Getting Clear: the scientology conference
So let’s just get a few things out of the way.
I am journalist openly critical of Scientology, attending a conference of other Scientology critics at which I too will be presenting a paper. Just keep that in mind when reading the next few days’ coverage.
On the other hand, go to a mainstream news source for a more balanced perspective and don’t be too surprised if they are still reporting Scientology’s claims of millions of members worldwide without a hint of irony. (See below for a more realistic estimate.)
The fact is, for years, mainstream coverage of Scientology was mainly celebrity gossip or more-or-less accurate accounts of the movement’s sci-fi cosmology. It is only relatively recently that that has begun to change.
This week’s "Getting Clear" conference in Toronto (June 22 to 26) is still a fairly rare animal: a conference devoted exclusively to examining the movement. Scientology is, after all, still notoriously aggressive towards its critics.
The event has been organised by two people: Jon Atack, himself a former member and the author A Piece of Blue Sky, the definitive history of the movement's first decades; and Professor James Beverley, Professor of Christian Thought and Ethics at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto.
There have been conferences on Scientology before this: Flag Down was a five-day event in Clearwater, Florida, in May last year. Clearwater is one of the main centres for the movement – considered by true believers to be a centre of excellence – so this was very much a case of bearding the lion in his den.
And in February of this year, Dublin hosted Scientology: Enough is Enough. Ireland seems to have a particularly active contingent of former members and campaigners from Anonymous, the loosely organised movement of Internet activists that has taken a special interest in Scientology since 2008.
The Toronto event however seems even more ambitious, bringing together former members, academics and journalists with a special interest in the subject. And with Jon Atack as its co-host, the event it has been able to attract speakers who not might otherwise have agreed to take part.
The Tyndale campus, where Professor Beverley lectures, was originally announced as the venue for the conference, but it was quickly switched to a hotel and conference centre near the airport. “The venue had to change because of parking problems, food venue shortage, security limitations, and very poor rooming situations,” explained Professor Beverley. “We have just moved to a new campus and we were not ready for this kind of conference.”
That makes sense. But it is worth noting in passing that the conference website has a statement stressing that Tyndale is not sponsoring the event, which suggests a certain nervousness on the part of the college.
It is however, still part of the curriculum for Professor Beverley’s seminary students. The course they are studying is "Scientology: a case study in relating the gospel to other faiths" (Theo 0670) and students are expected either to attend the lectures or watch the videos (the event is being filmed).
One thing they will learn very quickly is that Scientology is not a turn-the-other-cheek kind of religion.
"You know, objectivity in journalism is a bit like Father Christmas..."
A few more words about Atack for those new to the Scientology scene: anyone who has done any serious research on Scientology has come across his book Blue Sky. He went quiet for several years, after years of harassment from Scientology took their toll. But in recent years he has returned to the front the scene, with a new edition of his book, now called Let’s Sell These People a Piece of Blue Sky.
More recently, Atack has been contributing regular columns to Tony Ortega’s Underground Bunker, which is the go-to website for daily news of Scientology’s activities. And Ortega will be another contributor to conference, there to talk about his recently published book The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, which tells the story of how Scientology almost destroyed U.S. journalist, Paulette Cooper.
In 1971, Cooper wrote The Scandal of Scientology one of the first book-length exposés of the movement. They went after her with a vengeance in a plot to frame her for making bomb threats. It was only after the FBI raided Scientology offices in 1977 as part of another investigation that the operation against Cooper came to light. Both Ortega and Cooper will be on hand to discuss the Toronto event.
Full disclosure: although I have never actually met either Jon Atack or Tony Ortega, I have known them for several years now through our common interest in the movement.
It was Jon who advised me when, back in the early 1990s, I was trying to get a friend out of Scientology, the experience that kindled my interest in the movement. We have been corresponding, off and on, ever since. And Tony Ortega was the first journalist to acknowledge and support Infinite Complacency, my website tracking Scientology. From there, it was a natural step to start filing stories on European developments direct to his site.
But will that influence my coverage of the conference? Of course it will – at least to some extent.
But as a colleague, a distinguished French journalist recently put it: “You know, objectivity in journalism is a bit like Father Christmas: it’s a story you tell the children to reassure them.”
For a detailed rundown of the week’s programme, see the conference schedule. For a look at how it is being presented to Professor Beverley’s students, see here.
And if you're wondering how many Scientologists there are in the world, have a look at former member Jeff Hawkins' graphic below.
Update for full disclosure: Since I was presenting a paper at the conference and would not have been able to make it over otherwise, the organizers agreed to cover some of my hotel expenses.
First published at former member Mike Rinder's website, this assessment by Hawkins draws on the inside knowledge gleaned from his years as a senior executive in the movement. Hawkins has written two books about Scientology. Counterfeit Dreams is his personal account of his time inside Scientology; Leaving Scientology is an e-book designed to help other recovering Scientologists. See his website for more details.
Next up: The Man Who Would Be Hubbard