An argument could be made that every religion has a cult-like aspect to it. Religion requires that we believe in something, and belief requires that we suspend logic and reason. Scholarly writings don’t allow for the word “belief” when the author is defending his or her findings and arguments. That’s probably why people tend to become emotional when they discuss religion. What one does or doesn’t believe is emotional and it’s difficult to understand why someone else believes what they do without presenting hard facts and empirical evidence. Scientology takes the argument to an entirely different level, however. It not only requires belief, it demands that its members suspend rationale entirely – maybe even their sanity. It is also, as many have pointed out, one of the most mysterious and controversial topics in the religion versus cult debate.
When L. Ron Hubbard founded The Church of Scientology, he had already become a hugely popular writer of pulp and science fiction. He had also been a lackluster college student, a failure in his attempts at being a Naval officer and a polygamist. The one thing he didn’t lack was an overblown ego and the belief that he was destined for greatness. He claimed that his inspiration for Dianetics came in the form of the still-unpublished book “Excalibur” – or THE BOOK as he referred to it. The idea for “Excalibur” presented itself to him while he was dead for 8 minutes during a surgical procedure. The surgical procedure was a tooth extraction, the “death” part was the result of hallucinations while under nitrous oxide.
THE BOOK, according to Hubbard, had special powers. People who read it either went insane or died, maybe even both – those were his claims. Others didn’t see it quite the same way. Driven by his own views, not only of himself, but in what he had written, Hubbard knew that he had found the secret to helping mankind, comparing his revelations and research findings to the discovery of fire. He was so impressed by own insight and intelligence that he tried to have his work published by “Scientific America”, the “Journal of the American Medical Association” and the “American Journal of Psychiatry”. Their rejection did little to dissuade his beliefs, even fueling them, as he chalked it up to the fact that they simply didn’t understand him or his theories.
From this, together with a raging addiction to amphetamines, Hubbard began to market his Church of Scientology. He offered franchises to new members who, in return, would pay 10% of their income to Hubbard. As it grew in popularity, so did its founder’s sense of omniscience. He wrote more books such as “A History of Man” which he described as “a cold-blooded and factual account of the last sixty trillion years”. He came up with the idea of the E-meter which could reveal a person’s innermost thoughts.
Within 10 years, membership was in the thousands, the Church’s wealth as well into the millions. Hubbard was now able to command his own fleet of ship as “Commodore” of the Sea Organization, a very elite and very wealthy group of members of the Church. He also managed to gain some attention from a few government agencies – the FBI, the IRS and the FDA which was particularly interested in Hubbard’s radiation curing pills. This served to feed his already overactive state of paranoia and he began to require church members to disconnect from anyone who expressed doubts about his organization, even family members. Scientologists were made to write “Knowledge Reports” about one another if there was an inkling that someone had violated Hubbard’s “crimes, high crimes and misdemeanors”, such as being disruptive or misapplying the tenets of the church.
Hubbard became more and more reclusive, often sailing around the world about his Sea Org fleet, attended to by the children of members. As the legal threats from dozens of countries grew, the Commodore finally went into exile. From his various hiding places, he gave orders to his Guardian’s Office, under the name, the “Snow White Program”, to infiltrate and recover files regarding Scientology from government agencies worldwide. During this time, and recognizing a weakness in their founder, Scientologists staged a takeover and, in 1980, named David Miscavige, then only 20 years old, as its new leader, a position he still holds today.
Miscavige’s official title is Chairman of the Board of the Religious Technology Center, and, as such, he controls all of the trademarks, names and symbols related to both Dianetics and Scientology. Some of that he may have taken from Hubbard through fraudulent means, but no one really seems to want to challenge him about it. His family had belonged to the church since he was 11 years old, and he simply knew no other way of life. He had been taught at the feet of the master, even serving as Hubbard’s “Commodore’s messenger”, and his tenure as the church’s leader has been rife with even more controversy than that of his mentor.
