A few weeks ago, we started talking about Scientology. If you missed that post, the summary is that Scientology is good at recruiting young actors into its midst, through a number of different techniques.

The question, though, is not why anyone joins – at one point or another, it’s pretty easy to manipulate an actor or actress into joining a Cthulhu cult if it gives them a chance to ‘break through’.

The more interesting question is, why does anyone stay? Do a quick Google search for Scientology, and out of the top ten results, you have gems like “The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power”, “L/R Hubbard was a con man”, and “Breaking out of Scientology’s Iron Grip”. There are dozens of web sites, articles, TV shows and books devoted to explaining how to leave Scientology. Why would simply leaving a religion be so difficult?

The title makes it easy to search for it.

It turns out that not all churches accept people simple ‘walking out’ of the faith. In fact, one of the hallmarks of cults is that they hard to leave. So how does a church make sure that its members stay put?

The first step, of course, which worked well for years, was simply to maintain an aura of mystery. For most of its history (since Hubbard started it in the 1950’s), Scientology would dissuade members from discussion religion with each other. Members progressed slowly up the ranks, through expensive auditing courses. Secrets imparted at one level were to be kept from the previous levels (otherwise, why pay for all those expensive courses?). So keeping the secrets, well, secret was very important to the church.

Before the Internet, the church had this under control. There were a few books written about Scientology, but the church was good at meting out punishment for authors who were critical of Scientology. For example, consider the case of Paulette Cooper:

Journalist Paulette Cooper wrote a book in 1969 that was critical of Scientology:

Hint: it was not a positive book.

The church could not let that pass unchallenged, and so it began a truly freaky operation to discredit Paulette and, ideally, drive her insane. The operation was code named Freakout, and it involved all sorts of nastiness: the church sued Paulette over 19 times, sometimes bringing her book into countries that it was not even published in so that they could sue her under stricter libel laws; church operatives stole letterhead from her office and used it to mail bomb threats to themselves, resulting in charges being arraigned against Paulette (later dropped). Letters were sent to friends, neighbors, employers, asserting that Paulette had venereal diseases, was unstable, or other lovely things. Much more was planned, including mailing threats in her name against Arab consulates in Washington and against President Ford. Unfortunately for the church (and manipulation archives everywhere), the FBI busted the gig and sent several of the conspirators to jail.

Leaving Paulette standing, still sane. A bit freaked out, though, so there was that.

Of course, this type of tactic became harder in the days of the Internet. When several high-level church secrets (including the Xenu story, which basically tells the story of an alien warlord that used psychiatrists to kidnap billions of people and drop them off into volcanoes on Earth) were leaked on an early Internet board, alt.religion.scientology, the church began to understand that the Internet would ultimately be a serious problem for that whole ‘keeping secrets secret’ strategy.

To their credit, Scientologists rallied superbly. Earlier than most, they realized the destructive potential of the Internet, and began to exploit every tool at their disposal to ‘manage’ Internet revelations. Lawyers claimed that the materials were copyrighted and trademarked to the church, and urged ISPs to take them down. A lawyer sent out technical messages to automatically delete alt.religion.scientology, a trick that would have been a masterpiece had it worked (the messages turned out not to be configured properly and were ignored). Dozens of scientologists began to spam alt.religion.scientology with thousands  of random links, trying to drown out the signal with a lot of noise. Others began to posts as trolls and tried to initiate flame wars, techniques that would later be used against other web sites critical of Scientology. Some of these techniques spawned counter-techniques still used today. For example, Scientologists hired web designers to write thousands of similar web pages designed to fool the early search engines into ignoring sites that were critical of Scientology. That technique eventually prompted a new generation of search engines to ignore all but the top two results from any one web server (such as Google). And, offline, Scientology sued and sued – authors, ISPs, writers that published stories about the church writings, and anyone else who was involved, including the original anonymous remailer that had been used to post the original documents.

The only thing missing from the Scientology cyber counter-attack.

Unfortunately for the church, it didn’t work.

