Religions appear strange in inverse proportion to their age. Judaism and Catholicism seem normal—or at least not deviant. Mormonism, less than 200 years old, can seem a bit incredible. And Scientology, founded 50 years ago, sounds truly bizarre. To hear from a burning bush 3,000 years ago is not as strange as meeting the Angel Moroni two centuries ago, which is far less strange than having a hack sci-fi writer as your prophet.
That's not to say that all religions are "equal" or equally deserving of respect. I'm no more a Scientologist than I am a Swedenborgian or a member of the Nation of Islam, and I do have two criticisms of Scientology that one rarely hears from Xenu-obsessed detractors.
First, while the introductory Scientology costs are not outlandish (for example, a member may pay about $200 for a dozen sessions of "auditing," to start out), the fees increase as adherents gain new knowledge through advanced course work (going "up the bridge to total freedom," in Scientology-speak)—and it does make the religion resemble a pyramid or matrix scheme. More than one Scientologist explained to me that they don't have the financial resources of the Catholic Church that come from thousands of years of donations. They have to charge. Well, that's not the whole truth. The secrecy surrounding Scientology's higher levels of knowledge has no apparent analog in the Abrahamic faiths, and the steep financial outlay to get higher knowledge seems also unique. Catholicism doesn't charge people to become learned, nor does Judaism. In fact, the greatest scholars in those faiths are often revered paupers: penniless rabbis and voluntarily poor priests, monks, and nuns.
Poverty is not Scientology's style, to say the least. That leads me to my second criticism: bad aesthetics! I have never been less religiously moved by ostensibly religious spaces than in Scientology buildings. Whether the Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles, the New York church off Times Square, or the local branch down the street from my house, Scientology buildings are filled with garish colors, flat-screen TVs showing silly, dull videos, and glossy pamphlets recycling the legend of the overrated L. Ron Hubbard, whom Scientologists revere as a scientist, writer, and seer of the first rank. In my opinion, Hubbard's books are bad, the movies they inspire are bad, and the derivative futuro-techno look that Scientology loves is an affront to good taste on every level. It's a religion that screams nouveau–Star Trek–riche. For those of us who seek mystery, wonder, and beauty in our religions, Scientology is a nonstarter.
But good taste, as art critic Dave Hickey says, is just the residue of someone else's privilege. Catholicism has its Gothic cathedrals, Judaism its timeless Torah scrolls. Scientology is brand-new, but it has played an impressive game of catch-up. In its drive to be a major world religion, it will inevitably go through a period when its absurdities and missteps are glaringly apparent. But someday it will be old and prosaic, and there may still be Scientologists. And when some of those Scientologists embezzle, lie, and steal—as they surely will—they'll seem no worse than Christians, Jews, or Muslims who have done the same.