Here’s what I think we can look forward to from Scientology in 2018.
Happy new year, from all of us at Global Capitalism HQ, including the multitude of supermodels, jet pilots, summer interns from Harvard Business School, the yacht crews and the waterfront estate technicians.
I’m not officially reviving this blog with a commitment to publish regularly, but if I do post anything, I’ll notify interested parties via Twitter and via comments on Tony Ortega’s site.
In my view, the big stories in 2017 were:
- Another successful season for Leah Remini’s show, which propelled an avalanche of even more abuse stories, as ex-Scientologists were emboldened by her guests to speak out.
- The train wreck surrounding the Danny Masterson rape investigation, showing that Scientology is still dangerous to the outside world, and showing how the cult will actively support sick criminal behavior if it feels that advances its agenda.
- The failure of the cult’s offer to buy the land in Clearwater it wanted, showing that local government is, perhaps for the first time, unafraid of the cult.
- The discovery of several creepy passages in Scientology texts where Hubbard speaks positively about pedophilia. That’s a vivid reminder that the evil and sickness in Scientology comes from the founder; it’s not a recent David Miscavige invention. That sparked a few apologists to embarrass themselves in desperate attempts to explain away the inconvenient sordid reality of Scientology. Protip: it’s not a metaphor, because Scientology is too literal-minded for those.
The TL;DR Version of the 2018 Predictions
I predict that 2018 will mostly be a replay of the last two years, with a lower likelihood of some significant event that drives members to stampede for the fire exits like Debbie Cook’s email did in January 2012. Yes, there may be some unexpected disaster that befalls Scientology that accelerates the decline, but we should not count on that in our thinking. Instead, we should expect another year of gradual decline.
Scientology passed the point of no return some time ago. It will take decades of decline before the cult shuts its doors forever, but its ability to grow and to influence the world beyond its shrinking horizon is over.
Scientology in the Cosmic Scheme of Things
Scientology is a dinosaur among cults. According to some prominent anti-cult researchers I have spoken with recently, the era of large international cultic groups peaked around the time Scientology did in the late 1980s. With the possible exception of Transcendental Meditation, most large groups from back in the day are seeing gradual erosion in membership, even if they have attempted to clean up their image.
However, overall cult membership seems to be accelerating recently, as it usually does in uncertain and fearful times. This appears to be driven by the emergence of new groups but also a new way of creating, growing and building these groups.
The next generation of cults will be very different in their recruiting approach, their message and their business model. Recruitment via social media such as Facebook and YouTube is the new paradigm, one that Scientology has proven utterly inept at harnessing. Emerging Internet gurus like Teal Swan and Bentinho Massaro have accumulated many times more Facebook friends and YouTube subscribers than Scientology in just a year or two. Sweaty people in threadbare uniforms selling books on street corners and late-night TV ads with volcanoes are so… 1962.
Membership will continue to decline in Scientology. However, the organization has already jettisoned the majority of the casual members in most regions. In countries with a long time Scientology presence, members are mostly staff members, family members reluctantly staying in to save their relationship with their Sea Org children, and a small cadre of true believers. As a result, membership decline in the US is likely to be a lot closer to 3% to 5% than in some years where membership has dropped by 10% or more.
Given that the casual believers have been flushed out, and given the demographics that are skewing heavily towards 60+, I expect that we will soon see more people leaving Scientology in a coffin than walking out under their own power. Demographics are destiny, and the fact is that few young people other than children of aging members, are joining the cult.
Declines in Longtime Strongholds
We saw evidence in 2017 of the decline of Scientology in countries where it had previously been strong, most notably the 20% decline in Australia in the last five years as reported in the 2016 census data, published in September 2017. The next UK census isn’t until 2021, so we won’t get good data there for a while, but I do expect to see significant decline driven both by organic factors and by a reduction in staff size at St. Hill as Scientology concentrates more on Clearwater.
Of course, cult recruitment will be all but impossible in most of the world, given the negative reputation that Scientology has established. The Unification Church (the “Moonies”) is much larger than Scientology, but they have managed to avoid the firestorm of negative press that the hapless Scientology management has attracted in the last few years.
