East Grinstead in the 1980s was not the most fascinating place for a teenager. Its historic buildings; its pioneering hospital; the fact that it adjoins the Ashdown Forest, one of the finest examples of heathland in England and the model for the Hundred Acre Wood, in which Pooh and Christopher Robin were wont to frolic: all of these were points of interest, and I appreciate them now. But for a testy seventeen-year-old full of hormones and T. S. Eliot they weren’t exactly rock ’n’ roll. Though only thirty miles south of London, East Grinstead felt like the back of beyond.

There was, however, one inexpensive thrill I found I could provide for out-of-towners. Barrelling through the countryside in my chocolate 1971 Ford Escort, en route to The Gardener’s Arms for a pint, I would invariably stop at a place called Saint Hill and point across the Sussex Weald towards a stunning eighteenth-century manor, lit up like a beacon on the darkling fields. ‘See down there?’ I would ask my companion, as if entrusting them with some dangerous secret. ‘That is the UK headquarters of the Church of Scientology.’

For some reason I’ve never understood – some say it’s to do with the presence of ‘ley lines’: but such people invariably smell of incense – East Grinstead attracts all manner of religions; the Mormons, the Rosicrucians, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Opus Dei and the United Reform Church all have a presence in and around the town, as do fifty shades of Protestant grey. But the Scientologists are invariably the ones who capture the locals’ imagination, and manage to arouse their deepest suspicions. Certainly when I was living there dark rumours were always circulating about what went on at Saint Hill Manor, which the founder of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard purchased from Sawai Man Singh II, the last Maharaja of Jaipur, in 1959. Stories of verbal and physical abuse, of brainwashing and kidnapping, were commonplace. A few of these stories arrived first hand. Most of them didn’t.

Indeed, and despite my using these tales to try to spook my out-of-town guests, I always felt there was something overblown, something slightly hysterical, about the attitude to ‘the Scinos’. Yes, the religion is ludicrous, and its leaders secretive and paranoid; I’ve no doubt that a lot of them are up to no good. But the hostility towards Scientology, which occasionally manifested itself in vandalism of the various businesses the Church owned in the town centre, struck me, even then, as morbid. Similarly, the countless books and articles claiming to dish the dirt on the Church have always aroused my suspicion. It isn’t that I disagree with their conclusions; it’s just that I find the emphasis on this shrinking religion disproportionate.

Not only do these feelings survive a viewing of Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, they emerge from it in pretty good shape. Don’t get me wrong: the film is fascinating. Based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name – its own recommendation, by the way: Wright’s book on al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower, is one of the essential texts of the last decade – it is inquisitive and unsensationalised and put together with panache and skill. And yet the film, without leaving me cold exactly, left me feeling distinctly chilly. I have huge sympathy for Scientology’s victims, and no sympathy at all for the religion itself. But my sense that our relentless criticism of it is a little self-congratulatory, and predicated on a double standard, came through Gibney’s film unscathed.

In essence, Gibney’s documentary is a study of group psychopathology. Consciously or not, it follows the trajectory of a new recruit to Scientology, taking us from the pseudoscience of the initial ‘auditing’ (i.e. counselling) sessions, in which potential converts are hooked up to an ‘E-meter’ and scrutinised for negative emotions; to the cod metaphysics of Dianetics, Hubbard’s flawed and gaudy attempt to fathom the relationship between mind and body; and, finally, to the creation story, in which it is revealed, inter alia, that humans are possessed by the souls of dead aliens who arrived here 75 million years ago as prisoners of the dark Lord Xenu – a story that, until relatively recently, was only vouchsafed to those Scientologists who had reached the higher levels of ‘awareness’, but which, thanks to South Park and the worldwide web, can now be enjoyed by everyone. Folded into this delicious mix is a portrait of Hubbard (or ‘LRH’) himself, a leering, hyperactive science fiction writer, who, if he wasn’t actually a charlatan, was doing an unimprovable impression of one.

The film dwells, as it must, on the actor Tom Cruise, as both an ambassador for the Church of Scientology and a matchless example of how crazy it can make you. Though Cruise declined to be interviewed for the film, there is more than enough footage of him talking about the Church, or presenting to its members, for the point to be made that his intense self-confidence and seriousness is proportionate to his gullibility. As for Cruise’s fellow actor and Scientologist John Travolta: Gibney’s documentary floats the idea that he may be a de facto prisoner of the Church. (The suggestion is that the Church keeps a ‘blackmail file’ on Travolta, full of personal information harvested in the auditing sessions.)

There are, then, new allegations in the film; but these are few and far between, and separating them is much old ground. Indeed, some of the principal interviewees on whose testimony we are asked to rely will be familiar from previous documentaries, notably John Sweeney’s Scientology and Me and Secrets of Scientology and Martin Bashir’s Inside Scientology. Certainly anyone who has seen those programs will recognise Mike Rinder and Marty Rathburn. Both of them worked closely with David Miscavige, the current leader of the Church of Scientology, and both allege, and have alleged before, that the ‘Chairman of the Board of Religious Technology Centre’ (to give Miscavige his proper style and title) is guilty of violent conduct towards his deputies and responsible for the campaigns of harassment waged against the Church’s former members. Naturally, both men are extremely embarrassed, having wasted a lot of their time and money on what they now regard as a con and a cult.

