John Sweeney: Why Church of Scientology's gravest threat is the 'net
A beautiful machine for free speech, says BBC reporter
CoS investigation 'more terrifying' than a warzone
Sweeney was a war reporter in Iraq, where he came under fire in between filing reports, but said he had never been so frightened for his sanity when he was investigating the Church of Scientology. He said that when he began his investigations, he had no idea “what the depth of it would be”.
The church, of course, denies that it is a cult, and denies it followed Sweeney around. It branded him a bigot and a liar, and in one memorable blog a church member described him as “genuinely evil”.
“That is what they think of me. My view of them is that they’re in trouble,” Sweeney said. “The internet is a beautiful expression of free speech and that power is - all it is - is a mechanism; a nice piece of engineering that enables people to speak freely, quickly and effectively and without fear. And the problem, the deep problem the church has, is with free speech.”
Sweeney argued that the root of the CoS’s trouble with free speech lies in its claim to be a religion. In 1993 the authorities in the US ruled that the church was a religion, giving it tax exempt status, and perhaps more importantly, providing a constitutional protection from state interference as the freedom of religion is enshrined in the US Constitution.
This is not the case in England, Sweeney explained, because under English charity law a religion must be open about its core belief system in a way that the Charity Commission in England says the CoS is not.
“Scientology has a problem with the internet because the web says 'secretly, you believe in the space alien Satan, don’t you?'” he noted.
Sweeney is talking about what is effectively the origin of Scientology, which he summarised as follows: “They believe they are fighting a space alien Satan, [Xenu], who five billion years ago brought space aliens to Earth and blew them up with hydrogen bombs inside volcanoes.”
At various times, the CoS has officially denied that Xenu exists in its theology, attempted to have court records mentioning Xenu sealed, and occasionally appeared to acknowledge that it might true but only in the same way that the Revelations are part of the Christian belief system.
It is certainly true that most religions have stories that seem crazy to outsiders. Why not let the CoS have its Xenu mythology and let it get on with being a religion?
“Now the point is, you walk into a church, they’ll tell you about Jesus. You walk into a mosque, they’ll tell you 'follow the prophet'. There are problems that Christianity and Islam have and have generated, that’s true, but both of them, all of them – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism etc - want you to become part of them and tell you their story. Jesus is the saviour of mankind, the prophet is the one you must follow. These are things you walk into with your eyes open, they’re open and honest about it.”
He argued that it is the church’s misrepresentation of itself that is the problem. It doesn’t tell you about Xenu when you go in.
“It is like the horse-meat scandal,” Sweeney said. “You think you’re buying beef, the packet says beef, but you’re eating horse. And another problem is that the church reacts to this criticism in the most extraordinarily aggressive way, following people like me around. If you believe that what you are doing is for the good of mankind, you don’t have to do that.”
Sweeney said he once met the Dalai Lama (“a good bloke”) around the same time as Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing a "blasphemous" book.
“The Dalai Lama said if you want to be critical of Tibetan Buddhism, then go ahead. If you want to criticise, then go ahead, because it is not the end of the world. It is not going to kill me. My belief is strong enough to sustain you against scepticism. But with Scientology, you cannot be sceptical. I am, so I am a bigot.”
The Church of Scientology did not respond to a request for comment. ®
Updated to add
A spokesman for the Church of Scientology got in touch with us after publication to add the following:
Anonymous are not about criticism, they are about wanton destruction. Many are engaged in an international form of cyber-terrorism. As well as attacking various governments, corporations, private citizens, campaigning for freedom of porn sites, and posting potential fatal stroboscopic images on an epileptic website, 'Anonymous' also targets members and buildings of the Church of Scientology.
Bomb and death threats on YouTube and other public places were followed by the firing of guns against Church buildings. Some of its members have been imprisoned, including for criminal acts against our Church.
"The only thing that John Sweeney appears to be interested in is John Sweeney. Everything is about him," the spokesman added.
"The internet provides a wonderful opportunity to the Church to explain what it is really all about. As demonstrated by the recently published Google search engine results ('What is Scientology?' was number 4 in the 'What is…' category), people want to know what Scientology is.”
John Sweeney will talk about his experiences with Scientology tonight (Thursday, 21 February) at 1930 GMT at The Dorset Arms in the high street of East Grinstead, UK. There is no admission fee. Any and all are welcome. He'll also speak at a meeting of Sceptics in the Pub on 12 March at the Caroline of Brunswick in Brighton at 2000 GMT.