Scientology: faith under fire or ‘evil cult?’
A new magazine exposé has reopened debate over the controversial Church of Scientology. Some claim it's a proper religion, but there is evidence of a dangerous dark side.
In the early fifties, a new book on mental health took America by storm. Written by a sci-fi author called L. Ron Hubbard, the book claimed that through a process called 'auditing', people could rid themselves of negative mental images called 'engrams'.
Scientists were not impressed. The American Psychological Association said the claims were 'not supported by evidence' and followers of Hubbard's system were criticised for practising medicine without a licence.
But, a few years later, auditing became part of Hubbard's newly established 'Church of Scientology'. A comprehensive religious system, Scientology promised to unlock potential, solve personal problems, even put people in touch with past lives.
The new religion quickly took off, especially in Hollywood, where it won some high-profile supporters. John Travolta and Tom Cruise are both Scientologists, and they say their religion has contributed strongly to their success.
But this week, an in depth article in an American magazine has put Scientology under the spotlight, following the defection of a high profile former member, the Hollywood screenwriter Paul Haggis.
Using testimony from Haggis and other defectors, as well as interviews with members of the Church's hierarchy, the article builds up a picture of an organisation with sinister, perhaps even illegal, characteristics.
Believers progress through Scientology by undergoing a long period of auditing and taking special church courses, which are said to cost tens of thousands of pounds. As they study, they gain ranks in the Church hierarchy.
But high-ranking ex-Scientologists claim to have witnessed rampant abuse at the highest levels of the church. Defectors reported seeing people beaten, women pressured to have abortions, children working long hours for minimal pay, and threatened with bills for hundreds of thousands of dollars if they try to leave.
Cost of belief
Church officials say these claims are categorically false, 'a regurgitation of old allegations that have long been disproved.' They say that like all new religious groups, Scientologists face persecution. After all – Christianity was condemned and scorned when it first appeared.
But Scientology's many critics say it isn't a religion at all. Real religions, they say, don't make their followers pay huge sums for spiritual advancement. In the words of the Australian MP John Kaye, Scientology is not a religion but a 'cult that bullies, intimidates and exploits.'
- Is it ever ok to criticise someone's religion?
- Why would anyone join a cult?
- Start your own religion. You'll need symbols, rules, beliefs, aims. See if you can convert your classmates.
- Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you felt dominated or controlled. How did you feel about it? Talk about your experience and what you can learn from these situations.
Some People Say...
“All religions are cults.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do Scientologists believe in?
- A lot of it is secret. Leaked papers tell stories about interplanetary travel and an alien overlord called Xenu.
- And what's the difference between a religion and a cult?
- It's a controversial question, but a key feature of cults is that they harm or exploit their followers. The most common harm is to take member's money and to prevent them seeing their friends or family. But some cults have been involved in child abuse, rape and even mass suicide.
- Scientology encourages mass suicide?
- No. But they do charge members a lot of money. And there are reports that members have been 'disconnected' from family and friends.A L. Ron Hubbard is said to have remarked: 'If you want to get rich, you start a religion.' Perhaps he took his own advice.