The Church of Scientology is 50 years old this year, having survived its skeptics and detractors, an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and John Travolta's box-office flop, "Battlefield Earth," based on a science fiction novel by the church's founder L. Ron Hubbard.
The church's 50th anniversary makes it a young religion as far as religions go but also attests to its staying power.
According to Scientology headquarters in Los Angeles, the church now claims more than 8 million members in 159 countries. The current president of the Church of Scientology International is a former Utahn, Heber C. Jentzsch, who grew up as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and attended the University of Utah. As he once explained to TV interviewer Larry King, Scientology provided him with answers to questions such as "Who am I? What am I doing here? What are these other people doing here?"
The Salt Lake Church of Scientology numbers between 200 and 300 parishioners, according to lay minister the Rev. Phillip Parke. It operates out of a two-story office building in Sugar House that includes "auditing" rooms, a sauna and a small chapel where services are held on Sunday mornings. Attending a Sunday service for the first time provides only a tiny glimpse of the church's complex philosophy.
The service begins with a reading of the "Creed of the Church of Scientology," written by Hubbard, a short treatise on integrity, written by Hubbard, and a sermon from a large, gold leaf copy of "The Background, Ministry, Ceremonies and Sermons of the Scientology Religion," also written by Hubbard. The founder of Scientology was a prolific man. Before he died in 1986, at age 74, he had written not only more than 200 science fiction novels but 31 church-related books, including "The Road to Truth" and "All About Radiation."
After the sermon comes the heart of the Sunday service — "group processing" — which on a recent morning included the following exercise, also written by Hubbard. Minister Judy Steed, a cheerful, intense woman, instructed us to find the floor, to locate the chair we are sitting in, to observe the front wall, the side walls and the wall behind us. We did this again and again, finding the floor, the chair, the walls, the ceiling, observing the distance between ourselves and the ceiling and walls.
"Now," the Rev. Steed said, "find the distance between yourself and your eyeballs."
The Rev. Steed never drew any conclusions for us, but the implication was that if we can separate ourselves from our eyeballs, in the same way we can separate ourselves from the material world around us, we can realize that we are not our bodies but something else. If this sounds a lot like the mind-body dualism philosopher Rene Descartes postulated 350 years ago, Hubbard was quick to point out that Scientology is the one religion to have figured out the real truth: man's real self is neither body nor mind but spirit. And if that sounds a lot like what other religions might call a soul,
Hubbard explained his difference: a thetan — the Scientology term for the spiritual essence that is each person — survives not in some nebulous Afterlife but again and again on Earth, not reincarnated as another person or another life-form but coming back as itself in a different body. Scientology is the first religion to understand death, Hubbard said.
Scientologists are not afraid of hyperbole. The Church of Scientology International, which authored "What Is Scientology?" based on the writings of Hubbard, notes that between 1970 and 1973 Hubbard made "the first significant advances on the subject of logic since ancient Greece" and that Hubbard "has become one of the most beloved men in history."
Four years before Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology he wrote a book called "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health," in which he outlined his theories of the mind, and a "technology" that can help a regular person ruled by fears, doubts and lousy communication skills progress into an enlightened person known as a "Clear."
Most people, Hubbard writes, are ruled by their "reactive" mind, which unconsciously stores mental pictures ("engrams") of distressing experiences. In a sense, says Salt Lake Scientologist Rob Magiera, these engrams act the way post-hypnotic suggestions do, commanding our subconscious to respond, in this case with fear or anger or a host of other irrational emotions. Auditing, the Rev. Parke explains, "gradiently improves a person's ability to confront" these repressed experiences and to "refile" them in what Hubbard called the "analytical mind."
Little by little, the person is helped to confront difficult experiences, starting with minor hurts (a burned finger, for example) and eventually more painful experiences, until these no longer have an effect on him, Rev. Parke explains. The full explanation of the process required many hundreds of pages in "Dianetics," he adds.
Don't confuse auditing with psychotherapy, he says. "If I go into a psychotherapist's office, they won't have a chart like this," he says, pointing to an intricate poster called "The Bridge to Total Freedom" that lists the dozens of steps between now and "Clear" and beyond, to a state Hubbard calls Operating Thetan XV. An Operating Thetan "is able to control matter, energy, space and time."
The main difference between auditing and psychotherapy, says Rev. Parke, is that auditing is "spiritual counseling."
Typical psychotherapy "doesn't give you anything immediate," Scientologist Joava Good says, whereas "Scientology is a philosophy and a religion you can apply today and get results." Scientologists are especially opposed to psychiatry and its overuse of psychotropic drugs. In 1969, the church established the Citizens Commission on Human Rights to eliminate what it calls "harmful practices in the field of mental health."
The CCHR has long lobbied against antidepressants and electroshock therapy, and against the use of Ritalin for children with ADHD. It also contends that depression, hyperactivity and other mental and behavioral problems are largely incorrect diagnoses that "cover symptoms and don't handle the real problems," which may be physical or spiritual, says Sandra Lucas, executive director of the Utah Chapter of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights.
