The difference between a cult and a religion is tax-exempt status.
At first glance Sweeney's reaction would appear to be completely and totally out of line- "unexpected" as the voiceover in the above clip explains. This impression is largely correct. Given that Sweeney was trying to do a documentary of the group, such a violent and aggressive reaction was certainly not appropriate. Yet, while the Scientologists are spreading the story of Sweeney's explosion around, there are other things we should consider.
For example, we should consider Sweeney's own written explanation of what occurred where he apologizes for his behavior, but observes that he and his team were the victims of systematic harassment from scientologists for some time before the incident.
A campaign of harassment? Really? Does this sound like a conspiracy theory to anyone else? Should we really believe that Sweeney was harassed and provoked into his yelling fit? Well, as it happens, yes.
I can hardly believe that I've never discussed scientology on this blog but it appears to be true. I refer to it once or twice previously but never seem to have done a full-on post about it. That being the case, let's talk a little about Scientology.
Scientology is the philosophy/religion developed by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. This religion was first outlined in a piece written for Analog Science Fiction and Fact, though at the time I believe that it was called Astounding. Scientology was originally pitched as a sort of new age philosophy and only later metamorphosed into the religion we see today. To discuss L. Ron Hubbard for a moment, it is important to keep in mind that he was nothing if not a flamboyant man. During World War II he served in the U.S. Navy and, so far as anyone can tell, engaged in a three day battle with a magnetic anomaly. He also committed an act of war against Mexico but, hey, at least they forgave us for that one. As an author Hubbard is, hands down, amazingly bad. This is not to say that he can't write an interesting story, but rather that his paranoid and bizarre philosophy gradually infiltrated everything he wrote. I'm in a position to know, too, as I have a read a considerable number of his works including Battlefield Earth, Final Blackout, and Mission Earth, the ten volume series that totals close to 4,000 pages of printed material. I can honestly attest that, in my opinion, Hubbard is a godawful writer and I would much prefer to be kicked rather hard in the stomach than read even a single Mission Earth book ever again. Seriously- they involved necrophiliac hitmen among other things.
None of that really relates to his church, however, and his church is something else entirely. You can find a wealth of material about Scientology both on Wikipedia and at the anti-scientology site Operation Clambake but let's just hit the highlights with a few facts:
Fact: A central part of Scientology is auditing, a sort of combination of psychotherapy and the confessional. Auditing is meant to replace psychiatric help and to enable the worshipper to forego medications of all sorts. And I do mean all sorts. Auditing is often used to recover details of past lives, including lives where the individual was a species of clam. A very heavily traumatized species of clam, as it happens.
Fact: A part of auditing are security checks, or interrogation about a large number of possible offenses, often from past lives, that will be recorded in Church files with little or no guarantee of confidentiality.
Fact: Scientologists believe that their bodies contain Thetans, or soul-equivalents that have unlimited power over the universe. This power has been restricted by trauma experienced in countless past lives and can be released via scientology. Of course, releasing this power costs literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think about the worst properties of a religion and a pyramid scheme merged and you'll have Scientology.
Fact: One of the main sources of trauma for thetans are the actions of the ruler of the Galactic Confederacy, Xenu, who gathered a whole bunch of people together in interstellar DC-8's, deposited them in volcanos on Earth, and then blew them up with thermonuclear weaponry.*
Fact: No, I am totally not making any of that up.
Fact: Additional sources of trauma are frankly too numerous for me to repeat. They're also mind-numbingly bizarre.
Fact: Scientology has its own timeline for the universe that is so completely at odds with science that it isn't even funny.
Fact: Individuals who oppose or criticize Scientology are often labelled "fair game" which means, in the words of L. Ron himself: "ENEMY — SP Order. Fair game. May be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed."
Fact: Scientology has engaged in espionage operations against the United States Government that resulted in a federal sting. Among others, this sting resulted in the conviction of Hubbard's wife.
Fact: Scientology attempted to frame a journalist critical of them with several felonies.
So, given all of these facts, do we consider it plausible that John Sweeney was provoked? You better believe it. And if that isn't enough, maybe a little context on the above video is in order:
Now, I'm not trying to say that Scientology is the prime-evil of our world. It's not. As it happens, I think it's just a young religion going through its paranoid-schizophrenic stage. Frankly, I think it's fascinating from a sociological standpoint. Additionally, while I laugh at the bizarre beliefs of Scientology, I don't really see how believing in Xenu is any different from basing your religion on a guy who could generate unlimited bread and fish, walk on water, and rise from the dead. To be totally honest all unsubstantiated tales of fantastic events are pretty much equal in my view. Sure Scientology sounds batshit looney but, really, its brand of batshit looney is simply younger than other popular name brands. So, while I'm not a fan of Scientology, I don't really think it's that much worse than, say, the Inquisition or the Taliban. Many people may not like or trust Scientology but it is a religion, however bizarre and unhealthy it may be.
But that said maybe Scientology is an object lesson that, perhaps, it isn't a good idea to give religion a free pass just because it's religion.
* This always struck me as the kind of overkill that a seven year-old boy would come up with: "Oh, wow, you know what would be cooler than blowing people up with a nuclear bombs? Putting them in a volcano and THEN blowing them up with a nuclear bomb! Awesome!"