"You could walk out that
door and never think about Scientology again, and it would be your choice.
It would be incredibly stupid, but you are free to do that. You could also
jump off a bridge, or blow your brains out. That would be another
It was a crushing five minutes of reflection. I had just taken the Church of Scientology's 200-question personality test, and, by all accounts, had failed miserably. Jim, who worked as a sort of receptionist for the CoS's New York headquarters, explained that my answers indicated severe levels of irresponsibility, depression, anxiety, self-criticism and loneliness. The only positive attribute I seemed to have was an abundance of energy.
"This probably means that you are working very hard at things, but you just don't think it's enough," Jim said. My immediate response was denial. Having just taken the test, I remembered the answers given, the questions relating to my general happiness, and there didn't seem to be many cries for help. "Do you often sing or whistle just for the fun of it?" Sure. "Are you considered warmhearted by your friends?" In general, yes. "Do you make efforts to get others to laugh and smile?" All the time.
I answered other questions such as "Do you openly and sincerely admire beauty in other people?" with a resounding Yes. So I was mystified as to why I had been given such an anti-social profile. Jim advised that I shouldn't think of it in terms of how a specific question determines the results of the entire test. "It's just according to ‘Dianetics’, which is a proven science," he said. "Perhaps you would like to get a copy of the book."
I figured $7 was a small price to pay for an introduction to what could ultimately bring greater happiness and serenity to my life, so I bought it. I had also just sat through a 30-minute film on Scientology, so I really had to get my hands on it. What can I say? I was raised Unitarian and remain fairly open-minded regarding spiritual matters. I have no ingrained mechanism for dismissing any belief system outright, no matter how silly some of its terminology or practices may seem on the surface.
The "book" is "Dianetics", and it has served as my offline reading supplement to my online voyage into one of the most colorful (and often perplexing) Internet-based research expeditions: What is Scientology? "Dianetics" is the predecessor to literally dozens of religious tracts from author L. Ron Hubbard, the author of "Dianetics" and the founder of Scientology. A 19505 B-grade pulp science fiction writer, Hubbard created the Church of Scientology, one of the largest and fastest growing alternative religions in the world. it has attracted controversy since its founding, and it continues to reign as the religion of choice with celebrities, most notably John Travolta. Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley. It's been the source of a long running argument over whether it is a bona fide religion or another opportunistic cult that preys on confused and gullible people.
The controversy is nothing new. The CoS has been vilified in the press, faced lawsuits and investigations in the U.S. and European countries, such as the United Kingdom and the Benelux countries, sued by former members, and banned in countries including Germany and Australia. Much of this criticism peaked following the death of staff-member Lisa McPherson, who died of severe dehydration, according to the online coroner's report (www.primenet.com/~cultxpt/coroner.gifin), while in the custody of the Church during an extended retreat.
Hubbard died in 1986, but the CoS has grown to include an undetermined number--somewhere between 100,000 to 3 million, depending on whom you talk to--of international members. Its organization is often accused of being a totalitarian, money-grubbing conspiratorial group that brainwashes the naive into doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hopes of attaining serenity in their lives. Much of this criticism is due to the fact that Dianetics relies upon a series of expensive auditing sessions, which serves as Scientology's version of psychotherapy.
Scientology has also been strongly defended by its more prominent members. It has won many of its court cases, and it has been granted tax-exempt status in the U.S. Scientology remains a mystery to the average person, but the Internet has begun to change that. It has opened the Pandora's box to a world of data most people could never get before.
The Internet was, in fact, my, first introduction to Scientology, and the first place I looked was the Church's own website. A fairly modestly designed page, with links to the Scientology bookstore containing introductory information, it was on this site that I took the personality test and made an appointment for a preliminary evaluation. The CoS is Internet savvy on a recruiting level, to say the least.
"Had L. Ron Hubbard lived
in more primitive times, before the mass media (which he feared) and the
information superhighway (which his successors fear), he certainly would
Following my disappointing results with the personality test, which I wasn't allowed to take home, I returned to the Web for some third-party perspective on the test specifically and Scientology in general. My coworkers watched with amusement and sometimes horror as I delved into the online Scientology world and came across some of the most defiant and exhaustive campaigns on the Internet—anti-Scientology websites.
