Scientology has been controversial ever since it was founded in the early fifties when science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics - a mixture of self-help, technobabble and psychotherapy. For decades the main complaint about the faith and its organisation was that it was a 'cult' rather than a religion. Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Mexico, Russia, the United Kingdom have all refused to recognise Scientology as a religious movement and accord it charitable status. But from 1983, when the Australian senate ruled that 'charlatanism' wasn't enough to deny it religious exemptions, to 1993, when U.S tax authorities recognized it as an "organization operated exclusively for religious and charitable purposes" Scientology has gone from strength to strength - accorded full religious protection in the US, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Italy.
Germany has been a key battleground. In 1997 an interior ministry investigation labelled the organisation 'totalitarian' with "objectives that are fundamentally and permanently directed at abolishing the free democratic basic order." But the federal inquiry backfired. Many Germans found the government intervention in the matter of personal faith troubling. An open letter to Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1996, signed by luminaries such as Oliver Stone, Gore Vidal, Dustin Hoffman and Mario Puzo, made the parallels with previous "religious discrimination" explicit.
"In the 1930s, it was the Jews", said the letter. "Today it is the Scientologists."
This 'persecution defence" has been a very effective strategy for the wannabe church ever since. When, in 2007, the British TV reporter John Sweeney tried to make an investigation of Scientology for the BBC's flagship current affairs programme, Panorama, the church's main spokesman Tommy Davis (son of the Hollywood actress Ann Archer) consistently called Sweeney a 'bigot'. Davis deployed this 'Wickerman ' strategy ( straw man argument combined with incendiary claims of martyrdom) so brilliantly that the reporter completely lost it, and exploded on camera. Sweeney has just published an account of the trolling and harassment that led up to his outburst in The Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology but it was still a PR disaster.
So questioning the religious status of Scientology over the decades has not only failed - it's backfired, A cursory comparison of the movement with other accepted and protection religions quickly explains why. In essence, there is no theological or philosophical criticism of Scientology which couldn't be levelled at most forms of religious faith.
First, the bizarre backstory and cosmology; Scientology claims to free the human spirit through a process of 'auditing' until you receive L Ron Hubbard's ultimate mind-bending insight into the human condition at 'Operating Thetan Level Three'. All our troubles are due to an 'incident' 75 million years ago when an intergalactic tyrant called Xenu punished the free-spirited Thetans by transporting them to Earth, sealing them in volcanoes, and then blowing them up with hydrogen bombs.
There's really nothing in this science fiction epic which could not be found in Babylonian myth, the Vedas, or the punishments of Prometheus or Lucifer. Add to that a spattering of Eastern mysticism - Hindu reincarnation and Buddhist detachment - and you have a perfect synthetic 20th Century religion. There's no God, only self-improvement. The apocalypse isn't some moral revelation but a physical cosmic battle. Paradise Lost, remade as a Hollywood B movie. Bizarre it may be: original it is not.
The second charge levelled at the Church of Scientology - that it's secretive and arcane - is hardly exceptional either. Sweeney uses this line of attack when he declares that "Xenu is a logic bomb inside the Church of Scientology's claim to be treated just like any other religion..." Sweeney writes that "A 'religion' that hides its core belief from the world is not a religion because a true religion must be open about itself to all." But where is the evidence that 'true religion' has to be open about itself?
For centuries the Bible was only comprehensible to scholars who read Latin, and the Qu'ran to those who understood classical Arabic. Despite the populistic claims of Mohammed towards his Ummah, or Jesus of Nazareth to his congregation, secret sects and Sufi-style mystical insights abound in Abrahamic religions. Indeed, one of the key characteristics of most religious practices from the 'mysteries' of Osiris to Free Masonry has been exclusive access to the inner holy of holies and decoding of scripture. Indeed, one could define most organised religion by its hieratic secret practice: you can't blame scientology for copying that trick.
The last major charge against Scientology as a cult rather than a religion it financial imperatives
and this has a painful personal resonance for me because my father was a Scientologist from the late fifties to mid-seventies by which time he'd suffered a second bankruptcy, leaving his family homeless The church charges for its auditing sessions - up to 100,000 Euros to become an Operating Thetan Level Three- and the pressure on recruits to get discounts on the cost of the services by recruiting new members of the church has often been described as form of spiritual 'pyramid selling.'
However, even this fails to distinguish Hubbard's movement from mainstream religion. As anyone who have has the collection box or plate jingled at them in a recent church wedding or funeral will know, pecuniary motives go hand in hand with the most sacred occasions. 'Tithes' and other forms of parishioner income tax have built most the places of worship in the world The parallel 'materialist' idea, that members of a religious group get financial or career benefits through a 'network effect', is surely one the attractions of faith groups. The trust within them explains the historic global networks in high value goods created by Hasidic Jews, Zoroastrians, Armenian Christians or Confucian Chinese. If this works with diamonds, gold and silk, why should we resent Hollywood actors bringing some religious trust to their high stakes but lucrative industry?
