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Academics who ignore defectors as ‘apostates’ will never see Scientology for what it is

The Underground Bunker asked former Sea Org official Chris Shelton to dig into a new academic paperback about Scientology, which is the latest issue of a journal called Implicit Religion. We think you’ll find Chris’s take in this first piece, which he comes at admitting his own personal biases, fascinating.

In my limited experience with the “Cult Wars” that have been waged for a few decades now in the world of academia, I’ve perceived that there are three groups of scholars from varying disciplines feuding over the idea of coercive control, what new religious groups are and aren’t, and whether or not a group can actually be “destructive” or not.

The first group is the smallest: those who can see the general threat to public health and safety that is represented by destructive cults, whether those groups are operating under the guise of a religion or a self-help group or a business consulting service. You know by name some of these scholars, such as Stephen Kent, Hugh Urban, and James Beverley. This group tends to acknowledge that their work is done in an effort to expose the abuses that destructive cults engage in.

The next group are those academics, many from the field of religious studies, who seem to believe that any group which calls itself a religion and conducts itself “religiously” should be granted the freedom to believe and practice those ideas without interference. Such scholars view themselves as defenders of what they term “New Religious Movements” and push back hard against any ideas put forward by psychologists and cult scholars about “mind control” or “brainwashing.” Many in this group outright reject the claims of former members of cults, labelling them “apostates” and ignore anything these defectors have to say no matter how many years they were involved or how much knowledge they bring to the discussion. Quotes and stories about these academics are few and far between in the big wide world but you may recognize some of their names: James R. Lewis, J. Gordon Melton, William Bainbridge, and David Bromley are some of the more infamous ones. These academics have written papers speaking in glowing terms not only about Scientology, but also the Moonies and Aum Shinryko (a Japanese cult which almost succeeded in killing hundreds of thousands of people by leaking sarin gas into the underground metro system).


Finally there is the third and largest group: scholars who really don’t have a dog in the “cult” fight one way or the other, but who are interested in the study of groups, religions, and cults and who want to objectively examine some aspect of these groups such as how they form, what draws people to them, how long does the average member stick around and what kind of factors cause them to leave, etc.

While attending a November 2018 British Association for the Study of Religions conference, four religious studies scholars who I would describe as firmly in the “New Religious Movements” camp did a podcast about the difficulties they experience in studying Scientology. They were David G. Robertson, lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University and co-founder of the Religious Studies Project; Carole M. Cusack, professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney; Stephen Gregg, senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton; and Aled Thomas, a PhD candidate at the Open University. The transcript of this podcast was published as the first of nine articles dedicated to Scientology in the latest edition of “Implicit Religion.”

Here is how they described their talk: “How can we move the study of Scientology forward? Academic work is largely stuck in a ‘cultic’ paradigm, focused on charismatic leadership, ‘anti-social’ and criminal activity and even brain-washing narratives. Scientology seems almost exclusively to be considered fair game (pun intended) for ridicule and criticism among New Religious Movements, and this may have much to tell us about the theoretical models scholars are using, and the institutional factors at play in the legitimisation of particular traditions in the academic and popular discourse. We discuss insider scholarship and the control of information; the Free Zone and the Church; strategic use of the category ‘religion’; and how we see scholarship developing in the post-Hubbard era.”

One thing to keep in mind with these scholars is that none of them are psychologists. In fact, there is no evidence in how they talk about high control groups like Scientology that they have ever even opened a book on thought reform (Lifton), influence (Cialdini), power differentials, dominant/submissive identity and manipulation (Zimbardo) or high control groups (Singer, Lalich, Hassan). Academic “siloing” is unfortunately the default position in academia, at least according to my experience with it. What I mean by this is specialists in one field or area of study completely ignore the work of anyone outside of their “silo” and thus lack an interdisciplinary approach or a more well-rounded understanding of what they are analyzing. The field of cult research would be much better served by religious scholars who recognize that their field of specialization is useful but is only part of the overall picture when examining what the likes of L. Ron Hubbard are up to.