Despite its use of the Internet to attract new followers, the Church is clearly frightened of the Internet and the power it has to expose its inner workings. In recent months, the Church has succeeded in strong-arming one of the Internet’s biggest players--AT&T. In early June, a former subscriber to AT&T’s Internet service had his personal information revealed to the CoS. According to Wired News, the user known as "Safe" posted some of the CoS's most secret and sacred documents on the Web using his AT&T WorldNet account. Using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Church was able to subpoena AT&T for Safe's personal information.
Since last summer, the CoS has been deploying a customized version of Cybersitter software—called Scieno Sitter--to its members, according to Salon magazine. As chronicled in Salon, the customized filter prevents users from viewing certain pages, and even words, that the church deems dangerous. It is supplied to every member on a CD-ROM that also includes a template for members to construct their own Scientology homepage, a tactic Salon pointed out as a means of flooding search engines with pro-Scientology destinations.
What does the CoS have to fear from the Internet? A lot, if it doesn't want its members exposed to dissenting voices. There are countless anti-Scientology destinations on the Web. It is probably one of the most controversial subjects on the Internet. Why this is, I have no concrete answer. Perhaps the way Hubbard used his gift for weaving science fiction and techno-speak into a dazzling matrix of borrowed folklore and religion (something "Star Wars" auteur George Lucas is equally guilty of) has rubbed the Net community the wrong way. From a certain perspective, Hubbard could be viewed as a brilliant entrepreneur. He makes compelling. even addictive, content. But to many Netizens, he has used his powers for evil and not for good.
The sheer volume of anti-Scientology sites is too vast to enumerate. They come from all over the world, predominantly from the U.S. and Europe. Anti-Scientologists are eager to link with one another and share information they have found on the CoS. The sites feature everything from negative media reports to academic publications condemning Scientology as total poppycock to first-hand accounts from Scientology "survivors."
It's the last of these that are the most sought after, and the accounts are taken from anonymous submissions, affidavits, and other sources. A post-doctoral student of philosophy named Martin Poulter, who lives in Bristol, runs one of the most extensive sites. One section of Poulter’s site aggregates a series of human rights abuse claims against the CoS. Poulter's site alleges incidents such as insubordinate members being forced to run around a pole for hours on end. Many of the more harrowing tales took place on Hubbard’s sea retreats, according to Poulter, which were known for their intensity and relentless devotion to Hubbard. David Mayo, who is identified as a former Scientologist on Poulter's site, claims that he saw children quarantined in a chain locker at the bottom of the ship, and that Hubbard once forced an old man and a couple of others "in trouble" to push a peanut around the deck of the ship—with their noses.
"It was really tough on this old guy," Mayo writes. "The surface of the deck was very rough wood, prone to splinter...They all had raw, bleeding noses. leaving a trail of blood behind them. We were required to watch this punishment, to make an example of it for the rest of us."
Other allegations of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, harassment and irreversible psychological damage are found throughout the site. Poulter says he was inspired to create the site only after the CoS began its campaign to censor the Internet. He adds that the organization's attempts to block the dissemination of information about Scientology only fed the flames of the entire anti-Scientology movement.
"The ethos of the Internet is, of course, very strongly anti-censorship, so it is understandable that [the Net community]would react very strongly against these tactics." he says. "The response has taken the form of the creation of literally hundreds of anti-Scientology websites and a great deal of street activism."
And has Poulter himself had any unwanted visits from Scientology members, or received a cease and desist order from the organization?
"The Church of Scientology has not challenged any statement of fact on my pages, although I and other anti-Scientology activists have had various written or verbal personal attacks and threats," he asserts. "This only exposes what in my opinion is their true nature and makes me more keen to inform the public about the facts that they are trying to keep secret."
