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Church That Ron Built

The Guardian, 29 August 1996, Page 2

Dangerous, sinister cult or a family-minded movement devoted to the spiritual welfare of all human beings? No other religious group provokes as much suspicion and hostility as the Church of Scientology - and no other religious group is so desperate for respectability. Madeleine Bunting visits Scientology HQ, centre of an insular and introverted community

A SERIES of people in different national costumes but identical toothpaste smiles pop up on the screen to utter in their language one word, "Trust". Triumphant music rises as the voice-over starts, "On the day we can fully trust each other there will be peace on earth. The Church of Scientology provides practical wisdom which it believes can help you to lead a happier and more fulfilling life."

This is the advert expected to reach thousands of homes this autumn when the Church of Scientology launches its first major television advertising campaign. It is guaranteed to provoke outrage from anti-cult monitoring groups for whom Scientologists are one of Britain's most dangerous and sinister movements. But the Scientologists, banned from the airwaves since 1993 - after "Trust" on satellite prompted one complaint - are celebrating their reprieve by the Independent Television Commission as one more sign of their acceptance into the mainstream.

More adverts are planned to follow "Trust". They have the same mawkish, platitudinous quality to them. A small boy sits disconsolate as one hat after another is crammed on to his head over a voice-track of, "Why don't you be a doctor, a teacher, do what your mother says ... " Eventually he himself chooses the hat he had been wearing in the first place - that of a fireman. "Be true to your own goals," growls the voice-over. Another advert features a girl sitting on a man's knee, manipulating his dour face: "Force yourself to smile and you'll stop frowning. Force yourself to laugh and you'll find something to laugh at ... A Being causes his own feelings. The greatest joy in life is creating. Splurge on it." Both adverts end with that perennial stock image of anything spiritual - a sunrise over a mountain.

The Scientologists are trying a new tack. After decades of an almost exclusively hostile press in the UK, and an increasingly aggressive campaign against them in Germany, they're trying a soft cuddly image of cute little children with a message of peace and love. Since their advert is barely distinguishable from the toilet paper genre, it's hard to imagine it attracting new followers into this bizarre belief system.

Scientology either provokes incredulous derision, or sinister allegations. This hostility appears to be affecting recruitment. According to Scientologist figures, in 1994 in the UK, 3,947 people "participated in services for the first time", that dropped to 3,066 in 1995 and so far this year it is only 1,991. What European Scientologists take comfort from is that for all the criticism on this side of the Atlantic, Scientology has become hip in the US. John Travolta pronounces in their introductory video for interested newcomers, "there's no part of my life which it hasn't helped". Tom Cruise readily admits to being a member. In Germany, Cruise's beliefs prompted an attempt at a mass boycott of his new film, Mission Impossible. But in the US, the celebrities are finally managing to confer on Scientology a respectability which has eluded it for nearly 50 years.

It is respectability that the Church of Scientology most wants. In their video, they make great play of the fact that 65 courts around the world have ruled that they are a religion, and most important of all, that the American tax authorities have given them tax-exempt status as a bona fide religion. Not in Britain. They have been rebuffed repeatedly by the Charity Commission which insisted as recently as last year that they could not be considered a religion under British law. But they are nothing if not persistent. Last week, three senior Scientologists set up a new company which has undertaken to comply with the terms of the 1993 Charities Act as part of a long-term strategy to win acceptance.

Few other new religious movements in the UK provoke as much suspicion as the Scientologists. In comparison, the Moonies are seen as bungling amateurs, an equally crazy belief system maybe, but good-natured people. The Scientologists, though, are seen by cult monitoring groups as really dangerous. In Germany, an extraordinary clampdown on Scientologists - they are banned from the major political parties and from the civil service in some states - is fuelled by the belief that their aim is to take over the planet and that they are obsessed with "power, money and manipulation".

There are two obvious reasons why the Scientologists scare everybody: they are rich and they attract a sizeable number of recruits. Most new religious movements struggle chaotically with a few donations and a tiny membership. For example, there are only 600 Moonies in the UK, and the vast majority of recruits leave within the first year. But the Scientologists are altogether different; they claim to have around 100,000 members in the UK and to attract several thousand every year, and they clearly have plenty of money. A clue to one lucrative source of income is that their video for newcomers is primarily a sales pitch to buy the vast tomes of Scientology scriptures with their message of eternal truth (copyright: Church of Scientology).

But if they want to recruit new members so what - what religion doesn't? Nor can one justify the wilder allegations of breaking up families or brainwashing - the two charges regularly flung at cults by that unholy alliance of self-appointed fanatical cult-watchers and tabloids. But the more sober academic analysis vindicates neither. It has proved hard to pin the breakdown of a family relationship solely to membership of the Scientologists; often the relationship was always problematic or the family can't accept this new preoccupation. Scientologists point to their code of ethics, of which number five is "Honour and Help your parents." As for brainwashing, there is no evidence that it is possible to force a set of beliefs on someone who is unwilling. It's a convenient but baseless way of explaining why on earth anyone would become a Scientologist.

Because, whatever way you look at it, Scientology to the outsider, appears completely loopy. The 300-odd staff at their Saint Hill Manor headquarters in Sussex wear dark blue naval uniform, complete with chains and epaulettes; they have committed themselves to the Sea Organisation - or the Org, as it is affectionately known - for a billion years. This originates in the passion for sailing of Scientology's founder, Lafayette Ron Hubbard - known as LRH.