Whales Are Played Out
It appears the practice of a “Scientology budget” may be more pervasive than I had previously thought. In this practice, large donors meet with their registrar at the beginning of the year and settle on a fixed amount of money that they will donate to the church over the coming year. This money may be apportioned however the registrar wants, but it is fixed and will not grow. In order to get that money, the registrar agrees that the large donor will not be hassled by continuous pleas for more cash.
The best example of a “Scientology budget” is the foundation that Bob Duggan set up with $60 million worth of AbbVie stock in 2017, with Scientology as the beneficiary. If Duggan steps away, as he may have done given his absence at the 2017 IAS gala, Scientology will have a perpetual income stream presumably tied to the requirement to leave him alone.
The fact that Scientology had to finish some Ideal Org projects using corporate funds instead of donations, and the lack of progress towards auditoriums in Los Angeles and Clearwater, suggest that large donors are played out, either because they have put the cult on a budget, or because their personal economics mean that they simply don’t have any more money left to give.
I thus believe that Scientology will be facing greater financial challenges and in the past. New “whales” from countries where Scientology is growing, such as Russia, Colombia and Mexico, will not have the firepower to make up for slowing donations from the US membership. I’m not predicting that Scientology is losing money or that it’s teetering on the brink of financial collapse, but simply saying that it will take more effort to bring in the same money as before.
Recruiting Bright Spots
That said, Scientology will continue to have recruiting success in several parts of the world. This may be strong enough to offset completely the decline in numbers taking place in the US and in longtime stronghold countries like Australia, the UK, Germany and the “Canada” region of upstate New York, a rural area located somewhere north of Buffalo.
I analyzed the locations of the signers of the “Stop Leah” petition in September, and found surprising strength in the responses from countries that I did not previously think were winners for Scientology. In particular, Mexico, Spain and Italy were much stronger than I’d expected, with momentum in other Latin American countries as well. These areas are strong, but not enough to make up for the decline in numbers and economic contribution from the US and Western Europe.
Scientology is also particularly strong in Russia and Taiwan. I had significantly underestimated the strength of Scientology in Russia. I saw photographs recently with well over 1000 people at a recent WISE seminar in Russia, for instance. I believe that Scientology will continue to see gains in Russia, as people may very well be joining the group to build their small businesses, sort of like business networking clubs used to do in the 1980s and 1990s in the US.
The Ideal Org Strategy
The Ideal Org strategy appears to be mostly played out. Several years ago, we saw that the cult had to fund the Auckland Ideal Org via a loan to the locals, as they were unable to raise the needed NZ$10 million. Other documents, such as for Narconon in the Netherlands, show that Scientology has had to loan money to various other local entities to keep them afloat, money that there is little chance of recouping.
The Valley Ideal Org is a significant problem for the cult. It serves the largest single community of Scientology members on earth. 10 years of fundraising hinted at the dismal state of Scientology on its own turf. But even the most loyal member in the Valley will eventually have to realize that this organization is failing. For 10 years, members have been hearing that “when we finally get the new org, it’s going to be great.” Now that they have the new org, nothing is changed.
There are only a few dozen members in Cincinnati, so if a few of them were to wake up and realize that Scientology is going nowhere, it would not have a material effect on Scientology membership. But with approximately 1,500 Scientologists in the valley (almost 20% of the total US public), the number of people that wake up is going to be much higher. Scientology can ill afford to see big losses in the Valley.
I expect that we will see some effort over the next 2-3 years to complete the previously announced Ideal Org’s where buildings have already been purchased, but I do not expect significant further plans to be announced. Instead, I think Miscavige is just hoping to sweep that under the rug and find some other scheme to get more money.
It seems likely that the fundraising campaigns for the auditoriums in Hollywood and Clearwater are likely to be quietly forgotten, since they are unlikely to be successful in any reasonable time frame. The days when the cult is able to raise $200 million for a mammoth edifice like the “Super Power” building are gone forever.
Scientology Media Productions
I predict that SMP will be silent (or nearly so) in 2018. Scientology is on the horns of a dilemma when it comes to actually delivering product produced at SMP.
Anything that Scientology releases over public airwaves/cable systems is immediately going to be fodder for late-night talk show hosts and people like us. In other words, everything will be subject to ridicule if they try to “disseminate” to the public, so recruitment efforts are likely to be a net negative.