So while religious scholarship is a very wide and rich field with a long history and a great many fascinating roads of inquiry, what it is not is a field that pays any attention to the psychological consequences of being involved in a fanatical religious mindset. Religious scholars simply note that some people get heavily involved with some religious groups, presumably because they lack some degree of common sense or because they have personalities that are extreme or some other goofy, invented reason which has nothing to do with the psychological realities of thought reform and coercive control.

In fact, these scholars are so ignorant of the concepts surrounding mind control that they treat any claims of “brainwashing” as wild-eyed, conspiratorial nonsense or salacious rumormongering made up by second-rate journalists and apostates as clickbait. They write these claims off as “terror narratives” which they can safely ignore because they choose to believe people are fully rational actors who make decisions based on logic and reason.

I wish I were joking but that is the prevailing attitude among “New Religious Movement” scholarship and they outright reject any claims of undue influence. I believe this is a kind of willful ignorance, and as an academic myself now I feel fully justified in heavily criticizing this stance as overtly biased, unprofessional, and even condescending. It’s appalling that there are religious scholars and sociologists who purposefully ignore the testimony of former group members when studying those groups and refuse to consider that anything they have to say has any use or value.

In the discussion, they made a few claims I thought I would address directly.

Robertson: “…the cliched ideas of Scientology as a sort of cult maybe start to break down. And we can start to measure out some of theee fault lines in the idea.”

Gregg: “…you mentioned the dreaded C-word there David! And I think part of the perpetuation of that problem is that we have a dominant narrative from ex-members. I’ve used the term ‘apostate’ in a chapter recently and I know that’s a contested term. But if we use the more general ‘ex-members’ then, of course, their relational identity is often against the established Church. So it perpetuates this domination of the Church as this cult-like figure or organization, because of the noisy apostates, who often — and Bromley wrote about career apostates (Bromley 1998) — who often made a career out of this…I can’t keep up with the number of apostate testimonies now. I used to read them all…. It’s a mini-industry of ex-member testimonies coming out of Scientology now. That’s [a] huge area of research in itself. But of course that perpetuates the public discourse on this sort of bad religion/negative religion/cult dynamic that of course, in NRM studies, we’ve tried to reject for a number of years now.”

As one of these self-publishing “apostates” whom Gregg seems to hold in such contempt, it is absolutely mind-blowing to me that this man is aware of the fact that there is a growing body of writing and video testimony from people who escaped Scientology but his only real response is to lament that this somehow prevents his idea of honest conversation about Scientology as a valid religious movement. As a former Scientologist, I have to acknowledge my bias and live with it in everything I write about the subject, but dishonest academics like this guy honestly believe they are being objective in saying such nonsense. In my mind, it’s like someone staring at a tidal wave and insisting calmly that there is no problem and no one is in any danger at all and why are all these people running away?

As to the “dreaded C-word” (he’s referring to the word ‘cult’), this is an unpopular and admittedly controversial word but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided in academia. However, I’ll infer that Gregg’s issue with the word is not its difficult usage, it’s that he doesn’t even believe in the concept of a destructive, high control group. I’m sure he imagines that religions evolve in stages and some of those stages are more extreme than others and if people enter in to an early-stage religion like Scientology, they are going to, by necessity, be in a more extreme and insular culture which could have certain individual negative consequences, but that’s just part of signing up and taking the ride.

I have a different idea. Maybe the fact that Hubbard used deceptive thought reform techniques to grow a religion in order to avoid bankruptcy, tax liens, and angry creditors calls into question the very legitimacy of Scientology’s religious status. Did you know that in all the reading I’ve done about Scientology in the academic world (and there’s not a lot of it to begin with), there has never been any discussion in any academic forum around this question? It is simply assumed because Scientology has tax exemption and religious recognition that it must be valid, even though there are four countries which official designate Scientology as a cult or secte: Argentina, Chile, France and Israel. Australia banned the practice of Scientology for a brief period and Russia has all but banned it in the present. Somehow these facts are brushed under the rug when discussions about the word ‘cult’ come up and instead, as you can see from the quote above, it is simply assumed anyone who disagrees with the NRM narrative simply doesn’t know what they are talking about. I interpret this as the equivalent of arrogant snobbery, but of course I’m biased so I would.

