Former high-ranking Scientologists claim the church and its autocratic leader, David Miscavige, have taken on the modus operandi of a terrorist network in the latest documentary film to examine the secretive religion.
The BBC’s My Scientology Movie places the spotlight on the church’s extraordinary alleged attempts to control the actions of both its members and its ex-members.
Tom DeVocht, a Scientologist from 1977 to 2005, claims the church’s inner workings have evolved into a system of devotion on a par with the fanatical recruiters and brainwashers of al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS.
“This is the only thing I can tell you: You’ve got people who wrap bombs around themselves, fly planes into buildings—it’s the same thing,” he said. “You believe so much… they can convince you of anything.”
Marty Rathbun, who was a Scientology executive until 2004, claimed Miscavige had become increasingly malevolent and was now employing “terroristic” techniques in order to silence his critics.
He described the church as “the most pernicious, dangerous cult the Western world has known in the past 50 years.”
Statements from the Church of Scientology flash up throughout the movie. They vehemently deny all of the allegations made against them and Miscavige.
The filmmaker, Louis Theroux, said he was attempting to make a more sympathetic movie after HBO’s controversial documentary Going Clear and an upcoming exposé called Troublemaker from actress Leah Remini—who was one of the church’s most high-profile Hollywood believers.
“My dream was that I might be the first journalist to see another, more positive, side of the church,” says Theroux as the movie begins.
It soon becomes clear that this isn’t going to happen. “My approaches were all turned down,” he explained. A white SUV then appeared in the rear-view mirror and it’s obvious that the church is going to do more than ignore Theroux.
“After four hours of the same car behind you it starts to look quite suspicious… He’s right behind us now,” he says breathlessly. “What you’ve got to remember is that this is a church. It’s not like any church you can really think of.”
Unidentified cameramen, drivers, and church officials repeatedly approach the crew to disrupt the filming, but the former Scientologists interviewed seem to endure far worse.
Rathbun—who describes his former role in the church hierarchy as “ the baddest ass dude in Scientology”—is confronted by teams of Scientologists who taunt and interrogate him on both occasions that he travels to Los Angeles to take part in the filming.
One of the confrontations, recorded by Rathbun on his cellphone, became a viral YouTube hit before the movie had even wrapped.
With wild staring eyes, three of them tell Rathbun that the Scientologists haven’t missed him at all since he left. “Nobody gives a fuck about you,” one woman said. “You’re nothing.”
Theroux wants to know what they think they can achieve by acting in such a bizarre manner. “They are behaving in a way that is so obviously pathological—you would think they would realize that other people would see that and think this is a religion of lunatics,” he said.
Jeff Hawkins, who worked for the church for 36 years and was involved in producing some of their dramatic promotional videos, tried to explain their thinking.
“They are doing it for one audience, which is David Miscavige, they are trying to prove that they are loyal to him because he holds all the strings, he has the ultimate power in Scientology,” he said. “He holds your eternity in his hand so it’s not just the threat of death it’s the threat of really dying over and over again in ignorance, in darkness—and that’s what they think is in store for them—he has ultimate spiritual power over Scientologists.
“He can bar you from Scientology forever if you cross him, and he knows that. He knows the power that he’s got. Same power [founder L. Ron] Hubbard had.”
DeVocht claims the control exerted by Miscavige can be used to make his followers do whatever he wants. “You believe so much in that technology, or so much in whatever, they can convince you of anything,” he said. “It’s insane, it is the most destructive quote-unquote religion, cult I’ve ever read anything about. It is a fucking nightmare. It really is.”
As for Rathbun, it seems the treatment by Scientologists who have followed him around and watched him for years is taking its toll. The film cameras capture him being approached by two gray-haired men in L.A. According to Rathbun, they ask about his adopted child and his wife.
“None of these things just happen. David Miscavige had to direct this—he scripted it and directed it,” Rathbun said afterward, appearing to feel as though his child had been threatened. “He brought my wife’s name into it and he’s brought my son into this.”
When Theroux asks if this was the sort of surveillance he had ordered against other people when he was still in the church, Rathbun exploded. “It never even crossed my mind to bring a person’s child into something,” he said. “Never ever ever crossed my mind to use a terroristic technique like that—nothing like this.”
UPDATE 10/15/15: In response to this article, a lawyer representing the Church of Scientology sent The Daily Beast a letter demanding we take down this story. That demand has been denied. You can read the letter in full here.