By Aled Thomas, PhD Candidate
The history of Scientology is peppered with conflicts between the Church of Scientology and its highly vocal critics. As ever, media depictions of the Church of Scientology (ranging from satirical lampoons to exposé documentaries) continue to be the main cause of Scientology’s woes in the public domain. Several documentaries on the activities of the Church of Scientology have been released in recent years, perhaps most notably Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief in 2015.
The latest Scientology documentary to grab headlines is My Scientology Movie, featuring British documentary maker Louis Theroux. The Church of Scientology declined to take part in the documentary, and (according to Theroux) are in the process of making a response documentary based on him. Yet, frequent critics of the Church of Scientology may be surprised to learn of their recent shift towards a more reserved method of responding to critics, in a contrast to the fierce legal lawsuits with which the Church is often associated. As Lewis and Hellesøy (2016) note, the 2005 episode of South Park, ‘Trapped in the Closet’, (which famously ended with lead character Stan Marsh yelling “I’m not scared of you – sue me!”) marks an interesting point in the history of the Church, precisely because of the lack of lawsuit that followed the episode’s release. This is arguably the beginning of the Church of Scientology’s shift to its latest method of countering criticism: seeking status as a legitimate religion, and condemning its opponents for religious discrimination.
The release of Theroux’s documentary coincided with the Church of Scientology’s push of campaigns to secure its status as a religion. The first is STAND (Scientologists Taking Action Against Discrimination), a campaign “founded to put a stop to incitement of bigotry and hate crime, and to secure Religious Freedom for Man”. While STAND’s prime activities concentrate on protecting the Scientology religion (including reporting the hate crimes and dispelling myths regarding Scientology), it also aims to battle all forms of religious intolerance, linking back to Scientology’s emphasis on the human right to religious freedom. This demonstration of discrimination against Scientologists as being equally condemnable as any other form of religious discrimination points to the Church’s latest focus of combating critics by rebutting their accusations as religious bigotry, and portraying Scientology as an equally legitimate religion as more established movements.
It is this battle for its status as a ‘religion’ that leads to the Church of Scientology’s second recent campaign for religious legitimacy, its scientologyreligion.org website, for which the Church has turned to the expertise of the academic community. The website, which states that “the world’s foremost experts in the fields of comparative religion, history of religion, religious studies and sociology agree that Scientology is a world religion”, compiles works from renowned scholars on Scientology (including Beckford, Wilson, and Melton) to add emphasis to the Church of Scientology’s latest message to opponents: that Scientology is a legitimate religion, and as such should receive the rights of religious freedom.
This coupling of campaigning against discrimination and using the expertise of the academy to validate the religiosity of Scientology points to a Church that may be slightly more reserved than the one associated with ferocious legal battles, but is clearly still up for a fight. Time will tell how effective this new method will be for the Church of Scientology, but the conflict remains the same as it has for decades. The tactics may have changed, but both parties remain unchanged, and neither side is showing any sign of backing down yet.
Lewis, J. R. and Hellesøy, K. (2016) ‘Introduction’, in Lewis, J. R. and Hellesøy, K. (eds.), Handbook of Scientology, Leiden, Brill.