Celebrity Sects

The Scotsman/June 25, 2004
By Lindesay Irvine

How are you today? Are your Body Thetans troubling you? Are you approaching a state of Clear? Has the Evil Eye been giving you any bother?

If this doesn't make much sense to you, fear not, it simply means you're not an adherent of either Scientology or Philip Berg's version of Kabbalah.

It also suggests that you're probably not one of the increasing numbers of Hollywood A-listers who've been signing up to these and other 'fringe' spirituality groups.

The term 'cult' is a loaded one, and it's debatable whether movements, including these two celebrity favourites, can fairly be described as such - but they are certainly 'fringe' enthusiasms, a far cry from the orthodox spirituality espoused by our major religions.

So what is it that's drawing these successful, intelligent and apparently rational individuals into the orbit of these movements?

Dr Mark Griffiths, a University of Nottingham expert on the psychology of fame, says we shouldn't assume this is a phenomenon merely associated with celebrity.

"A lot of people want to have a faith but feel they can't do it in the tradition they grew up with, so they seek out something more akin to the way they live their lives.

"I think what you're seeing here is people reaching out to more fringe groups and putting their faith in something outside the traditional norms of what we accept as religion."

That said, he does concede that some aspects of the celebrity lifestyle might incline people towards this sort of spirituality.

"Once you are a Madonna-type figure you basically live in this very egocentric world, surrounded by sycophants who agree with everything you say," he points out. So, unlike most of us, who have people we can rely on to bring us short when we get carried away with fanciful notions, celebrities don't have this check.

Another thing which distinguishes celebrities' lives from the norm is their wealth, which Griffiths says gives them time and leisure which most people simply don't have to question the meaning of their life.

"In my day-to-day activity, I don't have the cognitive space to think about these larger questions, but once you're fully comfortable, you have more time to think about the bigger picture."

And you also discover that the material comfort you've striven for hasn't brought you the automatic happiness you assumed it would.

These symptoms of 'affluenza' are not of course limited to the famous - and it's true that many studies show that such fringe sects recruit disproportionately from among the well-off.

Being wealthy also helps when it comes to paying for the often pretty pricey self-development courses associated with the Kabbalah and Scientology.

Elizabeth Mytton, a psychologist who has researched cults, also refers to the way in which celebrities "can be quite unhappy people. They can become quite isolated by their fame."

She suggests that for many performers, the original spur to fame was an urge to feel close to others - to win their affection - but they can find that their success, in fact, cuts them off from people. Here again, she suggests, fringe sects appeal by offering a group identity.

"There is a need in human beings to belong to a group. As human beings we do like to be attached somewhere, somehow. So there's a degree of safety and security you get from joining one of these groups."


Scientology has so many famous adherents that the Church Of Scientology has built bespoke centres for its celebrity disciples. These include John Travolta, Kirstie Alley - who claims it rescued her from drug dependency - Juliette Lewis and Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson.

Tom Cruise is also a vocal supporter, and says it was Scientology which enabled him to overcome childhood dyslexia. His former wife Nicole Kidman was also a follower when the two were married, but doesn't seem to be making the meetings these days.

The Church Of Scientology was founded by the famously eccentric science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, who built his church by fusing insights from psychotherapy with some very outlandish notions - these include the bad energy, or Body Thetans, exuded by the disembodied souls which fell into Hawaiian volcanoes in something called the Xenu incident 75 million years ago, which remains a hazard for today's celebrity seekers.

If this sounds like a notion from the kind of science fiction which Hubbard himself wrote, it hasn't dissuaded hundreds of thousands of people from signing up.

Many of these claim it has had a huge impact on their lives - curing everything from learning difficulties to drug problems - and enabled them to begin ascending a ladder towards the Utopian 'State Of Clear' where they are free from all worries and irrational fears.


In Hollywood, at least, Scientology may be losing ground to the version of Kabbalah espoused by Rabbi Philip Berg, which is acquiring well-known disciples by the score.

Madonna and her film director husband Guy Ritchie are only two of the most vocal of the famous celebs who've adopted the sect's trademark red wool bracelet, designed to ward off the evil eye. Others include Britney, Barbra Streisand, Mick Jagger, Jeff Goldblum, Roseanne, Elizabeth Taylor and Naomi Campbell.

Some reports have suggested that even Posh and Becks have been spotted wearing the red bracelet, though it doesn't seem to have done much for their ability to score hits or penalties.

Kabbalah itself is a venerable aspect of the Jewish tradition, dating back at least nine centuries, possibly earlier. Its mystic texts, such as the Zohar, or Book Of Splendour, are said to unravel the deepest mysteries of existence but are also so exquisitely arcane that some rabbis advised that no-one should attempt to read them before they reached 40.

The version of Kabbalah which Rabbi Berg preaches is rather more approachable, with 'speed meditations' and astrology and numerology packaged in easy-to-swallow books and lectures with titles like 'Making Love Last' and 'Overcoming Our Hidden Addictions'.

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