There are often strange characters roaming around the entrances to underground public transportation systems, and BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, is no exception. There are the guys begging for your spare quarters or trying to lift you of your 10¢ ticket; there are the buskers filling the concrete underground with steel drum beats or guitar ditties, and after midnight, there are more than a few people over the legal limit.
But one day, as I was exiting in downtown San Francisco, I saw something I had never seen before. Three young, professional looking people were sitting at a red and white checkered table. From a distance, I could read their sign, advertising “Free Stress Tests!” On the table were books and what looked to be a blood pressure reader. It was rush hour and I thought a local health team was out showing the masses just how stressed out they are. But that didn’t explain the five policemen standing around the table, nor the large man shouting, to no one in particular and everyone at once, “This is bullshit; it’s all lies, they’re liars!” As I walked closer to the table, intrigued like the rest of the commuters around me, it all became clear. Next to a pile of pamphlets were the nicely stacked books, and on the cover: Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health by L. Ron Hubbard. These weren’t health workers; these were Scientologists.
Though scientology is currently enjoying a heightened state of fame—or notoriety, depending on how you see it—due to its high profile celebrity endorsements, it has been around since well before Tom Cruise was old enough to preach about it. L. Ron Hubbard, a prolific science fiction writer, wrote the best selling self-help book Dianetics in 1950, and from these teachings, the Church of Scientology was born. The first church was built in downtown Los Angeles in 1954, and although the main headquarters are in Clearwater, Florida, Hollywood is what most people associate with Scientology. The church has propagated this notion, founding eleven “Celebrity Centres” around the world, the most famous a stone’s throw from Hollywood. Here you might find Tom Cruise, John Travolta, or Kirstie Alley cavorting under the eight-cornered cross.
These days, Scientology is perhaps the most controversial religion in the United States. Some call it a cult, others consider it a moneymaking racket, and others tout it as lifesaving. I remember the Dianetics book from childhood, when it seemed it was sitting on every bookstore front counter, but I didn’t know much about the religion. As it turns out, there’s a reason for that.
Unlike other religions, whose teachings, practices, and historical fundamentals are transparent and open to all wishing to embrace or critique them, the Church of Scientology retains an air of secrecy. This has led some to call it a cult, though few of its teachings seem sinister. It blends management techniques, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity beliefs with self-help and science fiction. Scientology believes that our experiences extend beyond a single lifetime and that we are only temporarily in our current bodies. It stresses capability and realizing potential; by realizing their own potential, people have practical tools they can apply to everyday life, helping them accomplish goals and gain higher states of awareness. Through a series of rigorous processes, we can be put in touch with this higher state of awareness.
In Scientology, man is thought to consist of three parts: spirit, which Scientologists call “thetan,” and which they consider to be millions of year old, similar to the idea of reincarnation. The mind is what the thetan uses as a “communication and control system between himself and the environment,” and the body. While none of this seems too far-fetched, some of the other teachings of Scientology seem a little goofy, if not totally irrational. Scientologists consider many diseases to be psychosomatic and frown on using medicines to treat them. While certainly we do have a mind-body connection, some diseases really benefit from drugs and modern medicine. Hello, vaccines?
In addition, when Scientologists reach the higher level of their religious process and are “operating thetans” (Tom Cruise is one), they can do some pretty outrageous stuff. According to a 2006 article in Rolling Stone, this includes moving inanimate objects with their minds, having out-of-body experiences at will, and being able to control the behavior of animals and human beings. Remember, Hubbard was a science fiction writer.
However, none of these things makes me think that Scientology is all that nefarious.
What does, however, is the one main difference between it and other religions: you have to pay for enlightenment. In order to advance in Scientology, you have to go through auditing, which are talk-therapy sessions that help clear you of past traumatic events. (This is sometimes accompanied by a device called the called the electropsychometer, or E-meter, which is similar to a lie-detector. This is what I saw on the tables in BART.) Numerous auditing sessions may be required to reach the highest levels of Scientology and each auditing session can cost between six and seven hundred dollars. For more advanced levels, you may have to shell out thousands.
The financial outlays required by Scientologists have lead to numerous stories of savings lost and lives ruined, and their ties to the powerful entertainment industry has helped them muzzle critics. A 1991 Time cover story described the Church as “a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.” Recently, Comedy Central shelved a rerun of a South Park episode in which they make fun of Scientology and Tom Cruise, supposedly because the star was offended. However, Comedy Central’s parent company is releasing a Cruise movie and it seems more likely it was easier to get rid of one episode than to displease a famous zealot.
Although Mormons also have to contribute a portion of their income to their religion, something about Scientology seems a bit more tactical. According to a recent article in the New Yorker, coveting celebrities and their money was a major part of Scientology’s aims from the start. An internal newsletter, probably from the 1950s, discusses “Project Celebrity.” The aim was to court well-known stars—the “prime communicators”—so they could mention Scientology “now and then.” A 1976 Time article quotes Hubbard, giving a speech to fellow authors, as saying, “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”
Perhaps those “free” stress tests they were offering in the subways were just another extension of their money-generating ideas. In New York, they were kicked out of the subway because they were asking for an $8 dollar “donation” for the Dianetics books; turns out they were in violation of NYC’s unlicensed vending rule.
While I don’t think Scientology is a cult, I’m wary of any movement that requires people to pay for something that is supposedly a religious teaching and anything that tries to preach the mystical with so-called science. Maybe there’s something great inside that cheesy-looking cover, but I’m not willing to pay for it.