"Be careful what you write about Scientology. They're very rich and very litigious." This warning comes from a psychiatrist-- psychiatry is the sworn enemy of Scientology--and shows that the scepticism about the movement founded in the 1950s by L Ron Hubbard, who made his name as a writer of science fiction, is alive and well.
The heyday of fear of it as a cult came in the late 1960s when hundreds of New Zealanders signed a petition calling for legislative curbs on it and a government commission of inquiry upheld a complaint that it was responsible for alienating two young Scientologists from their family. There was no subsequent legislation, but a handful of rules the cult said it had already embraced were laid down. Times have changed. Mike Ferris, spokesman for the Auckland-based church, says the family involved in the inquiry have long been reconciled. Scientology bears the respectable title of a religion. And a few weeks ago the Inland Revenue Department decided it qualified as a charity and was thus tax exempt.
The Scientologists--the church claims there are more than 6000 in New Zealand--are over the moon. Only a scattering of countries of the 151 in which they operate give them such fulsome recognition, notably Australia, South Africa and Sweden. Britain does not, nor does France.
In Germany, Scientology is actively opposed. Germany has had the group monitored by intelligence agents since 1997, the same year in which a court of appeal in Greece upheld a decision to close the Greek branch of the Church of Scientology and accused it of brainwashing members. Actor Tom Cruise, who with fellow Hollywood star John Travolta has Scientology's highest profile, was reported last month to have asked the United States ambassador to Germany to rally support for the cause of Scientology.
So what happened to make Scientology respectable, to align it with the mainstream churches in New Zealand, and give it the same financial advantages?
The Scientologists have pursued this status for more than a decade without success. Inland Revenue won't say. Confidential. A spokesperson says Scientology would have had to submit documents proving it was a charity.
"I can't talk about specifics," the spokesperson says. "We aren't allowed to talk about it. I don't know why suddenly they got it and even if I did I couldn't tell you. We're referring to tax perspectives rather than moral-type issues."
Mr. Ferris says the possibility of recognition as a charity has been discussed with Inland Revenue for years. "You could say we were running in to fixed ideas on what a religion might be." He says a breakthrough came in the form of a 2001 Inland Revenue paper in which the definition of religion came from a 1983 Australian High Court case recognising Scientology as a religion. Armed with this, the Scientologists applied for charity status again.
Mr. Ferris says the commission of inquiry was a long time ago. The term cult is used far less. People sometimes say: "Are you guys still around?" He laughs off the "rich and litigious" label, unless litigious can include a case in the 1970s when someone impugned Scientology on talkback radio. "He put forth a retraction."
Rich? He says Scientology is a non-profit group and funds are used in the region from which they come. The only New Zealand church, on the Ellerslie Panmure Highway, is rented. "Collecting real estate is absolutely not what we're about."
What Scientology is about is spreading the word of Hubbard, who died in 1986 after writing and recording millions of his thoughts on life and the universe and beyond. His book Dianetics: The modern Science of Mental Health, published in 1950 and promising "self- achievement" despite the frustrations of the exterior world, or chaos, was the catalyst for Scientology.
Mr. Hubbard deems the "Merchants of Chaos" as "the politician, the reporter, the medico, the drug manufacturer, the militarist and arms manufacturer, the police and the undertaker, to name the leaders of the list".
In seeking self-achievement, adherents undergo "auditing" with a person trained by the church to facilitate clearance of damaging aspects of their past. Mr. Ferris says auditing is "a spiritual journey, looking at yourself and uncovering some of the mysteries of life. It's not just free association, it's a methodology with steps to follow and different types of auditing in different areas".
The New Zealand Church of Scientology was the the first to be established outside of the United States. Paul Morris, professor of religious studies at Victoria University, says New Zealand is historically hospitable to new religious movements. "Scientologists' view of themselves has greater continuity than it once had. Scientology has a series of different levels in many ways, a kind of inner circle with a shop-front version. Like many New Age movements, self-improvement is important." The idea of auditing, he says, is "like a pop-version of psychoanalytic theory, memory as a release. The aim is to become clear and fully functioning".
There are fringe and then inner-circle beliefs of the "aliens afoot, related to us, higher forms of life" variety. Some may think some Scientology beliefs "off the wall", says Mr. Ferris. Hubbard's book History of Man "talks about the trail. It goes back millions of years and to other times and galaxies. Eastern faiths believe the same thing." Mr. Ferris describes Scientology as "a Western take on Buddhist philosophy".
Professor Morris says it's not a Western version of Eastern religion, except that Buddhism, in the West, "often is a new religious movement."
"In terms of teaching, Scientology is quite different. Scientology focuses quite heavily on psychological material. The tradition of Buddhism is to be enlightened and run away from the material world. The aim of Scientology is to be better in the traditional world."
Professor Morris believes the church to be very wealthy. The courses it runs can be expensive. They start free, later ones cost hundreds of dollars and some advanced courses cost thousands. He says a big part of Scientology's public face is a strong commitment to anti-drugs programmes (including psychotropic and street drugs, but not drugs such as antibiotics) "and they're very anti- psychiatrist".
Auckland University emeritus professor of psychiatry John Werry says any truth in Scientology's attacks on the psychiatric profession is "highly overblown". Scientology, he says, is supposed to be a religion with a scientific basis. Scientologists have a science for understanding human behaviour and see psychiatrists as competitors.
Scientology literature blatantly calls psychiatrists witchdoctors and shamans and psychiatry a cult. The church, through the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, distributes anti-psychiatric and anti- psychotropic drug literature in New Zealand schools.
Scientology maintains psychiatrists and psychologists have created a lucrative industry for themselves by redefining childhood pranks and play as disorders, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The Scientology view is that drugs such as Ritalin should not be prescribed. The Health Ministry view is that ADHD is a biological disorder and should be considered a serious public health problem. Medical Association chairman John Adams, who is also a psychiatrist, has said ADHD has to be carefully diagnosed and Ritalin carefully prescribed.
Mr. Ferris says that if labels such as ADHD had been around when he was a child he's 42 "I'd have got one of them".
He says psychiatry treats man as an animal and Scientology looks at mental health from a spiritual viewpoint, but "we're not in the field of treating people and the insane."
"Our society is pretty cruel to the insane, something Hubbard pointed out."
Psychiatry, he says, "suppresses and dulls the person". He points out that psychiatrists don't know how electric shock treatment works. It's a bit like hitting a television set--it works sometimes.
"I think if you whacked a person with a piece of wood, that would change him."
Is Scientology something to be wary of? The Internet bristles with disenchanted accounts of it. "They have a history of difficulties with people who leave," says Professor Morris. "There are lots of reports and a number of former members who write books. They see it as brainwashing and pressure. There are reports of dependency on counsellors."
Mr. Ferris says: "If we're ethical we'll survive. Despite the brickbats, we have survived."
'It's amazing. It helps you deal with everything.'
"It's about feeling good about yourself and your community," says Tim Perkins, 33, of Wellington, who has been a Scientologist for seven years.
Mr. Perkins was introduced to Scientology by his brother, who encountered it travelling with mates in the United States. He has done several Scientology courses, including a purification course in London in 2001. The aim was to clear toxins and radiation from his body. Vitamin and mineral supplements and exercise were part of that.
"After five or six weeks, I felt 10 years younger," he says. "Do I think it was expensive? Definitely not. I know I was pretty filled up with different toxins."
On other courses, he has learned communication skills, including "dealing with the ups and downs of life and how to recognise people who have been harmful and are holding you back".
"The whole ethics programme is amazing and gets back to doing unto others what you would have done to yourself."
He's experienced auditing. "It's amazing stuff. It helps you deal with everything. I don't want to go in to the detail of my personal stuff. I used to react badly to certain situations and with auditing I found out why. Now when I get in to the situation I react the way I want to react."
Mr. Perkins says he's travelled to Auckland, Sydney and London and has found Scientologists universally happy, friendly and smiling. "They are all doing well in life, professionally and personally and are good people to be around."
He believes his interest in Scientology will extend through his life. His aim is to work at the home of the Church of Scientology in Florida.
Bernard Roundhill, an early, acclaimed graphic artist, has been a Scientologist for almost as long as the movement has been in existence.
He is 91 and lives with his third wife, Peggy, in Auckland. She, too, has been a Scientologist for decades. Their conversions followed reading the Hubbard book Dianetics.
Mr. Roundhill discovered it in 1953. Mrs. Roundhill says he learned, through Scientology, to create art that could communicate to people. "With Scientology, he received validation and learned to do it better and better." The Air New Zealand koru symbol came from his studio, though others had a hand in it.
Mrs. Roundhill, a writer, says Scientology helped her over the loss of her first husband. "When I met Bernard, his wife had died and we had Scientology in common. If you have a loss in life, if you don't feel happy . . . in Scientology you learn to handle the losses life gives you."
"We still study it and get real pleasure out of listening to hundreds of cassettes he (Hubbard) made. You get more and more out of the books each time you read them.
"It's not pie-in-the-sky, it's a practical applied religion. Every day of my life, I think thank goodness for Scientology. Like the Bible, with the 10 commandments, gives you the ability to live by disciplined tenets. You become saner and more in control and a better person, better able to live life and handle what comes up and better able to help people.
"It's a do-it-yourself thing. You get out of it what you want to."