Miscavige is known as an exceptionally cruel, cold and calculating individual, bent more on growing profits by any means necessary than carrying on the message of the church. A decision, long sought by Scientology, by the IRS to grant the church a tax-free status further emboldened the new leader, giving him a feeling of power and invincibility. He established an “Enemies of Scientology” list that includes the names of hundreds of groups and individuals who have, in some way, offended the cult and its leader. Recruitment tactics, particularly towards targeted celebrities, became relentless and ruthless examples of pure harassment. The actor Mike Farrell’s experiences with the group were described this way:
“To this day, people who tangle with Scientology find themselves subject to aggressive efforts at intimidation. Mike Farrell, who played B.J. on the television series M*A*S*H, crossed paths with the church when he contacted the Cult Awareness Network for information on a film project about child abuse. After gaining great respect for their work, he attended a fund-raising event at a private home in Beverly Hills, where he was confronted by angry picketers. ‘There were people taking photographs, being very obvious, getting video footage of the guests as they went in and out – obvious harassment,’ he says. Farrell says he asked one of the pickets if he was a Scientologist, and the man said yes. In an effort to be fair, Farrell had lunch with Reverend Heber Jentzsch, president of the Church of Scientology International, and investigated Scientology’s charges against CAN. The actor says he found them to be based on ‘sham, invective, and distortion.’ Later, at a CAN convention near the L.A. airport, Farrell encountered more angry Scientologists. ‘Not only did they picket, but they sort of get in your face and give you this loud and incessant spiel that doesn’t allow for dialogue – it’s just a kind of attempt to intimidate.’ In the last few months Farrell has gotten numerous strange phone calls, one telling him (falsely, as it turned out) that an old friend had died. There have been so many that now when he gets calls after midnight at his home, he answers, ‘Hubbard was crazy.’ Sometimes, he says, there’s a long silence before the caller hangs up.” – Premiere, Sept. 1993, “Catch a rising star”.
Others in Hollywood became members for reasons known only to them and the church. Probably the two most notable and visible stars to embrace Scientology are John Travolta and Tom Cruise. It is the latter who has brought Scientology back into the headlines with the news that his wife, actress Katie Holmes, filed for divorce. Miscavige and Cruise make no secret of just how close their personal and professional lives are. The cult leader was the best man at the couples’ wedding in 2006. Cruise has made appearances, often looking slightly mad, on behalf of Scientology. He has given Scientology-based statements regarding the benefits of following the church’s teachings while dismissing and insulting the fields of Psychiatry and Psychology, and the use of psychotropic drugs. One video shows Cruise on a manic rant espousing the virtues of living a better life through Scientology. I’ll let you watch it, and you can decide for yourself as to his mental state and the merits of such a philosophy. I know this much, that crazy couch jumping scene on the Oprah Winfrey Show looks benign compared to this.
Katie Holmes’ decision to file for divorce may very well be based on what this group represents, as well as a healthy and reasonable fear of them. She fled her home, with her daughter, while her husband was out of the United States, filming a movie in Iceland. When she arrived in New York, she, along with her parents and divorce attorneys, arranged to fire any staff that had been hired by Cruise or the church. Reports have it that she is under the watchful eye of no less than nine newly hired bodyguards. This is a woman who, from all appearances, is afraid of losing everything, especially her daughter. None of her actions were impulsive, but seemed to be well planned and perfectly orchestrated.
There are writers and owners of websites who have spent years gathering information about Scientology. They have been harassed, threatened with lawsuits and warned that they would be shut down for their efforts. They’re still out there and they haven’t surrendered yet. One that I have visited on occasion is called Operation Clambake*. I came across the site when I was looking for information about Lisa McPherson, a member who had died while in the care of Scientology’s Flag Service Organization in Clearwater, Florida. This website has compiled lists of members, stories regarding the teachings and tactics of Scientology and some background on its origins. The clambake refers to one of Hubbard’s theories that somewhere along the line we, as humans, evolved from clams, as well as jellyfish, seaweed, sloths and a whole host of other entities – or engrams, in Scientology lingo. The engram it seems, through its evolution, has left us with a permanent recording of the pain and trauma of the past, something which can be eliminated through Scientology, making us better people. Reaching the level of Operating Thetan III is what you should aspire to if you really want to achieve personal and spiritual oneness.
A second source of Scientology information comes by way of the Editor in Chief of The Village Voice, Tony Ortega**. Mr. Ortega has devoted years to investigating Scientology and interviewing those who managed to break from it. He’s written dozens of pieces, trying to pierce the veil under which the church shrouds itself. He’s managed to bring to light the fact that David Miscavige’s own wife hasn’t been seen in nearly five years, leading many to believe that she is being held somewhere by the cult leader, after violating one of those crimes for which they accuse, convict and punish members. A lot of strange and inexplicable things have happened inside this cult, including beatings, kidnappings and death. People who have escaped from its hold seldom want to talk about it, with good reason. Maybe this divorce can shed some light on what has been going on. Ms. Holmes and her team of attorneys have their work cut out for them – I wish them, and Suri, a safe and happy ending.
References: Time Magazine, the St. Petersburg Times, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, the Today Show, CNN, The New York Times, The New Yorker, the Orlando Sentinel, Fox Business News, The Los Angeles Times and the BBC