Next They are discussing why it is that so few academic books or literature exist on Scientology.


Cusack: “Well, there are two things again…. One is that…Scientology kept very close control on any academic that was anywhere near them. And the academics were aware that they could be not only sued, but personally harassed and that their families, and people that they cared about, could get into trouble. So very little was ever published, because even people who did projects on Scientology generally didn’t want to risk putting them in the public eye…. But the second thing, which I think is equally important, is that some of the noisy ex-members actually did a great service themselves by publishing: Jon Atack is the obvious example since ‘A Piece of Blue Sky’ came out very, very early in the conversation, really. But he is part of, now, a kind of global network of ex-members who accuse New Religious Movement scholars of being cult apologists if they say anything good about any religion.”

There is an odd attitude displayed here and in other comments around this where they openly acknowledge that the Church of Scientology will not be open or transparent about its operations and in fact, has been known to even stalk and harass reporters and academics who try to pierce the veil of secrecy, yet somehow despite this, it’s us ex-members who are the problem. They even note at one point that ex-Scientologists exist openly in greater numbers than ever before because more and more of us are writing books or giving testimonials to the media. So while their conversation is littered with complaints about the lack of candid information from the Church, they ignore every single former member who can give them in-depth, highly “confidential” and very informed raw facts about how the Church conducts itself.

One can only stand in awe at the gaping stupidity of this situation. Until these scholars get their heads on straight about what they are dealing with and decide to start looking at all the data available to them, they will continue to sit around in cerebral masturbation sessions wondering why they aren’t moving forward with any real discoveries or forward progress in the studying destructive cults like Scientology. They have framed the situation in terms that are a complete fantasy, accept Scientology’s information as factual while former members are all lying and they cannot consider a religious group of any kind could be destructive to anyone’s health or sanity. Those few of us pushing back against this nonsense are going to need a lot of help to right this course but I’m hopeful we can do it.

— Chris Shelton


Bonus items from our tipsters

Join Ron’s team!



Jon Atack and Karen de la Carriere

Don Jason’s escape to freedom.




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Source Code

“‘Be three feet back of your head.’ Please tell me why nobody ever said this in the last ump-thousand years. This is fantastic. Because 50 percent, at least, of the people who come in and sit down, I don’t care what their age is — something like this — you say, ‘Be three feet back of your head.’ Sometimes you get the reaction, ‘Why?’ ‘Well, it might be more comfortable outside.’ ‘Might be more comfortable outside! You mean people are inside their heads!’ You would be just amazed how often one gets that reaction. One girl I know was given 125 electric shocks because the psychiatrist found she was outside of her head. Too sane for him.” — L. Ron Hubbard, October 2, 1953


Avast, Ye Mateys

“This evening there will be a cocktail party aboard and 100+ top VIPs are expected as well as one very, very VIP person. The cocktail will be held in the main dining room and will as usual extend into the B Deck Foyer. Therefore body traffic into this area is to be kept to an absolute minimum. Male & Female occupants of B deck cabins are asked NOT to wander up the passageways and into toilets clad only in a towel during cocktail time. Remember that the VIPs will be using these heads. LAST REQUEST: Please try not to hang around the aft quarter deck or Prom decks during the cocktail — many of the guests will be taking a tour to the bridge at some time during the evening. As these requirements have been made publically known in the OODay, there will be no excuse for offenders, and I will take very strong action on any I find. Remember we are TOP EXECS of an INT BUSINESS MANAGEMENT CORP.” — Lt. N.F. Starkey, Captain, October 2, 1971



Overheard in the FreeZone

“I aligned myself with LRH directly after I read, Scientology: A New Slant on Life. It made such sense. But why it made such sense is explained in that I am a part of a vanguard group of beings who knew that Earth is a very sick planet that will likely spread its contagious illness elsewhere if not stopped here.”


