Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

There is a brief but telling moment in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (★★½), Alex Gibney’s new documentary, which is currently playing on HBO.

One of the many former members of the “church” of Scientology is being interviewed,  and she is speculating about how she could have remained so long within an organization whose tenets and practices she now finds repugnant. She mentions the “ladder” structure of the church, where members are esteemed and valued based on their progress through different levels of understanding and achievements. It is sort of like the way the Christian church uses “hell,” she observes.

I expect how viewers feel about that exchange will go a long way toward predicting how enthusiastic they are about the film as a whole. It is grimly satisfying to see the strong-arm intimidation tactics of church leaders exposed, but the broader message may leave a bad taste in some viewers’ mouths.

The subtitle of Going Clear is “Scientology and the Prison of Belief” (emphasis added), a choice which suggests that Gibney has his sights set on an even bigger target than Scientology. In 2012, Gibney directed Mea Maxima Culpa, a similar expose about the Roman Catholic Church’s response to priest sex-abuse scandals.  Anyone who watches the two films in proximity would be hard pressed to not be disturbed by some of the parallels in institutional practice: ostracizing former members, hoarding of great wealth with little to no oversight regarding its use, turning celebrities into leaders and leaders into celebrities.

But if institutions, even religious ones, are not immune from corrupting influences, neither are they all the same. By placing the word “belief” so prominently in the title, the film suggests that the problem is not the object of one’s belief but the belief itself. Scientology is an easy target for lazy attempts to label all belief as equally absurd, equally a result of brainwashing or emotional need. The film carefully cites founder L. Ron Hubbard himself in the claims that he was trying to create a religion for financial gain. And because Scientology arose during a period in the recent past, claims about its creation are more easily supported or debunked than claims–often similar but more often asserted rather than evidenced–about the foundations of ancient religions.

To give the film credit, at one point it does offer up a key difference between Scientology and (most forms of) Christianity: the latter does not hide the content of its beliefs from non-members or require adherents to advance to a certain stage of church participation before having doctrinal truths explained or even revealed to them.

That’s not to suggest the whole movie, or even most of it, is a dispassionate examination of religious belief. The bulk is tabloid fare, as we learn about the church trying to find a girlfriend for Tom Cruise and how ‘sessions’ allegedly designed to help members make emotional, psychological, or spiritual epiphanies end up populating personal files with fodder for blackmail. The part of the film dealing with the church’s battles with the IRS is particularly bracing and scary stuff. If a church can intimidate and ultimately win a prolonged legal battle with a branch of the federal government, how much power must they have to manipulate and punish the average member who simply wants to leave?

Then again, some religions are currently wrestling with the courts over whether or not they have to bake cakes or provide birth control to its employees. So maybe its not as easy as it would appear at first glance to distinguish religions from cults by just looking at their practices. Maybe one needs to examine those practices at the same time one objectively investigates their beliefs. Is it a fair parallel to equate the Christian belief in heaven and hell with Scientology’s adherence to multiple levels of self-actualization? Is faith in the sincerity and integrity of the New Testament gospels and their authors really no different from faith in the veracity of the science fiction novels and self-help books of an admitted mercenary?

The film doesn’t overtly answer these questions, but neither does it leave me with much doubt what its answer would be if the point were pressed. All belief is a prison. Scientology just happens to be the one whose walls are hardest to scale.









10 Replies to “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”

  1. Froggy

    The “‘ladder’ structure” you refer to is the Bridge, which is compared to the Christian concept of Hell in the following passage from the movie:

    Your future, your eternity, all depends on you going up the Bridge. It’s scary. It’s kinda like Christianity with hell.

    I don’t know how conversant you are with Scientology, but Scientology itself describes the Bridge as something that spans the “chasm between where one is now and a higher plateau of existence.” The Bridge is more akin to salvation in Christianity than it is simply a measure of how much Scientology church members are esteemed and valued, and given that, I think the comparison is apt. The difference of course is that Scientology charges significant amounts for the courses required to make progress along the Bridge, while salvation in Christianity is a personal choice that costs nothing (at least in terms of money).

    • kenmorefield

      Thank you for this reply and for some context for the comparison. As you mention, the scene in question is pretty brief, and those not familiar with Scientology (or Christianity) may not be entirely clear on how the two things are “kinda like” each other.

      • Michelle R. Wood

        It’s often been my experience that documentaries, no matter how well coneceived and developed, are not the best place for in depth examination of some topics due to their necessary brevity. The book explains Scientology terms like the Bridge in great detail to allow the reader insight into the experiences related by former members. What an author can take pages and even chapters to describe may need to be summarized in less than a minute for a film, which doesn’t allow the audience to get nearly the same sense of what happened.

