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Inside Scientology

It is the most controversial religion in America, and the most mysterious. Its followers believe they’re on a mission to save the universe — but detractors call it a cult. What’s the truth? A 2006 special report that unlocks the faith’s complex code

American religious leader, science fiction novelist, L. Ron Hubbard, Church of Scientology, Saint Hill Manor

American religious leader and science fiction novelist L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the controversial Church of Scientology, stands outside his home, Saint Hill Manor in East Grinstead, England in circa 1960.

Express Newspapers/Getty

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. 

L. Ron Hubbard

In June of last year, I set out to discover Scientology, an undertaking that would take nearly nine months. A closed faith that has often been hostile to journalistic inquiry, the church initially offered no help on this story; most of my research was done without its assistance and involved dozens of interviews with both current and former Scientologists, as well as academic researchers who have studied the group, Ultimately, however, the church decided to co-operate and gave me unprecedented access to its officials, social programs and key religious headquarters. What I found was a faith that is at once mainstream and marginal — a religious community known for its Hollywood members but run by a uniformed sect of believers who rarely, if ever, appear in the public eye. It is an insular society — one that exists, to a large degree, as something of a parallel universe to the secular world, with its own nomenclature and ethical code, and, most daunting to those who break its rules, its own rigorously enforced justice system.

Scientologists, much like Mormons or Christian evangelicals, consider themselves to be on a mission. They frequently speak of “helping people,” and this mission is stressed in a number of church testaments. “Scientologists see themselves as possessors of doctrines and skills that can save the world, if not the galaxy.” says Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta, in Canada, who has extensively studied the group.

Church officials boast that Scientology has grown more in the past five years than in the previous fifty. Some evidence, however, suggests otherwise. In 2001, a survey conducted by the City University of New York found only 55,000 people in the United States who claimed to be Scientologists. Worldwide, some observers believe a reasonable estimate of Scientology’s core practicing membership ranges between 100,000 and 200,000, mostly in the U.S., Europe, South Africa and Australia. According to the church’s own course-completion lists — many of which are available in a church publication and on the Internet — only 6,126 people signed up for religious services at the Clearwater organization in 2004, down from a peak of 11,210 in 1989. According to Kristi Wachter, a San Francisco activist who maintains an online database devoted to Scientology’s numbers, this pattern is replicated at nearly all of Scientology’s key organizations and churches. To some observers, this suggests that Scientology may, in fact, be shrinking.

But discerning what is true about the Church of Scientology is no easy task. Tax-exempt since 1993 (status granted by the IRS after a long legal battle), Scientology releases no information about its membership or its finances. Nor does it welcome analysis of its writings or practices. The church has a storied reputation for squelching its critics through litigation, and according to some reports, intimidation (a trait that may explain why the creators of South Park jokingly attributed every credit on its November 2005 sendup of Scientology to the fictional John and Jane Smith; Paramount, reportedly under pressure, has agreed not to rerun the episode here or to air it in England). Nevertheless, Scientology’s critics comprise a sizable network of ex-members (or “apostates,” in church parlance), academics and independent free-speech and human-rights activists like Wachter, who have declared war on the group by posting a significant amount of previously unknown information on the Internet. This includes scans of controversial memos, photographs and legal briefs, as well as testimonials from disillusioned former members, including some high-ranking members of its Sea Organization. All paint the church in a negative, even abusive, light.

When asked what, if anything, posted by the apostates is true, Mike Rinder, the fifty-year-old director of the Church of Scientology International’s legal and public-relations wing, known as the Office of Special Affairs, says bluntly, “It’s all bullshit, pretty much.”

But he admits that Scientology has been on a campaign to raise its public profile. More than 23 million people visited the Scientology Web site last year, says Rinder, one of the highest-ranking officials in the church. In addition, the church claims that Scientology received 289,000 minutes of radio and TV coverage in 2005, many of them devoted to the actions of Tom Cruise, the most famous Scientologist in the world, who spent much of the spring and summer of 2005 promoting Scientology and its beliefs to interviewers ranging from Oprah Winfrey to Matt Lauer. 

Tom Cruise

Shortly after Rolling Stone decided to embark on this story, Cruise called our offices to say that he would not participate. Several weeks later, the magazine was visited by Cruise’s sister, Lee Anne DeVette, an upper-level Scientologist who until recently also served as Cruise’s publicist, along with Mike Rinder. Both expressed their dissatisfaction with previous coverage of Scientology by major media outlets, and they warned against what they perceived to be the unreliability of the faith’s critics — “the wackos,” as Rinder described them. He then invited Rolling Stone to Los Angeles to show us “the real Scientology” — a trip that took five months to set up.

A number of people who have spoken for the purposes of this article have done so for the very first time. Several, in speaking of their lives spent in the church, requested that their identities be protected through the change of names and other characteristics. Others insisted that not even a gender be attached to their comments.