Past is Prologue

1999: Officials in Belgium raided Scientology locations, seizing documents related to fraud and abuse. From Agence France Presse: “The controversial Church of Scientology was again under the gun in western Europe Friday after simultaneous raids and seizures of its documents in Belgium and France, the Brussels prosecutor said Friday. Jos Colpin, spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, told AFP Belgian police with warrants swooped on 25 locations Thursday, searching premises, seizing bookkeeping documents and temporarily detaining people for questioning. He said two such searches were also carried out in Paris at the request of Belgian authorities, but added that no charges were yet pending against the church in either country, and that all those questioned had been released. The seizures resulted from a fraud and abuse complaint filed in Brussels in 1997 by a former member of the church seeking recovery of money she had paid.”


Random Howdy

“I’ve been in a ‘Is that all there is to Scientology?’ mood lately. It comes with the territory.”



Full Court Press: What we’re watching at the Underground Bunker

Criminal prosecutions:
Danny Masterson charged for raping three women: Next hearing set for November 10. Trial tentatively scheduled for February.
Jay and Jeff Spina, Medicare fraud: Jay sentenced to 9 years in prison. Jeff’s sentencing to be scheduled.
Hanan and Rizza Islam and other family members, Medi-Cal fraud: Pretrial conference October 7 in Los Angeles
David Gentile, GPB Capital, fraud: Next pretrial conference set for November 19.
Joseph ‘Ben’ Barton, Medicare fraud: Pleaded guilty, awaiting sentencing.

Civil litigation:
Luis and Rocio Garcia v. Scientology: Oral arguments were heard on July 30, 2020 at the Eleventh Circuit
Valerie Haney v. Scientology: Forced to ‘religious arbitration.’ Petition to US Supreme Court submitted on May 26. Scientology responded on June 25.
Chrissie Bixler et al. v. Scientology and Danny Masterson: California Supreme Court granted review on May 26 and asked the Second Appellate Division to direct Judge Steven Kleifield to show cause why he granted Scientology’s motion for arbitration. Oral arguments scheduled for November 2.
Matt and Kathy Feschbach tax debt: Eleventh Circuit ruled on Sept 9 that Feshbachs can’t discharge IRS debt in bankruptcy. Dec 17: Feshbachs sign court judgment obliging them to pay entire $3.674 million tax debt, plus interest from Nov 19.
Brian Statler Sr v. City of Inglewood: Third amended complaint filed, trial set for June 28, 2022.
Author Steve Cannane defamation trial: Trial concluded, Cannane victorious, awarded court costs. Case appealed on Dec 23. Appeal hearing held Aug 23-27. Awaiting a ruling.



We first broke the news of the LAPD’s investigation of Scientology celebrity Danny Masterson on rape allegations in 2017, and we’ve been covering the story every step of the way since then. At this page we’ve collected our most important links, including our four days in Los Angeles covering the preliminary hearing and its ruling, which has Danny facing trial and the potential sentence of 45 years to life in prison.


After the success of their double-Emmy-winning, three-season A&E series ‘Scientology and the Aftermath,’ Leah Remini and Mike Rinder continue the conversation on their podcast, ‘Scientology: Fair Game.’ We’ve created a landing page where you can hear all of the episodes so far.


An episode-by-episode guide to Leah Remini’s three-season, double-Emmy winning series that changed everything for Scientology watching. Originally aired from 2016 to 2019 on the A&E network, and now on Netflix.


Find your favorite Hubbardite celeb at this index page — or suggest someone to add to the list!

Other links: SCIENTOLOGY BLACK OPS: Tom Cruise and dirty tricks. Scientology’s Ideal Orgs, from one end of the planet to the other. Scientology’s sneaky front groups, spreading the good news about L. Ron Hubbard while pretending to benefit society. Scientology Lit: Books reviewed or excerpted in a weekly series. How many have you read?


