Review: The Church of Fear

The volcano in which the bodies of aliens were blown up by the evil space alien Xenu. Or something. Really dreadful concept for religion, but no one said L Ron was a good sic-fi author!

The volcano in which the bodies of aliens were blown up by the evil space alien Xenu. Or something. Really dreadful concept for religion, but no one said L Ron was a good sic-fi author!

The Church of Fear – Inside the Weird World of Scientology, by John Sweeney (@johnsweeneyroar) – is a stunning read.

This book is an in-depth analysis of an investigation into the Scientologists (I cannot give them the title of “Church” because I do not believe an organisation so focussed on money should be given that honour) by John Sweeney and the Panorama team from the BBC. Sweeney conducted his researches originally in 2007 for a programme.

Scientology describes Sweeney as “a bigot and a liar … psychotic” which, I would reckon, coming from the cult would rank as a pretty good reference for anyone. However, Sweeney has been a reporter for many years, working with the UK’s better newspapers and latterly as a reporter for the TV. He has worked in war zones from A to Z: Algeria, Bosnia and Chechnya to Zimbabwe. His writing is sympathetic and even-handed. And yet he touched some very hot buttons with his subjects here.

The Scientologists have been attempting to win “church” or religious status in the UK because that would give them many financial (and legal) benefits. However, British High Court Judge Mr Justice Latey said in 1984: “Scientology is both immoral and socially obnoxious … It is corrupt, sinister and dangerous. It is corrupt because it is based on lies and deceit and has its real objective money and power for Mr Hubbard … It is sinister because it indulges in infamous practices both to its adherents who do not toe the line unquestionably and to those who criticise it or oppose it. It is dangerous because it is out to capture people and to indoctrinate and brainwash them so they become the unquestioning captives and tools of the cult, withdrawn from ordinary thought, living, and relationships with others.” I think that the quotation is worth repeating in full, because it does give a strong flavour of the judge’s view. He did not consider that they deserved religious or charitable status.

The BBC has a long record with the Scientologists. In the 1980s they investigated and produced a Panorama programme that was scathing in its conclusions. The Sweeney programme was to be a follow-up, largely as a result of many interviews with ex-Scientologists, and with the parents and families of those who had joined the cult and cut themselves off from their relations.

Sweeney sets out how the programme came to life, how he went about his researches, and then the seven day ordeal in America, when he found himself being followed by Scientologists, brow-beaten, insulted, slandered, and brain-washed highly effectively by a team of Scientologists at several meetings. It led, eventually, to his explosion after a great deal of intimidation ( a rather amusing scene that can be seen on youtube – look for “exploding tomato”!). However, as he details the events that led to his outburst, it is perfectly obvious how the tactics of the Scientologists were specifically designed to create just such an outcome so that they could use it to denigrate Sweeney and the BBC.

I saw the original Panorama, but also the follow-up. And in that, Sweeney tracked down two of the most abusive and, I would say, terrifying of the Scientologist agents. Both had since left the organisation, and as a result Sweeney was able to gain more background to the incidents in that first programme.

In this book the reader learns how a cult operates. A leader who can, apparently, do no wrong and who demands unquestioning obedience, while remaining answerable to no authority whatever, nor control; beneath him, a dedicated body of men and women who are enslaved to his will. Rational or independent thought is impossible in such an environment, especially when access to books, media and the internet are reason for punishment.

But the clearest proof to me that this is a cult is the fact that, in order to learn anything about the “truth”, one must pay. And keep on paying. No matter what the religion, the facts and truths of it are freely available to believers and non-believers alike. Religions want to persuade people to join them. Not so with the Scientologists: they want people to pay to learn more. There are levels of “Operating Thetan”, and the secrets of each level must be purchased.

But I can let you into a little secret. Apparently the Scientologists believe in Xenu. Look him up on the web (they can’t of course, sadly) and you may find the truth according to L Ron Hubbard. If it weren’t so sad what happens to Scientologists, it would be pitiful.

This book, by describing the research and setting Sweeney’s efforts and discoveries in context, gives a wonderful history of L Ron Hubbard and Scientology. I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who is interested in cults, who has lost a friend of family member to a cult, or who fears losing them. Please buy it, read it, and recommend it to your own friends.

2 Responses to “Review: The Church of Fear”
  1. Alan Cassady-Bishop says:

    Sadly, some – only some – of Hubbard’s writings are entertaining. I’m reading a collection of his pulp stories and, firmly set contemporaneous with the fourties/fifties and not bad. Scientology, on the other hand, holds no attractions to me


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