Scratch the surface of Scientology and you will find a lot of weird and wild tidbits. To name but a few: The high school science-class “electro-psychometer” used to probe the bodies of new recruits for “hidden crimes,” the requirement that members are made to pay cash for their supposed enlightenment, the Buzz Lightyear-like code words embedded in the mountain of vacuous bureaucratic bafflegab set out by founder L. Ron Hubbard, the creepy measures used to enforce internal discipline (presided over — I am not making this up — by an “Office of Special Affairs”) and the lurid science-fiction plot line that governs the religion’s mythology at its most esoteric levels — involving a pan-Galactic alien ruler named Xenu who summoned billions of humans to our planet 75 millon years ago and then blew them up with atom bombs … after stacking their bodies around volcanoes for some unknown reason.
But perhaps the weirdest part of it all is that Hubbard himself — a paranoid megalomaniac and sci-fi writer who cobbled the roots of Scientology together out of eastern mythology, utopian futurism, and his own eccentric phobias and schoolboy’s love of campy sci-fi neologisms — was able to attract followers despite being quite plain about the mercantile side. A quote of his from a 1980 Reader’s Digest article sums it up: “If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”
It is perhaps because Scientology combines Hubbard’s love of technology with a hair-trigger phobia of anyone who threatened his lucrative business model that Scientologists were among the first to recognize the information-sharing possibilities of the internet — which they promptly tried to censor.
Back in the early 1990s, when the net was a mere nerd-nest of text-only discussion groups, Scientologists targeted “copyright terrorists” by trying to shut down whole discussion boards — including the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, which they claimed violated the Scientology trademark.
They have also tried to get Google to exclude anti-Scientology websites from its search results, and used hardball legal tactics to harass, bankrupt and intimidate their critics — many of them disaffected former members. In the United States, the Church of Scientology also has been a staunch backer of draconian copyright legislation. If you want to know whether Scientology qualifies as a “religion” on par with other bona fide faiths, try to imagine the Catholic Church or the Saudi royal family charging people tens of thousands of dollars to learn their religious tenets, and suing anyone who dared republish the Koran™ or Bible™ on the internet.
Of course, people have the right to embrace fringe faiths. At the very least, it must be admitted that Scientologists don’t strap bombs to their chests. And it is also true that their entry-level teachings generally promote peace, honesty and tolerance of other faiths. If people want to spend their time and money poking each other with eMeters and learning about what Xenu did 75 million years ago, I suppose that’s fine by me.
Unfortunately, however, Hubbard’s cosmic theories were hardly free of bigotry. One of his beliefs was that the tortured souls of the aforementioned victims of Xenu continue to pollute the minds of modern humans — an idea that led Hubbard to all manner of bizarre theorizing about psychology. This included the notion that psychiatrists are part of a movement rooted in Xenu’s genocide plot, and thereby constitute the source of all human suffering. It is this belief, which remains embedded in Scientology’s teachings, that prevents many of us non-believers from having normal relationships with Scientologists.In the summer of 2005, my newspaper’s editorial board hosted a group of Canadian Scientologists who were angry about an article we’d run slamming Hubbard (Or “LRH,” as the man is known — Scientologists love acronyms). They were doing OK with us — until one of my fellow editorial board members asked our guests about their views on mental health issues, at which point things went all Xenu in a hurry.
They repeated the Scientologist dogma that mental ailments — conditions that doctors now know to have a biological basis as surely as cancer and influenza — are a sort of imaginary miasma summoned into existence by negative thoughts and the evil residue from your past lives — i.e., if you’re bipolar, it’s your fault. We were particularly scandalized that one of the emissaries was a professional educator in her day-to-day life, yet seemed entirely beholden to Scientological conspiracy theories about psychiatric medication. Amazingly, these folks seemed genuinely amazed that the media was more interested in Tom Cruise’s loony comments about Brooke Shields’ postpartum depression than the fact that the Church had recently dispatched aid workers to Indonesia.
As for Cruise, he is the most prominent movie star Scientologist (a recent book claims he is number two in the organization’s hierarchy). But he is hardly alone. As early as the 1950s, LRH targeted celebrities whom he thought would spread his message to the rest of America. “Celebrities are very Special people and have a very distinct line of dissemination,” he would later write. “They have comm[unication] lines that others do not have and many medias [sic] to get their dissemination through.”
Another LRH diktat advises that Scientology “Celebrity Centres” should “work to rehabilitate old or faded artists.” The biggest success story in this latter category was John Travolta, whose faith moved him to adopt the LRH space epic Battlefield Earth onto the big screen, with comically horrid results.
In Cruise, though, I’m wondering whether the celebrity strategy hasn’t backfired. His behaviour often seems out-and-out unhinged. The tabloids have done a particularly brisk trade feeding the idea of Katie Holmes as a brainwashed love-slave coerced into delivering a baby according to LRH’s bizarre guidelines. (Like the cult leaders and dictators with whom critics have compared him, LRH imagined himself to be an expert on everything — including pediatrics. He even made up a detailed recipe for a barley-based baby cereal, which, if mothers actually used exclusively, would lead to scurvy.)
And yet notwithstanding all of this flim-flam, Scientology is still a going concern — if not as a serious faith, then at least as a business model. And apparently, many of its adherents find it genuinely inspiring and life-changing. These include Cruise himself, who appeared this week in an internal Scientology video that someone leaked to Youtube. (It has since been taken down at the Church’s request. But Google around, and you should be able to find it.)
The video provides a fascinating insight into the mind of a true zealot. In it, Cruise throws around Scientology acronyms casually — e.g., SP, or “Suppressive person,” a category that presumably includes me — which suggests the video is directed toward current members who might be induced to climb the ladder into the upper echelons. (Like characters in a Dungeons & Dragons game, Scientologists achieve different levels of “clarity” as they pay more money; once totally “Clear,” they are permitted to become an “Operating Thetan,” a designation that itself has eight roman-numeral-designated levels.)
Set to Mission Impossible-style music, and punctuated with dramatic camera-click scene changes, the footage is meant to be inspiring. But to the non-believer, Cruise’s remarks come off instead as disturbingly weird — alternating as they do between meaningless slogans and wildly delusional boasts, with the transitions mediated by violent spasms of laughter. A typical passage: “So, for me, it really is KSW [Keeping Scientology Working], and it’s just like, it’s something that, uh, I don’t mince words with that” — followed by: “Being a Scientologist, when you drive past an accident, it’s not like anyone else. As you drive past, you know you have to do something about it, because you know you’re the only one that can really help.”
We also learn that Scientologists are the “authorities in getting people off drugs. We are the authorities on the mind. We are the authorities on improving conditions. Criminals, we can rehabilitate criminals. Way to happiness, we can bring peace and unite cultures.”
These claims are so over the top, they may help definitively sink Cruise’s career: The next time I see him on the big screen, I doubt I’ll be able to think about anything other than that disturbing cackle. This is Hubbard’s plan in reverse: Rather than redeem Scientology according to LRH’s blueprint, Cruise has merely drawn attention to the religion’s weirdness — and his besides.
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