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Stop the press: Scientologists are creepy!

Last night's 'exposé' of Scientology told us more about the narrow-mindedness of the BBC than the weirdness of L Ron Hubbard's lot.

Dolan Cummings

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The gist of last night’s Panorama programme on BBC1 was that the Church of Scientology is, like, creepy. The programme largely consisted of reporter John Sweeney having arguments with a guy called Tommy, who tried, not very well, to stop Sweeney giving a bad impression of the church. On one occasion, Tommy got very angry after Sweeney repeatedly suggested Scientology is a cult. On another, Sweeney got even angrier after Tommy accused him of giving too much credit to critics of Scientology.

The Scientologists, who filmed all the encounters themselves, had a clip of Sweeney’s rant on YouTube (see below) long before the broadcast, leaving him little option but to include it in the programme, and apologise for letting his team down. Actually, his frustration was understandable given the relentlessness of the Scientologists’ rebuttals, but since the whole point of the programme was to show how mental they are, it is ironic that the reporter went mental himself. Poke anyone with a stick for long enough, and they are likely to snap.

Sweeney made clear that the programme was not meant to be the last word on Scientology, but simply a demonstration of how touchy they are about criticism. Even for the new, streamline half-hour Panorama, this was a pretty thin journalistic assignment. We were told little we didn’t already know: the Scientologists ‘lure’ people by offering stress tests and have lots of Hollywood stars as members. As evidence of the dark side, we met a mother whose daughter won’t talk to her since she joined the church, and a couple who donated a million dollars over 40 years and now wish they hadn’t, but there was no hard evidence of actual wrong-doing on the part of the organisation.

Tommy did wear dark glasses and look kind of sinister, and it did seem that the organisation followed Sweeney around while he was making the film. ‘You’re spying on the BBC!’ Sweeney observed incredulously. Apparently, the church’s founder L Ron Hubbard (who was an explorer and war hero, or not, depending on whether you believe him or some guy who popped up on the programme) once said critics of Scientology were ‘fair game’ for any kind of treatment necessary to shut them up. To confirm this, we met a guy who had made a film about Scientology only to have his chequered sexual history exposed, and a ‘cult investigator’ who had criticised Scientology and was now the subject of a lengthy dossier going back to his childhood in an effort to discredit him. In that case, the church need hardly have bothered: the only thing creepier than a cult is a cult-buster.

Sweeney also told us that Scientologists believe we are all inhabited by the ghosts of dead aliens left over from an alien war. Apparently this has been widely reported, but he couldn’t actually find anyone willing to admit to holding the belief. The celebrities he was offered for interview later withdrew their consent to take part in the programme, but we were shown still pictures of them and told that they giggled and dismissed the idea of alien wars. Still, Sweeney was able to show an illustration of an alien used the last time Panorama did an exposé of Scientology, which is the next best thing to rigorous journalism, I suppose.

At one point, Tommy angrily insisted that the American constitution entitles everyone to believe and worship as they see fit: religion is not defined by John Sweeney! To be fair Sweeney made no such claim; no, he thinks religion is defined by the UK Charities Commission, which does not recognise Scientology. And this was the crux of the matter. The basic argument of the programme was that the Church of Scientology is not a proper religion. ‘I can’t imagine the Church of England behaving like this’, Sweeney said when Tommy was giving him a hard time.

And suddenly Tommy’s point about the American constitution looked rather important. If your model of ‘proper religion’ is an established church, and one noted for its worldly respectability at that, then that doesn’t leave much room for religious freedom. Just about all religions have been described as cults at one time or another, and indeed a more thoughtful definition of a ‘proper religion’ might be one that insists on its own morality rather than submitting to the judgement of the secular world.

The doctrines of Scientology don’t seem very compelling to me, but presumably its devotees are looking for something beyond the banal worldview of Panorama, so it is hardly damning that those doctrines seem a bit odd. It’s up to all of us to decide for ourselves what to believe, and other people’s views of what is and isn’t respectable are not much of a guide. Sweeney’s investigation told us more about the narrow-mindedness of the BBC than the creepiness of Scientology.

Dolan Cummings is the editor of Debating Humanism. Buy it from Amazon (UK)

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