It's kind of amazing that there's anyone left in Scientology, given all of the bad press this so-called religion has received -- from Tom Cruise's couch-jumping, revelations about Xenu, and some high-profile exits from the church.
But one drive past the organization's headquarters -- a historic building called "Flag" in downtown Clearwater -- and you'll see devotees swarming, dressed in crisp white shirts and dark pants, evidence that some people are still believers in the elaborate scheme devised by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.
The church is notoriously vindictive toward those who have left it. Ex-members say they have been cut off from their families, framed for child abuse or child molestation, and otherwise publicly humiliated.
But the tales they tell of life inside the church are even scarier in some cases: forced abortions, child labor, forced labor, and deaths. (See Operation Clambake, ExScientologyKids, and this Tampa Bay Timess series for a sampling of the crazy.)
People opposed to the church are organizing an anti-Scientology conference called "Flag Down 2014" to take place May 5 to 9 in Clearwater. There will be five days of meetings followed by a weekend of protests. The event will be streamed live online.
One of the organizers, Pete Griffiths, who lives in Ireland, said he got interested in the Scientology decades ago, intrigued by its message of self-betterment. New recruits are lured in by the promise of a free "personality test."
But there's almost no emphasis on traditional religious themes like worshiping a god or helping the poor. "It was masquerading a a self-help group at the time; the religion angle was hidden," Griffiths says. "You certainly don't worship anything - except maybe money and yourself. It's a very selfish religion. [The basis of it is that] you improve yourself by doing these [self-help] courses," for which members pay.
Griffiths made it to a level of Scientology where he was "clear" and ran a local mission but basically worked as an unpaid salesman, selling self-help books and courses. He says he began questioning the church when he heard of protests around 2008. When he read reports that top-level church leaders believed in an alien named Xenu, "that was a make or break point for me." He left the church and says the church subsequently attacked him and set him up to look like an abuser. "I lost 21 years" to Scientology, he says.
Griffths will be at the conference, which also features John Sweeney, a writer and broadcaster for the BBC. He made a documentary, 2007's Scientology and Me, and has also written seven books, including 2013's The Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology.
A news release says, "Sweeney will be joined by a host of ex-members and critics from around the world, including fellow authors Russell Miller (1987's 'Bare-faced Messiah'), John Duignan (2008's 'The Complex'), Geir Isene (2013's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four') and Karen Pressley ('Escaping Scientology,' TBA). Five of the speakers announced so far are defectors from the Scientology organization's elite pseudo-paramilitary wing, the 'Sea Org.'"
There is a Scientology mission in Fort Lauderdale.
For more on the conference, visit flagdown.org.
Send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!