If anything, attacking the web sites created its own Streisand Effect. For each site that Scientology took down, three more sprang up. For every lawsuit that silenced a critic, a hundred web users were incensed. The spam operations eventually led to Operation Clambake: Scientology successfully used a DMCA (a copyright claim) to force Google to de-index Xenu.net (i.e. Xenu.net wouldn’t appear if users searched for “Scientology”).  Google complied, but this inspired the search giant to contribute to the chilling effects website, to inform users that the site had been delisted by DMCA request. Web designers, incensed by this, began to link “scientology” and xenu.net on their own web pages, propelling xenu.net to the second-place ranking on Google searches for Scientology. This was one of the first “web-bombs”, and it worked very well.

Innovative. And delicious.

Since the whole strategy of secrecy doesn’t work too well in the days of the Internet (view the Scientology secrets here!), Scientology turned to other manipulations to ensure that people stuck around the church.

One of these techniques is called Disconnection. Basically, it states that a good Scientologist cannot associate with anyone who is declared an enemy of the church, a suppressive person. If someone leaves the church, and speaks out against it, they are immediately declared a suppressive person, and friends, family, and associates who are within the church are ordered to never talk to or have contact with that person. That can result in children cutting off parents, brothers cutting off sisters, and the like. It can be very difficult for someone in a devout Scientology family to abandon kin and friends, and so the threat of being declared ‘suppressive person’ can be effective in keeping people within the fold of the church.

For those who don’t fear disconnection, there are several more tools to convince churchgoers to stick around and be ‘good citizens’.

For one thing, the core of Scientology practice is auditing, where members of the church confess their thoughts, nightmares, and acts to auditors. Over the years, the church compiles an impressive amount of information about its members, information that is supposed to be confidential, but apparently often is not. After all, when you leave the church, do you want all those dark secrets to be… leaked? A number of recent books claim that this is how Nicole Kidman was convinced to leave Tom Cruise quietly, for example.

Beyond those tools, the church has other manipulations at its disposal. For example, one of the ‘perks’ for high-ranking church members is a small discount on fees paid for courses needed to continue to rise within the church. Remember that advancement within Scientology is driven by expensive courses, which can cost upwards of $100k a year, so even a small discount can be significant.

What’s the twist?

Well, if you ever leave the church, you’re presented with a Freeloader Debt. Basically, the church retroactively cancels all the discounts you’ve enjoyed, and adds them up for your convenience. Members who leave have reported Freeloader Debts of $90k and more. This may well be a ‘money grab’ manipulation more than a ‘stay in church’ manipulation, though.

But perhaps the most potent tool in the Scientologist’s manipulation toolkit is also the simplest. It is simply… belief. Outsiders often forget that people who join the church of Scientology really believe in Scientology. As such, they are not googling the ills of the church, or the problems with the cult. This is the same reason fat people don’t google the calorie content of meals, or why drinkers don’t ask doctors about the ravages of alcohol. We all want to believe, deep down, that what we’re doing makes sense, and we don’t like to challenge our own belief system. Scientology, like any cult, provides structure to its members, and, for some of them, it does provide some benefits. So those members don’t go out of their way to search for information on the church’s manipulations – they truly want to see the good, not the bad.

For example, read a letter written by an ex very high-ranking member of the church, recounting her saga as she left the church. What’s most notable about her letter isn’t the long enumeration of manipulations the poor woman was subjected to – it is the fact that she still believes: she is still a scientologist, just not a member of the church, and she willingly accepts the manipulations of the church as part of the package of her faith. She pays the Freeloader debt, not because she is afraid of collection agencies, but because she wants to remain a member in good standing. She accepts that her salary, and that of her husband, as high-ranking church members, will be $50/year, because her rewards are spiritual, not material. She accepts that, as a suppressive person, she had no contact with her only son for years. It is only when her son is dead, and she was not even told about it, that she rebels, and even that rebellion is against the leader of the church, David Miscavigne, rather than the church itself.

* * *

Scientology’s manipulations are not particularly advanced, although their ferocity is relatively uncommon. But they work very, very well, because its members are, to a large extent, eager to believe. They want to see the good, so they ignore the bad. The best manipulations are those that target a willing audience, and that is why leaving Scientology is not easy, despite appearances. It makes Katie Holmes escape plans, with escape routes and secret phones, seem a lot less crazy…