Q: Religions, like languages, need to grow or risk extinction. You write that Scientology is “tiny” and “in trouble.” Is the attention Scientology receives out of balance with the influence it actually exerts? Or is it alarming at any size?
A: The best estimates of Scientology’s former top executives place the church’s current worldwide membership at only about 30,000 people — and plenty of evidence exists that Scientology has never had the millions of followers that it has always claimed. So if the movement is so tiny, why does it get so much attention? Two reasons: celebrities and money. In 1955, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard launched “Project Celebrity,” and literally put a bounty on the heads of television and movie stars, paying members to recruit them. As a result, a few glamorous actors and actresses were recruited in the 1970s and 1980s, when the church was at its height (but probably still never more than 100,000 strong, planet-wide). That same small group of celebrities — chiefly Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Kirstie Alley — are still bringing Scientology more press than it probably deserves.
Despite the organization’s modest size, however, Scientology has been successful at getting huge donations from a small group of wealthy donors — some of them have given $20 million each, and more — and all members are pressured to donate constantly. As a result of decades of such fundraising, former church executive Debbie Cook estimated that Scientology leader David Miscavige has control of a legal defense fund (the “IAS”) of more than a billion dollars. Author Lawrence Wright, in his recent book “Going Clear,” provided the shocking detail that Scientology has more liquid assets than the Catholic Church in America. And what does it do with that money? It spends huge amounts on litigation, lawyers, and private investigators. Scientology is renowned for its bullying and retaliation against former members and journalists, which in turn fuels even more press. Throw in its passion for secrecy, its odd beliefs, and Scientology is almost a perfect bad-publicity generator. So even though Scientology is rapidly dwindling and facing several internal crises, we expect that the press fascination for it will only increase.
— Tony Ortega is executive editor of The Raw Story and is formerly the editor of The Village Voice. He’s written about Scientology since 1995, and has a forthcoming book about the subject.