  2. Andrew Spitznas

    I’m not a fan of facile overgeneralizations, no matter the source. It sounds like the Scientology Ladder versus Christian Hell comparison is one such example. And Gibney’s title seems too general to be useful, without material in his documentary to back it up this more generalized assertion about the “prison of belief.” Unfortunately, I think your comment about “claims–often similar but more often asserted rather than evidenced–about the foundations of ancient religions” is similarly too glib by half.

    Sure, there are plenty of simplistic pro- and anti-religious statements, books, and memes that generate lots of attention. These will always sell better than the erudite and reflective. But there is also plenty of good material out there that challenges the historicity and validity of traditional Judeo-Christian belief. Writings by Dan Barker, Bart Ehrman, James Kugel, and Joel Baden come immediately to mind.

    • kenmorefield

      Andrew, as you mention, there are dissenting opinions about the “historicity” and “validity” of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs. But I would certainly say those disagreements–and which side readers are one–extends to how “simplistic” or “good” are any particular entrants in a wide field.

      That being said, my point is that claims about Scientology’s origins are a little easier to support or debunk because it is an historically recent phenomenon. I don’t see anyone denying Dianetics is an accurate expression of the beliefs of L. Ron Hubbard or that he never really lived, photos and first hand witness notwithstanding. Why is that glib? You are free to make the argument that the historical narrative of and about Christianity is suspect. I suspect we would never agree on that point–in part because such an argument would be more likely to get derailed by disagreements regarding what evidence could and should be accepted as evidence and what inferences made from that evidence are credible. I don’t see that same problem, in the short term with recent history. Sure there are a handful of people who believe we faked the moon landing or that the second 9/11 tower wasn’t actually hit by the plane, but there seems a much greater consensus about what can actually be counted as evidence when dealing with recent events, making claims about them easier to support or refute. Again, I’m not really sure why that is glib.

      • Andrew Spitznas


        I have no problem with your assertion that the claims of Scientology are easier to prove or disprove because they emerge from more recent history.

        My difficulty came with your parenthetical regarding the debunking claims against more ancient religions. If I read you correctly, you wrote that these claims are more often asserted than evidenced. (If I misread you, my apologies.) The writings of the authors I cited all amply back up their statements invalidating the claims about the historical inaccuracy and unreliability of the Judeo-Christian source texts.

        Having studied the apologists and counter-apologists both (I was a wide-reading, Bible-believing Christian for over 20 years after all), I find the former do most of the asserting, and the latter furnish much more evidence, for their respective claims.

        • kenmorefield

          Andrew, please go back and read the passage in my review again. It appears to be you, not me, who is anxious to make a distinction between apologists and counter-apologists. You state that your “difficulty” is with my parenthetical, which you quote, but you conveniently leave out the lead in where I say “supported or debunked.”

          I’ve made a general proposition that claims about the origin of one belief system are easier to support or debunk than claims about another. I’ve also asserted that claims (I make no distinction in my review between the nature of those claims) regarding the origins of ancient belief systems are more often asserted than argued. You call that “glib,” yet you respond by asserting, based on three skeptics you’ve read and twenty years as a “wide reading” Bible believer that only one side does the majority of asserting.

          I do agree with you that facile overgeneralizaitons are not helpful, regardless of the source. That’s why someone like Bart Ehrman (whom you appear to admire or respect) can criticize Christians in one book and those who claim the historical Jesus never existed in another.

          • kenmorefield

            P.S. Andrew, I also apologize if my own tone is too hostile or aggressive. I don’t feel angry with you, but I’ve been told by more than one person (friend and foe) that I can be tone deaf when it comes to reading Internet comments.

          • Andrew Spitznas

            Your point is fair enough. Going back, I can see that I misinterpreted the whole of the sentence in question. My apologies, good sir.

            The reality is that reviews (and comments to reviews) by nature of their brevity are going to do more asserting than detailed evidencing. I tossed out the names of the 4 authors for those interested in digging deeper. I’m sure both of us could offer up a chapter-length defense of our respective worldviews that would contain deeper reasoning and abundant references. Maybe someday, in the midst of our abundant free time?

  3. Michelle R. Wood

    I can’t speak for the film, as I have not seen it (though it is on my watch list). I can, however, speak for the book it is based on, as I have listened to it in audio form twice. It is a well-researched, level-headed examination of the history of this movement, in which the author/journalist provides exhaustive evidene for the claims represented beyond former church member testimony.

    The author frequently went out of his way to provide testimony about good things Scientologists may have received from their faith, and freely admits that he is unqualified to make a determination of what is or is not a religious experience, instead pleading the case for investigation into potential abuse and manslaughter. I highly recommend the book to all regardless of your background.

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