The reception was spotless, fitted with sleek wooden panels and expensive furniture. Rather than stained glass windows or painted icons, there were waiting lounges and staff in formal attire. There was a hushed silence broken only by the tapping of keyboards and the clattering of heels as female staff strode by. Hundreds of books branded with the name L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, filled the shelves that lined the walls and hallways. Titles included The Way to Happiness, and Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health. Millions of dollars had clearly gone into the Church of Scientology of Melbourne, which was established four years ago in Ascot Vale.
One of the well-heeled staff approached me and offered a greeting. “Are you here for an appointment?” she inquired politely.
“Um…” I hesitated. “I just thought I would look around, if that’s okay.”
“Of course!” she beamed at me. “You can start over here with the videos.” She led me to an area with several flat screen TVs, each showing different aspects of the church – one displayed an introduction to its core values, while another detailed the life of L. Ron Hubbard. I thanked the woman for her help.
“Any time,” she smiled pleasantly.
The videos starred mediocre actors and had one of those Hollywood trailer voiceovers. Before beginning this piece on Scientology, I was under the false impression that its followers believed in all sorts of intergalactic-cosmic-voodoo rubbish – like the existence of aliens and who knew what else. However, the videos simply observed that humans experience great suffering, and proposed a plan to allow the attainment of happiness and success in all areas of life. The gist of it was that humans are restricted by subconscious thoughts stored in the ‘reactive mind’, and that we must be freed from negative thoughts or ‘enagrams’. The videos envisioned a world where humanity is freed from war, crime and drug addiction. Given the grim stories about Scientology I’d seen in the media, I was surprised by the morality of its core beliefs.
When I finished the videos the woman suddenly appeared by my side.
“So now you’re ready for your personality test!” she smiled at me expectantly, and gestured towards the door. I wasn’t particularly eager to do a personality test, but I followed her to the Test Room anyway. I was the only one there. I opened the test booklet to find it was 200 questions long. I hadn’t known what to expect from this investigation, but doing a 200-question test certainly hadn’t been part of my plan. The questions ranged from reasonable (e.g. Do you consider more money should be spent on social security?) to plain bizarre (e.g. Does an unexpected action cause your muscles to twitch?). I handed in the finished test to the woman, who returned with my results in the form of a graph.
“Please follow me now for your consultation.”
Consultation? Things were getting progressively weirder.
She led me to yet another room, where she began to unpack my results. Apparently I generally fared well in the test, with high levels in areas such as ‘stability’, ‘certainty’ and ‘activity’. However, she informed me gravely, I am alarmingly ‘withdrawn’, and ‘lack accord’ when interacting with others.
“But we can fix that!” she assured me with determination.
“Uh… great?” I tried to look enthusiastic.
She eyed me intently through her glasses. Shuffling her papers, she proceeded to ask me a series of personal questions.
“Do you often find it difficult to get along with others?” she queried. “Do you have issues trusting people? Are you quick to criticise your friends and family?”
It felt like a session with a counsellor. The woman went through my personality, identifying various ‘problematic’ areas – though I’d never been aware of any problems – and insisted on Scientology as a method of alleviating them.
“We run a range of courses that will help fix these aspects of your personality. Would you be interested in participating in these courses?” “Maybe I’ll take a pamphlet and think about it,” I hedged, but she wouldn’t be put off.
“I really think it would be beneficial for you,” she pressed. Her persistence was starting to scare me.
“Uh, I’m really sorry, but,” I cast about for an excuse, “I actually have an appointment, so I have to leave.”
She insisted on recording my contact details before I escaped, so we could ‘work together’ on a plan for my self-improvement.
But despite the uncomfortable hard sell, and the church’s unnerving business-like setting, I can still understand Scientology’s appeal: it presents people experiencing emotional distress or a general sense of malaise with a clear-cut pathway to greater satisfaction.
This is also a defining characteristic of religious cults.
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of people who join cults are average, everyday citizens from socially accepted backgrounds of family and work. Research shows only an estimated five per cent of cult members had psychological problems before joining. People don’t necessarily join cults because they are crazy – powerful incentives like security and personal salvation attract potential members. The decision to join is often influenced by situations of vulnerability, such as a relationship breakdown, moving to a new place or political turbulence. In such cases, cults like Scientology provide easy and straightforward solutions. In an uncertain world, Hubbard’s theories offer answers, stability and a consistent brand of ‘truth’.
And thousands have bought it. In fact, the Church of Scientology has drawn in an estimated 500,000 members worldwide. For a religion created 60 years ago by a science fiction writer, its following is phenomenal. It is even a legally recognised religion in Australia under a ruling made by the High Court in 1983. Similar rulings apply in the USA, South Africa and Sweden, among other nations. Crucially, this has an enormous impact on the earnings of the institution, as it grants tax-exempt status. Filmmaker Alex Gibney has called for the abolition of this status in his recent documentary ‘Going Clear’, arguing it only helps to fund the church’s criminal activities. Senator Nick Xenophon has also made repeated attempts in parliament to end its tax-exempt status in Australia.
Scientology horror stories have been widely publicised in the media. In 2012, an American woman filed a lawsuit against the church for her forced abortion, sleep deprivation and constant surveillance as a member. In 2010, the Church of Scientology in Sydney was accused of covering up the rape of an 11 year old girl. In his documentary, Gibney reveals that members pay huge fees to join, and are forced to continue doing so under tactics of violence and blackmail.
Yet people still join the cult, and they will continue to do so. Because when you walk into its churches – such as the glossy Melbourne base in Ascot Vale – they promise happiness, self-improvement and a sense of purpose. Scientology lures in followers because at its outset, it offers things we all essentially strive for.