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Excursions in Scientology

by Sean Magner / 31.05.2011

The facade of the building in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD is so unassuming that you’ve probably passed it plenty of times before. When I ask where the Church of Scientology is, the doorman happily directs me to the second floor. No hint of suspicion as to why I’m seeking L. Ron Hubbard.

Reaching the Church entrance, Jik-soaked linoleum makes me knock harder than I intended.

This is not a Church; it’s a generic office. Bleached pine bookcases line the walls, stacked with Scientology books and DVDs. I am greeted by Garth.

He’s suspicious and unwilling to let down his guard. I tell him that I’m writing an article on Scientology and his face becomes a scowl. To save the story, I tell Garth how I can’t handle all the bias and unsubstantiated claims about his religion online. I tell him I’ve come for an honest account.

Garth still declines.

I get palmed off on Russell. Russell sounds like he comes from the Northern suburbs and is a lot more media-savvy, welcoming and less rigid. Turns out he was raised by Scientologists and is an avid believer.

Russ tells me of the book that started it all: L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. It’s an attempt to re-evaluate the mind’s potential, Russell tells me, the only self-help philosophy you’ll ever need. In Dianetics, the mind is analytical and reactive. So far so duh. The analytical side handles reason-based issues, logic and deduction in your day to day life. Whereas the reactive side is the source of irrational behaviour and emotional memory. For an outfit that hates psychology, this was a pretty basic Freudian breakdown.

1950s Sci-Fi writer L. Ron Hubbard

Ah but this is not full-on Scientology yet. Scientology is the belief-system that implements (for a price, of course) practices derived from Dianetics and used ultimately to reach a state of nirvana, or Clear, as they call it. The believer must advance (expensively) to higher and higher (strictly confidential to outsiders) levels called “OT levels”. OT stands for Operating Thetan, or something. In Scientology, the concept of Thetan is similar to the concept of spirit or soul found in other belief systems. Basically Clear is only attainable via the guided study of Scientology which always entails a deeper understanding of yourself. Enigmatically, Russell says, “What is true for you, is true for you!” I was impressed by the open, seemingly liberal approach.

Then Russell laid on introductory DVDs and a copy of IMPACT: The magazine of the International Association of Scientologists. I page through and pick out peppy phrases like “something CAN be done about it.” Russell confirms that the “it” can be anything from Japan’s disaster relief, stability in Haiti, solving Palestine, or ending conflict in Pakistan. I was beginning to see why Tom Cruise gets so overexcited and jumps on sofas. Something can be done about it! Scientology seemed to be about unyielding optimism and bullet-proof positivity. Images of impoverished third world children were on every second page. Something can be done! It was already starting to feel a little weird.

L Ron Hubbard

The first article is by L. Ron Hubbard, the man, the enigma himself. Hubbard’s awful writing is the nonsensical babbling of a drunk dude on a power trip. He goes on and on about nuclear warfare and the dangers of “Anglo-American civilisation”. It’s the mindspill of a crank. In the accompanying photo, his plump face gleams in a Vaseline-tinted light from straight-to-video 80s porn flicks. L. Ron wears a silk cravat for god’s sake. The blatant attempt to paint Hubbard as a modern-day messiah really turns me off. Blind hero-worship seems the basis of this entire faith.

Russell rattles on about the hazards of accumulating “engrams” in your reactive mind and the runaway dangers of psychiatric medicine. An “engram” is defined as “a mental image picture which is a recording of an experience containing pain, unconsciousness and a real or fancied threat to survival”. Tom Cruise famously berated Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressants after her pregnancy. America basically told him to mind his own business. I suddenly notice how every piece of instructional material loudly emphasises its copyright. Why turn your religion into a brand? Is that what faith is about? Marketing products.

L. Ron Hubbard conducting a Dianetics Seminar in 1950

Garth re-join us and I stir the pot. “How do you respond to people who call this religion a cult? Shows like South Park have made fun of Hubbard’s ideas about intergalactic warriors, and the media has criticised the shunning of defectors.” Garth looks angrily at Russell. He starts blaming “the corporations” and heads of on a long rant. My departure is pretty strained. Poor Russell.

After wading through all the introductory material, it’s the pyramid scheme come pseudo-faith aspect of Scientology that really gets me. It is based on a fantasy-writer’s fevered dreams. Now it preys on and prospers off regular people with genuine questions and concerns about their well-being and the future. Scientology is increasingly moving into the “global south”, developing societies like our own where customers are generally less educated and more easily seduced by the promise of “solutions”. Scientology also uses faraway Third World suffering as a form of cultural capital, turning our social problems into the pro-active material rich people “back home” can delude themselves into believing they can cure. Help liberate these poor people and show how much better we are than any other faith; “fill their lives with the happiness you receive from L. Ron Hubbard.” As the Beatles said, “the best things in life are free”. So why pay for the happiness that you get from simply helping others?

*Watch South Park’s riotous take down of Scientology here.

** Images sourced Wikimedia Commons.

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