And any programming aimed at existing members is likely to disappoint them. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to put out a full slate of programming. Launching a new cable channel is impossibly hard, because you need tens of hours of new content per week, and even the cheapest cable show typically costs around $500,000 per hour to produce. That’s $500 million to get through your first year. Scientology couldn’t recoup the startup programming costs through incremental donations, and they’re far too toxic to even dream of bringing in ad revenue. Of course, advertisers would want to see audited membership figures and viewership numbers, which is a whole ‘nother embarrassing can of worms. It would be an absolute humiliating embarrassment for SMP to begin broadcasting only one or two hours a week of new content, because it merely highlights how far short of the promised glorious future that they are delivering.
Of course, the other issue preventing SMP from launching is David Miscavige’s micromanagement of the production process. He will insist on approving every detail of every second of every program released, ensuring that everything takes 100 times longer to create than it would at a competently run television network. The net result is that even with hundreds of staff people working 20 hours a day, Miscavige will be the bottleneck that prevents anything from actually happening.
I can’t see any significant opportunities for Narconon or other front groups to generate revenue or to pick up new members. Even as it works to disguise Narconon’s tarnished brand under different names, people are simply too aware of Scientology and of the dangers of Narconon, and they quickly discover the connection. The strategy of opening small boutique centers to cater to wealthy Scientologists, such as the tiny facility in Larry Hagman’s old mansion in Ojai, won’t offset the collapse in the core Narconon business.
Similarly, front groups won’t be able to gain much traction. In 2017, we saw successes where activists alerted rural school districts duped into using Scientology’s anti-drug materials, and were able to get those materials jettisoned quickly. Of course, eternal vigilance will always be necessary, as Scientology has the ability to worm its way into innocent community groups like a horde of demented termites.
Press and Public Image
Leah Remini’s show brought the horrors of Scientology at their most personal and repugnant into millions of homes. Press coverage of one-off events such as Phil and Willie Jones and their billboard brought the horrors of Scientology to millions more.
Local press outside the US also covered Scientology in a negative light. Witness the outrage against Scientology’s new facility in Dublin, a country where the cult has at most a few dozen active members.
Of course, Scientology does not really care about public perception at this point, as Miscavige seems to have given up on the idea of being able to recruit anyone from classic Scientology countries like the US or Western Europe. Miscavige uses the bad press to try to win more donations from his shrinking flock, though constantly trying to play the religious discrimination and bigotry cards probably won’t have much benefit. The relatively new STAND front group appears comically inept in fueling that notion of Scientologists as victims, even among the faithful.
In 2018, I believe that we will see less press coverage of Scientology than in prior years, though it should remain negative. This is clearly driven by the fact that Leah’s show is moving on to other groups; press reports suggest that if the show is picked up for another season, it may focus on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the polygamist FLDS cult in southern Utah. Both of those groups deserve increased scrutiny. Fortunately, the producers have shown enough flexibility in scheduling episodes that they will probably be able to slot in special episodes to deal with relevant Scientology developments. We haven’t seen the last of the Leah & Mike brigade…
Of course, if some significant event pops up unexpectedly during the year, we will see a major avalanche of negative coverage. Scientology is just too easy a target to resist. Obviously, the event with the greatest odds of blowing up big in 2018 is the Danny Masterson rape investigation. If he is charged and if Scientology’s role in attempting to “handle” victims and witnesses comes to light (as it likely will), it would be not only a media disaster but potentially a legal disaster as well. I would not bet on indictments against Scientologists for obstructing an investigation, but it is not out of the question.
Celebrities Become A Liability
… And we are not just talking about alleged rapist Danny Masterson here.
Tom Cruise and John Travolta are likely to remain focused on managing the later stage of their careers as best they can. Cruise is coming off of a major flop with “The Mummy,” and he has to reinvent himself in order to stay in the game. This will require a positive public image, so it seems likely that he will be even more quiet about his involvement in Scientology. I would not expect him to leave the cult or break with it publicly, but I do not expect him to be a spokesman as he was a decade ago in that brief embarrassing moment. I doubt we’ll see pictures of him at events like the annual IAS gala.
Other “old guard” celebrities such as Kirstie Alley, Jenna Elfman and Nancy Cartwright are likely to fade into the background, and they certainly don’t have the mojo to appeal to Millennials anyway.