It's obvious therefore that the 'cult not a religion' attack was flawed from the outset, partly because our definitions of religion are so broad, opaque and opportunistic. It gives the smart lawyers an easy target to knock down. As Lawrence Wright told The Chicago Tribune: " hey can bring in a Franciscan monk who lacerates himself on Fridays in imitation of the suffering of Jesus on the cross and who has no belongings at all. Well, that's a religious manifestation, and it's very difficult to be against such a thing in this country." `
Secularism means freedom OF religion, as well as freedom from religion and this spirit of tolerance is cleverly exploited in the Helmut Kohl letter. To criticise Scientology is, in a sense, to criticise all religious faith and - no matter how delusional we may consider them - no society can patrol private beliefs without resorting to a form of absolutism or - as Queen Elizabeth 1st put it during her attempt to reconcile Protestantism and Catholicism in 16th Century England - making 'windows into men's souls'.
That's what is so effective about the Belgian prosecutors new move. They have bypassed the tired arguments about whether Scientology is a cult or religion, which bogged own Time Warner for nearly 10 years in costly litigation with church, and closed down the Cult Awareness Network. Instead of the private beliefs they have targeted Scientology's public affairs - especially when it comes to the privacy of its members and claims for medical cures.
The church will have a hard time defending itself against this. Often central to the Scientology's message is the claim it can improve health and defeat disease. In 2009 Scientology was convicted of fraud in France for "[pressuring] members into paying large sums for questionable remedies": that conviction was upheld in a French appeals court in February last year. One the church's most hailed charitable public activities is anti-drugs programme called Narconon, which has dozens of facilities in several countries. However, there's no scientific evidence to suggest the "Hubbard Sauna Detox" can really counter hard drug dependency, and there have been several investigations into unexplained deaths at the flagship Narconon Arowhead rehab centre in Oklahoma.
Drug addiction is only the tip of the iceberg : Scientology 's medical claims include a much wider desire to replace the current mental health establishment. Various biographies describe L. Ron Hubbard as having disturbed episodes, and in a post mortem in 1986 his body was found to contain a high dosage of a prescription anti-anxiety drug hydroxyzine hydrochloride. Yet Hubbard reserved his greatest contempt for psychiatrists. Indeed, the exhibition that made John Sweeney fly off in uncontrollable rage in 2007, is a Scientology exhibit called 'The Industry of Death' which argues that modern psychiatry is a Nazi pseudoscience, and responsible for the ultimate horrors of the holocaust. Interviewed by Ted Koppel on ABC 20 years ago, Hubbard's successor as leader, David Miscavige, explained the church's battle with the shrinks in even more cosmic terms: "There are a group of people on this planet who find us to be a threat to their existence, and they will do everything in their power to stop us. And that is the mental health field. I didn't pick a war with them." The casualties of this imaginary war include my father who, having been discharged as a manic depressive from his high flying army career, never once sought proper psychiatric help but instead sought solace in Scientology's pseudo-science and mumbo jumbo.
Religions reserve their strongest invective for their greatest competitors, and Scientology's antipathy to psychiatry and psychotherapy suggests a huge hidden dependence. The core practice of the church is the 'auditing session' - a quasi-therapeutic interview where the subject is wired up to a primitive skin conductivity detector (the 'e meter') and asked probing questions by an auditor about his or her sex life, traumas, anxieties, nightmares. Signs of stress, measured by fluctuations in skin conductivity, are noted as 'floating needles' and pursued vigorously during sessions. This is effectively psychoanalysis with a lie detector. But the 'tech' doesn't end there.
These auditing sessions have traditionally been recorded, and in the latest auditing suites such as the Scientology global HQ in Clearwater, Florida, the interrogations are filmed using hidden cameras, amounting to a form of psychic surveillance.
Other confessional environments, such as the therapist's couch or the priests confessional box, have long established rules of confidentiality and legal privilege. The growing literature on Scientology records dozens of occasions when the secrecy of auditing sessions have been breached, and the personal revelations there used to manipulate or blackmail. Vanity Fair allege that the secrets of the scientology confessional were broken in the case of Nazanin Boniadi, and Iranian-British actress who was groomed to be a bride of Tom Cruise before Katy Holmes. But though a scientologist, Nazanin was going out with another scientologist. "According to a knowledgeable source" Vanity Fair reported "she was shown confidential auditing files of her boyfriend to expedite a breakup". Lawrence Wright claims the current leader of Scientology, David Miscavige, threatened to expose the sexuality of their former poster boy, John Travolta: "He's a faggot - we're going to out him."
I still shudder to think how my mentally unbalanced father would have responded to these apparent manipulative abuses of psychiatry, but he disappeared in 1996, and we discovered only recently he was buried in 2008 near the British scientology HQ in East Grinstead. However, evidence of allegations of privacy breach, extortion and potential blackmail will be tested in the Belgian courts, rather than unprovable claims about past lives, and Scientology will finally have to publicly account for its behaviour.
Peter Jukes is a journalist, author and screenwriter. His book on the hacking scandal Fall of the House of Murdoch was published last year. His next book Son of Scientology: Dad, L Ron and Me will be published later this year. He lives in London