A brash Hollywood actor with a boyish smile and slim tailored suits may not seem the first source ordinary folks seek out for psychiatric advice.
A brash Hollywood actor with a boyish smile and slim
tailored suits may not seem the first source ordinary folks seek out
for psychiatric advice.
Yet who could miss Tom Cruise in the past year,
swinging through the news, spinning off from movie promotion to set us
straight about the motives of doctors who treat mental illness?
“Here’s the problem; you don’t know the history of
psychiatry,” he told “Today” host Matt Lauer last summer. “I do.”
Cruise is a Scientologist. He and other supporters of the
celebrity-rich religious organization that science fiction writer L.
Ron Hubbard launched in 1954 share a noisy antagonism toward mental
Church members refer to them as pseudo-scientists.
Cruise and fellow members say prescribing drugs for mental illness is
spurious, even dangerous, and only enriches doctors and drug companies.
Illnesses for which drugs are common therapy range
from postpartum and other forms of depression to attention deficit
disorder, bipolar disease and schizophrenia.
There’s much more to Scientology than rejecting psychiatry.
But the conflict (church members have picketed the American Psychiatric
Association’s meetings for years) offers an entry point into a group
about which outsiders know little.
Conversations with insiders, religion scholars and
others who deal with the church offer glimpses into Scientology’s
beliefs and practices.
Its main mission is to explain and help perfect
humans and their behavior. A coherent (if offbeat) spiritual vision
emerges from hundreds of Hubbard’s written works and 3,000 recorded
lectures explaining where people came from and how they can reach
In one sense, Scientology is an unusually tolerant
religion that does not demand exclusivity nor stipulate a particular
creator to whom members must pledge faith. As Cruise said in his recent
“Today” interview, “It’s like you could be a Christian and be a
And as short as the church’s history is – 52 years – it’s rich.
Hubbard, who died in 1986 and whom church members refer to as LRH,
veered from pulp science fiction in the late 1940s and published
“Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health” in 1950. That book and
“Scientology,” which four years later helped launch the religion, are
available in 32 languages.
Despite the popularity of Hubbard’s teachings
(leaders say people have bought 117 million copies of his works), few
scholars closely study them.
Those scholars tend to list Scientology in a category of 20th-century American fringe religions.
Sean McCloud, author and religious studies professor
at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, prominently included
Scientology in his book, “Making the American Religious Fringe.”
And Durwood Smith, chairman of religious studies at
Cleveland State University, said he considers Scientology “especially
noteworthy even among the fringe religions, in that it brings in
features of science fiction.”
None of that has stopped growth. Some scholars
estimate core membership at about 500,000; other experts estimate its
followers only one-tenth of that figure. The church claims 8 million
Deep in Hubbard’s writings lies a striking
assertion: that thetans, extraterrestrial spirits, colonized humans
long ago. Correcting our flawed “reactive mind” and curing generations
of pain and suffering absorbed since thetans arrived are the focus of
That means stripping back reactions to abuses
suffered over thousands of years and urging people to get more in touch
with the operating thetan within.
“For all practical purposes, this operating thetan
is the soul,” said J. Gordon Melton, author and religious studies
researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He said
Scientologists clear encumbrances through the signature church practice
John Baker, executive director of the four-story
Scientology Church in downtown Columbus, Ohio, said trained church
auditors help members “clear their reactive minds of these encumbrances
so they can reach the higher spiritual levels people are capable of.”
For dedicated Scientologists, clearing ever-deeper
encumbrances is a lifelong commitment. Audits grow more rigorous in the
higher of eight levels of connection to the thetan.
Baker showed rooms filled with e-meters, electrical devices Hubbard
created to help “preclears” (those burdened by pain and confusion) and
auditors identify emotional roadblocks. Audits can be traumatic
experiences, Baker said, advancing “preclear people” to the
more-perfect nature “Scientology helps them achieve.”
An e-meter looks like a 1950s version of a
futuristic gadget, a metal box with switches and dials with wires to
two shiny soup-can-size cylinders.
Preclears hold the cans and search within for ugly
pictures and painful memories. An auditor keeps an electrical impulse
buzzing in one wire, through the subject’s body and out the other wire,
then watches a meter on the face of the box. Readings, Baker said, show
changes in the electrical conductivity of the body.
A person’s “reactive mind is made of mental
pictures,” which “actually change the mass of the body, changing its
electrical resistance,” Baker said.
When the auditor sees such shifts reflected in an
e-meter’s dial, “he knows the preclear is coming up on something he’s
got to understand better, something he’s got to work on.”
Chicagoan Mary Anne Ahmad, a Scientology minister
and director of public affairs for the church in Illinois, explained
the notion further.
“We have these experiences where we just can’t explain why we react the way we do,” Ahmad said.
Hubbard, she said, counseled followers to seek out
pain and misunderstanding cluttering the mind, then figure out where it
Some, Ahmad said, may have kicked around through many prior lives.