That the vast majority of movie-goers will share this estimation of Scientology before they enter the cinema means that Gibney is pushing at an open door. (I saw the film in the middle of the day in an independent cinema in Fremantle and was treated to many knowing guffaws from one of the theatre’s other two patrons.) But I think that it is precisely here that a little more analysis is required. By this I don’t mean that we need to hear more from the Church of Scientology’s higher-ups; requests for interviews with the top banana are invariably rebuffed, in any case, while interviews with his deputies are invariably a waste of time (as witness the petulant Tommy Davis flat-batting questions from Martin Bashir, before flouncing out of the interview in a huff). No, what I mean is that we need to think more, or more deeply, about what sets Scientology apart. Is it really so different from other religions? And, if it is, in what ways is it different?

The line usually taken by Scientology’s critics is that it is not a religion at all but a scam. Superficially, this argument appears well-founded. Scientology is a pay-as-you-go affair in which each step towards enlightenment, or ‘going clear’, comes with a substantial price-tag. Moreover, there is little doubt that Hubbard’s campaign to have Scientology classified as a religion was born of a desire to avoid a tax bill. (Gibney’s documentary is very good on the way Hubbard faced down the IRS, which declared the Church of Scientology a tax-exempt religion in 1993 after over 2000 law suits were filed against it by individual Scientologists.) But if sincerity at the point of creation is now a requirement for religious status, I can think of one or two other religions that might be due for a visit from the taxman. (Mormonism anyone?) Indeed, it’s possible that in this respect Scientology is a victim of its own novelty – of the fact that it lacks the authentic patina of ancient wisdom and/or tradition. To reapply Bismarck’s comment about the law, religions are like sausages: you don’t want to see one being made for fear that you’ll lose your appetite for them completely. Having gone off religion a long time ago, I can’t quite see the in-principle difference between, say, a set of daft beliefs conceived under the noses of twentieth-century humanity and a set of equally daft beliefs conceived by ancient ‘prophets’ with an eye to the main chance.

As for the distinction between a religion and a cult – that has always been notoriously hazy. The preponderance of sociological literature has it that cults are characterised by novelty and social deviance; but this doesn’t get us very far: after all, all religions were novel once, and one man’s deviance is another man’s true path. Nor does the argument that the Church of Scientology fails the ‘public benefit’ test strike me as at all convincing, not because I think it does benefit the public, but because the notion that other religions do is dubious, to put it delicately. In 2010, the Church of Scientology was one of a number of religious organisations that ran relief supplies to Port-au-Prince in the wake of the January 12 earthquake. Yes, they did it in their own zany way, with volunteer ‘ministers’ in yellow T-shirts who claimed to be able to alleviate trauma using only the power of touch. But at least they weren’t inveighing against condoms. Again, the criticism of Scientology on the basis that it is not a genuine religion has a habit of rebounding on those who make it. Just what is a genuine religion? And what is so great about genuineness, anyway?

Perhaps the most common and serious accusation levelled against the Church of Scientology is that its members are the victims of brainwashing. Certainly the most upsetting testimony in Gibney’s film comes from those former Scientologists who’ve been pressured, or ordered, to break off relations with people outside the Church – a phenomenon known as ‘disconnection’. But punishments for apostasy are hardly an invention of Scientology, and the distinction between a brain that has been ‘washed’ and one that has merely been marinated in idiotic notions over many years is not immediately obvious to me. Indeed, I find myself wondering whether there isn’t something overblown about a lot of the commentary around this issue. In an article on Going Clear, the abovementioned John Sweeney dwells at length on a scene in which Scientology executives – Miscavige, Rinder and Rathburn included – sing along to ‘We Stand Tall’, a soft-rock celebration of the Church’s resilience in the face of political and media hostility. Sweeney describes the scene as ‘brainwashing in action’ and compares it to crowds in North Korea lamenting the death of Kim Jong Ill. But in fact the participants don’t look any more brainwashed than your average crowd of evangelicals, or, for that matter, a pack of celebrities belting out ‘We’re Better than This’. The scene is more embarrassing than sinister, and certainly doesn’t warrant a comparison with the world’s most dangerous thanatocracy.

None of this is to deny or downplay the ludicrous nature of Scientology. The Thunderbirds-style uniforms, the batso backstory; the non-disclosure agreements lasting a billion years: these phenomena are self-satirising. Nor do I take lightly the cruelty of the Church, its harassment of ex-members, or its extreme litigiousness. But none of these things, it seems to me, whether taken individually or in combination, demands that the Church of Scientology be banished from the community of religions on the grounds that it is beyond the pale. Indeed, the most interesting question to emerge from a study of Scientology is not whether it should be considered a religion for tax purposes but whether we should have tax advantages for religion at all. The fact that Scientology is of recent provenance may make it seem sillier than other religions; but it is the fact that it is so obviously man-made – or, if you like, ‘intelligently designed’ – that should cause us to revisit religion as a category worthy of unconditional respect.

The US journalist Andrew Sullivan is just one of a number of writers I can think of who, while professing a traditional religious faith (Sullivan is a Roman Catholic) and attacking Richard Dawkins and the other ‘new atheists’ as simplistic and overaggressive in their analysis of religion, never miss an opportunity to attack, or make fun of, Scientology. Well, he’ll get no argument from me as far as the second sentiment goes. But to take the two positions together is to be confronted with a double standard – a double standard that can only be resolved by asserting that Scientology is more different from other religions than it is. To say that Scientology is crap may be true; but it cuts no ice with the anti-theist who regards Christianity, Islam and the rest as separate manifestations of the same delusion. To reiterate: it isn’t that Scientology should be afforded more respect than it is; it’s that other religions should be afforded less.

As for Sullivan, who is a marvellous writer and a tireless advocate of LGBT rights – I put his confusion on the issue of religion down to environmental factors.

He, too, grew up in East Grinstead.