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The Church of Scientology has launched a TV channel. It’s weirdly familiar.

“Self-help” and spirituality have become intertwined in America today.

David Miscavige, Chairman Of The Board Religious Technology Center And Ecclesiastical Leader Of The Scientology Religion
David Miscavige is the leader of the Church of Scientology.
Church of Scientology via Getty Images

It’s a balmy spring day. A hiker is lost in the woods.

He looks around, confused. The camera pans around the clearing, then whirls faster, transforming the glimmering afternoon light into a kaleidoscope of blurred color. The man looks terrified.

When you’ve lost your way, the voiceover explains, everything becomes confusing. But once you find your one foundation point — the narrator assures us — you can start to find your way home again.

Inspirational music swells. The camera stops panning wildly and becomes steady, even calm: focusing now on the blandly handsome hiker, map in his hand.

The hiker looks up. He grins, visibly relieved. He sets off, resolute and purposeful.

That foundation point, we learn in this segment, and the dozens to follow, is Scientology.

And the hiker’s story — a minute-long segment in a 150-minute show called Tools for Life — is just one of many used by the Scientology Network, a new TV channel that premiered on DirectTV and assorted streaming services last week. The channel, which is funded and produced by Scientology Media Productions, the de facto media arm of the Church of Scientology, is ostensibly designed to counteract the media narrative around the controversial religious movement. Scientology was founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1952 and is frequently denounced as a cult.

Scientology Network’s tagline, shared on the Church of Scientology’s social media channels, references this controversy directly, telling would-be viewers, “The only thing more interesting than what you’ve heard is what you haven’t.”

“There’s a lot of talk about us. And we get it,” said the church’s leader, David Miscavige, on Monday. ”People are curious. Well, we want to answer your questions. ... We’re not here to preach to you, to convince you or to convert you. No. We simply want to show you.”

But perhaps the most surprising thing about what the Scientology channel has to show is that it’s not so surprising at all. The vague “self-help” platitudes and stock-footage-laden graphics on offer this week tie neatly into the intersection of capitalism and spirituality that has come to define the American religious landscape.

Scientology has been the subject of controversy for decades

It makes sense that Miscavige might want to improve the popular perception of Scientology. The church claims to have millions of members worldwide, including numerous Hollywood adherents such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Elisabeth Moss (the precise number is not currently known). Former members have recounted abuse — mental, physical, and sexual — at the hands of senior members of the church. (The Church of Scientology has continuously denied knowledge of abuse or coercion by members in its ranks. Regarding 2005 accusations of sexual assault committed by church supervisor Gabriel Williams made by a then-minor in his care, the Church has denied any prior knowledge of Williams’ alleged wrongdoing before the allegations, and noted that they fired him as soon as they were made aware.) Ex-members and journalists who’ve spoken out against the organization have been threatened with legal action, or become the subject of church-organized surveillance.

But thus far, the Scientology Network’s offerings are, well, preaching to the choir. The various programs on offer, including “Inside Scientology,” “Meet a Scientologist,” and “I am a Scientologist,” are largely indistinguishable from one another: consisting of either interviews with people who have chosen to embrace the religion or more generic segments — like that with the hiker — detailing the downsides of modern life without Scientology’s principles.

The programs touch little on formal Scientologist religious or psychological terminology. For example, dianetics, a self-help practice developed by Hubbard in which a participant revisits past memories with a supposedly impartial “auditor,” is rarely mentioned explicitly, nor are thetans — the Scientologist understanding of what animates the human body, not unlike a soul.

Rather, the slickly produced programs on the Scientology channel resemble something in between a self-help seminar, an infomercial, and a drug commercial. The narrator shares vague Hallmark platitudes — “the way to happiness is far more easily followed when one supports people of goodwill”; “the hardened criminal does not learn to learn”; “one never really knows if he is wise or not until he sees the result of trying to apply it”; “we live in an age of solutions ... to find ourselves.” Narration then exhorts listeners to “trek through brambles” before “coming out on top to see a whole new world,” a sentiment accompanied with aesthetically pleasing, if anodyne, stock footage.

