On Friday, we started a countdown that will give credit — or blame — to the people who have contributed most to the sad current state of Scientology. From its greatest expansion in the 1980s, the church is a shell of what it once was and is mired in countless controversies around the world. Some of that was self-inflicted, and some of it has come from outside. Join us now as we continue on our investigation of those people most responsible…
Just as many news organizations over the years have been pretty squeamish about investigating Scientology, so have there been few academics with the desire and fortitude to dive into an area of research that is actually quite rich with interesting material.
Fortunately for those of us with a serious interest in the matter, a few university types have applied their formidable skills, helping to cut down on the misinformation that can get into this stuff.
In particular, Carnegie Mellon’s David Touretzky, a computer science professor, has been a beacon of reliability for the last 15 years or so, particularly with his research into Scientology’s upper levels, his exposes of Scientology’s anti-drug program Narconon, and his dedication to free speech on the Internet. Wrote Wired magazine a decade ago:
Touretzky is also a fierce advocate of the First Amendment and the Internet, and has spent much of the last decade battling to protect the ability of students, programmers and critics to speak freely online. Seven years ago, he fought against former CMU president Robert Mehrabian’s decision to censor sex-themed Usenet newsgroups from campus computers, and his website with details about the Church of Scientology’s secret scriptures drew legal threats from the church’s notoriously censorial attorneys.
And it wasn’t only the church’s attorneys that tried to go after Touretzky. For a fascinating exchange, listen to this audio segment in which Touretzky holds his own against some Scientologists on a St. Louis radio show in 2005. The radio hosts go along with attempts to “dead agent” Touretzky with toxic Internet statements supposedly made by the professor. But Touretzky knocks them down, saying they were false claims about him made by Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs (skip ahead to around the 23-minute mark for the real fireworks). It’s only after he’s been slimed that Touretzky holds things together enough to get the Scientologists talking about “past lives” in a way that is remarkable. Talk about cool under pressure.
I asked Mark Bunker, who is currently working on a documentary film about Scientology, for his assessment of Touretzky. This is what he said:
There are few people who can articulate the concerns about Scientology as well as Dave Touretzky. It’s a complex story buried under layers of corporate lies, but in his many radio and TV appearances he’s rationally explained the irrational. His websites on Narconon and Applied Scholastics are a terrific resource.
Touretzky’s “OT III” page: For 14 years, a great place to send people who are curious about the church’s oddest secrets…
An interesting fact about Touretzky is that his area of principal research really isn’t Scientology. He studies rat brains and computer systems. Investigating Hubbard’s upper levels is really just a sideline for a guy who believes passionately in an open society and free speech.
On the other hand, Stephen Kent, a professor at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, makes studying Scientology and other “new religions” his main area of investigation.
In particular, Kent is known for his expert analysis of Scientology’s “Rehabilitation Project Force,” a kind of internal prison system for Sea Org members that today is notorious, but when Kent began work on it was not so fully known. In 1997, Kent made multiple trips to Germany to describe the RPF to a government that takes more seriously the abuses of Scientology than our own.
As a result, in 1998, Scientology “launched a countrywide personal attack” against Kent (emphasis mine), according to the Edmonton Journal. That attack took the form of…
a scathing article in a 16-page Church of Scientology supplement entitled Freedom that was distributed with the Globe and Mail newspaper Friday. In the two-page article, Kent is compared to well-known neo-Nazi hatemongerer Ernst Zundel and is referred to “as the academic point man for the voices of hate against new religions.”
