There was a time when the Church of Scientology basked in the reflected glamor of its celebrity adherents, from Tom Cruise and John Travolta to the likes of Isaac Hayes and Chick Corea. But in recent years the religious organization launched by sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard seems to have lost quite a bit of its luster — and its following. Mocked by South Park , targeted by protests from the hacker collective Anonymous, drubbed by investigative reports and the searing HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, the COS has also had to contend with a series of tell-all books and interviews by high-ranking defectors, including unflattering portraits of Scientology leader David Miscavige by a niece and his own father.
One of the most recent and useful contributions to the literature of the disaffected comes from Englewood resident Chris Shelton, who spent 27 years in Scientology — much of that time in the elite Sea Organization, which Shelton characterizes as a kind of paramilitary group staffed by Hubbard's most devoted followers. Since turning his back on the church three years ago, being declared a "suppressive person" by Scientology officials and moving to Colorado, Shelton has produced a number of videos and articles on COS practices. He's also self-published a book, Scientology: A to Xenu, that examines his experiences in the Sea Org while offering detailed, critical analysis of what he regards as the cultic, self-destructive and mercenary aspects of the organization under Miscavige's leadership.
"It's hard to appreciate the degree of control they have over your life," Shelton says about his days in the Sea Org. When he first left Scientology, he adds, "I was very angry. I felt I had been taken advantage of in a way that was quite horrifying." Writing about the church's teachings from a perspective of critical thought, rather than simply ranting anonymously online about his own exploitation, proved to be "very cathartic."
Shelton's parents were Scientologists during his childhood, but he says the religion wasn't thrust on him; COS staffers waited until he was in high school to actively recruit him. "All of our friends were Scientologists," he notes. "I grew up with the lingo and the ideas, so it didn't seem all that strange."
Before he had even turned eighteen, Shelton was signing up for Scientology courses and lobbying his parents to allow him to join the organization as a full-time (but minimally compensated) staff member. After years of working forty hours a week for the church and another forty hours to support himself, he made an even more grueling commitment to the Sea Org, going through a kind of boot camp and then putting in long hours working on programs designed to boost attendance and donations at Scientology churches across the western United States. Ironically, while much of his work consisted of pushing increasingly costly educational materials that promised to help Scientologists advance spiritually, right up to the top-secret Operating Thetan levels of arcane knowledge, Shelton says he was never given the time or opportunity to take the upper-level courses himself.
"They were never offered to me," he says. "I can count on two hands the number of people in the Sea Org who have made it on to those levels. I wasn't getting any of the goods — and I had been doing this for seventeen years."
At one point Shelton was assigned to the Rehabilitation Project Force, a kind of "re-education camp" for errant Sea Org members. He plans to write another book focusing on that detour, which amounted to three years of physical labor and daily "counseling" on how he could improve himself. "There is no time off," he says. "You're completely sequestered. You wear a gray shirt and black jeans, and you have to run everywhere. You learn to never be still, just so you're not caught slacking."
Shelton estimates that 80 percent of those singled out for RPF wash out of the program and drop out of Scientology. But he stayed. It wasn't until he began to do his own research on the Internet — a battleground for the church ever since ex-members began posting some of its most secret documents online in the 1990s — and learned more about the Operating Thetan materials and the church's "fair game" approach to discrediting its enemies that his ardor cooled.
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Once he cut ties with the church, Shelton began spending time on skeptics' websites; he credits the writings of Carl Sagan and James Randi for helping him develop his own critical thinking. "I just gave up half my life because I got fooled, and I did not want to get fooled again," he says. "It took me a year or so before I realized I had some difficulty expressing certain emotions."
Although the Church of Scientology claims to be "the fastest-growing religion in the twenty-first century," attracting millions of new followers worldwide each year, critics have long maintained that the number of active members has been greatly exaggerated. Shelton suspects that even at its peak of popularity, in the early 1980s, the active membership was around 100,000 people. Drawing on his own familiarity with attendance figures from his days in the Sea Org, he estimates current levels at around 20,000, including several thousand church staff and Sea Org members. In his videos and his book, he explains why he thinks the church is in a downward spiral; part of the problem, he suggests, is its own increasing emphasis on "straight donations," as opposed to providing services or materials in exchange for contributions.
"It's an abusive environment," he says. "But what's really changed over the years is the intensity of the demand for money."
Now working as a videographer, Shelton also has his own YouTube channel and podcasts, billing himself as "The Critical Thinker at Large." He knows he's not going to persuade everyone that he's right. "Having done a lot of research on destructive cult groups," he says, "I've come to realize there's a certain part of the population that will believe just about anything."