The faded little downtown area of Clearwater, Florida, has a beauty salon, a pizza parlor and one or two run-down bars, as well as a bunch of withered bungalows and some old storefronts that look as if they haven't seen customers in years. There are few cars and almost no pedestrians. There are, however, buses — a fleet of gleaming white and blue ones that slowly crawl through town, stopping at regular intervals to discharge a small army of tightly organized, young, almost exclusively white men and women, all clad in uniform preppy attire: khaki, black or navy-blue trousers and crisp white, blue or yellow dress shirts. Some wear pagers on their belts; others carry brief-cases. The men have short hair, and the women keep theirs pulled back or tucked under headbands that match their outfits. No one crosses against the light, and everybody calls everybody else "sir" — even when the "sir" is a woman. They move throughout the center of Clearwater in tight clusters, from corner to corner, building to building.
This regimented mass represents the "Sea Organization," the most dedicated and elite members of the Church of Scientology. For the past thirty years, Scientology has made the city of Clearwater its worldwide spiritual headquarters — its Mecca, or its Temple Square. There are 8,300 or so Scientologists living and working in Clearwater — more than in any other city in the world outside of Los Angeles. Scientologists own more than 200 businesses in Clearwater. Members of the church run schools and private tutoring programs, day-care centers and a drug-rehab clinic. They sit on the boards of the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce and the Boy Scouts.
In July 2004, The St. Petersburg Times dubbed Clearwater, a community of 108,000 people, "Scientology's Town," On the newspaper's front page was a photograph of Scientology's newest building, a vast, white, Mediterranean Revival-style edifice known within Scientology circles as the "Super Power" building. Occupying a full square block of downtown, this structure, which has been under construction since 1998, is billed as the single largest Scientology church in the world. When it is finally completed — presumably in late 2006, at an estimated final cost of $50 million — it will have 889 rooms on six floors, an indoor sculpture garden and a large Scientology museum. The crowning touch will be a two-story, illuminated Scientology cross that, perched atop the building's highest tower, will shine over the city of Clearwater like a beacon.
Scientology — the term means "the study of truth," in the words of its founder and spiritual messiah, the late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard-calls itself "the world's fastest-growing religion." Born in 1954, the group now claims 10 million members in 159 countries and more than 6,000 Scientology churches, missions and outreach groups across the globe. Its holdings, which include real estate on several continents, are widely assumed to value in the billions of dollars. Its missionaries — known as "volunteer ministers" — take part in "cavalcades' throughout the developing world and have been found, en masse, at the site of disasters ranging from 9/11 to the Asian tsunami to Hurricane Katrina. Within the field of comparative religions, some academics see Scientology as one of the must significant new religious movements of the past century.
Scientology is also America's most controversial religion: widely derided, but little understood. It is rooted in elements of Buddhism, Hinduism and a number of Western philosophies, including aspects of Christianity. The French sociologist Regis Dericquebourg, an expert in comparative religions, explains Scientology's belief system as one of "regressive utopia," in which man seeks to return to a once-perfect state through a variety of meticulous, and rigorous, processes intended to put him in touch with his primordial spirit. These processes are highly controlled, and, at the advanced levels, highly secretive. Critics of the church point out that Scientology, unique among religions, withholds key aspects of its central theology from all but its most exalted followers. To those in the mainstream, this would be akin to the Catholic Church refusing to tell all but a select number of the faithful that Jesus Christ died for their sins.
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