Scientology and Me
On Monday 14th May, the BBC aired their Panorama documentary, Scientology and Me. Only half an hour long, it attempted to tackle the question of the nature of Scientology as a belief system, most particularly the numerous allegations that it is a cult. It made intriguing viewing.
Having previously done some reading on The Church of Scientology, I was well aware that most of the claims it is based on are utterly ludicrous. What shocked me in this program, was the measures to which it will go to suppress any criticism or persistent questioning of Scientology.
From the moment the reporter, John Sweeney, declined The Church of Scientology’s very reasonable offer to grant him access and cooperation – provided that he promised not to criticise it in any way, shape or form and not to call it a cult – he became a constant victim of Machiavellian intimidation techniques. He and his crew were subject to surveillance morning, noon and night. Spies in their hotel at breakfast, range rovers following them everywhere they went, and a smooth talking Scientology suit called Tommy Davies constantly appearing, almost as if teleported Star Trek style (quite apt for an adherent to a religion invented by a science fiction writer), berating them for their supposed attempts to smear his beloved faith. It was truly chilling. Although I have previously criticised the current state of journalism, for the likes of John Sweeney in this program I hold nothing but admiration. Although perhaps not in direct danger or under the threat of serious harm, it must have been a very frightening experience, I imagine not too far removed from being pursued by the mafia or the government.
What was perfectly clear, and was pointed out by a critic of Scientology interviewed in the program, was that the espionage was not intended to be covert. It was far too clearly visible to be for the sole purpose of acquiring information. The motive was quite clear – pure intimidation.
At one point, when Davies had shown up from a secret Scientology door in the sky, Sweeney dared to mention the word ‘cult’ and provoked this reaction:
You have no right whatsoever to say what is, and what isn’t a religion. The Constitution of the United States of America guarantees one’s right to practice and believe freely in this country, and the definition of religion is very clear, and it’s not defined by John Sweeney. And for you to repeatedly refer to my faith in those terms is so derogatory, so offensive and so bigoted, and the reason you keep repeating it is because you wanted to get a reaction like the one you’re getting right now.
It is truly incredible that Davies can appeal to the US Constitution to defend his cowardly oppression of criticism. The First Amendment, the very clause that Davies rightly boasts grants him his freedom to practice and believe freely, also stipulates two other universal rights that may or may not ring a distant bell in his head – freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This is a howler of an own goal. By reporting on Scientology, no matter how critically or with what degree of bias or objectivity, Sweeney is in no way at all violating or encroaching upon Davies’ right to freedom of religion. The fact that Davies finds his comments and questions “derogatory and bigoted” is irrelevant. The Constitution of the United States of America clearly gives Sweeney the right to state his own views, and report those of others about Scientology. Sadly, it was not Davies’ intention to make a valid, cogent argument (which is just as well), but to try to stifle and smother Sweeney’s attempts to investigate The Church of Scientology, by appealing to the politically correct environment of modern society, i.e. if you’re offended, you’re a victim.
In another episode following a miraculous, Xenu-assisted emergence by Davies while Sweeney was interviewing film maker Shawn Lonsdale, who was responsible for a program featuring scientologists in public, called “Cult Watch”, the Scientologist resorted to an Ad Hominem argument.
In 1990 he [Lonsdale] was arrested for trespassing, exposure of sexual organs, unnatural acts, possession of cannabis, possession of drug paraphernalia…
And? What, Mr Davies, does this have to do with Scientology? Or anything else, for that matter? It would appear that while Christianity still dwarfs Scientology in numbers, the latter is doing its best to compete with the former for bragging rights in the hypocrisy scores. After accusing Sweeney several times of attempting to smear The Church of Scientology on subjective or dubious grounds, he then clearly tries to discredit one of its critics by appealing to his history, which has nothing to do with the issues under discussion. He is attempting to play the man instead of the ball, the arguer instead of the argument.
Sadly, the pressure eventually got to Sweeney and he lost his cool. Maybe it was inevitable considering the suffocating intrusion he had endured for the best part of a week, coupled with the horrifying images he had just witnessed in the Scientology exhibition “Psychology: An Industry of Death”. But it was most certainly unprofessional, and caused considerable damage to what would otherwise have been a flawless argument against Scientology. Unlike Davies, Sweeney apologised for his behaviour and acknowledged that he had let himself and his colleagues down. The video of Sweeney’s impromptu explosion has been gleefully heralded by The Church of Scientology as the refutation of any valid criticism he had made. Personally, I don’t think it was. I am sure that no intelligent viewer could disregard the disturbing, sinister behaviour of The Church of Scientology towards Sweeney and his crew as a result of an unpleasant, but immediately retracted outburst.
As well as drawing a lot of attention to Scientology and the harm it may pose to its members, Sweeney was the subject of a lot of criticism for his shouting match with Davies. His reaction to that criticism, I’m sure, will seem truly alien (if you’ll forgive the expression) to The Church of Scientology: he accepted it, agreed with it and apologised.