Will Bennett, 21, who works at the Columbus church,
said he has been clearing for a year and a half. He likes the idea that
he bears responsibility for what he tackles in audit sessions.
“An auditor,” he explained, “doesn’t interpret or
invalidate anything. It’s all based on the preclear’s response and what
he wants to deal with.
“I’ve reduced stress, especially in my chest,” he noted. “I used to feel acid coming up from my stomach.
“I never feel it now,” he continued. “It’s not magical. It’s about enhancing a person’s spirituality.
“And,” he added, “it’s not about a chemical imbalance.”
That’s a reference to a popular notion of
psychiatry, that some mental illness results from hormonal or other
biochemical imbalances. Scientology, which blames pain on uncleared
encumbrances, perhaps from past lives, rejects the idea.
Ahmad characterized the church as an
underappreciated champion of unpopular causes. Since the beginning, she
said, “we’ve been on the front lines of defining people’s basic human
rights,” particularly with regard to “abuses of psychiatry.”
The church took the lead in raising questions about overprescribing
Ritalin to hyperactive children. The church considers psychoactive
drugs superfluous, unproven and maybe dangerous.
Medicine mostly takes a different view. Nada
Stotland, vice president of the American Psychiatric Association and a
Chicago psychiatrist, let frustration over church criticism of her
profession creep into her voice.
“It’s not true, as they say, that psychiatry is not
accepted by mainstream science,” she said. “It is. But it’s also
clinical wisdom along with science. It’s not physics. It’s about
Stotland agreed that medical science, including
psychiatry, has its dark past. Doctors used radical surgeries, locked
inmates up, shocked them and prescribed unproven drugs.
“But history is always evolving,” Scotland said.
“It’s true of all medical science. We test practices, publish results
so they’re out there for others to pick apart. We build on our past.”
Religious practices are not subject to the same scrutiny as those of science, Stotland explained.
Church antipathy continues to baffle her. She
responds incredulously that Scientologists have held doctors
responsible for such horrible abuses.
Melton, who wrote “The Church of Scientology” as
part of a series of studies of contemporary religions, examined sources
of attacks on psychiatry. The dispute has deep roots, he thinks.
In the 1940s, at a time when Hubbard was
hospitalized – his illness is unclear – “he encountered lobotomy and
shock therapy,” Melton said. “He decided these were wrong.”
Melton said “he came out antagonistic” to psychiatry and in the following years launched Scientology.
From the beginning, the church generated controversy.
In the 1970s and ’80s, its covert purchase of historic buildings in
downtown Clearwater, Fla., where Scientology established a
headquarters, alienated many residents there, according to Mary Farrell
Bednarowski, professor of religious studies at United Theological
Seminary in Minneapolis, who studied the Florida controversy.
The unexplained 1995 death of Lisa McPherson, a
Scientologist and psychiatric patient, while she was under church care
in Clearwater generated ill will and endless headlines.
Florida courts cleared Scientology of responsibility, and McPherson’s
estate and the church settled a wrongful-death lawsuit in 2004.
Its tendency to share little about operations has given rise to suspicions.
“I think they have a pretty paranoid culture,”
Bednarowski said. “And they’re litigious,” suing critics and medical
Ahmad said there’s nothing sinister about lawsuits. “We have to stand up for what we believe.”
A criticism the church aims at psychiatrists focuses on how much they make from patients.
But Smith, who heads Cleveland State’s religious
studies program, said Scientology auditors make out well, too, charging
“astronomical prices for audits.”
Neither Baker nor Ahmad would say exactly how much.
And Baker said, “We help people find ways to cover the cost.”
Melton said that in buying necessary books and
tapes, enrolling in courses, paying for audits and making
contributions, “young people at lower levels might pay out $1,000 or
$1,500 a year.”
Scientologists who move to the sixth, seventh and
eighth levels of operating thetans, or OT, as high as members can go,
“easily spend tens of thousands of dollars a year, much more if they
want to more fast,” Melton said.
Critics have called Scientology less a religion than
a commercial enterprise: Go through audits at whatever expense, take
courses, then conduct audits yourself, collecting handsome fees.
A number of nations do not recognize Scientology as
a church. The United States granted a tax-favored designation only
after the 1993 settlement of a long series of court battles between
Scientology and the Internal Revenue Service.
From his standpoint, Melton sees no good reason not to consider Scientology a church.
“It’s a religion based on a rebuilt Gnostic myth,”
he said. “The spirit falls into a material world and runs into trouble
because it forgot who it is.”
The audit and courses, and what Baker calls
“incredibly specific, intricate sets of guidelines LRH set out for us,”
are Scientologists’ road maps for getting in touch with the spirit.
But the spirit moves in mysterious ways. Following
Cruise’s TV appearances, reporters kept Stotland and the psychiatric
association frantic with calls and interview requests. War between
Scientology and psychiatry had become hot global news.
“But you know,” Stotland said once her phone
quieted, “there’s something of a silver lining to all this. People are
asking questions. And we are 100 percent for people asking questions.”