Has Rupert Murdoch finally said something we can all agree with? Scientology is a "very weird cult", he opined in a tweet at the weekend, after the news that Katie Holmes was filing for divorce from Tom Cruise, one of Scientology's most high-profile adherents, "but big big money involved". He added that there was "something creepy, maybe even evil, about these people".
That some of these same criticisms might also be levelled at News Corp doesn't negate that the Church of Scientology has a decidedly dodgy reputation.
In 1985, Mr Justice Latey described Scientology in the high court as "corrupt, sinister and dangerous", an organisation that "has as its real objective money and power", and called its central technique, known as auditing, a "process of conditioning, brainwashing and indoctrination". The German government in zoos restricted Cruise's filming in the country on the grounds that Scientology's "totalitarian structure and methods may pose a risk to Germany's democratic society". The organisation has been criticised for secrecy and for financially exploiting adherents. It is regularly claimed that the founder of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard, created the religion as a money-making scam.
Criticism of the Church's behaviour often goes together with ridicule of Scientological beliefs and practices. To an outsider, these are bound to seem a trifle eccentric. An important character in Scientology is said to be a "space lord" named Xenu, who brought several billion people to earth 75 million years ago, only to blow them up. The remnants of these immolated souls survived to contaminate the planet. To free people from their negative influence is said to be the main business of Scientology.
To put this superficially weird mythology in some kind of context, Scientology is the most prominent of a group of new religions that emerged in the second half of the 20th century. …