William Burroughs was a member, John Travolta still is and Nicole Kidman would rather not discuss Tom Cruise's invovement. Scientology was founded by sci-fi hack L. Ron Hubbard not long after he said that, "If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion." Its doctrine contains stories about clams and space aliens named Xenu and the cult's props include funky alfoil hats and mind reading machines made of tin cans. Whilst there are plenty of cults out there to ridicule, Scientology is streets ahead because of its patent nuttiness, transparent money-grabbing and appallingly aggressive (and generally ineffectual) attempts at suppressing criticism. For sheer entertainment value and ever increasing heights of absurdity, Scientology wins every time.
The Church of Scientology professes a 'religion' which consists of a bizarre mishmash of dangerously pseudo-scientific psychotherapy, rampant paranoia, technocratic jargon and third rate science fiction. Their key beliefs stem from L. Ron Hubbard's book Dianetics, which proposes that psychological trauma is located within the body in the form of 'engrams' carried by 'thetans' - little demon things that reside within your body and carry the pain of past lives. As they feed off trauma, they encourage their host to undergo traumatic experiences, thus establishing that someone hosting body thetans (and that's everyone bar the most 'advanced' Scientologists) cannot be relied upon to accurately judge what's best for themselves.
My personal favourite example of thetan effects is Hubbard's clam story. Humans are, in Hubbard's cosmology, directly descended from sand clams that lived along surf-pounded shore lines and because of the action of waves, these clams were caught in a constant dilemma - they did not know whether they should open or close themselves, depending on whether they were under or out of the water. Body thetans in the clams fed off this trauma and now reside in human beings where they continue to inflict their painful memories on their hosts such that someone who mimics the action of the clam with their hands is able to invoke the body thetans in another person who will experience a pain in their jaw. Got that? Snap your fingers at someone and nasty demons give them a sore throat. The same applies to the trauma your thetans feed off in the lives of their previous human hosts. Chances are you're bearing the anguish of drug addiction and incest whether you know it or not. Oh, and did I mention that body thetans are actually the souls of space aliens that were exiled to earth around 76 million years ago by galactic overlord Xenu where they were locked in volcanoes and forced to watch confusing movies for 36 hours before being blasted apart by nuclear bombs? L. Ron said so, anyway.
The key to Scientology is not their beliefs, though, but rather the system of induction and conditioning of recruits that propels the 'raw meat' into total dependence on the Scientology organisation and makes them willing to devote every skerrick of time and money they command to the service of Scientology. In order to free oneself from the aforementioned thetan influence one must undergo 'Clearing Operations' that purge one of body thetans and their persuasive ways. Like most other Scientology techniques, this is a justification that encourages subjects to submit to a series of brainwashing techniques that impede critical thinking and normative socialisation (and needless to say, the Chruch of Scientology charges thousands of dollars for these services). Still, according to Scientology's doctrines, the pursuit of clearing will allow one to become a 'free thetan' with superhuman powers that include foreseeing the future, telekinesis and whatever else Hubbard's drug-addled brain dreamt up. Giving away your time, money and sanity could sell be worth it after all.
Their initial selling routine isn't as nutty as this, though. If you've ever come across a Scientologist (their Perth 'org' (office) is on Murray Street and has a new-agey landscape painting on the front), you'll have come across the 'free personality test' which - surprise, surprise - will identify an area of your personality where you'll need to conduct some self improvement work, which (you guessed it) is offered in the form of courses conducted by the Church of Scientology (for a fee). During this process you'll be subjected to a range of interrogation techniques such as being left in small rooms for long periods of time whilst test results are processed. Needless to say, the course that's offered is just the start of a lifetime of courses and psychological 'Operations' that Scientology will attempt to convince you that you desperately need. Their costs rise incrementally into the tens of thousands and if you don't have the cash, you can always dedicate every waking hour of your life to unpaid work for the organisation in return for these services.
Because it's a cult that thrives on the complete submission of its members to the organisation's demands, Scientologists live in a strange world of their own and follow the 'scientifically' determined pronouncements of L. Ron Hubbard that provide the 'correct' response in any given situation. Indeed, these responses are conditioned into the subject in 'drills.' Besides the destruction of rational thought processes this involves, the conditioned responses are often nonsensical and even contradictory, which produces people unable to function normally or communicate coherently - the twisted jargon and confused syntax of the committed Scientologist has to be experienced to be believed. A quick chat with a Scientology spokesperson is an exercise in severe weirdness the moment you move away from the topics they've been prepared to discuss.
There's a wealth of material on Scientology on the web, largely in protest against the cult's attempt to suppress criticism and control the circulation of Scientology's 'teachings.' The weird science fiction parts of Scientology (such as the Xenu story) are regarded as confidential by the cult, which has attempted to enforce the secrecy of these documents through copyright law and their classification as trade secrets (and you thought they were a religion? Well, that's what they tell the tax office). The cult justifies their secrecy by asserting that exposure to knowledge of these materials - if not conducted under controlled conditions (and accompanied by appropriate payment) - will result in a backlash staged by body thetans that results in incurable insomnia leading to drug addiction and death. If you read the third paragraph of this article, I guess you're in trouble. Perhaps more alarmingly, Scientology documents condone the suppression of dissent by and means necessary and assert that the best means of defense is attack through smear campaigns and by levelling allegations of criminality at their critics, who this extremely paranoid organisation says are part of a conspiracy of psychiatrists, communists, nazis and financiers.
Scientology may well have begun as a cynical money-making exercise on behalf of Hubbard, but as its number swelled and its devotion to its founder increased, Hubbard's tenuous grip on reality completely slipped and he created an organisation that mirrored his seemingly schizoid and paranoiac persona. The vehemence of its attacks of critics, immense wealth and effectiveness of its induction techniques has produced an organisation that survived the death of its founder, held together as it was by distrust of the outside world which Scientologists are left unable to cope with. The organisation may be gradually shrinking and has been slowly ossifying since Hubbard's death, but nonetheless stands as a testament to the power of social control techniques. The extremity of Scientology's control strategies may be unusual, but it does provide a case that's perhaps only a more visible example of the tactics employed by more accepted groups such as the armed forces who are equally keen to fashion raw recruits into dedicated cadre. And worst of all, they're not even as amusing as Scientology.
By Alistair Duncan