Younger and lower-level celebrities are only going to be a liability. Danny Masterson is a ticking PR time bomb for the cult. But even excluding him, there aren’t many appealing celebrities in the pipeline. Elisabeth Moss is a shining light at the moment, but it wouldn’t take much in the spotlight for her beliefs and behavior to become a problem, especially if she folds under questioning about her religion. In other words, if she becomes a bigger star, her Scientology involvement becomes more of an issue, and she won’t be able to help embarrassing herself if she tries to address that, just as she embarrassed herself fleeing the room at the Emmy awards show when Leah’s award category was up.
I should note that self-propelled fame whore/hot mess Joy Villa is likely to prove a major disaster for Scientology. Her desperate search for some form of fame has led her to ally herself with thoroughly despised people and groups, including both Scientology and the Trump administration. Her easily exposed legacy of sleaze (a dominatrix running for Congress?) will be increasingly brought up in the press the more she promotes herself, and it will ultimately drag Scientology into her personal self-destruction campaign.
The April 2017 fiasco, where Scientology was unable to get the Clearwater city Council to sell it a piece of property a desired for three times what the Clearwater Aquarium offered, was dramatic proof that the cult does not have significant ability to influence politics overtly. They can only hope that there “safepointing” efforts directed at specific individuals can slow the inevitable, but it appears that they are no longer in a position to stop the council from refusing to accommodate their interests.
As I noted in several comments on Tony Ortega’s site, the fact that Scientology could not get the city to accept an extra $10 million shows that the Council is not in Scientology’s pocket.
I did a little research into vote margins in recent Clearwater municipal elections. It turns out that the City Council is elected at large, where the entire city votes for each Council member, rather than for a single member in their district. Typically, around 20,000-21,000 votes are cast for the winning candidate, and the margin of victory is between 500-800 votes. Recall that Scientology has claimed thousands of members within the city of Clearwater. If they had even 1000 members, that would be enough to seal the margin of victory for any candidate who would pledge to support Scientology’s political goals. In other words, with even a fraction of their claimed members, they could utterly own the city Council, and that would have led to a unanimous vote in favor of their land deal. The fact that the vote was 4-1 against suggest that the Council is completely clear that Scientology lacks the political clout to influence them overtly.
Speaking of politics, dismal skank Joy Villa’s alleged Congressional campaign will be exposed as not only a desperate attempt to get noticed, but as a shady moneymaking scheme. And she won’t get any support from the GOP. The seat she plans to run for is an urban Miami district that’s been held by the GOP for years. But the state is turning blue and urban areas are typically less receptive to ideologues running for office. This is a must-win seat for the GOP and they won’t let a shallow poseur like Villa get anywhere close to the nomination.
Taking a Stab at the Endgame
Primary Scenario: Endless Attrition
My best guess is that Scientology will continue to corrode, seeing gradual declines in membership, until some point at least a decade hence, where something happens and the organization implodes at a time and for a reason that no one can now predict. Such a spark may come from the death of David Miscavige, when an organization with no viable contenders for the throne, is thrown into a succession battle which nobody is competent enough to win.
It’s important to understand that large entrenched organizations like Scientology are very hard to kill. Even significant disasters that many people think might do an organization often fail to bury it. In Scientology’s case, it seemed eminently reasonable to predict that the 1977 arrests in the wake of “Operation Snow White,” where many of the organization’s top executives including Hubbard’s wife were arrested and ultimately jailed for infiltrating the US government to protect the cult. If the whole management team goes to jail and the founder is named an unindicted co-conspirator, most reasonable people would assume that spells doom. But Scientology did not hit the high water mark in members for almost 15 years later, until sometime around 1990.
A cautionary tale is the Unarius Academy of Science, a California flying saucer cult founded around the same time as Scientology. The founder died in 1971, and his wife passed away in 1993. And yet, the group persists. Their membership is minuscule, but they continue to perform whatever rituals they think will attract the “Space Brothers” to the group’s San Diego-area landing site. The moral of that story is: organizations can survive, even if they don’t thrive. That’s what I think will ultimately happen with Scientology, absent some unforeseeable implosion.
