Leaving the Fold

Third-generation Scientologist grows disillusioned with faith.

Astra Woodcraft, apostate and defector, is the latest enemy of the Church of Scientology.

Woodcraft, 22, never really joined this controversial psycho-spiritual movement, at least not as a free-thinking adult. Astra was born into it.

Founded in the 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard, a prolific science fiction writer and freelance philosopher, Scientology describes itself as "the only major new religion established in the 20th century," as a bridge to increased awareness and spiritual freedom.

Woodcraft, a third-generation Scientologist, paints a different picture. Recruited at age 14 into the movement's elite "Sea Organization," Woodcraft describes a brave new world of authoritarianism, greed and spiritual manipulation.

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Two generations of her family have been torn apart by Scientology. Holding her 2-year-old daughter, Kate, in her arms, Woodcraft vows that there will be no fourth generation in her clan. "I don't want her to have any connection to Scientology," said Woodcraft.

All cults have problems with apostates, insiders who leave the fold and denounce their former faith. But the Church of Scientology plays hardball with defectors, investigators and others seen as church enemies.

"They are very hard on apostates," said Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara and the author of a recent scholarly study on the Church of Scientology.

Church leaders make no apologies for their vigorous defense of the faith.

"Scientology is something people feel very, very strongly about," said Jeff Quiros, a church spokesman in San Francisco. "It's not a go-to-church-on-Sunday kind of religion. It's an intense religion. If people get in your way, they need to be dealt with one way or another."

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