Scientology has been in the news a lot recently.
Scientology is a strange cult. It numbers between 50,000 to 200,000 people or so, which is pretty small as far as religions go. The religion was designed by a science-fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard, who slowly migrated from writer to religious founder and ended his life high on a cocktail of drugs, and in hiding from the IRS and other authorities. Summarizing the whole structure of Scientology is beyond a blog post (or many blog post), but the core of the cult is fairly straightforward: it teaches that each person is an immortal, fallen ‘thethan’, full of unrealized potential, and that through a series of church-administered courses and practices, people can eventually rid themselves of the barriers to their potential and achieve supernatural potential. If you’re interested, the Wikipedia page is actually not a bad summary. Amusingly, scientologists tried to influence the Wikipedia page on Scientology so often that Wikipedia eventually had to ban them from the page itself.
You could write books (and many have) on Scientology and its practices and manipulations. For example, the church developed a complex system of courses, each of which is progressively more expensive, to ‘progress’ through the ranks; it developed its core methodology, auditing, by borrowing basic self-hypnotic techniques (repeating the same thing over and over again, etc…) – you can read about what a core Scientology auditing session feels like here, and it’s worth the read). It made leaving the church very difficult through a combination of aggressive litigation, charges for ‘services rendered‘ , demands that the rest of the scientologists cut all contact with the person who left, etc… , to the point where guides on leaving the church have sprung up all over the place to help scientologists leaving the church. We could go on and on – it would be difficult to find a more manipulative cult than Scientology. If there is enough interest, we’ll get a couple of guest blogs on specific manipulations, some of which are pretty interesting, such as the E-meter, or the way the church managed to manipulate the IRS into granting it tax-free status.
But the recent successful escape of Katie Holmes from Scientology highlights two specific manipulations used by Scientology that are worth discussing in more detail:
The first is quite simple. What do these stars all have in common?
Yes, yes, they are all scientologists. So how does a cult of 100,000 people or so, who believe that 75 million years ago a galactic overlord blew up billions of people in volcanoes using H-bombs, manage to recruit, retain, and showcase so many stars??
It turns out that L. Ron Hubbard, in 1955, in a stoke of genius, decided to proactively target celebrities. He called them “quarries” that needed to be hunted, and titled the operation “Project Celebrity”. He named a number of key celebrities of the day as quarries, from Ed Sullivan to Bing Crosby to Groucho Marx. Most were men, but he included a couple of women stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.
L. Ron Hubbard’s insight was simple. Converting a celebrity was hard, but once you got one, he believed, the church would benefit greatly. Initially, the hunt was a game, with a small plaque as your reward for landing folks like Pablo Picasso or Walt Disney into an auditing session, but after L. Ron Hubbard’s death, the church decided to double down on the celebrity angle. The church opened “celebrity centers” to focus on landing celebrities.
The church began to offer courses and workshops in those centers for stars and wannabe stars, covering everything from business to acting workshops. Many of these are actually quite good and useful for rising stars, and provide a wonderful opportunity for scientologists to slowly recruit new members.
Equally importantly, the church realized that Scientology had several unique appeals to movie and television stars. For one thing, it was a virtuous cycle: the more stars the church could claim, the more up-and-coming stars would be interested in joining that club, in the hopes of emulating stars like Tom Cruise. The movie industry is actually pretty small, so joining Scientology for an aspiring star had an added bonus: they could meet directors and writers and established stars at church functions, which might in turn help them ‘break out’.
A lot of the success in TV and movies is about who you know, and the church of Scientology is good at getting you to meet many people in the business. The church offers “safe hotels” where stars and wannabe stars can relax far from photographer’s lenses, and, of course, network with other stars. In the basement of these celebrity centers lie a less glamorous but equally effective service: rehab centers, where celebrities (or their sons and daughters) can be discreetly treated for addictions, and (as a bonus!) introduced to Scientology creed. It is one of the cradle-to-grave services offered by Scientology to its celebrity patrons. More importantly, the church has really learned how to project admiration at celebrities while subtly manipulating them to try the first steps on the long road to Scientology: for example, the celebrity centers tend to target actors and actresses when their careers are suffering. That is when the celebrity is at his most vulnerable, and most likely to respond to Scientology’s “admiration bomb” and coaxing.
The core teachings of Scientology are also a good fit with actors. Scientology, at its core, is all about the individual, the idea that each person has ultimate potential with no God to worry about, and it argues that high wealth and expensive lifestyles are actually signs of spiritual development, all of which plays very well with actors and actresses.
The church’s internal processes made sure that, once a star joined, it becomes progressively harder for them to ever leave the church, so recruiting new stars was (and is) one of the top priorities of the church. And, in that context, the church has been relatively successful. For such a small cult, it has a gigantic proportion of movie stars and players. And it works: would you have heard of Scientology at all, without Tom Cruise and John Travolta?
But the Church of Scientology can be a dark place. Many people blame the church for several death . Many ex-scientologists describe the church as a giant brainwashing operation, a way to siphon money from recruits to the church. There are many, many reports of the violent temper of the Scientology leader, David Miscavigne. The church’s ‘higher teachings’, the secrets that can only be revealed after years of (expensive) courses, are available on-line and sound suspiciously like the ravings of a lunatic . Many groups of the church look very much like slave labor. Once you join, especially if you’re a celebrity, the church makes a determined effort to control your life, your marriage, and your friends.
So all of this brings us to the second big manipulation question. Given how easy it is to get information on the downsides of Scientology, or on L. Ron Hubbard’s less than savory past, why does anyone stay in the church? Why do dissenters need web guides, support networks, or disposable phones to leave the church?
That’s the question we’ll explore in part II! Stay tuned!