Lay Scientologists take up apologetics, public relations

Although observers have predicted the near-demise of the Church of Scientology under the influence of Internet critics and activists who have targeted the leadership over scandals and abuses, the church has largely weathered these attacks, with its members increasingly involved in publicity efforts to spread the faith, writes Donald Westbrook in the journal Studies in Religion (47:3). The church in the mid-2000s was besieged by online activists such as Anonymous, whose multiple attacks on its leaders effectively disabled the usual church response of taking legal action against critics, not to mention the equally damaging impact on the church of former leaders and ex-members taking to the media to air their grievances. But Westbrook notes that while there may have been some members leaving as a result of these attacks, the church has continued to gain recruits and keep old ones, with members reporting more annoyance than antagonism from the protests. What has changed is that members are increasingly taking public relations, recruitment, and apologetics into their own hands, even as the church leadership retains a strategy of attacking (if no longer legally) and discrediting critics. The author cites a grassroots effort of members starting blogs and other webpages defending the church that are not necessarily linked to church headquarters. One site promoting parenting from a Scientology perspective has moved into a public relations mode of including posts on disconnection and brainwashing.

One noteworthy case of a member independently conducting public relations for the church is, the website of a minister of Scientology’s Celebrity Center in Paris, who also serves as the church’s chief spokesperson and interfaith activist in Europe. But Roux also runs his website and Twitter feed independently of the church, where he reposts blog entries and videos of interviews he conducted with the French media. This strategy may dovetail with a concerted attempt to reach out to non-affiliated Millennials (or “nones”), as seen in the church’s advertising during the Super Bowl appealing to the “rebels, the artists, the freethinkers and innovators.” The church apparently is targeting those for whom traditional religious institutions seem irrelevant and unappealing, but they are likely thinking more of the “spiritual but not religious” rather than atheistic, anti-religious segment of the nones. In fact, the nones are viewed as ideal potential members since they will not have the baggage of former affiliations that has served as an obstacle to members’ accepting distinctive Scientology teachings as they move “up the Bridge [advance within the religion] to Total Freedom.” Westbrook finds that the church’s second and third generation members have not been shielded from the Internet campaigns and attacks against the church and say that such antagonism has made them stronger in their beliefs as Scientologists. He concludes that such younger members may use the “culturally bi-lingual sense [whereby] children of Scientologists, including second generation Sea Organization [elite level] members, are familiar with popular culture as well as with the peculiarities of Scientology’s theology and ecclesiology.”

(Studies in Religion,