There will always be schisms in any religious group, as well as people who, upon leaving their faith, decide to “purge” themselves of their experiences. This is particularly true in the case of members of so-called new religions, which often demand total commitment from their members. Scientology is one of these religions. “We’re not playing some minor game in Scientology,” Hubbard wrote in a policy paper titled “Keeping Scientology Working,” which is required reading for every member. “The whole agonized future of this planet, every man, woman and child on it, and your own destiny for the next endless trillions of years depend on what you do here and now with and in Scientology. This is a deadly serious activity.”

It is impossible to go anywhere in downtown Clearwater without being watched by security cameras. There are about 100 of them, set up on all of Scientology’s properties, which include several hotels, a former bank and a number of administrative buildings. Cameras face in, toward the buildings themselves, as well as out at the street.

While some might find this disconcerting, Natalie Walet, 17, thinks it’s normal. “It’s just a point of security,” she says over coffee one evening at the downtown Starbucks. She notes that Scientology’s buildings have been marred with graffiti and are routinely picketed, which she sees as a sign of religious bigotry. “You have a church that a lot of people don’t like, and some people are assholes,” she says. That said, Natalie adds, most people in Clearwater have “very high standards and morals — they’re ethical people.”

A pretty girl with a long black ponytail, Natalie was born and raised in Scientology. Both of her parents and her grandmother are church members, and her involvement in Scientology centers around Clearwater. But the church has other far-flung hubs, including the organizational headquarters in Los Angeles, home to the powerful Church of Scientology International; and Freewinds, the 440-foot cruise ship that docks in Curaçao and is used as a training facility, meeting hall and vacation destination for elite Scientologists, including Cruise and John Travolta. There is also “Gold Base,” the exclusive desert compound housing the Religious Technology Center, or RTC, the financial hub of the church, located about eighty miles southeast of Los Angeles, home to David Miscavige, the charismatic forty-five-year-old who heads up the international church.

Natalie’s everyday reality is one of total immersion in all things Hubbard. Scientology kids are raised in a very different manner than mainstream kids. Most of them, like Natalie, have been educated by special tutors, and enrolled, as Natalie was when she was younger, in private schools run by Scientologists that use a Hubbard-approved study technique. Most kids are also put “on course” — enrolled in classes at the church that teach both children and adults self-control, focus and communication skills. Natalie was put on course, upon her own insistence, when she was seven or eight years old. Between school and church, life was “kind of a bubble,” she says.

It is a steamy night, and Natalie is dressed in a sleeveless black Empire-waist blouse and tight jeans; her short, bitten nails are painted red. She lights a Marlboro Menthol. Smoking is Natalie’s only vice. She neither drinks nor takes drugs of any sort — “once in a grand while I’ll take a Tylenol,” she says. “But only if my headache is really bad.” She admits this with embarrassment because Scientologists consider many illnesses to be psychosomatic and don’t believe in treating them with medicine, even aspirin.

Like all Scientologists, Natalie considers her body to be simply a temporary vessel. She thinks of herself as an immortal being, or “thetan,” which means that she has lived trillions of years, and will continue to be reborn, again and again. Many Eastern religions have similar beliefs, and Natalic is quick to note that Scientology is “actually a very basic religion. It has a lot of the same moral beliefs as others.” What’s special about Scientology, Natalie says, is that it “bears a workable applied technology that you can use in your everyday life.”

“Technology,” or “tech,” is what Scientologists call the theories, methods and principles espoused by L. Ron Hubbard — “LRH,” as Natalie calls him. To the devout, he is part prophet, part teacher, part savior — some Scientologists rank Hubbard’s importance as greater than Christ’s — and Hubbard’s word is considered the word. Hubbard was a prolific writer all his life; there are millions of words credited to him, roughly a quarter-million of them contained within Dianetics, the best-selling quasiscientific self-help book that is the most famous Scientology text.

Published in 1950, Dianetics maintained that the source of mental and physical illness could be traced back to psychic scars called “engrams” that were rooted in early, even prenatal, experiences, and remained locked in a person’s subconscious, or “reactive mind.” To rid oneself of the reactive mind, a process known as going “Clear,” Dianetics, and later Scientology, preached a regressive-therapy technique called auditing, which involves re-experiencing incidents in one’s past life in order to erase their engrams.

Natalie is a fan of auditing, something she’s been doing since she was a small child. Most auditing is done with a device called the electropsychometer, or E-meter. Often compared to lie detectors, E-meters measure the changes in small electrical currents in the body, in response to questions posed by an auditor. Scientologists believe the meter registers thoughts of the reactive mind and can root out unconscious lies. As Natalie explains it, the E-meter is “like a guide that helps the auditor to know what questions to ask.” Sometimes, she says, you might not remember certain events, and you might not know what is causing your problems. “But they’ll just dig it up until you go, ‘Holy shit, was that what was going on?'” She smiles. “And afterward, you feel so much better.”

