HBO’s Going Clear: A Missed Opportunity

Going Clear (349 x 232)First, a disclaimer. I’m biased; I’m an Alex Gibney fan. I’ve seen many of his documentaries and found them to be informative and artfully constructed. I’m also knowledgeable about the subject matter of Going Clear, and am the author of the recently published Arrows in the Dark, an insider’s view of the Scientology organization.[1]

Based on my personal investigation and almost 4o years as a member of Scientology – I was summarily excommunicated in 2012 for seeking internal reforms – 80% of the facts presented in the film are true. Scientology watchers have heard them all before, but for persons who haven’t, Gibney skillfully and convincingly reveals the violence, mental abuse, and downright tyrannical control over senior managers, staff and parishioners by the self-anointed “Pope” of Scientology, David Miscavige. Gibney also does an excellent job showing the special treatment afforded stars like John Travolta and especially Tom Cruise whose exceptionally close relationship with Miscavige is expertly captured.

The problem with the film is the other 20%. Here, Gibney goes beyond demonstrable abuse of power charges and instead delves into subjective issues of the religion, a subject he clearly does not agree with, or even understand. The result is an appeal to prejudice, an invitation to hate or think less of Scientologists. This impairs and threatens their fundamental right to freely practice the religion of their choice.

Gibney takes a swipe at Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, portraying him as a science fiction writer, the clear implication being that any religion Hubbard created must be equally fictitious. Lawrence Wright, on whose book Going Clear is based, is used to falsely label one of Scientology’s advanced counseling levels (OT III) as its “creation myth.” In truth, Scientology’s actual creation theory is laid out in “The Factors,” which can be found in Hubbard’s Scientology 8-8008, as well as in many of his others books and lectures. These materials are publicly available to one and all.

Meanwhile, in a display of intellectual dishonesty, Going Clear tells viewers that the church declined to be interviewed without also revealing that Scientologists who understand and support the tenets of the religion – but who disagree with the abusive and controlling policies and practices of church leader David Miscavige – were available. Not one of these pro-Scientology voices was selected for the film.

Because Gibney is dealing with spirituality, which is entirely subjective, he’s on thin ice judging its validity, one way or the other. Contrary to the opinions of the subjects interviewed in the film, there have been, over the years, hundreds of thousands of people who feel that Scientology has helped them lead happier, more productive lives. Going Clear’s public denunciation of the religious views of Scientologists violates the fundamental principles of respect, inclusion and acceptance that most Americans honor, thus creating a socially dangerous atmosphere of us vs. them.

Gibney’s failure to differentiate between the theology of Scientology – which anyone is free to accept or reject – and claims of internal abuses and corruption leads him to naively call for Tom Cruise and John Travolta to leave Scientology. Cruise and Travolta are not likely to “leave” a religion, the practice of which they both have publicly stated over and over again has benefited them. Nor should anyone try to shame them into doing so.

What can be reasonably expected, however, is that they heed the abuse allegations and look into them. Some are easy to spot; for example the church’s policy of disconnection and the oppression it causes families. It is hoped that Travolta and Cruise will use their influence to fix what they find broken.

Gibney’s trespass into the theology of Scientology leads him to decree that it is not a real religion. Therefore, he urges the IRS to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status. In truth, American courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have delved into Scientology’s religiosity in detail, examining evidence from both proponents and critics alike, as well as the opinions of religious experts. Their conclusion: Scientology is indeed a religion.

Even Lawrence Wright, the author of the book on which this documentary is based, stated in promotional interviews: “The problem [with the Church of Scientology] is a lack of checks and balances.”

I agree. The problem has nothing to do with the religious tenets of Scientology. The problem is church leader David Miscavige’s one-man rule over all Scientology organizations. The bylaws of Scientology’s governing corporations, the drafting of which Hubbard ordered and oversaw prior to his death, call for seven boards of trustees and directors spread among three entities. This is laid out in detail on this website.

Instead of asking for revocation of tax-exempt status, why not ask the IRS to use its power to impose intermediate sanctions and require the governing corporations to implement the checks and balances called for in the bylaws submitted to the IRS in support of their application for tax exemption? Rather than ask Cruise and Travolta to leave and speak out against Scientology, why not ask them to urge David Miscavige to comply with state law, church corporate bylaws, and the written instructions contained in the estate plan of L. Ron Hubbard? Institute checks and balances, cooperate with an independent, internal investigation into the abuse charges, and abolish controlling policies, such as disconnection.

Reform is achievable. Attacking the religion itself makes the task more difficult. It will cause members of the church to avoid the film, rally around their leader, dig deeper into their pockets for donations, and heed his cries: “See. The evil media are at it again, trying to destroy Scientology.”

Going Clear alienates the very people most capable of causing reform, Miscavige’s pillars of support: the famous, wealthy and influential church members who might have been reached had the documentary stuck to objective and provable facts, such as crimes and abuses of power under the current church regime. And the majority of viewers – most of whom are, of course, non-Scientologists – end up walking away after two hours of viewing, still unable to answer the most important question of all: What is Scientology, and what do people find attractive about it?

Merrell Vannier

[1] See for more information.

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