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Scientology is arguably the most controversial ‘religion’ of this age. I say ‘religion’ because it is only recognised as one in eight countries: the United States, South Africa, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal and Spain. The rest of the world doesn’t see Scientology as a religion—in fact, France officially classes it as a cult.
It didn’t begin the way most religions do, either. L. Ron Hubbard, born in 1911, was a prolific but poor pulp fiction author, writing hundreds of science fiction and fantasy stories for which he was paid only a penny a word. His life changed utterly in 1948 when he excitedly told his publisher that he had written “THE book” and that it would be more important than the bible. This was the manual for his system of Dianetics, the first seed of what would later become Scientology. The book set out his belief that the human mind records all experiences, whether it is conscious or not. Bad experiences, or “engrams”, are stored in the unconscious or “reactive” mind, and the cause of all suffering both physically and mentally. Therapy or “auditing” allowed patients to re-live these bad experiences, and so reach a state of ‘Clear’ in which their brain functioned at a higher level and they were free of all health problems. It was an idea people wanted to believe in: the book sold 55,000 copies within the first year, and five hundred auditing groups were set up across the US.
In 1952 Hubbard moved to Arizona and set up the Hubbard Association of Scientologists, leaving Dianetics behind. The official reason for this was that he’d reached the limits of the system, but critics argue it was because he’d lost the copyright, and didn’t feel he had enough control over all the auditing groups. The new system, which he called the “Science of Certainty”, expanded upon Dianetics but now stated that some of the engrams revealed through auditing were actually memories from past lives. This is because the true self is actually an immortal cosmic being called a “thetan”. The thetans created the universe, but then were made to forget their god-like powers and became trapped in human bodies. Scientology and the auditing process promises to restore them to Operating Thetans. The system sets out different OT levels at which different thetan powers become re-available, including physic telekinesis, and eventually leading to level 20, ‘Galatic Commander’. That all sounds great, and to be honest I’d sign up myself—if each level didn’t cost thousands of dollars to do.
This is one of the—many—controversies of the Church of Scientology. Some claim that scientology only became a religion to benefits from tax exemption. The fact that reaching the higher levels of the church involves spending hundreds of thousands of dollars is yet more proof to some that the C of S is nothing but a money-grabbing scheme. A lot of Church doctrine is only available to those who’ve spent a certain amount, though the Church claims that this is because such knowledge would be damaging to learn before one had reached the appropriate level. This includes the very strange thetan creation myth, which explains that 75 million years ago an intergalactic dictator called Xenu brought aliens to Earth, killed them with hydrogen bombs and then trapped their spirits in human bodies. They were then brainwashed and fed images of a false history, including other religions, before becoming the people we are today. The only reason this story is now public knowledge is through various leaks from Scientology defectors and through the internet. The Church has fought to keep the story secret and pursued legal action against many of those who have had it leaked.
However, a fair amount of legal action has been direction against the Church itself. In 1978 a number of high-ups in the organisation, including Hubbard’s wife, were convicted of breaking into, wiretapping and stealing documents from government offices, aiming to destroy records which were negative about Hubbard and the group. Other illegal activities by the C of S include deliberate intimidation, harassment and attempts to frame people for crimes. Most infamous, their Operation Freakout aimed to have journalist Paulette Cooper arrested and hospitalised, and involving framing her for bomb threats. This was in response to her writing a book about them, and represents the Church’s typical response to public critics.
Despite these controversies, Scientology does have a fairly large following. It claims to be the fastest growing religion in the world, but this has been disputed. A reasonable estimate puts the world-wide figure between 100,000 and 200,000. This includes some celebrities, most prominently Tom Cruise and John Travolta, both of whom have been prominent spokesmen for the group.