Kent has not only had to fend off attacks by the church. He’s also been attacked by other academics — the kind of apologist religious studies professors who for decades have overlooked Scientology’s abuses. Eight years ago, Kent sounded a warning about how Scientology itself relies on friendly professors who legitimize its practices:
After the disastrous apologetics that some academics produced during the early stages of the Aum Shinri Kyo investigation (Reader 2000), scholars should be especially sensitive about providing studies whose blind spots allow malfeasance to go unnoticed. Controversial groups use scholars for their own ideological ends, and Scientology is no exception. The goals of this ideological organization involve ‘clearing the planet’ of opposition and critical scrutiny. As long as critics focus on the organization’s probable human rights abuses, government officials in various countries throughout the world will continue to raise difficult questions about the living and working conditions of Scientology’s most dedicated, Sea Organization members. Let there be no doubt: Scientology acutely realizes the crucial role that academics can and do play in its globalized legitimation efforts.
As long as Kent is still giving expert testimony in court cases and giving speeches at conferences, Scientology is not going to have such an easy time of it.
Touretzky and Kent have each been exposing Scientology’s darker side for many years. Now, there’s a relative newcomer on the scene who is making waves of his own.
Next month, Ohio State University religious studies professor Hugh Urban will officially release his academic history, The Church of Scientology, A History of a New Religion (Princeton University Press).
In June, we reviewed an advance copy of the book, and were impressed by how Urban brought a measured academic’s objectivity to a subject fraught with controversy:
Throughout that journey, what Urban does better than most is continually put Scientology’s bumpy beginnings and notorious scandals in a larger context of American history and the development of American culture and ideas about religion.
Scientology’s secrecy and paranoia, for example, come right out of the Cold War environment that Hubbard was a product of, Urban explains.
The timing of Urban’s book really couldn’t be any better. It’s an academic book, but it’s very well written and makes a great companion to Janet Reitman’s popular history of the church, Inside Scientology. If Reitman focuses on the narrative stories of individuals, Urban provides key passages from numerous court cases and Scientology’s own internal documents to piece together a thorough portrait of the church that Scientology will find difficult to label as a biased work (but no doubt it will still try).
Scientology will always brand its defectors as apostates, will always say that journalists are out to smear them, but with the calm, dedicated work of academics like Touretzky, Kent, and Urban, a library of unassailable, disinterested data is emerging that will not so easily be dismissed.
Coming up on Thursday, #23 in our countdown — and this time no hints. Our readers are too damn clever.
The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology
#1: L. Ron Hubbard
#2: David Miscavige
#3: Marty Rathbun
#4: Tom Cruise
#5: Joe Childs and Tom Tobin
#7: Mark Bunker
#8: Mike Rinder
#9: Jason Beghe
#10: Lisa McPherson
#11: Nick Xenophon (and other public servants)
#12: Tommy Davis (and other hapless church executives)
#13: Janet Reitman (and other journalists)
#14: Tory Christman (and other noisy ex-Scientologists)
#15: Andreas Heldal-Lund (and other old time church critics)
#16: Marc and Claire Headley, escapees of the church’s HQ
#17: Jefferson Hawkins, the man behind the TV volcano
#18: Amy Scobee, former Sea Org executive
#19: The Squirrel Busters (and the church’s other thugs and goons)
#20: Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and other media figures)
#21: Kendrick Moxon, attorney for the church
#22: Jamie DeWolf (and other L. Ron Hubbard family members)
#23: Ken Dandar (and other attorneys who litigate against the church)
#24: David Touretzky (and other academics)
#25: Xenu, galactic overlord
Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he’s been writing about Scientology at several publications.
@VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega
SCIENTOLOGY IN THE VILLAGE VOICE
[All recent stories] | [Top 25 People Crippling Scientology] | [Commenters of the Week]
[Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis secretly recorded discussing “disconnection”]
[Benjamin Ring, LA deputy sheriff, wants you to spend your 401K on Scientology]
[Scientologists: How many of them are there, anyway?]
