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The 21st century continues to be a devastating period for Scientology.

Let’s count the ways:

•  The Internet. A torrent of criticism from defectors and critics, and once-secret doctrine that can cost members $100,000 and more to learn about, are now all over the Internet – and beyond the reach of church enforcers.

•  Journalistic exposés. Scientology’s aggressive strategy of suing critics backed by an army of attorneys and private investigators chilled investigations for years. But series by the St. Petersburg Times, the Boston Herald and The Buffalo News, and probes by several major magazines have again lifted a veil on Scientology’s controversial practices.

•  Pop culture. Scientology has long wrapped itself in Hollywood’s glow, but its once biggest asset, Tom Cruise, has arguably become a liability. His jump onto Oprah Winfrey’s couch, anti-psychiatry rant against Matt Lauer and others’ credible claims that Scientology leaders procured candidates for the role of Mrs. Tom Cruise haven’t helped his or the church’s public relations. Nor did a brutal takedown aired on “South Park”.

Now, the latest assault on Scientology’s attempt at a carefully crafted image comes in the form of Lawrence Wright’s “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief.” It arrives 1½ years after Janet Reitman’s insightful expose, “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Wright’s research-driven, evenhanded approach may have church higher-ups wishing he had thrown Molotov cocktails instead. They may also regret supplying Wright with 47 binders of documents.

The church did so in response to 971 fact-checking queries posed by the New Yorker for an article Wright was developing on former Scientologist and screenwriter/director Paul Haggis (Oscar-winner “Crash,” the script for “Million Dollar Baby”). Wright has said it was the information in those binders that triggered his idea for the book.

“Going Clear” – the title stands for an elevated state of mind in Scientology, in which a person is said to no longer suffer from unwanted emotions and painful trauma – is divided into three parts.

There’s the history of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard; the church’s efforts to market its product with movie stars; and the central question that looms over the book:

Why do people – from Hollywood stars to low-level members – remain in a religion that operates an extensive system of control, including labor camps, and demands that members break away from family members and friends who challenge the church’s credibility?

Hubbard’s story is improbable enough – he was, after all a prolific writer of pulp and science fiction before creating an international self-help religion.

But he was also a failed explorer; a dabbler in black magic, a naval officer who embellished his military record and an unindicted co-conspirator when Scientology attempted in the late 1970s to gain access to files in numerous federal agencies, in what still remains the largest espionage case hatched against the United States.

Hubbard’s personal life was just as messy. Wright writes that he was a serial womanizer who abandoned his first family, married his second wife before divorcing his first and had a penchant for beating up women while promising salvation to the faithful.

Hubbard was also an absentee father whose first words when learning his troubled son Quentin was found dead were reportedly, “That little s– has done it to me again!”

The parental abandonment of children, lack of proper schooling and forced child labor are one of a mind-blowing assortment of disturbing aspects of Scientology recounted by former members, including how Hubbard put a misbehaving 4-year-old in isolation for two days because he believed children were essentially adults in smaller bodies.

Despite extensive research, much of Hubbard’s story still proves elusive. Wright doesn’t try to explain how the at-times mentally unhinged Hubbard could oversee such an extensive organizational network, often from shipboard, or how he retained loyalty despite numerous acts of strangeness and cruelty.

Hubbard’s astonishingly prodigious writing output is noted, but Wright never shows how it connected with his other exploits.

Hubbard’s ever-sprawling and mind-bending story is presented in a necessarily linear narrative, but without the added depth that could help better understand a man who seems at times to cross the line between a dark inventiveness and insanity, but mostly seems egomaniacal and cartoonish.

Judge Paul Breckenridge, speaking in Los Angeles Superior Court, in 1984 in a case concerning a Scientology archivist turned critic, doesn’t mince words in describing Hubbard: “The organization is clearly schizophrenic and paranoid, and this bizarre combination seems to be a reflection of its founder LRH. The evidence portrays a man who has been virtually a pathological liar when it comes to his history, background and achievements. The writings and documents in evidence additionally reflect his egotism, greed, avarice, lust for power and vindictiveness and aggressiveness against persons perceived by him to be disloyal or hostile,” Breckenridge said.

“At the same time, it appears that he is charismatic, and highly capable of motivating, organizing, controlling, manipulating and inspiring his adherents. … Obviously, he is and has been a very complex person, and that complexity is further reflected in his alter ego, the Church of Scientology.”

The judge added: “[The court record is] replete with evidence [that Scientology] is nothing in reality but a vast enterprise to extract the maximum amount of money from its adepts by pseudo-scientific theories.”

Former church higher-ups say the power-hungry and short-tempered qualities of Hubbard have carried on with his successor, David Miscavige.

He quit school to work full time with Scientology on his 16th birthday, and ruthlessly orchestrated his rise to power shortly after Hubbard’s death in 1986.

Wright cites 11 people who say they were beaten by Miscavige, and 22 who witnessed such abuse.

He claims Miscavige lives a lavish lifestyle, with food costs for his family and guests averaging $3,000 to $20,000 a week.

That’s in stark contrast to members of the Sea Org, Wright says, who sign billion-year contracts to serve the church and in 2005 were served meals that cost an average of 70 cents and were paid $50 a week.

More bad news is said to be on the way for Miscavige and the organization he presides over with the publication this month of “Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape,” written by his niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill.

The lives of lowly Scientologists, Wright says, escape the radar of Hollywood stars who, like all members of the church, are warned against – and sometimes punished for – reading anything critical of Scientology.

It took Haggis 34 years before he left and denounced the church as a “cult.”

Haggis admitted he had doubts about Scientology decades earlier, when he reached Scientology’s OT III level and Hubbard’s “sacred scripture” involving Xenu was revealed.

Xenu, a galactic ruler, allied with psychiatrists and others 75 million years ago to kill billions of members of the overpopulated Galactic Confederacy. Their bodies were flown in aircraft resembling DC-8s to Earth, dropped into volcanoes and blown up with atomic bombs.

Being immortal, these extraterrestrial spirits were placed in front of a “3-D, super colossal motion picture” for 36 days, implanted with images Hubbard called R6 implants.

Upper-level Scientologists are taught that these 75-million-year-old disembodied souls attach themselves to living people, and only Scientology’s techniques can remove them and save humanity.

As for Xenu, Hubbard wrote, he is locked up in an electrified wire cage buried in a mountain and “is not likely ever to get out.”

Thank God.

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Going Clear: Scientology,

Hollywood & the Prison of Belief

By Lawrence Wright

Alfred A. Knopf

365 pages, $28.95.

Mark Sommer is a News staff reporter. He wrote a four-part investigative series about the Church of Scientology in Buffalo in 2006.