“Welcome to an age where the predictability of science and the wisdom of religion combine,” says the voiceover in another segment. “Welcome to the age of answers.”

The Scientology Network’s rhetoric is uncannily familiar

Yet the most surprising thing about the Scientology Network may be how, well, not surprising it is. The commercial-style shots of glistening, happy, successful Scientologists’ faces (and the “cautionary tales” of drug addicts, criminals, and other unhappy individuals who, presumably, need Scientology in their lives), the vaguely spiritual platitudes, and the promise that Scientology can lead participants to better jobs and better lives all tie into a much bigger rhetoric increasingly prevalent in American culture: the idea that spirituality is, ultimately, about self-improvement.

With a Hollywood budget and Hollywood backers at its disposal, the Scientology Network is selling a promise that we’ve seen — in kind, if not in degree — plenty of times before. Spirituality, or something approximating it, is repackaged into a kind of emotional get-rich-quick scheme and sold to people who are as much customers as they are converts. (Before Hubbard developed Scientology as a religion, he developed and marketed the system of dianetics, later integral to Scientology, as a secular self-help practice and potential rival to psychotherapy.)

It’s a conflation of genuine spiritual longing with a distinctively American capitalist ethos of self-improvement, in which everything — even faith — is a means to a self-actualizing end. It’s a trope that has been part of the American cultural landscape since the days of New Thought (a 19th-century belief that you could attain success by imagining it) and the ministry of Norman Vincent Peale, whose sermons on “power of positive thinking” brought him thousands of adherents from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump.

Scientology may be the paradigmatic example of this trope. But it’s also a culmination of a wider capitalist tendency within American faith culture: to treat something as profound as religion as something that should be advertised at all. What Scientology has been accused of is, of course, far more serious than the misdeeds of your average prosperity gospel creature.

Former Scientologists have reported being labeled “suppressive persons” for leaving the church and cut off from family and friends, being forced to work for Sea Org, the Church’s leadership organization, for extremely low pay, and being pressured into spending up to millions of dollars to attain higher and higher levels of spiritual fulfillment, while journalists investigating the church have, among other things, been framed in the mid-1970s for sending bomb threats to Scientology churches.

While Scientology may be extreme, the conflation of capitalism and spiritual hunger in its rhetoric is not. We can find it in the prosperity gospel: the tendency among some evangelical Christian groups to envision a direct correlation between faithfulness and material wealth. We can see it, too, in the proliferation of spiritualized notions of “wellness”: from appropriations of yoga or Zen philosophy to “orgasmic meditation” to the “if you can dream it, it’s yours” optimism of self-help phenomenon The Secret.

Just this month, a panel at tech utopia South by Southwest called “The Gifts of Faith: Cultivating Resistance” packaged faith as a means of self-care akin to a kale smoothie. “We run out of ideas or energy; we are distracted or become depressed,” reads the panel’s description. “Teachers and philosophers across cultures have advised those seeking some sort of renewal to turn to faith in something greater than themselves.”

The most uncanny element of the Scientology Network’s shows is just how familiar they feel.

Correction: this article has been updated to reflect the fact that a court found that the Sea Org was not in violation of forced labor laws, after a lawsuit waged by former members Claire and John Headley under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, on the grounds that the Headleys were free to leave at any time. The wages paid to Tracy Ekstrand in the Washington Post article linked to above — $10 a week plus room and board — were never found to be illegal.

It has also been updated to reflect that Gabriel Williams — mentioned in the article on alleged sexual abuse linked to above — was a “chief supervisor” in the Church of Scientology, rather than a member of Sea Org. The Church of Scientology fired him upon learning of the allegations against him and stated both that they were unaware of his actions and that no such other cases had happened within the church.

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