Natalie has just begun her path to Scientology enlightenment, known as the Bridge to Total Freedom. There are specific stages, or “grades,” of the Bridge, and the key to progressing “upward” is auditing: hundreds, if not thousands, of sessions that Scientologists believe can not only help them resolve their problems but also fix their ethical breaches, much as Catholics might do in confessing their sins. The ultimate goal in every auditing session is to have a “win,” or moment of revelation, which can take a few minutes, hours or even weeks — Scientologists are not allowed to leave an auditing session until their auditor is satisfied.

So far, Natalie has gotten much of her auditing for free, through her parents, who have both worked for the church. But many Scientologists pay dearly for the service. Unique among religious faiths, Scientology charges for virtually all of its religious services. Auditing is purchased in 12.5-hour blocks, known as “intensives.” Each intensive can cost anywhere from $750 for introductory sessions to between $8,000 and $9,000 for advanced sessions. When asked about money, church officials can become defensive. “Do you want to know the real answer? If we could offer everything for free, we would do it,” says Rinder. Another official offers, “We don’t have 2,000 years of acquired wealth to fall back on.” But Scientology isn’t alone, church leaders insist. Mormons, for example, expect members to tithe a tenth of their earnings. 

Scientology

Still, religious scholars note that this is an untraditional approach. “Among the things that have made this movement so controversial,” says S. Scott Bartchy, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA, “are its claims that its forms of therapy are ‘scientific’ and that the ‘truth’ will only be revealed to those who have the money to purchase advancement to the various levels leading to ‘being clear.’ It is this unvarnished demand for money that has led many observers to opine that the entire operation looks more like a business than a religion.” Clearing the stages along the Bridge to Total Freedom is a process that can take years and cost tens and often hundreds of thousands of dollars—one veteran Scientologist told me she “donated” $250,000 in a twenty-year period. Other Scientologists can wind up spending family inheritances and mortgaging homes to pay the fees. Many, like Natalie’s parents, work for their local church so they can receive auditing and courses for free.

Both of Natalie’s parents are Clear, she says. Her grandmother is what’s called an “Operating Thetan,” or “OT.” So is Tom Cruise, who is near the top of Scientology’s Bridge, at a level known as OT VII. OTs are Scientology’s elite — enlightened beings who are said to have total “control” over themselves and their environment. OTs can allegedly move inanimate objects with their minds, leave their bodies at will and telepathically communicate with, and control the behavior of, both animals and human beings. At the highest levels, they are allegedly liberated from the physical universe, to the point where they can psychically control what Scientologists call MEST: Matter, Energy, Space and Time.

The most important, and highly anticipated, of the eight “OT levels” is OT III, also known as the Wall of Fire. It is here that Scientologists are told the secrets of the universe, and, some believe, the creation story behind the entire religion. It is knowledge so dangerous, they are told, any Scientologist learning this material before he is ready could die. When I ask Mike Rinder about this, he casts the warning in less-dire terms, explaining that, before he reached OT III — he is now OT V — he was told that looking at the material early was “spiritually not good for you.” But Hubbard, who told followers that he discovered these secrets while on a trip to North Africa in 1967, was more dramatic. “Somehow or other I brought it off, and obtained the material and was able to live through it.” he wrote. “I am very sure that I was the first one that ever did live through any attempt to attain that material.”

Scientologists must be “invited” to do OT III. Beforehand, they are put through an intensive auditing process to verify that they are ready. They sign a waiver promising never to reveal the secrets of OT III, nor to hold Scientology responsible for any trauma or damage one might endure at this stage of auditing. Finally, they are given a manila folder, which they must read in a private, locked room.

These materials, which the Church of Scientology has long struggled to keep secret, were published online by a former member in 1995 and have been widely circulated in the mainstream media, ranging from The New York Times to last year’s South Park episode. They assert that 75 million years ago, an evil galactic warlord named Xenu controlled seventy-six planets in this corner of the galaxy, each of which was severely overpopulated. To solve this problem, Xenu rounded up 13.5 trillion beings and then flew them to Earth, where they were dumped into volcanoes around the globe and vaporized with bombs. This scattered their radioactive souls, or thetans, until they were caught in electronic traps set up around the atmosphere and “implanted” with a number of false ideas — including the concepts of God, Christ and organized religion. Scientologists later learn that many of these entities attached themselves to human beings, where they remain to this day, creating not just the root of all of our emotional and physical problems but the root of all problems of the modern world.

“Hubbard thought it was important to have a story about how things got going, similar to the way both Jews and Christians did in the early chapters of Genesis,” says UCLA’s Bartchy. “All religion lives from the sense either that something in life is terribly wrong or is profoundly missing. For the most part, Christianity has claimed that people have rebelled against God with the result that they are ‘sinners’ in need of restoration and that the world is a very unjust place in need of healing. What Hubbard seems to be saying is that human beings are really something else — thetans trapped in bodies in the material world — and that Scientology can both wake them up and save them from this bad situation.”

The church considers OT III confidential material. But there are numerous science-fiction references in Scientology texts available to members of all levels. The official “Glossary for Scientology and Dianetics” includes an entry for “space opera,” a sci-fi genre that the glossary says “is not fiction and