Davis, 33, helps run the Celebrity Centre in Hollywood and is the scion of one of California's real estate dynasties. He freely admits to being a Hollywood rich kid. He dresses in Italian suits, drives a BMW and is addicted to his Blackberry. "I have enough money to never work a day in my life," he says.
But Davis, who calls L. Ron Hubbard "the coolest guy ever," works for the church as a nonuniformed member of the Sea Organization, the Church of Scientology's most powerful entity. Sea Org members staff all of the senior ecclesiastic positions in the church hierarchy, and the top members have exclusive authority over Scientology's funds. In a nod to the group's nautical beginnings, Sea Org members were required to wear naval-style uniforms, complete with epaulets for "officers," until several years ago. Today, for all but those who serve on the Freewinds, the epaulets have been retired. At Gold, whose entire population, save the actors and directors of Scientology films, are Sea Org members, men and women dress in the style of deckhands: short-sleeve dress shirts over dark T-shirts and chinos.
The church describes the Sea Org as a fraternal order — not a legal entity — requiring lifelong commitment. It is, in fact, an eternal commitment: Sea Org members sign contracts pledging billion years of service to the church. Scientology's publicity materials portray the Sea Org as similar to the U.S. Marines: "The toughest, most dedicated team this planet has ever known," according to one recruiting brochure. "Against such a powerful team the opposition hasn't got a chance."
Kim Fries, who works in Gold's audiovisual editing department, has been in the Sea Org since she was fifteen. Now thirty-two, Fries says she couldn't imagine living any other way. "What else are you going to do with your life?" she says, with a flick of her dark, wavy hair.
The Sea Org has often been portrayed as isolated, almost monastic; members are rarely allowed to see films, watch TV or read mainstream magazines. "Are we devoted? Yes. Sequestered? No," says Fries, who married a fellow Sea Org member. "I go out into the world, I talk to people out in the world, I definitely live a very full life. This isn't a priesthood. I mean, if it were a priesthood, do you think I'd work here? It would just be so unhip."
Gold is seen as the place "every Sea Org member aspires to work," says Rinder. There are expansive grounds to wander, a crystal-blue pool in which to swim; the dining hall is large and features low-fat and vegetarian entrees. A tiny shop sells cigarettes, juice, soft drinks and junk food.
In my ten or so hours at Gold, I am aware of being taken on an elaborately orchestrated junket, in which every step of my day has been plotted and planned. I don't blame the group for wanting to present its best face; at least half of my conversations with Rinder and Davis pertain in one way or another to what Scientology perceives as a smear campaign on the part of the mainstream media. A chief complaint is that reporters, eager for a story, take the words of lapsed members as gospel. Davis says Scientology gets little credit for the success of its social-betterment programs, which include Narconon and also literacy and educational programs. "Look around," says Davis. "People are out here busting their butt every day to make a difference. And one guy who leaves because he wants to go to the movies gets to characterize the whole organization? That sucks."
Scientologists do not look kindly on critics, particularly those who were once devout. Apostasy, which in Scientology means speaking out against the church in any public forum, is considered to be the highest form of treason. This is one of the most serious "suppressive acts," and those who apostatize are immediately branded as "Suppressive Persons," or SPs. Scientologists are taught that SPs are evil — Hitler was an SP, says Rinder. Indeed, Hubbard believed that a full 2.5 percent of the population was "suppressive." As he wrote in the Dianetics and Scientology Technical Dietionary, a suppressive person is someone who "goofs up or vilifies any effort to help anybody and particularly knife with violence anything calculated to make human beings more powerful or more intelligent."
Given this viewpoint, I wonder why anyone with connections to Scientology would critique them publicly. "Makes them famous," Rinder says. "They do it for their fifteen minutes."
Scientology has been extremely effective at attacking its defectors, often destroying their credibility entirely, a policy that observers call "dead agenting." Some of the church's highest-profile critics say they have been on the receiving end of this policy. In the past six years, Tory Christman claims, the church has spread lies about her on the Internet, filed suit against her for violating an injunction for picketing on church property and attempted to get her fired from her job. Rinder dismisses Christman as a "wacko" and says her allegations are "absolute bullshit."
When Christman split from the church, her husband and most of her friends — all of them Scientologists — refused to talk to her again. Apostates are not just discredited from the church; the are also excommunicated, isolated from their loved ones who, under Scientology rules, must sever or "disconnect" from them. Scientology defines those associated with Suppressive People as "Potential Trouble Sources," or PTS.
Rinder says disconnection is a policy of last resort. "The first step is always to try to handle the situation," he says. A "handling" generally refers to persuading a wayward member to return to the church in order to maintain contact with his family. The parent of someone who's apostatized might call his child and ask him to "handle" a problem by essentially recanting. "They'll ask them to make some amends, show they can be trusted ... something to make up the damage," says Davis. Those amends might range from volunteering in a literacy program to taking a public advocacy role — campaigning against psychiatry, for example.
But some people, the officials admit, refuse to be handled. What happens to them? "Then I guess not believing in Scientology means more to them than not seeing their family," Davis says.
Excommunication is nothing new in organized religion. A number of sects have similar policies to Scientology's: the Amish, the Mormon Fundamentalists, the Jehovah's Witnesses. All have a rationale. Scientology's rationale is very simple: "We are protecting the good of the religion and all the parishioners," says Rinder.
"It's for the good of the group," says Davis.
"How are you going to judge what is and isn't the worst tenets and violations of the Church of Scientology?" Rinder asks. "You aren't a Scientologist." Complaints about these policies, he adds, "come from people who aren't Scientologists [anymore]. What do they give a shit for anymore? They left!"
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