The “Monastery Scientology” scenario
In 2008, critic J. Swift proposed a “monastery Scientology” scenario, where the cult would retreat increasingly to a couple of locations, catering only to the super-rich donors that currently fuel its operations. While some aspects of this forecast have been obsoleted by other events, it’s a pretty damn good 10-year vision that is held up reasonably well. Key points:
- By focusing inward, Miscavige turns the act of ignoring public perception into a strength.
- By focusing on a small flock, he focuses on member retention, and is able to maximize the chances of being the main beneficiary of the wills of his increasingly gerontological membership base.
- Focusing on a few rich whales is the ultimate endpoint of Scientology’s “prosperity cult” component, though this is blunted slightly by the increasing prevalence of the “Scientology budget” among whales.
- A resort-like bubble, augmented by members’ own homes in the Clearwater area, keeps people trapped in a luxury prison of belief. Clearwater already has resort-type facilities, the only Scientology center that does.
I think that the cult is going to retreat mainly to Clearwater, and in the last year we have seen evidence that this kind of retreat is underway, as Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and others have bought houses in the area. Most significant is Tom Cruise’s purchase of that odd condo only blocks from Flag, a story well covered on Tony Ortega’s site. Also significant is Travolta’s purchase of a house, since he has lived for ages in Ocala, which is only about 120 miles away.
The retreat may be already slowly starting. Tony Ortega reported this year that Miscavige has not been to Int Base in Hemet in four years, suggesting that its usefulness is at an end. Given the hundreds of millions of dollars the cult spent to improve this facility far beyond what any future buyer would ever need in a relatively remote area on the fringes of LA, it’s an albatross of the first magnitude.
It also appears that the cult is seeing attrition in the operations at St. Hill in the UK. I expect this trend to continue, but we won’t get any hard data until the 2021 UK census. While there is some historical value to maintaining the property for the old guard, there is sufficiently little activity in all of Europe to justify maintaining what I estimate at 500-600 workers at the headquarters operation there.
I’ll go out on a limb slightly and say that as the cult unwinds, they will begin to reduce presence in Los Angeles, rather than attempting to maintain it as an equal facility to Clearwater. With the exception of the Celebrity Centre, the customer-facing facilities in Los Angeles are fairly shabby, and they are in competition with Flag, which is the only place that can deliver certain services. Also, the fact that Flag can charge for hotel space means that the average revenue per day for someone in Clearwater doing “services” is far higher than it would be in LA.
There is substantial administrative staff in LA, but I have heard reports that some of the staff quarters in Clearwater are far from full, and as attrition continues, the cult may be able to move everyone to Clearwater without impacting the organizational structure significantly. While they probably couldn’t sell “Big Blue” without alarming some of the old guard, they could certainly quietly dispose of some of the smaller facilities including various apartment buildings without too many people noticing.
A footnote: J. Swift gets props for going out on a limb in predicting that Scientology would license the “tech” to the Freezone so that they would not have to service the “loser” lower income members directly, but would still monetize their presence. Good analysts have to swing for the fences on some bold predictions that don’t age too well.
At the time, it probably seemed like the independent Scientology movement had some chance of viability. This was my belief as well, when I first got into Scientology criticism in 2011. However, independent Scientology turned out to be merely a way station for people emerging from the cult, allowing them to hang on to some familiar beliefs, until they realized that the “tech” has no particular value on its own; it is simply a product designed to get people to engage with the controlling organization that kept them stuck.
Things That Won’t Happen in 2018
Tom Cruise won’t leave Scientology
I think there is little chance that cruise will actually break with the cult. I suspect that he will continue to maintain a very low profile, as he is increasingly sensitive about protecting his star status for the remainder of his career. He’s got a difficult transition coming up as he nears age 60 , and he’s going to be hard-pressed to branch out beyond his current action star fan base. He doesn’t need another couch-jumping incident or another failed marriage as he works to transition from film star to actor.
Marty Rathbun won’t come to his senses
I’m not sure any of us knows what drove Marty to veer back towards Scientology over the last two years. Yes, we all have theories, but I don’t know if Marty even fully understands why he’s done what he did. But that won’t matter. Marty will continue to be irrelevant as an opinion leader for anyone, whether that is Scientology, independent Scientologists, or ex-Scientologists. No surprises there. If the true story of what happened ever comes out, nobody will care.
