I have a jokey conspiracy theory that Scientology is just a front organisation, cobbled together by other world religions to improve their reputations. It’s easy to declare that the idea of Lord Xenu isn’t inherently more ridiculous than an eternal dinner party in heaven, but the Church of Scientology gives people the heebie-jeebies in a way that the Archbishop of Canterbury never will. And after spending Tuesday evening with the Hubbardites, it’s easy to see why.
The adventure began after mistakenly receiving a Golden Age of Tech II DVD in the mail. We enjoyed it so much that we went binge-watching Scientology documentaries, concluding with HBO’s new Going Clear film a few weeks ago. (Sad fact: plans to broadcast it in the UK are running into trouble because the recent libel law reforms don’t cover Northern Ireland. This needs to get fixed.) So how better to round off the experience than a visit to their centre in Chicago?
Now I admit: four prospective customers arriving together is a bit of a stretch, and I’m sure they smelled a rat. And as soon as we mentioned the Golden Age of Tech II they were immediately agitated, stressing repeatedly that we “shouldn’t have got that” and “it won’t have made any sense”. As many others have noted, Scientology is the only ‘religion’ which jealously guards its belief system from outsiders.
Nonetheless, they were welcoming enough, and quickly offered us the famous ‘free personality tests’ which we gratefully accepted. This is termed the Oxford Capacity Analysis, presumably to suggest a (bogus) connection with the university – a neat touch, unless you went to Cambridge, in which case it’s simply off-putting. The test is also dated to 1978, and it shows. “Do you believe the modern ‘prison without bars’ system is doomed to failure?” it asks, confusing 21st century Americans who notice rather a lot of bars around their prisons. I also had to decode the meaning of the ‘color [sic] bar’ (thanks, History GCSE!).
Even harder to answer are questions about how other people perceive you: is your voice monotonous? Do people think you talk too much? Do they criticise you to others? As far as I’m concerned, my friends and acquaintances have (presumably) always had the good manners to swap notes on how terrible I am behind my back, and as a sensitive soul I’d prefer it to stay this way. But like someone who corners you in a dark alley and asks for the time, the searing obviousness of the ploy feels insulting. At least go to the effort to hand-make some insecurities for me, rather than a cookie-cutter multiple choice quiz.
Anyway, after the test we were led into a small, darkened room to watch an introductory video about the history of Dianetics. (In another blunder, it transpired afterwards that they actually showed us the ‘wrong one’ – I hope someone senior in the Church is reading this.) With acting worse than a Star Wars prequel, we were led through the early struggles of Scientologists to gift Dianetics to the people in the 1950s. To give due deference to L Ron Hubbard, who might as well wander about with ‘cult of personality’ written on a sandwich board, you only see the back of his head. You do see, in a particularly choice moment, a gathering of the American Psychiatry Association – Scientology’s chief villains – wearing torn lab coats and performing lobotomies in some gloomy basement somewhere. But thankfully, Dianetics becomes a worldwide sensation anyway, and soon everyone is putting it into practice in all walks of life.
Hang on. Dianetics, just to be clear, is a watertight theory with a 100% success rate of mind-over-matter medical healing. The central character in the film avoids getting his infected leg amputated after a few bedside chats with Hubbard, for goodness sake. And then in the following decades it sweeps the world. But isn’t this the same world I’ve been living in for the past 25 years? Why have I been wasting money on dentists if this has already taken over?
Lay these thoughts aside for a moment, because it’s time for the test results! For this we were separated for one-on-one discussions – not a particularly relaxing prospect. This tension heightened when Catherine was accused of swapping answers with me, and I was challenged for saying that my biggest Life Problem (capitalisation © Church of Scientology) was the quality of American cheese in supermarkets.
“Is this really your biggest life problem?”
“Have you ever tried American cheese? It’s a problem.”
“I’ve tried lots of cheese. But this speaks to your test results: you don’t admit your true feelings to others.”
Yes, as you can see above, I score relatively well for ‘stable’ and ‘happy’ and ‘aggressive’ (come to your own conclusions about why ‘aggressive’ is at the positive end of the scale) but am let down massively by my withdrawn nature. I am, to speak precisely, -76 out of -100, which sounds perilously close to lock-me-in-a-room-and-shut-the-door territory. “Attention urgent” , the test says, although really this felt more like a nationality test than anything else. Admitting your true feelings to others is a slippery slope to Americanisation, and in any case, it doesn’t really equate to ‘shy’.
“Do you feel shy?”
Silence followed, and to move things along I felt compelled to cold-read myself. “I guess, when there’s a bunch of people I don’t know already, I feel less confident than among my friends…” She nodded, approvingly. And then tried to sell me a book.
If this doesn’t feel like a church to you, that’s exactly the point. There is something mindblowing about the historical twists and turns of religions: that the outcome of arguments at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE (!) helped decide what millions of Americans pray about every Sunday is as good an argument as any for why history is pretty fucking cool. In contrast, the intellectual lineage of Scientology is dreary 1950s psuedoscience and the “what type of thinker are you?” language you expect at a management consultancy ice-breaker. To what extent is Scientology’s limited success simply the remnants of a post-war moment: a new wave of college kids being exposed to faddish philosophies for the first time, and an enthusiasm for science and technology without enough popular understanding of what ‘science’ really means?
As we left, we all received free copies of Hubbard’s The Way to Happiness booklet. And so to end on a note of unity with Scientology, I wanted to quote the conclusion of chapter 8 (murder):
The way to happiness does not include murdering or your friends, your family or yourself being murdered.
Well at least we can all agree on that, right guys?
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