'Scientology, The Aftermath' makes it very clear that the concept of religious freedom can actually be dangerous as practiced in the US.
After I recently finished watching the Emmy-winning 2016-2019 A&E docuseries, “Leah Remini: Scientology and The Aftermath,” I was further convinced of how supremely dangerous the concept of “religious freedom” can be as practiced in America, as I stressed in my 2018 book, Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the True American Dream.
Remini’s series reveals that rank-and-file members routinely spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on in-house pseudo-psychoanalysis as well as on Scientology literature, donations, and programs, and are often coerced into maxing-out credit cards, taking out second mortgages on theirt homes, and making other detrimental financial sacrifices to pay for it.
Those who eventually leave find a catch-22 in policy that blocks their ability to have unused fees refunded (celebrity members often pay millions and have outsized influence in the Scientology community). Like mega movie star and well-known Scientologist Tom Cruise.
It’s all razzle-dazzle and bait-and-switch.
But the core activities are brutally unglamorous. Scientology uses intensive, Freud-inspired confessional sessions called “auditing,” employing an “e-meter” device. These required, hugely expensive, and punishing sessions over many years ostensibly counter unhappiness, personal problems, and stress but actually lay personal privacy and the subconscious bare and make those audited extremely vulnerable to mind control, according to former members.
Scientology also claims its most advanced believers can acquire supernatural powers, like mind reading and mind control of others—and the deeper one dives into the faith, the more utterly bizarre it gets.
But, unsurprisingly, even the most advanced members say they remain completely non-supernatural even when they complete the organization’s massive array of practiced study and requirements.
Are you an alien ‘theta’ inhabiting your own body?
For example, dogma includes the idea that Earth was populated in ancient times by the spirits of intergalactic aliens whose bodies were previously destroyed. These spirits, “thetans” in Scientology-speak, inhabited human bodies and continue to traumatize their human hosts today. Thetans must be confronted through auditing, the doctrine holds.
The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right of religious freedom has had the adverse effect of fraudulently embedding the norms and dogma of Christianity as fundamental reality not only within the public square—because Christians happened to be numerically dominant in colonial America—but, as with Scientology, also within people’s minds. And the Christian (and Scientologist) bias perpetuates generationally through families over many years.
Needless to say, there’s no evidence for any of this ethereal mumbo-jumbo—Christian or Scientologist—as there isn’t for any deity-worshipping dogma and “spiritual” imagining.
The demographic happenstance of a Christian majority in the formative years of the republic ended up over centuries inevitably emphasizing and privileging one religion among all others in American life (exactly as the Founding Fathers emphatically sought to avoid in the Constitution). Even Catholics, also Christian, were persecuted in the U.S. until the late 20th century (and some might argue still are, along with Jews and, more recently, Muslims and other minority religions).
The freedom-of-religion ethos in American culture, if inadvertently, thus protects, accommodates, and normalizes cults—as which, arguably, all religions are born.
‘Aftermath’ lays bare the cult’s heartbreaking damage
The docuseries produced by Remini, who is perhaps best known as the co-star in the popular TV sit-com King of Queens, reveals the heart-breaking damage that presumably religious indoctrination in a cult can do to people, especially to vulnerable children raised to adulthood in a faith cult.
If repetitiveness seems to bedevil the series somewhat, it is a necessary imperfection, because the Scientology apostates introduced in its 37 episodes all uniformly tell the same sordid, reprehensible tale after they left the sect. Their families—including Remini’s and co-host Mike Rinder’s—were ruthlessly torn apart by the cultish Church of Scientology, which demonstrably cares far more about total control over members’ lives and psyches, and the corporate acquisition of enormous “church” wealth, than about familial love and human compassion.
In fact, such authentic sentimentality is ruthlessly suppressed within Scientology, and especially in children, who are essentially put in the foster care of church officials and rarely see their workaholic parents laboring day and night in zealous service to their faith. The horrendous damage this does to people’s lives is wrenchingly illustrated in an eye-opening 2019 Rolling Stone article, “Children of Scientology: Life After Growing Up in an Alleged Cult.”
Christi Gordon, who entered Scientology with her parents and escaped as an adult, laments in the Rolling Stone piece that her parents were “stolen” from her by the cult.
“Scientology hijacked our parents’ hearts, minds and time, and it hijacked our childhoods,” she said.
The cult also extracts years of strenuous, unpaid labor from its children, Remini’s series and various journalistic reports convincingly demonstrate.
‘Suppressive persons’: Scientology’s shunned apostates
When Scientologists exit the organization, its leaders declare them “suppressive persons,” evil persons, and order all members, including family and lifelong friends, to have nothing—literally nothing—to do with them. No personal contact, no phone calls, no texts, no emails. Nothing. Permanently. It’s a viscerally cruel process known in the organization as “disconnection.”
It’s a similar tragic refrain from most Scientology apostates.
Remini’s series showed through the testimony of victims how whole families often end up joining the “church” due to purposeful recruitment techniques—I use quote marks because it’s more of a heartless, manipulative business than a bonafide church—and sometimes generations of families remain involved for decades.
This makes leaving the “church” nearly impossible for some members, even committed apostates.
