To Scientologists and their supporters, L. Ron Hubbard is a voice of wisdom and the church is the way to enlightenment. To antagonists and skeptics, Hubbard is a con artist and fraud, and the church is a mishmash of Freudian psychology and science fiction, a celebrity-laden scam.
Lawrence Wright doesn't buy either generalization.
In his new book, "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief," the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Looming Tower" delves into the life of Hubbard, the writer-turned-prophet, and the church he created -- one which, he says, arose out of an atmosphere of spiritual ferment in post-World War II Los Angeles. Hubbard, he says, was "a very interesting man and a man who had certain disturbing influences in his personality" -- but not a con man: "If he really was just in it for money, somewhere along the line he would have taken his money and gone to Monte Carlo. He never did that."
And the church? A religion with a rich sense of community, but also one that has allegedly engaged in questionable behavior with some adherents. Wright alleges that managers were forced to live in "the Hole," part of a desert compound the church maintains, in which they slept on an ant-infested floor; that there were child labor abuses; and that the church's leader, David Miscavige, browbeat and assaulted members.
The church has disputed Wright's findings. "The stories of alleged physical abuse are lies concocted by a small group of self-corroborating confessed liars. The hard evidence clearly shows that no such conduct ever occurred and that in fact there is evidence that shows it did NOT occur," the group's spokesperson, Karin Pouw, told CNN's Miguel Marquez.
"Regarding the claim that the Church made children work long hours, the Church diligently followed, and continues to follow, all child labor laws in every state or country in which it operates," Anthony Glassman, an attorney for the Church of Scientology, told CNN.
All Scientology responses to Wright's book can be found on CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/22/us/scientology-response/index.html) and at a dedicated website (http://www.lawrencewrightgoingclear.com/). The church is also considering legal action.
For Wright, however, the Scientology story fits into his fascination with faith in general, particularly the tensions between faith and modern society. He spoke to the Belief Blog about his interests, the conflicts between fundamentalism and modernity, and the future of Scientology. The following is an edited transcript.
CNN: Why pursue this book?
Lawrence Wright: I'm irresistibly drawn to a great story, and that's what this is. It may be the fact it has such an electrical charge around it, (that) it was formidable and intimidating and kept some other reporters away, (that) left it more intact for me.
CNN: I was particularly struck with the biography of Hubbard -- there are a lot of contradictions in the man.
Wright: I think his image is so complicated by these competing narratives about who he was and what kind of life he actually lived. If you're in the church, he's the most valuable man who ever lived, and if you're outside the church, he seems like a crank and a fraud. But I reject the idea that he was a fraud. He spent his whole life articulating this religious philosophy and eccentric bureaucracy he created to support it.
CNN: I didn't realize he was such close friends with (science fiction writer) Robert Heinlein, whose own writings have a devout following based on Heinlein's perceived libertarian beliefs.
Wright: It's fascinating to think about how that little circle of science fiction writers had such influence. Isaac Asimov was also in that circle, and Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese terrorist cult, grew out of a yoga teaching of a single individual. Asimov's books -- the Foundation trilogy -- were very much at the basis of that group. It's intriguing to think that these men who may have been writing to follow their own imaginations and write popular novels had this echo in the spiritual world for many people.
CNN: What do you think is behind that? What is it in the human soul that can take harmless ideas to extremes?
Wright: I think that piety is a very dangerous emotion. I think it's fine to have religious ideas. But there's a competitive aspect to belief, and that's where piety comes in -- being more of a believer than your neighbor. And that becomes a matter of enforcing the dogma and creating a holier-than-thou environment. That's where religions begin to get rigid, inflexible and dangerous.
When I was writing about al Qaeda (in "The Looming Tower"), you could see people in that organization have powerful religious motivations. But a lot of them are rather poorly informed about what the Quran actually says. In Islam there's a body of work called the Hadith, which are the sayings of the Prophet, and there are levels of how authentic they are. And many of these disputed Hadith are at the root of al Qaeda's teachings, but not actually in the Quran. I find the same thing true in fundamentalist Christianity. For instance, if you read the book of Leviticus ... well, even fundamentalist Christians don't adopt (all its laws). I think most religions have to make room for modernity, and that means discarding some of their outmoded theology. That's something Scientology has a very difficult time doing. ...
My feeling is that there's only one opinion that matters in the question whether Scientology is a religion -- and that is that of the IRS. Now, the IRS is an agency very ill-equipped to make theological distinctions. (But) in the face of (an) avalanche of lawsuits, the IRS crumbled -- gave Scientology the imprimatur of being a religion and protected under the vast guarantees of the First Amendment. After that, everything else is just commentary.
CNN: Reading the book, I just felt so sad for so many of these people who signed billion-year contracts and gave up their lives and underwent such pain.
Wright: There have been a lot of tears in this story, more than any I've ever worked on. The sense of loss and shame and outrage is so pronounced among the ex-members, and the church discredits them for that because they consider them apostates. Many of the people were at the highest levels of the church and had attained the very peak of the Scientology spiritual ladder. So they're the products of Scientology. They know better than anyone else what's going on inside that circle.
CNN: Do you have sympathy for Scientology the religion or Scientologists as people?
Wright: I have sympathy for the people in it. A lot of the popular understanding of Scientology (is that) it's full of cranks and superficial celebrities. But my experience is that there were smart, intelligent, skeptical, interesting personalities involved in the church. Personally, whatever people want to believe is fine with me. Why people gravitate to different expressions of faith is quite intriguing to me, and I don't condemn them for what they choose to believe.
But the behavior of the church towards its critics, towards reporters, towards defectors, and especially towards members who are inside the clergy -- in particular children who are recruited at appallingly young ages to sign these billion-year contracts and surrender their alternative lives to a life of poverty and isolation -- those practices worry me considerably. And I think there's an accounting the church of Scientology is going to have to face, if it wants to survive.
CNN: Do you see a Martin Luther kind of figure arising at this point?
Wright: There's a large, independent Scientology movement. These are people who have left the church but still regard themselves as Scientologists. There are others who've left the church and feel conned or deluded and they want nothing to do with the teachings of Scientology.