MARTY RATHBUN AND THE SIEGE OF SOUTH TEXAS
[Scientology has Rathbun arrested] | [Rathbun and Mark Bunker reveal surprising ties]
In Germany with Ursula Caberta: [Announcing plans] | [Press conference] | [Making news about Tom Cruise, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair] | [Post-trip interview]
The Squirrel Busters: [Goons with cameras on their heads] | [Rathbun’s open letter to neighbors] | [Ingleside on the Bay, Texas rallies to Rathbun’s cause] | [Squirrel Buster’s claim to be making a “documentary”] | [VIDEO: “On a Boat”] | [“Anna” sent to creep out Monique Rathbun] | [Squirrel Busters go hillbilly] | [A videographer blows the whistle on the goon squad] | [Ed Bryan, OT VIII, shows the power of Scientology’s highest levels]
SCIENTOLOGY SPYING AND “FAIR GAME”
[Secret Scientology documents spell out spying operation against Marc Headley]
[Scientology’s West U.S. spies list revealed] | [Scientology’s enemies list: Are you on it?]
Spy operation against Washington Post writer Richard Leiby: [Part 1] | [Part 2]
[A Scientology spy comes clean: Paulien Lombard’s remarkable public confession]
[Scientology advertises for writers in Freedom magazine]
[Accidental leak shows Scientology spy wing plans to “handle” the Voice]
SCIENTOLOGY AND CELEBRITIES
[“Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle”] | [Tom Cruise likes coconut cake] | [Tom Cruise has a sense of humor] | [“Tom Cruise not a kook!”] | [Paulette Cooper on Tom Cruise]
[Paul Haggis, director of Crash, issues an ultimatum, leaves the church]
[Character actor Jason Beghe defects noisily] | [Actor Michael Fairman reveals his “suppressive person” declaration] | [Michael Fairman talks to the Voice]
[Giovanni Ribisi as David Koresh: Scientology-Branch Davidian link makes sense]
[Russell Brand weds ex-Scientologists in wild ceremony] | [Skip Press on Haggis]
[Placido Domingo Jr.: Scientology’s retaliation is “scary and pathetic”]
Grant Cardone, NatGeo’s “Turnaround King”: [Doing Scientology’s dirty work?] | [Milton Katselas complained about Cardone’s smear job] | [Cardone runs to Huffpo]
JANET REITMAN’S INSIDE SCIENTOLOGY
[Our review of Inside Scientology] | [An interview with Janet Reitman] | [A report from Reitman’s first book tour appearance] | [At the Half-King: Reitman not afraid]
[Scientology doesn’t like Inside Scientology] | [Q&A at Washington Post]
[A roundup of Reitman’s print reviews, and why isn’t she on television more?]
HUGH URBAN’S THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY
[A review of Urban’s scholarly history of the church] | [An interview with Hugh Urban]
EX-SCIENTOLOGISTS SPEAK OUT
[Marc Headley: “Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle”] | [The Nancy Many interview]
[Sympathy for the Devil: Tory Christman’s Story] | [Jeff Hawkins’ Counterfeit Dreams]
[86 Million Thin Dimes: The Lawrence Wollersheim Saga] | [Mike Rinder on spying]
[Scientology dodges a bullet in Australia] | [Scientology exec Jan Eastgate arrested]
[All hell breaks loose in Israel] | [Scientology sees fundraising gold in the UK riots]
ODD VIDEOS AND ODDER NEWS
[Scientology singalong, “We Stand Tall”] | [Captain Bill Robertson and “Galactic Patrol”]
[Scientology wins a major award!] | [Scientology wants your money: Meet Dede!]
[Birmingham in the House! The “Ideal” dance mix] | [Scientology and the Nation of Islam]
[When Scientology was hip] | [Sad: David Miscavige makes fun of his own fundraisers]
[Freedom magazine parodies The New Yorker. Hilarity ensues.]
[Scientology surf report: Anonymous parties outside the New York “org”]
THE VIEW INSIDE THE BUBBLE
[A scientologist’s letter to the Voice and its readers] | [Scientology silent birth]
[Tad Reeves: Scientology might listen to this guy] | [More Tad Reeves and family]
[Scientology never forgets: A heartwarming telemarketing holiday miracle]