Equally loopy is the Scientologists' habit of setting aside an office for LRH in each of their churches. The corporate-style nameplate sits on the unused desk beside the unused blotter and unused pens. The door is open, the lights are on, but no one goes beyond the red rope across the threshold. Sure enough, a brand new naval peaked cap - white, gold braid - sits on the desk commensurate with LRH's rank of commodore in the Org.

AT Saint Hill, LRH gets two offices: a new one in the lavish medieval-style castle study complex built after his death in 1986 and his original office in the manor which was his home for 20 years. The latter has been left untouched - his old pens, some notes - but the engagement calendar is kept up to date; the week beginning August 12 1996 is, of course, blank.

Everything in Scientology comes back to LRH. The photographs of this tubby short American sci-fi writer are everywhere. The 18th-century Saint Hill Manor is kept in an eerily perfect state as a shrine to the man. Every wooden table and marble mantlepiece gleams with polish, and rooms are delicately perfumed with the fresh-cut roses from the garden LRH used to tend. The study displays a selection of his enormous oeuvre as a writer which extends from pulp fiction in the thirties to sci-fi blockbusters such as Battlefield Earth.

LRH is lavishly praised as the Renaissance Man; all his achievements are endlessly detailed. Novelist, film-maker, photographer, musician, artist, educational theorist, management theorist as well as inventor, mariner and criminal reformer. On top of all that, he devised a drug rehabilitation programme, and of course, Scientology, a system of "applied religious philosphy" which he develops in more than 40 books which make up the "scriptures" of Scientology. These are the books which, according to Scientologists "contain the answers that human beings have been looking for for eternity".

Scientology is believed to be the summation of all previous religious insight, but it makes great play of being a belief system for the 20th century, and has the apparatus and language which reflects a technological age.

This explains the absurd dependence on a machine called the electropsychometer (E-meter) which LRH claimed could scientifically locate and measure pain. Holding two tin cans connected to the meter in your hands, memories of pain translate into electrical currents which allegedly register on a dial. When I held the cans, the needle lurched erratically with no pattern - there were good reasons for that, they told me ominously. The E-meter is used during "auditing" which is a central part of the Scientologists's spiritual path. The belief is that our behaviour is determined by our individual history of pain which causes us to react in a particular way. This is the source of all our human failings and if this pain can be dismantled, the spirit will be cleared to achieve its full potential. In individual sessions a Scientologist talks out his or her problems to a fellow Scientologist whose job is to prompt the talker, and listen without judgment.

It sounds much like counselling or psychotherapy, but to a Scientologist such a comparison is heresy. The great fraud of the 20th century has been the psychotherapeutic and psychiatric professions, according to LRH. Where many conspiracy theories orientate around a military-industrial complex, the Scientologists' seem to orientate around a psychiatric-industrial complex. Psychiatrists in league with government are inhibiting human spiritual development and infiltrating society with their poisonous drugs.

Apart from auditing, devout Scientologists must study LRH's works. In the oak-panelled study rooms of the castle at Saint Hill, heads are bent over the huge tomes, or are listening on headsets to some of the 2,500 tapes. Scientology claims to make you happier, think more clearly, unleash your full creative potential and achieve more in your career. There are more than 100 courses to take, leading to ever more specialised and rarified fields of Scientology knowledge. It's all laid out in an absurdly complicated table called the "Bridge to Total Freedom," a "classification, gradation and awareness chart of levels and certificates".

It is studying and auditing which Travolta claims has helped his career, deepening his insight into himself and others and developing his creativity. Scientology has a strong self-development ethos, claiming to improve your career and relationships, helping you to achieve your goals. Saint Hill last week was hosting a European Arts Festival and the place was teeming with families in painting, drama and music classes. There were Scientologists engrossed in offering counselling on careers or on artistic achievements. It was just the image the Scientologists want to project: harmless, devoted to the well-being of all human beings and family-minded.

SO are the Scientologists dangerous? The self-reflection involved in auditing probably can do some good - it's possible to discern some Buddhist principles about the programmed nature of the mind buried in Scientology - and while the studying may seem like a waste of time, it's difficult to see it actually harming people. The concern is that people find themselves caught into a spiral of expensive courses and auditing which is made all the more imperative by its claims to ultimate truth.

But perhaps the greatest concern is the nature of Scientologists themselves. After a visit, it is hard not to come away disturbed by their behaviour. The staff in the Org at Saint Hill manor all live on a big estate in Crowborough 13 miles away where their children attend a Scientology school. This is a deeply insular and introverted community which appears to have few normal contacts with the outsiders. That results in wariness. Perhaps after all the adverse publicity, it is not surprising that they are nervous. But they give a very good impression of people with something to hide.

The public relations team talk quite happily about LRH or auditing, but their answers have a bland, slippery quality - making extravagant claims, and quoting unheard of "experts" and inaccessible research to support the point - which don't add to their credibility. Questions about their plans to expand or why they get such critical media coverage prompt unconvincingly vague responses. Even quite simple queries can't be answered on the spot but are referred to nameless higher authorities. There's no sign of a sense of humour and not a hint of self-deprecation. They take themselves very, very seriously. Wrapped up in their world of Scientology, they seem to have forgotten how mighty strange they appear to us landlubbers.

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