How many members do they really have?

Church Times, UK/December 1, 2006
By David V. Barrett

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were getting married. The look on the BBC Breakfast presenter's face as I read part of their service said it all: the science-fiction writer and Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard, is hot favourite for the Worst Poetry in the Known Universe Award.

This was the fourth time in four weeks I'd been in a TV studio talking about Scientology — and I was beginning to realise that we were playing the Church of Scientology's game. Two film stars were getting married in an Italian castle, with plenty of romance and glitz (the Beckhams were there, too), but the news coverage focused on the fact that they were Scientologists. The publicity value of Tom and Katie for their Church has been incalculable.

Until recently, Scientologists had a reputation for being litigious and for wanting to control what was written about them. I have a nine-page letter from some years ago from the top libel lawyers Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners, on behalf of the Church, accusing me of multiple counts of defamation. But now they seem to have changed their approach, and are actively courting publicity.

Scientology is based on Dianetics, a personal-development or self-help technique devised by its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Through auditing, which has much the same effect as therapy or counselling, members are helped to deal with their problems. The promised benefits include better health, a better memory, clearer thinking, and being in control of who you really are — effectively becoming a Superman, which is of great appeal not just to film stars.

It's a progressive religion, in which members climb a "spiritual career path" through taking courses, often costing thousands of pounds each. The mythology at the heart of Scientology, which is taught only at the highest levels, includes science-fiction stories of cosmic proportions to explain all the ills of the world.

In October, Scientology opened a new church in London. The £23-million cost might have earned them a column inch or two, but the hours of TV coverage were because Tom Cruise and John Travolta were rumoured to be attending the event. I watched the Sky News reporter, standing in the pouring rain, each time a huddle of people approached: might this be . . ? But it never was.

A few days ago, I spoke to a senior PR official from the Church about the event. "We never said they would be there," he said; "that was just media speculation." True, but the Church had hardly discouraged it.

Scientology is getting increasingly good at media management, and journalists keep falling into the trap. The Guardian last week reported that the Church has also been offering meals and entertainment to the City of London Police. Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley, a guest at the spectacular opening of the new church, praised Scientology as a "force for good", saying it was "raising the spiritual wealth of society". These quotations are pure PR gold to the Church. The police, meanwhile, are reviewing their hospitality policy.

Another trap the media fall into is taking Scientology's claim of ten million members worldwide at face value. Membership figures are notoriously problematic. Are Church of England members everyone who has been baptised into it? Or all those who say they are C of E, meaning they're not anything else? Or Christmas or Easter communicants? So what about the 120,000 members Scientology are claiming in Britain?

In 2001, for the first time, the UK Census asked about religious affiliation. In England and Wales, 1781 people said they were Scientologists — less than 1.5 per cent of the number the Church claims. The 2001 Census figures for other English-speaking countries are similarly low: in Australia, 2032 people said they were Scientologists; in Canada, only 1525; and in New Zealand, 282.

Where are the other nine million or so? They must be in the United States, Scientology's home country. Well, no. In fact, the American Religious Identification Survey estimated in 2001 that there were just 55,000 Scientologists in the US. As the majority of Scientologists live in the US, the actual worldwide membership may be under 100,000 — rather less than the claimed ten million.

How can we account for this 100:1 disparity? The Church's president, Heber Jentzsch, let slip on a radio programme in 1992 that the Church of Scientology claims as a member every single person who has ever taken even an introductory Scientology course since the Church was founded in 1954. Even leaving aside all those "members" who must now be dead, is this really membership? But ten million makes the Church of Scientology sound a great deal more significant than 100,000.

Like many other new religious movements, Scientology has difficulty retaining its new members. Could this partly be because they are so strongly urged to view everything that L. Ron Hubbard wrote as the work of a genius? His later novels, lauded by the Church as "wonderfully wrought", are derided by many SF readers.

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