Scientology: A religion unmasked

How a prolific pulp writer built a religion of millions—and why it continues to be an enigma

The Fulcrum (University of Ottawa), Vol. 66, Issue 13/November 16, 2005
By Joshua Zanin

Earlier this year, Tom Cruise graced the covers of nearly every supermarket tabloid, sparking wild speculation about the nature of his relationship with then-26-year-old starlet Katie Holmes. The two have since become engaged, and she is pregnant with his child. It was Cruise’s behaviour on the Oprah Winfrey Show that catapulted the actor across the court of public opinion, where he went from pin-up hunk to erratic, love-struck puppy dog. At roughly the same time, Cruise publicly criticized fellow actor and one-time co-star Brooke Shields for her use of the prescription medication Paxil, which she took to curb post-partum depression. Later, in an interview with Today Show host Matt Lauer, Cruise argued with the host over the validity of psychiatry.

Because he’s a man in the public eye, Cruise’s odd behaviour and May-December romance would attract attention—but by speaking publicly about Scientology during the media circus, the actor dragged his enigmatic religion into the spotlight along with him. Endorsed by a posse of Hollywood’s elite, the Clearwater, Florida-based Church of Scientology has, by its own account, spread into a worldwide phenomenon.

Recently, Scientologists have involved themselves in disaster relief efforts and further raised their profile. After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Scientologists could be found aiding in the relief efforts at Ground Zero. Following Hurricane Katrina, volunteer Scientology ministers worked alongside local police, the Red Cross, and EMS workers throughout the Gulf Coast.

Ottawa-based Church of Scientology Reverend Cathie Mann explains that similar initiatives have been taken at the local level. The Church is a member of Interfaith Ottawa, an organization run through the City of Ottawa that aims to coordinate the efforts of the capital’s religious groups in helping disadvantaged members of the community. Asked about the Church’s popularity, Mann estimates the Church’s worldwide membership count "in the millions". Yet, in contrast to the Church’s increasing profile, information about the religion is scarce.

It would seem that the Church has been the author of its own profile. It has gone to great lengths to make information about its history and practices difficult for outsiders to access, and even members themselves are often ill equipped to explain the entirety of their own religion’s beliefs. In some cases, Church members have taken to defending their religion outside of the law.

In 1982, 11 members of the Church’s elite, including the wife of founder L. Ron Hubbard, were sentenced to federal prison for theft of government documents and the wire tapping of several U.S. government agencies. The Church has claimed that these actions were isolated, and that the faction responsible has been removed, but ever since then controversy has never been far from the Church’s doorstep.

A quick search of the Internet provides a wealth of links to stories detailing the Church’s efforts to suppress damaging information—accounts disturbing not only in their content but also for their volume. Attacks on those voicing their opinions against Scientology have included the extreme—wire taps, surveillance by third-party private investigators, and physical intimidation—as well as the mundane. In the 70s, the Church filed lawsuits against libraries in Hamilton and Etobicoke for making books critical of Scientology available on their shelves.

Here in Ottawa, the Scientology office at 150 Rideau St. is the religion’s hub. This past summer, the outlet became more visible to passersby when the street-level storefront below the office closed shop. With a new stairwell opening onto the sidewalk and a sandwich board advertising free personality tests, the office saw an increase in the number of walk-ins this summer, according to one Scientologist at the office. Reverend Mann pegs the number of Church members in the Ottawa area at roughly 400.


In the late 1940s, L. Ron Hubbard—a former navy man and writer of western, romance, and science-fiction novels—focused his interest in the human condition into an academic paper called "Excalibur". The paper was later incorporated into his book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Hubbard claimed that by using the techniques described in the book, a person could boost their intelligence, improve their health, and sharpen their memory to near infallibility. Upon its release, Dianetics launched to the top of the bestseller lists, but the effects of Hubbard’s techniques proved disappointing. According to a number of newspapers that covered Hubbard’s first demonstration, the person presented by the author as proof of his technique’s success could not even remember the colour of Hubbard’s tie.

Although Dianetics was not the success Hubbard had hoped it would be, he went on to use its principles as the basis for Scientology. Members aim to achieve a state of "clarity" by undergoing "auditing" sessions whereby psychological traumas, either from this life or a past one—the Scientology term for them is an "engram"—are unearthed with the help of an auditor in an effort to cure afflictions of their reactive mind. The auditing sessions include the use of an E-meter (essentially a polygraph machine) that allows auditors to observe a person’s reaction to their questions, and pinpoint behavioral problems that need to be addressed.

Even critics have acknowledged that the process of auditing can be helpful, although many in the mental-health field have called it a poor man’s psychoanalysis.

According to Hubbard’s own Dianetics, engrams can also be responsible for psychosomatically causing many types of physical illnesses, including cancer and some heart conditions. In the book, Hubbard estimates that nearly 70 per cent of the diseases treated by physicians are psychosomatic in origin. In tandem with auditing, Hubbard promoted a regimen of vitamins, exercise, and saunas. The process, which also includes consuming large amounts of niacin, a B-complex vitamin, is meant to remove long-stored toxins from the body’s fat cells. The regimen has been greeted with a great deal of skepticism in the scientific community: experts regularly state that its effectiveness has yet to be proven.

U of O professor and toxicology expert Dr. Kevin Brand is doubtful of the procedures’ effectiveness.

"If [the toxins] are at levels that are hard to detect, we’re talking about something that’s not measurable," he said. "We don’t have the ability to verify or test their approach."

