The Church of Scientology, which is now almost sixty years old, has always been controversial. To its critics it is an evil cult that abuses its members and is only interested in making money. It is famed for its litigiousness and for hounding anyone who dares to criticise it. This ruthlessness and an ability to evolve have allowed it to become a powerful force in the USA. I have found it impossible to find any reliable figures for the number of practicing Scientologists in the world today, with estimates ranging from 250,000 to 15 million. These numbers may seem inconsequential, but with a fortune in real estate and a host of influential celebrity defenders, they are able to punch well above their weight. I have recently been reading Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman. While the book contains no earth-shattering revelations, I found I learned a lot about the history, doctrines and workings of The Church of Scientology.
I am going to define Scientology as a religion because I feel that words like cult and sect are emotive conjugations. Scientology’s beliefs may appear to be wacky, but wackiness is in the eye of the beholder. Reincarnation, exorcism, rising from the dead, refusal of blood transfusions, the Hindu caste system, the niqab, Tibetan sky burial and food taboos could also be considered strange. So, scientology may be weird. I don’t think that means it should be banned. I think the German attitude to Scientology should be censured. On the other hand, being a religion does not exempt you from criticism. Such criticism should not be considered persecution.
The Church’s founder, Lafayette Ron Hubbard, was a science fiction writer. He certainly had a colourful life, although he did seem to have a certain talent for self-aggrandisement. He also spent much of his life travelling including years at sea as the Commodore of his own private navy.
In 1950 Hubbard published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Two years later Dianetics was transformed into a religion. Hubbard would lead the Church until his death in 1986. His successor and the church’s current leader David Miscavige, has been able to give the church somewhat more mainstream appeal. Miscavige, who rose to power when he was just 25, has put a lot of effort into expanding the Church’s physical presence. However, he has also made scientology more rigid and his critics accuse him of creating a climate of fear within the organisation. A number of high-ranking members have left the church. Of course, this is typical in many religions – the Catholic/Protestant/Orthodox split in Christianity or the Sunni/Shia divide in Islam are two obvious examples.
I’m going to look at Scientology’s belief system. This is not easy because of the obsessive secrecy of the church. What’s more Hubbard invented a way of describing the world that is filled with concepts and jargon that are alien to me. I hope I don’t make too many mistakes. Scientology doesn’t help its case by maintaining many of its beliefs as secrets. They have spent millions of dollars trying to stop former members publishing their secret scriptures on the internet. This seems to be like the Catholic Church having the Virgin Birth of Jesus as a secret known only to a powerful elite.
Scientologists believe that they have lived and will live forever. They apparently sign billion-year contracts in which they commit themselves to the organisation. Scientology has its own creation myth. It involves a galactic ruler named Xenu, who controlled part of the galaxy including our own planet Earth, in those days known as Teegeeack. Faced by massive overpopulation, Xenu decided on a drastic plan. With the help of psychiatrists he called in billions of people for income tax inspections where they were instead given injections of alcohol and glycol that left them paralysed. They were put into space planes that looked exactly like DC8s (except they had rocket motors instead of propellers), and they were sent to Earth. On arrival these paralysed people were dropped into volcanoes. Hydrogen bombs were then detonated and everyone was killed. But that was not the end of the story. Billions of souls, known as thetans, were being blown around by the nuclear winds. They were captured by Xenu’s forces using an electronic ribbon and sucked into vacuum zones around the world. These souls were then packed into boxes and taken to a few huge cinemas, where they were forced to spend 36 days watching special 3D movies. These films implanted what Hubbard called “various misleading data“‘ into the memories of the defenceless thetans. This included all world religions, and Hubbard specifically attributed Roman Catholicism and the image of the Crucifixion to Xenu’s malevolent plan. The thetans were also deprived of their sense of personal identity. They clustered in groups of a few thousand. Now because there were only a few living bodies left they inhabited these bodies. Xenu was eventually overthrown and he is now a prisoner in a mountain and on one of the planets. He is kept in by a force-field powered by an eternal battery.