[ONE year ago] New in court docs: Scientology bashes victims’ rights group, trashes Mike Rinder
[TWO years ago] Scientologists led away in handcuffs after stunning evidence of fraud heard in L.A. court
[THREE years ago] Clear body, wiped mind: Another woman comes forward about forced abortion in Scientology
[FOUR years ago] Another Scientologist becomes instant star with Trump supporters, this time in Puerto Rico
[FIVE years ago] How Scientology plans to take over the world: By boring us to death, apparently
[SIX years ago] An email that demonstrates how much Scientology loves going after the ‘evil psychs’
[SEVEN years ago] Q&A with Mike Rinder: Understanding the sudden changes at Scientology’s LA complex
[NINE years ago] Scientology’s Georgia Drug Rehab Hit with Double-Barreled Media Onslaught


Scientology disconnection, a reminder

Bernie Headley (1952-2019) did not see his daughter Stephanie in his final 5,667 days.
Valerie Haney has not seen her mother Lynne in 2,441 days.
Katrina Reyes has not seen her mother Yelena in 2,946 days
Sylvia Wagner DeWall has not seen her brother Randy in 2,466 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his grandson Leo in 1,486 days.
Geoff Levin has not seen his son Collin and daughter Savannah in 1,377 days.
Christie Collbran has not seen her mother Liz King in 4,684 days.
Clarissa Adams has not seen her parents Walter and Irmin Huber in 2,552 days.
Carol Nyburg has not seen her daughter Nancy in 3,326 days.
Doug Kramer has not seen his parents Linda and Norm in 1,656 days.
Jamie Sorrentini Lugli has not seen her father Irving in 4,130 days.
Quailynn McDaniel has not seen her brother Sean in 3,446 days.
Dylan Gill has not seen his father Russell in 12,012 days.
Melissa Paris has not seen her father Jean-Francois in 7,931 days.
Valeska Paris has not seen her brother Raphael in 4,099 days.
Mirriam Francis has not seen her brother Ben in 3,680 days.
Claudio and Renata Lugli have not seen their son Flavio in 3,941 days.
Sara Goldberg has not seen her daughter Ashley in 2,978 days.
Lori Hodgson has not seen her son Jeremy and daughter Jessica in 2,692 days.
Marie Bilheimer has not seen her mother June in 2,217 days.
Julian Wain has not seen his brother Joseph or mother Susan in 572 days.
Charley Updegrove has not seen his son Toby in 1,747 days.
Joe Reaiche has not seen his daughter Alanna Masterson in 6,298 days
Derek Bloch has not seen his father Darren in 3,447 days.
Cindy Plahuta has not seen her daughter Kara in 3,767 days.
Roger Weller has not seen his daughter Alyssa in 8,622 days.
Claire Headley has not seen her mother Gen in 3,741 days.
Ramana Dienes-Browning has not seen her mother Jancis in 2,097 days.
Mike Rinder has not seen his son Benjamin and daughter Taryn in 6,400 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his daughter Spring in 2,506 days.
Skip Young has not seen his daughters Megan and Alexis in 2,904 days.
Mary Kahn has not seen her son Sammy in 2,780 days.
Lois Reisdorf has not seen her son Craig in 2,363 days.
Phil and Willie Jones have not seen their son Mike and daughter Emily in 2,858 days.
Mary Jane Barry has not seen her daughter Samantha in 3,112 days.
Kate Bornstein has not seen her daughter Jessica in 14,221 days.


Posted by Tony Ortega on October 2, 2021 at 07:00

E-mail tips to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We also post 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 new book with Paulette Cooper, Battlefield Scientology: Exposing L. Ron Hubbard’s dangerous ‘religion’ is now on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats. Our book about Paulette, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

The Best of the Underground Bunker, 1995-2020 Just starting out here? We’ve picked out the most important stories we’ve covered here at the Underground Bunker (2012-2020), The Village Voice (2008-2012), New Times Los Angeles (1999-2002) and the Phoenix New Times (1995-1999)

Other links: BLOGGING DIANETICS: Reading Scientology’s founding text cover to cover | 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 | Shelly Miscavige, 15 years gone | 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 | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | 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

Watch our short videos that explain Scientology’s controversies in three minutes or less…

Check your whale level at our dedicated page for status updates, or join us at the Underground Bunker’s Facebook discussion group for more frivolity.

Our non-Scientology stories: Robert Burnham Jr., the man who inscribed the universe | Notorious alt-right inspiration Kevin MacDonald and his theories about Jewish DNA | The selling of the “Phoenix Lights” | Astronomer Harlow Shapley‘s FBI file | Sex, spies, and local TV news | Battling Babe-Hounds: Ross Jeffries v. R. Don Steele


Tony Ortega at The Daily Beast


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