Bob Duggan will not speak out about Scientology
Billionaire Scientologist Bob Duggan has either diminished his participation in Scientology or left the church entirely. The creation of the $60 million foundation to fund various Scientology projects appears to be the quid pro quo for walking away without being hassled. Bob is in his early 70s, has a new girlfriend and a lot of money to spend, so it seems likely that he will just sail off into the sunset. Even if he is no longer a believer in Scientology, I think it is unlikely that he goes on the attack. In other words, don’t look for “I Spent $150 Million in this Stupid Cult and All I Got Was This Trophy” at your local Barnes & Noble anytime soon.
Scientology will not be shut down in Russia
One could easily connect the dots and conclude that the Russian government is on the cusp of banning Scientology completely. After all, they raided Scientology offices multiple times over the last few years and they recently completely shut down the Jehovah’s Witnesses church.
Clearly, Putin and other Russian leaders see Scientology as a “twofer” where persecuting the cult wins points with two different constituencies. Because Scientology is an American religion (founded by a self-proclaimed top-secret military intelligence operative, no less), attacking it wins points with the nativist crowd as well as with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been behind a lot of the clampdown’s on “heretical” groups.
I believe that Scientology will operate in Russia for some time, though I expect the government to continue to harass them. There were approximately 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, according to the “Yearbook” published in January 2017 by JW.org. That is far more of an issue for the government than the approximately 2,000 Scientologists in Russia.
Incidentally, I have been spending some time looking at the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whether they’re a cult is a surprisingly tricky question to answer, but I do believe that they are becoming more cultlike in their attempts to retain members than in the past, as their growth slows and they become more fearful of losing money and people. If I revive this blog on a consistent basis I would consider looking at this issue further.
Scientology will not relocate its headquarters outside the US
With the opening of the new facility in Dublin, some have suggested that Scientology will relocate its headquarters outside the US, potentially for unexplained tax reasons or to avoid government sanctions. Those reasons are spurious, and if the cult did move for any reason, it would be a disaster.
First, Scientology is a religion that’s all about success. A retreat in fear of persecution from the US government would shatter one of the key attractions of this particular cult, especially for older members. Even if the government were to go after Scientology’s tax exemption or to try to clampdown on abuse of R-1 religious worker visas (which Scientology is the biggest user of), that is far short of attempting to put the cult out of business. It seems unlikely that litigation would be able to access all of the reserves held offshore, so retreating from the US is not needed to protect the money.
Second, abandoning the Clearwater headquarters complex would alienate a lot of people who went deeply into debt to fund a little slice of the “Super Power” building. And building a “New & Improved” replacement would take up a few hundred million dollars that the cult isn’t interested in spending. They’re not scraping the barrel financially, but even the level of waste in Scientology isn’t up to putting out $500 million for a new “Mecca.”
Third, relocating to a country where Scientology is strong would not necessarily ignite growth in that country, and it would make a trip to Scientology’s headquarters far less desirable than a trip to Florida. While I’m told that Cartagena, Colombia is charming, I can’t see people eager to come from all over the world to “pick up the cans” there.
I believe the Dublin facility is exactly what it appears to be: just another empty Ideal Org serving a pathetically small population of members. In the case of Ireland, it seems that there’s less than 50 members in a country of nearly 5 million. I don’t believe that the pending “Brexit” necessitated some sort of fancy financial shuffle to create a headquarters outside the UK for tax reasons, or anything like that. Yes, Ireland is a tax haven for US corporations, but those are for-profit entities, which Scientology generally is not.
There will not be a sudden outbreak of competence
As usual, Scientology’s ability to operate its business is bounded by Hubbard’s ill-considered, Byzantine and inept policies. The admin tech is hopelessly stuck in the 1950s, embodying bizarre notions of accounting and statistical management as well as obsolete notions on how to do even the smallest things like clean windows.
In the 30 years since Hubbard’s death, things only got worse with the myopic and ADHD-fueled management style of David Miscavige. His inability to make a large-scale strategic decision, preferring to hide from such things by obsessing over details of carpet color and wall sconces in the newest Ideal Org, will continue to limit the cult’s ability to respond effectively to any challenges that arise.
The net result is that the Wile E. Coyote management style we’ve seen over the last decade, where the cult has unique ability to shoot itself in the foot, will continue unabated.