,000 members around the world. Well, we’re just one person with a small website, and we think it’s worth keeping an eye on a multi-billion-dollar entity that still seeks to have influence over many more people. We do so despite the hazards that come with covering Scientology, hazards that are very real.
Now CNN, a giant media organization, is going to use its media power to shine a favorable light on a movement that, at its national annual convention, managed to gather about 36 people.
Think about it.
As for Karen, here’s her response to a CNN producer who recently contacted her about getting images for the show…
“As long as this show is pushing the benefits of Scientology I want no part in it. This entity killed my son.”
Bonus photos from our tipsters
Rizza Islam at the New Year’s Eve party held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Actual caption: “Peace beautiful family!!! Me, my court-mate, and some of the family at the IAS new years party at the Beverly Wilshire hotel! Even though the new year begins in April we decided to come and have fun anyway! Bring in the new year with love, happiness, peace and PRAYER!”
E-mail tips and story ideas to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.
Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information about the book, and our 2015 book tour, can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.
Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts
Other links: The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ
Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield