Harmless or hateful?

Irish Times/October 29, 2011

First, a confession. I once went for a job interview at the Church of Scientology. Unwittingly, I hasten to add. As a J-1 student in recession-hit San Francisco, I answered a classified ad: "Rewarding work at church available for modest pay." The address led me to a bookstore-cum-office, and I knew this was no ordinary "church" when the application form asked, "Are you related to intelligence agencies?" and "Have you ever been involved in any sexual perversion? Give who, where, when, what, on each instance."

The misleading nature of that advertisement is small fry in the context of Scientology's reputation, but it is illustrative of the organisation's modus operandi. To its critics, the church of L Ron Hubbard is a loopy spiritual pyramid scheme designed to prey on the gullible and weak-minded. It is ridiculed probably more than any other belief system, it was almost banned in Germany and it's the target of a vitriolic campaign by anonymous techies seeking its "destruction".

Yet bear in mind that Scientologists have started no wars and committed no atrocities – unless you count John Travolta's big-screen adaptation of Hubbard's science-fiction saga Battlefield Earth, which is "widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made", according to Hugh B Urban, a historian of religion. In fact, no one has been provably killed in the name of Scientology. The most serious charge against it arose from the death of 36-year-old Lisa McPherson in controversial circumstances at a Scientology camp at Clearwater, Florida, in 1995. The case was dropped by prosecutors five years later after a botched autopsy.

Urban, who has also written books about sexuality and the occult, is determined to give Hubbard's disciples a fair hearing in The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion . Tracing how "a penny-a-word science fiction writer" founded a popular self-help therapy, Dianetics, the springboard for Scientology, Urban is resolutely straight-faced, even when discussing the church's most fanciful teachings. The closest he comes to a chuckle is when recounting Hubbard's claim that reaching upper states of knowledge can kill: "Yet Hubbard risked his own life and health in order to achieve the dramatic breakthrough, passing through 'the Wall of Fire' to uncover the secret history of our galaxy."

The deferential approach stretches credulity at times, but it generates interesting questions about double standards in our treatment of religions. Urban highlights how many religions are hierarchical and combine elements of secrecy with a self-justifying language or narrative. Repeatedly, he makes the point that the followers of a religion should not necessarily be judged by those in positions of power. "After all, the fact that Catholic bishops have covered up child sexual abuse does not prevent millions of ordinary believers worldwide from continuing to find Catholicism meaningful in their daily lives."

In addition, by looking at Scientology in context, Urban helps to identify just why the church antagonises people so much. For the religious, it's so brazen in its myth-making it's a parody of faith. For the nonreligious, it contains just the right dose of pseudoscience to resemble the homeopathy of belief systems.

What's more, it's so goddam American, blending the celebration of self-advancement with what Urban concludes is an ostensibly for-profit motive. Hubbard once said Scientology appealed to Americans "because they tend to believe in instant everything, from instant coffee to instant nirvana".

Urban also sheds light on why the church is so secretive and litigious, and convincingly explains how it has evolved – and even adapted its teachings – in response to regulation by government agencies. A clampdown by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1963 led Hubbard to reposition himself as a salesman of "spiritual" rather than "healing" services. Five years later, he set up the Sea Org, a naval branch of hard-core followers, as a preliminary strike against the threat of being banned.

Crucially, Hubbard then rebranded Scientology as a religion, adopting some of the iconography of Christianity despite dismissing Jesus as "a lover of young boys and men". This allowed the church to make a plea for special protections in the US and, most significantly, to gain tax-free status in 1993.

A number of questions go unanswered in the book, as Urban admits. He mentions as influencing factors the threat of litigation and a fear of being made "fair game" – a practice of intimidation officially denied by the church. Some readers will crave more detail about Scientology's finances and about the bizarre Tom Cruise-Hollywood nexus.

Urban compensates for lack of colour with philosophical musings about whether, for example, a religion that depends on secrecy can survive in an internet-driven world. (A Google search will throw up Scientology's most closely guarded revelations, saving you up to $400,000 in church fees.) Urban also points out that, contrary to popular belief, as well as to the church's claims, Scientology is in decline. In 2008 it had an estimated 25,000 followers in the US, down from 55,000 in 2001.

Urban's unstintingly nonjudgmental tone almost has you feeling sorry for Scientology in the end. Almost. Perhaps unintentionally, his refreshingly even-handed treatment of the controversial church puts other religions in the dock.

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