Daily Notifications
Sign up for free emails to receive the feature story every morning in your inbox at


What VICE magazine got wrong about Scientology in the UK

Scientology's model child: A young Neil

Scientology’s model child: A young Neil

Although we noticed some of our readers praising the piece, we were disappointed with the recent interview of Jon Atack in VICE magazine. We fired off a missive to the magazine’s editors, and thought the residents of the Bunker might appreciate a gander at it.

It’s great to see VICE talk to one of the world’s top experts on Scientology, historian Jon Atack, for a story on Scientology in the UK.

Jon is an invaluable resource, and much of his book on the subject, A Piece of Blue Sky, takes place in England, where Jon was a member.

But it’s surprising that after talking to Jon, VICE came up with the idea that Scientology is mostly about Tom Cruise and Jon Travolta, and that it never seemed to “catch on” in Great Britain.

The really stunning line was this one: “Before Tom Cruise and John Travolta outed themselves, nobody really cared about the group of alien worshippers.”

The thing is, if VICE had actually read Jon Atack’s book, it would realize that’s just not the case at all.


And it’s a shame, because it means that VICE has missed an opportunity for the real story — not that Scientology has never caught on, but that it’s at the tail end of a brutal story of fights with locals in East Grinstead, battles with governments around the world, exposes by the press, internal splits that are tearing it apart, and a growing number of legal clashes that threaten to consume church leader David Miscavige and his organization.

If Scientology appears weak in the UK today, it’s because your reporter is arriving just in time to see Scientology crumbling after decades of epic fighting — and especially in Britain.

Here’s just one story, to give you a taste of what your reporter could have explored regarding Scientology and the UK. Yes, as your writer pointed out, L. Ron Hubbard moved from the US to East Grinstead in 1959 and established his headquarters there. But far from having trouble catching on, Scientology thrived in East Grinstead. In fact, by 1968 the constant flow of pilgrims coming to take the special courses at Saint Hill Manor from the US and Australia and South Africa led to a local revolt.

Bitter clashes were fought between Scientology and the town until it blew up into a national debate — should Scientology be kicked out of England? (By then Hubbard had already felt the heat and absconded from the place the year before as he took to the sea and ran Scientology from a small armada of ships in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Caribbean from 1967 to 1975.)

Residents of East Grinstead complained about the “cult” taking over their town, but Scientologists argued back that they were suffering as well. In one of the most well-known incidents in this local war, the church held up the case of a 7-year-old East Grinstead boy who had been kicked out of a local school because his family were Scientologists.

The BBC interviewed the boy, who was remarkably and charmingly well trained in L. Ron Hubbard-speak.

That boy was Neil Gaiman.

Scientology milked that episode for all it was worth, submitting a transcript of the BBC interview the next year as the debate about the church reached Parliament. (Eventually, a government report exposed Scientology’s controversies in 1971, but recommended against banning it.)

We’ve written extensively about Gaiman
, whose father was a major figure in Scientology in the UK. Neil himself reached high into its secret teachings before he left it for good in the 1980s. Today, he prefers not to talk about Scientology, because his mother and sisters are still heavily involved.

Around the time Neil was leaving Scientology, it received another major blow in England, and this time it involved Jon Atack directly. Jon had helped a woman who had left the church and was suing for custody of her kids against her ex-husband, who was still in Scientology. That court battle led to one of the most detailed denunciations of the church ever, by Justice John Latey.

And yet, one thing that your readers ought to know is that Scientology never gives up. It’s a tiny organization now — as Jon says, it’s probably down to only 25 or 30 thousand members around the world — but what it lacks in size it makes up for with the ability to garner international attention through its celebrities. And also, David Miscavige is sitting on a mountain of assets, and he spends freely when it matters to him.

As a result, Scientology continues to battle to promote itself and, on occasion, it actually claims a victory. And one of the biggest victories it’s had lately occurred where? Yes, right there in England.

Neil Gaiman’s nephew, Alessandro Calcioli, and Ale’s fiancée, Louisa Hodkin, sued for the right to have a religious wedding in a Scientology chapel, something that was prohibited by England’s arcane marriage laws. They won that battle, and Scientology seized on it to claim that England had finally recognized Scientology as a bona fide church. The London wedding itself got huge coverage, and it happened just seven months ago — the most significant development about Scientology in the UK in many years.

And Scientology will continue to fight, even as it is splitting apart, and after defectors and critics and, more recently, Anonymous, have spent decades getting the word out about the church and its many controversies. As Lawrence Wright said when his book Going Clear came out last year, Scientology and its celebrities are headed for a day of reckoning.

And, VICE, that’s a story worth telling.


More from Jonny Jacobsen on the St. Petersburg decision

Yesterday our man in Paris, Jonny Jacobsen, gave us a rundown on the decision by the European Court of Human Rights to award 7,500 euros to several Scientologists in St. Petersburg, Russia because of the bureacratic runaround that the country gave them when they applied for the church there to have official status. Jonny sent over this update this morning.

Dr Georg Neureither, professor of ecclesiastical and canonical law at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, said the result was to be expected.

He also pointed out that it confirmed the court’s position in not one, but two previous rulings.

“As I read the judgment the decision is not particularly a religious matter — the applicability of Article 9 of the Convention was hardly in doubt — rather than an investigation in the provisions of the Russian law to gain legal personality.

“These provisions are, according to the Court, unforeseeable and arbitrary… as the Court reaffirms its position already established in two former cases.

“So, there is nothing really new in today’s judgment: Regrettably Russia has not changed yet.”

The second previous case the court cited was an April 2007 judgment, Church of Scientology Moscow v. Russia, over yet another refusal by the authorities to let Scientology to be registered as a religious group.

On that occasion, Scientologists were turned down 11 times. Here too, the court ruling criticised the multiple reasons given for refusing Scientology religious status.

It also pointed out that even under Russian law the “15-year rule” had no legal basis.

Russia’s own Constitutional Court had ruled that the 1997 Religions Act, which introduced the restriction, could not be retroactively applied, it noted – yet Scientology had been registered as a religion in Russia since 1994.

But it had been stripped of its religious status after refusing to re-register under the terms of the new law.

— Jonny Jacobsen


Posted by Tony Ortega on October 3, 2014 at 07:00

E-mail your tips and story ideas to or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. Here at the Bunker we try to have a post up every morning at 7 AM Eastern (Noon GMT), and on some days we post an afternoon story at around 2 PM. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS (We read Scientology’s founding text) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25

UP THE BRIDGE (Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48

GETTING OUR ETHICS IN (Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING (Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49

PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer
The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ


Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email