The church's auditing sessions are conducted using a Hubbard invention called the electropsychometer, or e-meter. Scientologists refer to it as a "religious artifact" and explain that since engrams have "weight and mass," the e-meter can measure them and their effect on a person's mental state. The e-meter consists of a gauge and two metal rods, held in each hand, that emit a small electrical current. Church dogma, the Rev. Parke says, is that no one is allowed to alter the auditing technology.
Auditing doesn't come cheap. Sold in groups of 12 half-hour sessions — "fixed donations," the church calls it — the entire auditing process could easily cost $100,000, he says. But all churches raise money one way or another, he notes.
"A couple of years ago I added up how much I spent," says Rob Magiera, who has been a Scientologist for 26 years, "and it added up to about how much a person would tithe to his church, or a little less."
The money raised by the auditing sessions and by classes to train auditors is used to run the worldwide church, pay staff members and fund charities such as the "drug-free marshals" program for children and humanitarian programs such as its current relief efforts for the victims of Hurricane Ivan, the Rev. Parke says. The church operates retreats, The Saint Hill College for Scientologists in England, a 444-foot ship, and lavish "Celebrity Centres" in Hollywood, Paris and other cities.
The church's most famous celebrities include John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Nancy Cartwright, who is the voice of Bart Simpson. Locally, says the Rev. Parke, the church counts among its members people who are LDS and Catholic.
Scientology is an "applied religious philosophy" so it's possible to be both a Scientologist and any other religion, he says. Hubbard's credo on integrity reminds that "nothing in Dianetics and Scientology is true for you unless you have observed it and it is true according to your observation." Members can decide for themselves whether they believe in God — what Scientologists typically refer to as a Supreme Being. The Rev. Parke guesses that more do believe than don't.
Where most Western religions are about faith, church member Magiera says, Scientology is about "bringing change through doing and applying." Some have argued that this makes Scientology not quite a religion, but several courts have disagreed, and in 1993 the IRS recognized the tax-exempt status of the church.
A religion, says local church member Lora Mengucci, director of Special Affairs, is an entity that has "a belief in some Ultimate Reality" that transcends the here and now of the secular world; religious practices directed toward "understanding, attaining or communing with" this Ultimate Reality; and a community of believers who join together in pursuing this Ultimate Reality.
Fifty years after its founding, the Church of Scientology continues to inspire controversy. In California earlier this summer, the head of the state's public schools hired a research group to evaluate the Narcanon anti-drug program, in use in some of the state's schools. School officials worry that the program is scientifically unsound and that it is tied too closely to Scientology teachings. Church officials say that Narcanon is a non-sectarian program but do acknowledge that Narcanon employees tend to be Scientologists and that the curriculum was developed by Hubbard. That curriculum includes Hubbard's beliefs that drugs accumulate indefinitely in body fat and thus must be detoxified by saunas and doses of niacin.
"The drug program is quite successful," argues Dr. J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion and considered an expert on new and non-conventional religions. "It has a very high non-recidivism rate. And their literacy program changes the life of the people who go through it," says Melton, the author of "The Church of Scientology," published in 2000 by Signature Books of Salt Lake City.
Melton says Scientology's early critics, in the 1960s, accused it of practicing medicine without a license because of the auditing sessions and the e-meter. So the church set up an entity known as the Guardians Office, Melton recounts. "The Guardians Office tried to get government files, and when they couldn't, they started a project to infiltrate government offices: the CIA, the FBI, the post office, the IRS." In the end, he says, "the people who did this were convicted only of stealing Xerox paper; it was a technical charge." After that, in the early 1980s, the church "cleaned house," he says, and some of those who were fired from the Guardians Office became some of the church's harshest critics.
"One of the questions we continually talk about," says Melton, "is the intensity of the opposition to Scientology." The reason for it, he guesses, is the church's success — and the fact that, as he says, "the church fights back. I tend to think they make a mountain out of a molehill. It's like a pitbull: if you attack, it will come back at you."
Sandra Lucas, the director of the Utah chapter of the church's Citizens Commission on Human Rights, thinks the opposition to Scientology had its roots in the group's views on mental health, which galvanized the mental health community against the church.
"Like all new ideas, Scientology has come under attack by the uninformed and those who feel their vested interests are threatened," is the way the church's 737-page "What Is Scientology" explains criticisms of the church and its ideas.
Melton, who has been criticized by some for being too easy on Scientology, and has been criticized by the church for being too harsh, says that the church's estimates of its membership numbers — 4 million in the United States, 8 to 9 million worldwide — are exaggerated. "You're talking about anyone who ever bought a Scientology book or took a basic course. Ninety-nine percent of them don't ever darken the door of the church again." If the church indeed had 4 million members in the United States, he says, "they would be like the Lutherans and would show up on a national survey" such as the Harris poll.
In an effort to spread the word about its religion, the church is expanding its outreach program. In Salt Lake City that means not just a church in Sugar House and a mission downtown but a new, bright yellow van and a bright yellow tent. The tent is currently pitched at the Utah State Fair, where the church's "volunteer ministers" are spreading the gospel according to L. Ron Hubbard.