The Bellingham Church of Scientology on North State Street looks more like a classroom or a library than a church. The walls are lined with leather-bound books and portraits of a fair-skinned, redheaded man named Lafayette Ronald Hubbard.
When people hear the word Scientology, they may first think of John Travolta, Tom Cruise and its other celebrity adherents. Many people are unaware that more than 600,000 others in 154 countries throughout the world also are members of the church. According to Adherents.com, when judged by membership, Scientology bears the distinction of being the most successful religion founded in the 20th century.
Hubbard, now deceased, invented the self-improvement strategies of Dianetics and published his findings in 1950. Five years later, he founded the Church of Scientology, a religion that uses those strategies to better the lives of its adherents through a process known as Dianetic auditing. This is a technique designed to liberate mental ability by uncovering latent memories and unburdening oneself from the unconscious associations related to them.
Bellingham mission executive director Kelly Hudson co-founded the Bellingham Church of Scientology in 1999 after a friend bought a franchise "kit" from the Hubbard Foundation. Hudson said the church has enjoyed worldwide success simply because its self-improvement techniques work.
The Bellingham mission has approximately 20 active members, and Hudson said she hopes the church will continue to grow.
Mission Holder Diane Gagon oversees two missions in the Northwest and said Scientology is continuing to rapidly grow, maintaining missions in 154 countries throughout the world. She said the Northwest region, which includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, comprises approximately 500 members. Common knowledge dictates that most businesses fail within a year of opening. In the sense that religious movements are ventures that require similar "leaps of faith," Scientology stands out as an example of a success story. In fact, Scientology is run much more like a business than most religions, and its estimated worth is more than $300 million. Rather than fundraising or asking parishioners to tithe, Scientology sells a la carte courses tailored to the particular emotional and spiritual needs of its members.
The courses cover everything from communication strategies to memory tricks and run anywhere from $35 to hundreds of dollars. Members choose courses based on the results of a personality test known as the Oxford Capacity Analysis. The results of the OCA are printed out as a histogram designed to map a subject's personality, showing the mental areas that are healthy, and those that are deficient.
If, for example, the OCA shows that a subject's self-esteem is low, Scientology will suggest a course designed to build confidence. After each course, the OCA is administered again, with the eventual goal of producing a histogram that shows ideal grades in all categories, leaving that person "clear." Hudson said the cost of a complete auditing is comparable to that of a college education.
Western alumnus Ben Folk is the public executive secretary for the main Seattle church and said that after years of searching for a faith that made sense to him, he finally stumbled upon Scientology in 2001.
"Before I went to Western, I was interested in religion, and I was looking around, reading anything I could get my hands on -- the Bible, anything," he said. "I never found anything, so I started studying philosophy instead. Then I started getting worried that even philosophy was the wrong route. Scientology had been around in my life because my friend's dad was in the church, so I just picked up the book ('Dianetics') and that was all I needed."
The church has strict rules regarding exactly how much information to provide its members at different stages of auditing, so Folk said he has to limit information as he talks new members through the basics. He said that in the two years he has been with the church, he has seen amazing results both in himself and in those he audits.
"I can't say there's not another religion that can free up mental ability better than Scientology," Folk said. "But I do know I've seen tremendous results from the technology of auditing. I've found a way to demonstrably help someone out in a short period of time."
Folk said he also has had some inexplicable psychosomatic experiences during his own auditing sessions. He said he woke up one morning with shingles on his back in the same area he had injured years before falling off a cliff. He said he spent five hours with an auditor, and by the time the session had ended, the shingles were already in remission. He also said he has experienced various physical and emotional responses, such as coughing or laughing that arise without warning during these sessions, but he has no explanation for them.
Throughout many years, Scientology has been criticized as a cult and a method of brainwashing but so far has won most of the court cases filed against it. According to a series of articles published in the Boston Herald in 1998, however, its founder has been posthumously discredited as having fabricated much of his history and many anecdotes he used to illustrate the power of Dianetics and Scientology in his books. After reviewing Hubbard's academic and military records as well as testimony from old friends and from his son, California Superior Court Judge Paul Breckenridge concluded in 1984 that Hubbard, a science-fiction writer by trade, had in some cases stretched the truth, and in others, flat-out lied.
"The organization clearly is schizophrenic and paranoid, and this bizarre combination seems to be reflective of its founder (Hubbard)," he wrote in his opinion. "The evidence portrays a man who has been virtually a pathological liar when it comes to his history, background and achievements."
Gagon said the bad press Scientology has received is largely unsubstantiated and is a matter of a few unhappy people with vendettas against the church.
"You can have thousands of people getting better, and one person can throw it into question," she said. "If you want to discredit someone, you say, 'this didn't happen,' and it plants a seed. We have truth, and that's what comes out in the courts."
These unhappy defectors usually tell similar stories about their experiences with the church, including harassment after leaving. They also often say that after many years of spending money in the church, high-level Scientologists inform them that the history of mankind taught in most schools is inaccurate, and that human beings actually are the result of an overpopulated planet in another galaxy ruled by an alien warlord known as Xenu.
"I know nothing about those things," Hudson said. "I've heard about these things from outside people, but that has nothing to do with (the church). That's not something you're going to find here."
Church officials say that more than 300 million people worldwide have visited the church to take the initial OCA.
Hudson said Scientology is entirely nondenominational and is attractive as a spiritual option for people who are not entirely fulfilled by their own religions.
"We're not here to compete with other churches," Hudson said. "We're here to better people."