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                                  Sunday Times

                           September  15, 1996, Sunday

SECTION: Features

LENGTH: 1192 words

HEADLINE:  Cult of Ron beams in from the heavens

    John Travolta says it changed his life, Tom Cruise claims it helped
him to overcome dyslexia, and Sharon Stone, Priscilla Presley, Demi Moore
and Shirley MacLaine are all devotees. All right, some Hollywood stars
have lifts that stop short of the penthouse, but if the Church of
Scientology is not only acceptable but positively trendy in the media
capital of the world, why is there so much alarm here about its
forthcoming advertisements on British television? Is the controversial Ron
Hubbard, founder of the church, still pulling the strings from his
celestial abode in the sky? 

    The commercial - approved by the Independent Television Commission for
broadcasting on the satellite channels UK Gold and UK Living this
Wednesday - seems innocent enough, if not everyone's cup of tea. The
single word "trust" is intoned by smiling people of various nationalities,
after which a voice sonorously announces over triumphant music: "On the
day we can fully trust each other there will be peace on earth." Well,
thank you for sharing that with us, as they say in California. 

    The trouble for the Church of Scientology (not recognised as a bona
fide religion under British law), is that those not privy to its inner
secrets find it either risible or sinister. Ian Howarth, general secretary
of the Cult Information Centre in London, says: "I am very concerned for
the welfare of anybody who might finish up going along to a Scientology
meeting after seeing these ads." Yet can anyone who believes that the
amount of pain a tomato feels can be measured by attaching electrodes to
its skin really represent a threat to the nation's moral fibre? 

    We have Lafayette Ron Hubbard to blame for the quandary we find
ourselves in. Ron (or LRH, as he is respectfully known to Scientologists)
was the portly science fiction writer who put the show on the road in
1950. According to Ron (who once claimed to have visited Venus), we are
each merely the temporal vessel for immortal souls called Thetans, who
created the universe. The Thetans' eternal enemies are Engrams, disruptive
forces planted in our universe from outside the galaxy. Through
"dianetics" - an intense form of therapy influenced by both western
psychology and oriental religion - the Engrams can be purged. 

    In practical terms, the level of Engrams in a person can allegedly by
measured by an invention of Ron's - the E-meter. This consists of a small
box with two electrodes attached that passes a current of 1.5 volts
through the body (or even a tomato), and registers the result on a needle
that swings all over the place - rather like a lie detector. An "auditor"
listens, as the "pre-clear" (someone burdened by the past) talks about his
problems in an attempt to become "clear" of Engrams. 

    People pay quite a lot to be Engram-free, and, with a claimed 8m
members world-wide (100,000 of whom are supposed to be in the UK),
Scientology is big business. Its income has been estimated at Pounds 200m
a year, with additional assets of Pounds 270m. 

    Ron spotted the potential from the start, reportedly remarking to a
colleague at a sci-fi convention in 1948 that the best way to make money
would be to start a religion. 

     Scientology's British headquarters is Saint Hill Manor, near East
Grinstead in West Sussex (a former home of the Maharajah of Jaipur), which
Ron bought in 1959, and where he lived for seven years. There, in
oak-panelled rooms, students pore over Ron's huge literary output
(according to the church his book, Dianetics, has sold 16m copies), and
about 300 staff are dressed in dark blue naval uniforms, complete with
epaulettes. This unusual kit is in recognition of what church members
regard as Ron's heroic career in the American navy in the second world
war. (Critics claim that "Commodore" Ron was once officially assessed as
being "not temperamentally fitted for independent command"). As in all
Scientology churches an empty office with a commodore's peaked cap on the
desk is set aside in memory of the sea-crazy Hubbard. 

    Criticisms of Scientology have taken several forms. In Germany (where
there are reputedly 30,000 members), the authorities - ever-sensitive to
perceived threats to German democracy - have alleged a conspiracy. Ursula
Caberta, a former Social Democrat politician, who now heads an official
working group set up to combat the cult, says: "There was once a guy in
Germany who wrote a book, and we all said he was a bit crazy. That guy was
Adolf Hitler, and I take Hubbard very seriously.  Scientology is a state
within a state, and it has to be combated. The aim is to take over the
planet. That's no joke."

    The youth movement of the German Christian Democrats feels so strongly
that last month it called for a boycott of Mission: Impossible, the latest
Tom Cruise film, but Scientologists dismiss German allegations as fantasy.
Indeed, through a series of advertisements that featured pictures of
Nuremberg rallies and concentration camps, they have succeeded in
persuading some segments of the American public that the Germans are
guilty of the old sin of religious intolerance. 

    Most criticism in Britain has concentrated on the way in which people
can allegedly be persuaded to part with large sums of money to undergo
"auditing" sessions. Graham Baldwin, director of Catalyst, a charity in
London that counsels people who have become victims of cultist groups,
provides a recent example. A man who had picked up a pamphlet from the
Church of Scientology, and subsequently agreed to a personality test,
managed to spend Pounds 28,000 on "auditing" in six weeks. To raise the
money he cashed in an endowment policy intended to be protection for his
Down's syndrome daughter. His wife only discovered the transaction by
accident, with unhappy results for the marriage. Baldwin has repeatedly
called the Church of Scientology to discuss the case, but says he has so
far had no response. 

    The initial video that most newcomers to the church buy is essentially a
sales pitch for huge amounts of further material, with deeper secrets of
Scientology  being revealed for larger cheques. If a deity was being
worshipped, the slogan could well be "Pay as you Pray".

    The difficulty is that people must be presumed to act of their own
free will in taking such decisions, and there is an obvious difference
between financial imprudence and coercion. The same principle applies to
allegations that Scientologists have broken up families by "brainwashing"
youngsters. Those who turn to cults often already have family problems.
Hubbard's own children did not appear to gain much benefit from his
discoveries. His elder son left the church in 1959 - publicly branding his
father "insane" - and his other son committed suicide in 1976 (Hubbard
himself died 10 years later). 

    In the latest television campaign another advertisement for
Scientology shows a girl manipulating a man's dour face. "Force yourself
to smile and you'll stop frowning," she says. "Force yourself to laugh and
you'll find something to laugh at." Perhaps the members of the Church of
Ron will one day take their own advice, and look in the mirror. 

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