These body thetans are still around today. Each of us has our own thetan, causing us spiritual and mental harm. Scientologists believe we have a reactive and an analytical mind. The engram (painful memory) is stored in the reactive mind. As a result of the build-up of thousands of these engrams, we experience problems throughout our lives. The purpose of Dianetics is to rid a thetan (person) of their reactive minds. The means to do this is auditing, scientology’s form of spiritual counselling. The auditor’s basic tool is the E-meter, a skin galvanometer, that they claim helps ascertain the problems of the subject. In the sessions the auditor asks questions and takes notes about the participant’s responses. The idea is to consciously re-experience painful or traumatic events from their past in order to free themselves of their negative effects. Sessions are sold in 12-and-a-half-hour blocks, which vary in cost depending on what level you’re working on.
Once you become free of the reactive mind, you have reached Clear, but you still have the secret levels, known as the Bridge to Total Freedom, where you learn the theology and creation myth of the church and understand what it’s all about. You have advanced to a higher state of being, Operating Thetan. It is defined as “knowing and willing cause over life, thought, matter, energy, space and time.”
Scientology is famous for its celebrities. Tom Cruise, John Travolta Isaac Hayes and Kirstie Alley are names that immediately spring to mind. Jerry Seinfeld also dabbled with scientology and Charles Manson took over 150 hours of Scientology courses. The celebrities are part of the strategy of both Hubbard and Miscavige to recruit this kind of high-profile opinion shapers. This has enabled them to gain some respectability. The self-help aspect of the faith seems to go down well with the stars. John Travolta asserted that stars such as Elvis Presley and James Dean wouldn’t have died so young if they had been scientologists. In fact, one of Elvis’s girlfriends tried to persuade him o join and he went to a scientology centre on Sunset Boulevard. Elvis was not impressed:
“Fuck those people! There’s no way I’ll ever get involved with that son-of-a-bitchin’ group. All they want is my money.'” However, they did recruit both his wife and daughter.
The jewel in the Scientology crown is of course Tom Cruise. He originally kept his religious views to himself, but in recent years he has become vocal in his advocacy. This has helped the church but there have been downsides such as the famous sofa incident on the Oprah Winfrey show.
Another famous Cruise moment was his attack on psychiatry and criticism of Brooke Shields for her use of drugs for postpartum depression. Cruise was very much on message. Scientology’s hatred of psychiatry is long-standing and particularly vitriolic, reflecting the views of Hubbard. They even have a museum on Sunset Boulevard – Psychiatry: an Industry of Death. They certainly make some outlandish claims:
There is no such thing as chemical imbalances in the brain and that the very notion of mental illness is a fraud.
Between 10 and 25 percent of psychiatrists sexually assault their patients, some of them children.
Psychiatrists kill up to 10,000 people a year with their use of electroshock treatment
Regular readers of my blog will know that I have been critical of such things as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The DSM IV documented 374 mental disorders and they see to treat life itself as human life is a form of mental illness. But the scientologists go way beyond that and deny the existence of mental illness. Their own record on mental health leaves a lot to be desired. The e-meter has never been subjected to clinical trials.
And they have their own dark history. Elli Perkins was a professional glass artist a senior auditor at the Church of Scientology in Buffalo, New York. Her son Jeremy was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2001. Following church policy, she rejected psychiatric care preferring to treat him with vitamins. The condition worsened to the point where Jeremy felt that his mother was poisoning him. After a failed suicide attempt, Jeremy eventually murdered her in 2003. Jeremy Perkins was found not responsible by reason of mental disease, but he was assessed as dangerously mentally ill and was committed to a secure facility. In March 2006, an advertisement in LA Weekly blamed Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology for the murder of Elli Perkins. The ad stated: “Thanks, Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology, for your expert advice on mental health.”
What does the future hold for scientology? There are now third-generation Scientologists. I don’t find their beliefs very convincing. They seem to be a product of time and place. But I have no problem with people holding those beliefs. However, there are serious questions about the way the Church behaves. They seem to have a strong authoritarian bent. This can be seen in the way Miscavige seems to intimidate the people around him. If you dare to leave the Church, you can expect severe problems. The Scientologists love to sue and harass their critics. They had a term, Fair Game, to describe policies and practices carried out by the Church of Scientology towards its enemies. Basically any tactics could be justified. Hubbard scrapped this policy because of the bad PR, but the Church still seems to be very aggressive in the gives defectors a forum in which to attack it. In the age of Wikileaks they have also been unable to protect their secrets. They face an uncertain future. In their sixty-year history they have proved adept at adapting to meet new demands. It will be fascinating how they cope in the next sixty years.