In a first-year review of the A&E series, The Huffington Post noted that “under normal circumstances, roughly the same story over eight episodes would make for a tedious and boring show, but ‘Aftermath’ is telling a horror story, and the repetition is powerful.” CNN commented that the series represented “a step up in class for [original producer] A&E” that presents “a sobering warning to those who might be susceptible to the [Scientology] sales pitch.”
(This YouTube video below of an interview with actor Tom Cruise demonstrates the blinkered, combative mindset of committed Scientologists.)
How Scientology turns believers into hard-hearted automatons
The horror is how Scientology transforms normal people into seeming automatons carrying out the church’s hard-hearted, cold-blooded directives, like previous cultists had been from Charles Manson’s homicidal “Family” to Jim Jones’ doomed People’s Temple to David Koresh’s child-abusing Branch Davidians to the suicidal, comet-chasing Heaven’s Gate sect, and on and on.
It’s the potential for violence that makes cults so dangerous, and when survival of each of the death cults listed above was threatened, their ostensible loving compassion was the first virtue thrown out the window. Scientology doctrine has already thrown it out the window.
Scientology is not in that murderous Jim Jones league as far as we know, but members deeply traumatized by disconnection have committed suicide, as revealed in Rimini’s docuseries.
“I think the thing that Scientology takes away from you is compassion, real compassion for others,” Rinder says in the series, with great sadness (and guilt because of his personal, central role in many of the sect’s unconscionable practices).
Scientology indoctrinates members in a behavioral ethos around a so-called “emotional tone scale,” which, according to Gordon, “church” founder L. Ron Hubbard claimed could gauge a person’s “life-force energy, or theta.” The scale ranks emotions from grief and anxiety to cheerfulness and enthusiasm, with anything other than the latter two aggressively—and hypocritically—discouraged in punishing self-denigration sessions.
“The result?” asks Rolling Stone writer Ash Sanders, rhetorically. “A generation of children who grew up numb, unable to feel or even recognize basic emotions.”
Fleeing ex-Scientologists unprepared for the outside world
That is a ubiquitous complaint of Scientology members raised in the cult and exiting as adults: they enter a brand new world emotionally numb and lacking a basic liberal education (Scientology mainly teaches children its dogma).
In fact, it’s unlearning the warped way Scientology indoctrinates its members to think, and then learning anew how to think and make common-sense decisions in the real world. It is an eerily similar dynamic for people leaving fundamentalist religious cults of any kind. I highly recommend An Education, a disquieting 2018 memoir by Christian fundamentalism escapee Tara Westover, and the Netflix TV series “Unorthodox,” a disturbing tale about a female escapee from a fundamentalist Jewish sect in Brooklyn, New York.
One of the most disquieting aspects of Remini’s documentary is how truly inescapable the church’s vice-like grip on members can be. This is because Scientology, like other cults, insinuates itself deeply into adherents’ minds over decades with relentless indoctrination and coercive punishments for infractions. Add to that the threat of forever risking total loss of contact with close friends and family if you leave.
Not surprisingly then, apostate Scientologists, as well as escapees of other fundamentalist communities, commonly can’t handle the outside world when they get there and ultimately return to the fold.
Top Scientology apostates still can’t shake the dogma
Even Remini and Rinder admit church ideology remains stuck, hugely unwelcome, in their own brains, like a catchy commercial jingle.
Remini says people ask her now that she’s out of Scientology whether she still thinks like a Scientologist:
“I think that I still think in Scientological terms, and it’s hard for me to shake those things, and people who are in cult find that … they don’t actually know what they think. It’s like do what there’s an immediate Scientological answer [for] or a judgment or something, and then you’re like, wait. Do I really think that?”
Rinder agrees and says Remini’s instincts are understandable because, for him,
“There are a lot of [Scientological] things that are ingrained in my view of the world that … I’m never going to get rid of. … On the other hand, I believe that the thing that Scientology takes away from you is compassion. … and I have tried to cure myself of a lack of compassion.”
Scientologists prioritize the organization’s mission—supercharged by its zealous, noble-seeming, missionary-like work ethic to “save the planet”—over all else. But it’s a ruse.
Rinder explains that the Scientology devotees are intensively indoctrinated to prioritize working slavishly to ostensibly save Earth instead of nurturing emotional attachments, particularly with family members. But the real end game, he says, is to make boatloads of money for Scientology, which is reportedly worth billions of dollars.
Rinder knows of which he speaks: Before escaping the emotional vortex of Scientology in 2007, Rinder had been a senior director and board member of the Church of Scientology International (CSI) and also was executive director of its intelligence department, the Office of Special Affairs. Rinder joined the organization as a young man, Remini as a young girl brought in by her mother with other siblings.
Scientology is just one of many cults in America that disingenuously hide unconscionable and often illegal practices behind the wall of church-state separation and First Amendment protections of religious freedom.
But, in fact, they are far too often flim-flam organizations whose main goal is separating recruits from their money and absolutely controlling their lives, while distorting reality and adherents’ ability to function with rational agency in the outside world.
This can’t be what America’s Founding Fathers had in mind, is it?
You can watch the entire series, Scientology, The Aftermath, on Netflix.