Feet In Both Streams
"The irony is that while
critics blame Scientologists for being unable to question. think, and
communicate, they are often the first to display these very
Bernie, a Belgium-based gentleman who goes by no other name, is a former Scientologist (from 1975 to 1980) and Web-savvy critic. but you won't hear any Scientology bashing coming from him. His site, the Alt,Religion.Scientology (ARS) Central Committee (www.bernie.us-inc.com/ars.htm). serves as a watchdog against what he calls "anti-cult bigotry." As an active member in the aforementioned Usenet group, which is largely populated by vehement Scientology critics, Bernie has been monitoring its posts since 1996 and leverages his own website to point out, and often dismiss, its most unfounded rumors.
In many of the ARS posts, Bernie finds a disturbing anti-Scientology hysteria that he believes is not based on fact, but rather on a blinding prejudice similar to other forms of bigotry and hatred. In one section of his site he’s compiled a collection of flames from ARS users to those suspected of being Scientologists. The posts include remarks such as: Conclusion: Wgert is an unethical Scientologist (are there any ethical Scientologists?)...and Scientology makes people into idiots"; "Anyone so completely devoid of humanity must be a true Scientologist"; and "I really wonder [who's] worse at the top of a state, an alcoholic or a Scientologist?"
In one amusing rumor trait, Bemie excerpts a story involving a dead cat that was left on one ARS member’s doorstep. Like the childhood game "Telephone," Bemie follows the dead cat until its presence is ultimately--and unfairly, according to Bernie--attributed to the Church of Scientology. The excerpts begin with a simple: "My wife arrived at our house a few moments ago to find a dead, but otherwise healthy-looking, cat on our doorstep. Who do you suppose deposited this cat there?" What follows is a thread of anti-Scientology rants from the ARS community: "Disgusting Cult... I hope your family is all right"; and "There are some (rare) occasions when I'll think, 'Well, Scientology can’t be all bad. Then I hear about something like this!"
We've all watched things like this snowball out of reason on the Internet, which is probably the world's most powerful rumor mill. But is this just good, healthy Internet rambunctiousness? Internet discussion groups are famous for their lack of civility, and Usenet groups are a constant source of ill-founded rumors. I asked Bernie if it were really fair to equate this with bigotry.
"Unfortunately, it seems to me that on certain issues, the Internet Is mostly a carrier of hate, separation and disinformation nowadays, although one may get a more balanced picture from the variety of viewpoints." he wrote in an e-mail to "SAR". Since people like myself are in the minority, the ‘variety of viewpoint’ may sound pretty uniform for those who only have time to take the most common sample."
In response to accusations that his site lends itself to becoming pro-Scientology propaganda and portraying the CoS as a completely harmless institution, Bernie is fairly unapologetic. "Compared to the paranoid picture promoted by so-called critics, the CoS is relatively harmless," he writes. "I believe the ‘reality’ about the CoS that is being promoted through critical pages and the media is largely illusory itself and quite remote from the reality at large."
Needing validation that I was not, in fact, a totally miserable person in need of Dianetics auditing, I asked Bernie about the validity of the Church's personality test results. Much to my consolation, he seemed to agree with what many others had been telling me, that the personality test was not to be taken to heart.
"The purpose of the test is really to make people ‘aware’ of their 'ruin,’" he said. "According to Scientology, people on earth are deeply 'aberrated' and don't even realize how unhappy they are, so 99 percent or so of those taking [the test] will inevitably [be diagnosed] as depressed. I don’t know how the test manages to almost systematically come down with negative results, but it does." I can't say I wasn't relieved to hear that.
Having waltzed through the Scientology battlefield relatively unscathed. I'll leave the ongoing argument to the Internet community. The claims made on Poulter's site are truly horrifying, but they are also not documented except in the case of court affidavits, the trial resolutions of which are rarely included. Bernie’s position (which I tend to trust more than the critics’ only because he seems fairly self-aware and hip to the ways of the Internet) is that Scientology is largely chosen and not forced upon people. No one wants to think people actually choose to spend their weekends running around a pole in order to prove themselves to someone they admired. But whether that story is true or not, belief has inspired worse things (the Spanish Inquisition, for instance). Ultimately, on the Net and elsewhere, I say to each his own. But it sure is fascinating reading.
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