Buying God: Tough to Get a Refund on Salvation

Last Updated Mar 1, 2010 10:07 AM EST

Larry Anderson wasn't "saved" and he wants his money back.

In the process of making a refund claim, the Los Angeles actor is providing a detailed glimpse of the financial dealings of one of the nation's most controversial faiths--the Church of Scientology.

In a nutshell, the church offers specific services for set fees that it will discount for those who pre-pay. Unlike my son's orthodontist, who offered a paltry 5% off if I'd pay up-front for braces, the price-slashing Anderson received for prepaying donations was steep--30% to 45% off the salvation rack rates. Because Anderson had a change of heart before he received all of the paid-for religious services, he says he's due a check.

In other churches, asking for your "donations" back would be met with confusion or derision. But the Church of Scientology not only offers a fee-schedule for enlightenment, it has a written refund policy.

Still, Anderson's refund claim has become contentious. Understanding why requires some background.

Anderson was a Scientologist for 33 years. He says he was "the face" of Scientology for the past 13 years, in fact. How so? Anderson is a former game show host and a working actor who has appeared in dozens of movies and television shows, including Desperate Housewives and Mork & Mindy. He was hired in 1996 to do Scientology's Orientation video, which as been used to recruit Scientologists around the world.

But somewhere along the line, he became disillusioned. He now maintains that Scientology is more a business than a religion. It seduces people into paying increasingly large "donations" with the promise that each "auditing" session--a type of one-on-one counseling aimed at dispelling the hang-ups that hamper salvation--will bring you greater enlightenment.

Ultimately, the goal is to get across the "bridge" to a point of "total freedom" where you become privy to the church's coveted confidential scriptures. He said getting to that final enlightened state is going to set you back some $400,000, a price-point that is also mentioned in several sites on the Internet.

"Often I would finish one of these levels and I would say that I was expecting a bigger breakthrough. They said, 'Oh, that will come in the next level,'" Anderson said. "You can only tell somebody that for so long before they start to wonder if this is more of a sales strategy than something real."

Tommy Davis, spokesman for the Church of Scientology International, says the church has a fee schedule for certain services, but does not ratchet up the cost as you go higher on the "bridge." How much it would cost to reach the point of "total freedom" is impossible to estimate, he said. It varies from person to person.

He agrees that it costs money to study your way up the bridge and that the church contends that you will be more enlightened with more study. He says that's similar to any faith, where elders will contend that the more you study the church's tenets, the closer you will become to God.

While Scientology's fee structure may be unusual, Davis doesn't see that as being dramatically different than other churches that require "tithes" or charge a fixed fee to dedicate a Mass or participate in a particular ritual. Scientology, founded in the 1950s by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, offers plenty of free services, including Sunday meetings, weddings and access to Scientology libraries, where you can read up on Hubbard's teachings. But it doesn't have decades of wealth to fall back on, Davis said, so it supports its ministries through fees charged to those who use its services the most.

Anderson admits that he found some of the early Scientology sessions, such as a communication class that helped you argue more effectively, useful. But he says that other faiths don't dole out their teachings slowly and charge a fee every time you're hoping for a religious breakthrough. As he pressed on, he found the sessions less helpful and he became increasingly skeptical.

Still, he said, you're urged forward by the "hook" that you're headed to a point where you are going to learn the "confidential scriptures" that are billed as being so enlightening that you simply can't learn about them until you've been prepared through this series of previous, and costly, sessions.

"I was not having all these breakthroughs on the lower part of the bridge," he said. "But they had all these people wandering around with briefcases literally handcuffed to their wrists because they supposedly held truths so astounding that if you learned about them too soon, they would make you sick or die. And you'd think, 'Oh, I want to know what those upper levels hold.' That was the hook."

Davis said there are no Scientologists with briefcases handcuffed to their wrists. He said this portion of Anderson's story is fabricated.

Anderson said Scientology has done away with the briefcases in recent years, but still keeps the confidential scriptures under lock and key.

Anderson probably would have continued to pay thousands of dollars and spend endless hours in "auditing" sessions that were supposed to lead him closer and closer to salvation, if it wasn't for the Internet and South Park, he said.

The animated television show did a 2005 episode on the great secrets that Scientology would reveal at the top levels of its "bridge." Web sites populated by former top Scientologists told Anderson that South Park's "Xenu" story, replete with evil aliens, was true.

"When that aired, a lot of Scientologists said, 'That's a lie. They're making that up." They'd never heard the story before because they hadn't spend $400,000 reaching that level of the bridge," Anderson said. "The sad thing is, that's the story. That's what you are going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of your life getting to."

Davis said Anderson wouldn't know the contents of Scientology's confidential scriptures because he never had access to them. Anderson agrees he didn't reach that level of the bridge, but gleaned the information from former Scientologists, who now populate chat groups on the Internet.

Scientologists are prohibited from revealing the contents of these secret scriptures, Davis said, so he would not confirm or deny whether the basis of the South Park episode was accurate. (Short version of the story: People are unhappy because they're inhabited by the souls of disembodied spirits, who were sent to earth by an evil alien named Xenu, who was trying to cull the population of his galaxy.)

Davis said the South Park episode was clearly designed to ridicule their faith. But if you want to make fun of religious tenets, there are plenty of beliefs in mainstream Christianity--from Moses parting the Red Sea to the Immaculate Conception of Christ--that sound equally incredible, he said.

Meanwhile, Davis said he can't believe that someone who had been a Scientologist for as long as Anderson would suddenly balk over one leap of faith. Anderson, however, said it was just the straw that broke the camel's back.

But the reason they are at war is an economic one. Anderson said that he prepaid for about $120,000 of religious services that he never received and doesn't want. He wants his donations back.

Scientology actually has two written refund policies. If you pay for a service and are dissatisfied, you can request a refund within 90 days. These refunds would be discretionary (presumably like they are at Macy's, when it appears that you wore the prom dress and spilled soda on it, before claiming it didn't fit).

But if you prepay for services and don't receive them, you are supposed to be able to claim a refund at any time, Anderson said.

Davis said Anderson has not gone through the proper protocol to get his money back and that refunds are always discretionary. Anderson says that these refunds are not discretionary and the reason he didn't go through the proper protocol is because Davis met with him and told him it was unnecessary. Further, he adds, the proper protocol forces you to jump through a variety of hoops. In the process, you have to travel all over the world and, often, buy additional "services" in pursuit of your refund claim.

"They have no legal ground to subject somebody to more Scientology when they want to get out of the Church of Scientology," Anderson said.

He says he's going to send another formal refund demand before filing suit.

But you're probably wondering about the whole concept of "donations." Donations, by Internal Revenue Service definition, are payments to a church or charity for which you receive nothing in return.

Are donations that buy a service at the Church of Scientology deductible? Yes. That's because Scientology won a 1993 settlement with the IRS after a lengthy battle with the agency. The settlement declared Scientology's fee-for-service donations as having only "intangible religious benefits." Other taxpayers, such as a Los Angeles couple that attempted to write off a portion of the tuition for their children's Hebrew school, have not been as fortunate.
As for Anderson, he did deduct those past prepaid donations. If he gets his money back, he'll have to declare the income on his tax return. He says he'll be quite happy to pay the tax man, just as soon as he gets his money.