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Why it’s so hard to beat Scientology

“Going Clear,” the Alex Gibney documentary about Scientology that aired on HBO Sunday night, doesn’t contain much that’s new to anyone who has read the Tampa Bay Times’s investigations of the organization or Lawrence Wright’s masterful history of it. But however accidentally, “Going Clear” is an interesting illustration of just how hard it is to pursue the two-pronged strategy that’s necessary to dismantle any powerful, dangerous group: stripping it of its finances and power, and freeing its members of its influence.

Gibney’s film is full of the sort of mockery that has helped make Scientology a marginal, if wealthy, organization with a negligible membership. What it lacks is empathy for the individuals who are still members of Scientology and an understanding of what might make them stay — or help them leave.

“I mean, if you go to a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim and ask them what do you believe, they can basically describe the most important parts of their religion in a minute or two,” Tony Ortega, who started covering Scientology in 1995 when he was at the Phoenix New Times, says at one point in “Going Clear.” “Well, what does a Scientologist believe? You need to be a Scientologist for seven or eight years, and in for a couple hundred thousand dollars before you finally learn this backstory of Xenu the Galactic Overlord. Now, if you were told that on day one, how many people would join? But if they were up front about it, I’d have more respect for them. But it’s that kind of bait and switch. People are told it’s an applied philosophy to help you with your communication. Oh yeah? So why is Tom Cruise paying a thousand bucks to have invisible aliens pulled out of his body?”

That’s the sort of argument that’s tremendously satisfying to hear if you’re outside Scientology and feeling proud of yourself for not having fallen for the group’s recruiting methods. And certainly, given the power the organization exerts and the alleged abuses it carries out, Scientology as an organization is a worthy target. But there’s a difference between convincing people outside of Scientology — including the Internal Revenue Service — that the church is a confidence scheme rather than a genuine religious organization and convincing the people who have dedicated decades of their lives to Scientology that they should, and can, leave.

Showing non-believers videos of Scientology convocations, or explaining L. Ron Hubbard’s theories of the origins of the universe, might help with the former goal. The latter, though, requires something entirely different from us: understanding. Instead of mocking Scientology rituals or Tom Cruise or John Travolta’s testimonials, it demands that we understand why those things might be meaningful to church members.

Telling us lurid stories about people physically fighting each other to be allowed to stay in Sea Org, the church’s extremely ascetic priesthood, doesn’t explain the reasons for their attachment. Persuading members of the group to leave requires us to understand that something other than mere foolishness or naivete led them to Scientology in the first place.

For some, Scientology seems like a way to do good. As Tracy Ekstand, a former member of Scientology’s Sea Org, told my colleague Sarah Pulliam Bailey: “I don’t like it when people think, ‘How could you fall for such a fairy tale?’ I think the people who are there are sincere and think they’re doing a Peace Corps thing — making a better world.”

“Going Clear” addresses this idea occasionally. “I was deeply convinced that we were going to save the world. I considered myself tremendously fortunate to be in that position,” Hana Eltringham Whitfield explains in the film.

When political parties seem corrupt and it feels as though movement politics are stalled, it makes sense that some people with strong social consciences might be attracted to a vision of “A world without criminality, a world without war, and a world without insanity,” as John Travolta describes Scientology in footage from an interview that appears in “Going Clear.” “I know of no other group where their goals were that clear.”

For others, Scientology’s crusade against psychiatric drugs (which doesn’t get much mention in the movie) seems like a focal point. In “Going Clear,” Wright’s book of the same name, former Scientologist and Oscar-winning producer and director Paul Haggis explained that for him, the campaign against psychiatric medicine dovetailed with his sense that had he grown up in another time, he might have been medicated because of his tendency to daydream. Wright describes the actress Kirstie Alley “sobbing so hard she could barely speak” as she insisted during a Florida hearing that psychiatric drugs turned a number of children suicidal.

Like the anti-vaccine movement, these sentiments are undeniably harmful: The American Psychiatric Association has had to push back against Scientology-promoted falsehoods. But while it’s easy to demonize people who oppose both vaccination and necessary psychiatric medication, some people in those camps are driven by real uncertainty and fear, fueled by the rise of autism diagnoses and the increased use of psychiatric medication, particularly to treat children. At least when it comes to autism, some of the leading proponents of vaccination say it’s important to address those fears rather than to mock them. The same may be true for Scientology-promulgated fear of psychiatric treatment.

And for many, the gateway into Scientology is simply a problem that no one else has helped them to address. Recruiters are supposed to, as Wright explains in “Going Clear,” “‘find the ruin’ — that is, the problem most on the mind of the potential recruit.”

As long as the outside world fails to resolve those ruins, to feed that need to do good or to address the fears of those who are terrified of parts of the medical establishment, Scientology will continue to have some appeal. Journalists and filmmakers such as Wright, Gibney and Ortega will be able to keep pushing Scientology to the margins by mocking it. But to free the people held in its “prison of belief,” we’ll have to take that belief seriously enough to help them find better options.