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Louis Theroux is a BBC television presenter best known for making documentaries that investigate fascinating worlds and lifestyles. His latest work is a feature documentary on the Church of Scientology,[…]

What is the most quintessentially American religion? It would need to have celebrities, a Hollywood setting, big money, and a confusing swirl of innocence and the macabre. That’s Scientology defined, says documentarian Louis Theroux. The church was founded by sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard around the same time that the first McDonald’s opened, and there are enormous parallels in the business models of these two operations. Scientology is the embodiment of America’s capitalist soul, with two seemingly at-odd goals: to spread the good word of Dianetics (Scientology’s sacred text) as far as possible, but to only give its wisdom to those who are willing to pay for it. The top level of Scientology’s ideology ladder is called the “Bridge to Total Freedom” — however it’s anything but free, costing an individual a minimum of $250,000 to access. It begs the question: Do you want salvation with that? Louis Theroux’s latest documentary is My Scientology Movie.

Louis Theroux: I remember first to hearing about it from my uncle Peter who lives in Long Beach, and when I visited him in L.A. for the first time he told me about this religion that had been created by a sci-fi writer called L. Ron Hubbard, and that it was beloved of actors and celebrities, and that they used hard sales tactics. (These were all his allegations; I mean I'm sure Scientology would deny it.) And that they were very secret, no one really knew what was going on inside. 

And in fact he told me—I remember him saying, “You can go down and look at their base; they've got walls around it with spikes on, but the spikes don't face outward…the spikes face inward.” And I thought all of this was sort of really appealing. I mean my own sense of both the absurd but also the macabre was massively piqued.

Scientology to me seems to be a kind of junction of so many quintessentially American qualities. You've got the celebrity dimension; you've got the fact that it's in Hollywood; you've got its sort of relation to the business world and its swash-buckling form of capitalism that we have in the U.S. where you find a need and you market to it, and if the need doesn't exist then you create the need. 

To me it's always very telling when you realize that basically McDonald's and Scientology came into existence at almost exactly the same time. Around about 1950 Dianetics was published and the first McDonald's was established. And actually as business models they're rather similar in they both work using a franchise system. And to me Scientology is selling the spiritual hamburgers, if you like.

But it’s this piquancy that's added to it because of the strangeness and humor that's wrapped around it, you know, the bizarreness of the language and the ritual. The packaging is to me quite funny. 

At the heart of Scientology is a kind of contradiction, which is that they want to spread the good news about Scientology and Dianetics, that it’s a life-changing, life-saving system that allows you to be your best, and in fact more than that is our last, best hope for saving the planet from war, insanity, crime, intolerance, and so forth. 

But they also don't want to give up those secrets too easily either, because they would say you have to go through a certain path, and that takes a “Bridge to Total Freedom,” as they call it. 

But actually arguably it's because it's their business model to sell secrets. So the contradiction is, well how do you market a secret? And unlike other religions that I can think of, Christianity—you can get a Bible, in any hotel room you'll find one in the top drawer of your bedside table. And Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, all the major religions as far as I'm aware, their sacred texts are freely available, and there aren’t a whole bunch of secrets, you know, origin stories or mysterious myths, that you have to pay to learn. “Well what's inside the box? What could it be?” 

And they also regard outsiders, and particularly journalists, as enemies. To me, it's actually both a problem in as much as they're not giving access, but it's also massively appealing and tantalizing to be aggressively confronted and then turned away. 

Unlike most religions that you think of as being sort of welcoming, and ethical, and in the normal way where they sort of invite you—“Come on in, film with us, we'll tell you what we do”—Scientology is constantly, it seems to me, kind of pushing you away and telling you that they don't want your coverage. That nothing you can say about them is going to be the truth.