John Sweeney: Why Church of Scientology's gravest threat is the 'net
A beautiful machine for free speech, says BBC reporter
Updated Back in 1995, when the net was still young, the late Robert Vaughn Young, an ex-scientologist, said the internet would be to Scientology what Vietnam was to the US: an unwinnable war.
Vaughn Young, a former spokesman for the controversial organisation, believed that the internet would create the first place where Scientology could be discussed openly.
Free speech has been an issue for the Church of Scientology (CoS) for a long time, and the internet has become the battleground of choice for those who want the church to be more open about its teachings. Not least, online activist groups, such as Anonymous, that targeted the church in a campaign against cyber-censorship.
In 2008, Anonymous organised a massive denial-of-service attack on CoS websites, and announced a wave of ongoing online harassment, outlining plans to spam their fax machines and Google Bomb their search rankings. Their campaign was prompted by the church’s attempts to remove a video of Tom Cruise extolling the virtues of being a scientologist from YouTube and various other media outlets. Members of Project Chanology, meanwhile, regularly protest against the CoS in the real world, invariably wearing Guy Fawkes masks as seen in the film V for Vendetta.
The question is, now that the net has matured, was Vaughn-Young right?
“WH Auden wrote a beautiful poem – September 1, 1939 - in which he describes a dark moment in history, the start of World War Two. But there is a line towards the end in which he describes the Just as winking at each other 'ironic points of light' and I think this is a beautiful description of the internet,” journalist John Sweeney told The Register this week. Sweeney, you may recall, is the BBC Panorama reporter who spectacularly lost his temper with CoS officials while he was making a documentary about the organisation.
“In particular what is happening is that ordinary people who leave the church have an opportunity to talk to each other instantly. They can go online and see me, a Panorama reporter, a war reporter: if somebody like me can lose my temper because of the emotional and psychological pressure the church can bring to somebody, then they can say, 'that happened to me as well'. So the internet is really great for breaking the hold of fear that the church has over people, in particular the people who have been inside it all their lives, who are second-generation scientologists.”
As for the behaviour of Anonymous and related groups – who are not without their critics - Sweeney said they have an impact and that, by and large, it is a good one. But anonymity is not something Sweeney is instinctively comfortable with.
“I do feel that in a civilised society, one should be able to speak freely of things you criticise. Indeed, part of making our society civilised is having the courage to say, ‘I disagree with you and I am going to say so using my own name and my own face’, and that creates a climate in which we all do that. I have been to parts of the world where that is not possible, so there is a slight farcical aspect to some of this. I could say these people are fruitcakes, but I think they are on to something,” Sweeney said.
How Anonymous mirrors church members
“I think in particular the way in which the CoS has behaved in the past - terrifying legal threats, the use of private eyes and so forth - creates the paranoia that Anonymous have, in a sense, mirrored. Anonymous are not the source of the paranoia; they are mocking it through mirroring. I am not anonymous, how can I be? So I don’t want to do what they do, but I am not saying it is a bad thing.”
The church, Sweeney feels, should be able to ignore criticism of its beliefs and let the activities of a group such as Anonymous wash over it. After all, he pointed out, there is a musical opening in London that takes a satirical look at the Mormon faith. The Mormon Church – often accused of cultish behaviour itself – has handled the fun-making rather well. It issued a statement suggesting that people may be entertained by the show but that the scripture would change their lives for ever.
“These people [Anonymous] might be fruitcakes but they don’t have any money and they don’t have much power so let them do their thing. If Scientology aspires to be a big religion, it should let them do their thing and just carry on and ignore them. But instead you have these counterattacks and so on and so on. I’m not going to be wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, but I think they are mirroring how creepy Scientology is and that is not a bad thing to do.”
John Sweeney has a unique perspective to offer on Scientology. His loss of temper during the filming of what would become the 2007 BBC documentary Scientology and Me makes for slightly uncomfortable viewing, and Sweeney has apologised unreservedly for it. But he said that at the time he was worried he was losing his mind.
He claimed he was stalked and spied on by the church for attempting to investigate allegations made by ex-members, who described the organisation as a cult. The journalist said that the pressure of that period felt like a battle for his mind. He wrote about the experience in his new book Church of Fear.
“They [church officials] made me lose temper and I almost lost my job. Professionally, there will always be a question mark over me. I found writing the book therapeutic: it helped me understand what they did to me and it helped me understand what they did to other people,” he said. “People say a lot of Scientology is silly, but it is also dark, the stuff about disconnection, the way they can get to you - get into your mind.”
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.