Scientology operates more as a business than as a church, relying on techniques perfected by car salesmen to attract new members and celebrities to its rolls.
That's just one of the takeaways from Janet Reitman's controversial book about the world's most controversial and secretive religion. "Inside Scientology" chronicles L. Ron Hubbard's creation of Scientology six decades ago and traces its development into the faith of choice for movie stars such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise.
In an interview with TheWrap, Reitman, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, addressed blackmail rumors and talked about why Kabbalah may represent a bigger threat to it than any "South Park" parody.
A: Is Scientology still a big religion in celebrity circles?
Reitman: I totally think that celebrity Scientologists are hesitant to be public about it these days, but I don't think they've ever had as many celebrities as people think. There are really very few. Cruise is a big celebrity. Travolta is a long-time celebrity. Jenna Elfman had a TV show, but most of these people aren't huge celebrities. Kabbalah has gotten the superstars. Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Madonna -- those are big stars.
Q: How effective has Cruise been as the public face of Scientology?
A: I don't believe he's been an effective face in terms of getting new members, but he's been very effective in terms of getting the existing members excited. There was a specific strategy in place to make Cruise into the model Scientologist. It was a promotional strategy and it's been good and bad.
Existing members are not necessarily aware of how the church is perceived. They are told they should not read newspapers, they would not have watched the "South Park" episode that makes fun of them, and they would not have read the magazine article that became the basis for my book. So from their viewpoint, Cruise's behavior would be perceived completely differently than what we see. It would have made them really excited to see him jumping on Oprah's couch.
Q: There are all these rumors that celebrities like Cruise remain Scientologists because the church knows all their secrets and they fear blackmail. Any truth to that?
A: I didn't go into that too much in my book, but it seems obvious. They have the goods on everybody. A great part of the Scientology experience is the confession that happens in the auditing experience. You are constantly being asked to write up your transgressions, maybe even your unspoken transgressions. They know everything about you. They would know everything about Cruise in the same way that they would know everything about me if I were a member.
Q: How is the celebrity experience different than that of average Scientologists?
A: Basically to ensure that they have a happy experience, they are shielded from anything negative. They have church appointed minders who guide them through the process. They have no idea the level of control they're under. If Scientology is a parallel universe then this is really a parallel universe.
There's been a celebrity strategy since the mid-'80s. They are seen as cash cows, as these amazing emotional tools. It's very savvy what's going on, so it's not surprising that celebrities are treated in a wonderful way, a way that's very different than an average member. They are often looked at as more important than the clergy. You have these people who have been serving the church for 35 years who have to salute Tom Cruise and call him sir.
Q: Why do you think Scientology remains so controversial?
A: I think it has to do with its history of secrecy and also its history of litigiousness. I do think that's changed slightly. In so many ways it tries to not be so secretive anymore. It tries to be less aggressive than it was in the past. You don't see them filing those giant lawsuits any longer. I think it's a residual effect. They pled guilt to conspiracy once. They conducted a domestic espionage operation. And you have all these people who left the church coming out about their experience.
Q: What shocked you the most about Scientology?
A: I didn't expect to find out how much of a business they were. They are almost like a multi-level marketing firm. They have a very shrewd marketing sense. They are drilled on how to sell. They use a book written by a car salesman that talks about sure-fire sales techniques and it shows you how to close the deal. It's an essential part of their training.