University of Georgia professor Cham Dallas takes it a step further. In an interview with The New York Post, Dallas, who, according to the article has studied human toxins for over twenty years, states, "[The detoxification program] sounds great … but it just doesn’t work."

The Word

Scientology is taught through a series of tapes and lectures collectively called The Bridge, all written by Hubbard himself, whose writing is taken as scripture. The price of courses can vary depending on where they are purchased, but the Scientology website puts the cost of them in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Reverend Mann, who does media relations for the Church, is initially unable to quote the figures for courses in The Bridge. When phoned back, she offers the prices for three beginner courses, "Ups and Downs in Life", "Personal Values and Integrity", and "How to Improve Relationships with Others", each with costs of $60. I am never told the amount for the more advanced courses.

Reverend Mann does mention that the first six months of membership are free, while a yearly membership costs $200, and auditing costs $200 for a total of 12.5 hours of sessions.

Only a small pool of members in the religion’s upper echelons have completed The Bridge. Due to the quickly increasing cost of the courses, members are often encouraged to join the Church’s workforce as a means of earning enough to make payments. Those who decide to join the Church’s workforce sign "covenants"—contracts that commit employees to work for the Church from two to five years.

A Time magazine cover article from 1991 titled "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power" explained the Church’s interest in profit and brought Scientology’s validity as a religion into question. The article, written by a small team of journalists, contains quotes from former Scientologist Vicki Aznaran, once one of the six most powerful members of the Church, stating that the Church had attempted to evade fraud charges from the IRS. The article accuses the group of operating in a "Mafia-like manner" and goes on to describe the many ways in which the organization has acted out of motives of profit under the guise of philanthropy. Harriet Baker, a then 73-year-old widow, was encouraged by Scientologists to mortgage her house to pay for auditing to cure her grief over her husband’s passing. The house was mortgaged, and due to crippling household bills, Baker was forced to sell.

The piece also quotes Hubbard’s words from a Church bulletin, encouraging workers to bring in revenue:

"Make sure that lots of bodies move through the shop … Make money. Make more money. Make others produce so as to make money … However you get them in or why, just do it."

The article brought about a libel lawsuit against Time Warner and lead journalist of the piece, Richard Behar. A New York court examined and identified 12 statements from the article that the Church had included in its complaint. All statements but one were deemed to be non-libelous, and the case was dismissed. Despite the decision for Time, the Church claimed victory because they were free to appeal.

In 1990, a multi-part L.A. Times article analyzed a number of aspects of the Church. Included are first-hand accounts of the workers’ conditions. Employees of the Church—who work in areas ranging from promotion, to finance, to fundraising—become isolated due to the Church’s pervasiveness. The Church comes to dominate their social circle, and due to long hours, workers are often exhausted and unable to spend any time away from Church life. Contracts stipulate that workers must repay the Church for their courses if they choose to leave.

Vicki Aznaran—who appeared in the Time article—also spoke to the L.A. Times about the experience of isolation in the Church:

"You finally are to the point where you do not examine, logically, Scientology... you are cut off from anything that might give you another viewpoint…"

Another former Scientologist, Patricia Braine, is also quoted: "We were so brainwashed to believe that what we were doing was good for mankind that we were willing to put up with the worst conditions."

According to the L.A. Times piece, in 1984 Canadian authorities described working conditions as "slave labor". The article also quotes a 1964 directive of Hubbard’s concerning sick leave that serves to reinforce that claim:

"If a staff member’s breath can be detected on a mirror, he or she can do his or her job."

Reverend Mann, who explains that she has been to Scientology missions across the globe, is doubtful of such accusations.

"I’ve been around since ’78 … and I’ve never seen it."

The Messiah

A biography of Hubbard published in 1988, entitled The Bare-Faced Messiah, received a great deal of attention from Church officials. In an article published in Punch magazine in February 1988, Messiah author Russell Miller described how he received letters from Church lawyers advising him to stop—even before he started writing. The book is detailed in its description of Hubbard’s life, and a great deal of Miller’s research is found to contradict Hubbard’s own accounts. Litigation continued throughout the writing process. When the book was finally published, Miller had to fight the Church in court to ensure its distribution in Canada, the U.S., Britain, and Australia. Now, out of print and difficult to find, the book has been archived on the Internet with the author’s permission. In October 1987, The Sunday Times of London reported that a private investigator hired by the Church tried unsuccessfully to discredit Miller—and also frame him for murder. Revelation

Inside the Rideau Street Scientology offices, shelves upon shelves are stacked to capacity with magazines, DVDs, tapes, and books for sale. The man I speak to seems friendly but cautious as he answers my very basic questions—I feel as though I’m being analyzed. When I ask him for some literature to take home, he appears momentarily befuddled and goes into a back room, eventually returning with a small magazine. Unprompted, he emphatically states that it’s free.

Cost may not be the only deciding factor for members. With so much controversy and unanswered questions surrounding the nature and practices of a group that in its literature bills itself as a religion in the truest sense of the term, students interested in the religion may want to examine the alternatives, such as the Freezoners. Not at all endorsed by the Church, Freezoners believe in Hubbard’s teachings and techniques but disagree with the management of the Church and the sums they charge for using the technology he developed.

It is certainly possible that in the years since the Time magazine and L.A. Times articles, the Church has cleaned house. Although the glut of court cases suggests it would be an uphill battle, perhaps the Church has changed its ways—but with the scant information available on their inner workings, it’s difficult to know.

I, for one, may just wonder whether my phone is being tapped.

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