In Patrick White’s Tree of Man, the diffident protagonist, Stan, hacks up a gob of spittle and declares to a visiting evangelist: “That is God.”
A classically laconic Aussie response to religion, it instantly strips the concept of its fripperies, moral hypocrisies and pretensions to mystery.
Historically, few Australians have gone for all that “god-bothering” stuff, despite the relatively recent importation of cash-grabbing, American-style evangelism.
Because we’re disinclined to ask the big theological questions, there’s a tendency to view all religions as being much the same. But just what, precisely, is a religion?
This was the dilemma faced by the US’s Internal Revenue Service in the early 1990s, as the self-titled Church of Scientology successfully fought to have its tax-exempt status restored.
It began in the 1950s as a tax-dodging fad pretty much designed to enrich its founder, the fantasist L Ron Hubbard. Since then, Scientology has morphed into a global organisation accused of milking ever-increasing fees, donations and labour from believers.
Viewed as religion, Scientology initially seems kooky. Adherents are regularly required to pay for “auditing” sessions in which they reveal increasing amounts of information about themselves. Here, though, there are some parallels with confessing to a priest, or psychological counselling.
Scientologists also believe in an extra-terrestrial deity, but all religions are routinely mocked by atheists for adhering to much the same idea.
Featuring several former Scientologists and adapted by director Alex Gibney from the best-selling book by Lawrence Wright, the documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief breaks no new ground stylistically.
A stream of talking heads (including Wright) and some internal footage exposes Scientology’s dark side: it is portrayed as self-obsessed and so paranoid it wants to prevent this film being shown in the UK. It is also desperate to convert celebrities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, both of whom feature in Going Clear.
These revelations won’t surprise anyone who’s paid a smidgin of attention. What shocks are the details of alleged physical and psychological abuse, claims of blackmail, corporate greed, perverted “family” values and vicious persecution of critics (claims that have been denounced by Scientology leaders as “dishonest”).
Gibney – whose previous documentaries include the Wikileaks film We Steal Secrets and Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room – makes the case, somewhat slowly, that Scientology is not a religion, but a cult. Either way, I doubt Australians will care much.
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