Scientology branded as celebrity cult
May 30, 2008 12:00am
I RECENTLY realised that I knew the name of Madonna's daughter. I certainly don't seek out celebrity information; in fact, I tend to actively avoid it. Yet, as if by osmosis, there it was: Lourdes.
The same seems to apply to most people's initial perception of Scientology. It's likely the majority of us know that Tom Cruise is a member, as are John Travolta and Kate Ceberano. Many of us recently may have seen that James Packer has left the church. But what do we really know about the church and how has our perception of this controversial group been shaped?
Scientology receives widespread media attention, due almost entirely to its celebrity connections, and this explains our familiarity towards it. This mediated form of acquaintance with them is often combined with a deep sense of suspicion, and for some outright animosity.
This is nothing new. New Religious Movements (NRMs) are usually faced with such suspicion. Especially when referred to as a "cult", as is often the case with Scientology. This highly derogatory term is often employed by media as well as anti-cult movements. Its use as a label lumps all religious movements together as though they were a single entity – the sins of one become the sins of all. This is problematic when considering the diversity of new religions as well as the public's knowledge of cults – knowledge that largely centres around groups which have promoted mass suicides.
The collective voice of Scientology claims it is a target of religious persecution. Groups like Anonymous are active protesters against its practices. Anonymous has a dominant presence on the internet through websites and chat systems. The spread of information via the internet as well as its organised worldwide demonstrations have helped shape our understanding and perceptions of the group. Its most recent Australian based activity was the protest in Brisbane, taking to the streets waving placards and wearing Guy Fawkes masks.
The group is protesting against what it claims is a threat to free speech. The church has at various times been accused of stifling free speech through the closure of internet sites. Legal action over the now infamous South Park episode also drew criticism.
As part of the increasing diversification of religious groups over the years, many religious movements have found a niche in Australia. Yet, the Australian "fair go" attitude does not seem to apply to all religious groups, including Scientology, with the same intensity. If we look at basic information about the group, this is difficult to understand.
The group arrived in Australia in 1957 and became recognised as a religious denomination in 1973. This transnational movement is involved with numerous outreach activities. Volunteers have been involved with matters ranging from protecting the environment to human rights activities. It is a movement based on the idea of development of self and its individualistic approach certainly reflects wider society values. The membership has a stronger than average representation within professional occupations.
The public's negative perception is seen through a recent analysis of media coverage of Scientology in Australia. The bulk of information filtered into the community appears to be negative as well as celebrity-centric. A large percentage of coverage centres on Cruise. Initial accounts of the actor and his links with Scientology were portrayed in a favourable, or at least neutral, light. Positive articles were based on reports revolving around public personas; half of these were dedicated to Cruise before his couch jumping. These articles describe actors such as Cruise as benefiting from the "tools" that Scientology had provided them.
The majority of the newspaper articles were classified as negative. Although there were quite a few articles that approached the church with suspicion and unambiguous doubt, much of the tone was more satirical than overtly critical. Again many of these reports were linked to celebrity. Cruise's proselytising behaviour was closely scrutinised and reported but was often delivered in a comical fashion and related to his supposed downfall from public favour. Behaviours such as setting up a Scientology tent on the War of the Worlds set, bringing potential co-stars and reporters on tours of Scientology centres and, of course, the public endorsement of some of the central tenets of the religion during interviews, were all met with suspicion, yet reported in a mocking style.
Interestingly, articles that were outright attacks on the group were rare. The negative reports do not represent the church in a controversial or dangerous manner, but rather in a satirical fashion. There is a clear bias represented and although the media is not informing its readers to fear Scientology, it is stigmatising the group into a joke and presenting its central doctrine as a comic story.
Scientology is clearly losing the PR war, particularly in Australia.
Dr Alphia Possamai-Inesedy is a lecturer at the University of Western Sydney's School of Social Sciences.
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