Australian politics, society & culture

Only Itself to Blame: The Church of Scientology

The Church of Scientology’s spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, California, 2007. © Wikicommons

Malcolm Knox

Long read6100 words
 

I entered the Church of Scientology on a crisp winter’s afternoon. My ears, on the church’s behalf, were burning. Within the previous month the South Australian Opposition leader had resigned after a Scientology-linked scandal, prosecutors in France had relaunched a longstanding action to have the church banned, Wikipedia had halted an ‘edit war’ between Scientology and its critics, Scientology’s leader had denied accusations of being a violent psychopath, and Jodhi Meares and Peaches Geldof had reportedly joined up. Scientology was in the news. Scientology is always in the news.

The sign outside the church offered the ‘Free Personality and IQ Test’, Scientology’s traditional welcome mat. I affected the nervous curiosity of somebody I imagined would want to take such a test. But I came to learn, not to ridicule.

An hour later I left the building; I had been propelled on a path towards becoming a Scientologist, and I might even have already become one.

The Surry Hills premises were Spartan and recently opened. Scientology’s central Sydney church, in Castlereagh St, is closed for the addition of two floors and a glass-fronted tower topped with the church’s radiant cross. The development application was approved by the City of Sydney Council despite objections from residents and local interests concerned by the ‘menacing’ tactics of street recruiters. The Industry Superannuation Property Trust, owners of a neighbouring building occupied by the Department of Defence, submitted that the inevitable protests outside the Scientology building might constitute a security risk. Others complained about the heritage impact upon the St George’s Presbyterian Church, which will be dwarfed by the $11.8 million redevelopment of the building into an ‘Ideal Org’, one of Scientology’s paramount churches.

Scientology has some 14 outposts in Australia’s capital cities. Six of these are in Sydney, including another church in Glebe, an administration and training centre in Dundas, and smaller missions in the suburbs. In Melbourne, Scientology has been refurbishing the former Sisters of Mercy College premises in Ascot Vale, while preparing to sell the Russell Street building it bought for $720,000 in 1980. That building is now worth around $7 million; the process of its sale is controlled by  the ‘Mother Church’ in the US.

The temporary Sydney church in Surry Hills (directly behind News Limited) is being leased for an annual $390,000. Inside, it is more corporate than ecclesiastical, with a polished reception area, grey carpet, white walls, and a row of cubicles to which I was directed and given my ‘Standard Oxford Capacity Analysis Test’. The questions started meekly (“Are you happy to let others start the conversation?”) but soon began to vacillate between the obscurely intimate (“Do your muscles have a tendency to suddenly twitch?”) and bizarre polling on public policy (“If your country is about to invade another, do you have a problem with conscientious objectors?”). Then back again (“Do you sleep well at night?”). And then again (“Are you in favour of colour bar and class distinction?”).

Patiently, I completed the 200-question test and my paper was taken for marking. The staff operated brisk ordinary business: passing on messages, opening mail. I overheard them talking to a parishioner; I was about to say a ‘client’ or a ‘patient’, because the staff urged him to return for counselling very soon. It seemed he was in some distress. This made me simultaneously feel kindly towards the Scientologists – they were genuinely helping the weak – and suspicious – they were preying on the vulnerable. Of course, they could be doing both.

During my five-minute wait I was asked three times if I could be helped. I was invited to a lecture. Who, I asked, would be lecturing? The clean-cut young man told me it would be a DVD of a lecture by L Ron Hubbard.

It was hard not to notice Scientology’s founder. There was the oversized bronze bust and the photos, often depicting LRH in nautical guise or with animals. Near the bust was the office that is kept for LRH in every Scientology mission, though he is now dead 23 years. On the desk were pens and a pad. On a side table was an E-meter, the polygraph-like device Scientologists use during counselling sessions. It resembled the dashboard of a 1970s-television spaceship.

Almost every horizontal space inside the office and elsewhere in the church was occupied by Hubbard’s writings, including the seminal text, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, in multiple forms: plastic-wrapped books, audio books, DVDs and slabby “starter kits”. A spinner stand was stuffed with Hubbard-quoting pamphlets on subjects as diverse as marriage counselling, public relations and techniques for “assists” for people in crisis.

All were branded with Scientology’s distinctive futuristic font, as well as motifs of clouds, skies and volcanic eruptions. In 1996, one of these volcanoes was the subject of a planning dispute in Sydney’s George St cinema district, where a volcano billboard was proposed. Rather like a 330-square-metre personality test, it was to pose questions such as “Is it possible to be in control of your life?” and “What is the cause of unexplained aches and pains?”  and was to broadcast until 1am, seven days a week. Sydney City Council stopped it. Scientologists saw this as another episode in a long history of persecution.

Soon a young woman named Wendy emerged with my test results. Wendy, pimpled and pregnant in a floral dress, resembled one of the wives in Big Love. Religious devotees tend to wear their beauty on the inside, and I, for one, am likelier to believe a homely young thing than, oh, say, Tom Cruise. Sitting me at a desk, Wendy was sympathetic towards what soon emerged as my needs.

“The first thing you should know,” she opened, “is that you’re not a bad person.” She walked me through my results, which were devastatingly bad. I was unstable, depressed and nervous, when I could have been stable, happy and composed. In my work, I was inactive and inhibited. In my personal life, I was irresponsible, withdrawn and argumentative. I hasten to add, I had filled out the questionnaire as honestly as I could.

Wendy probed me gently about recent crises, meeting my silences with her own. I became a little teary. Something about my abject results and Wendy’s solicitude made me think, for a moment, that yes, I was in an “unacceptable state” and in need of “urgent attention”.

Wendy didn’t push it. She told me about lectures and Sunday services. I had gathered some pamphlets from the spinner, titled ‘Marriage’ and ‘Dealing with People Suffering Trauma’.

“I can see”, said Wendy, nodding at the pamphlets, “what your crisis is.” It’s a fair bet that anyone coming in here would be prompted by feelings of less than complete happiness. But for now I shrugged off Wendy’s help. Counselling sessions, or “auditing” of my mental state, would come with thus-far undisclosed price tags. And no, I was not allowed to keep my pamphlets, unless I paid $7.50 for each.

*

The Church of Scientology was obligated to allow me inside, for openness to the public is one of the conditions of its religious status in Australia. This legal definition is its most prized asset, giving it a kind of legitimacy – and an exemption from paying tax. The 1983 Australian High Court ruling in Church of the New Faith v. Victorian Commissioner of Payroll Tax, known as the ‘Scientology case’, is a milestone that places Australia in the centre of the church’s global story. In America, it would be another 10 years before Scientology would gain the equivalent tax exemption.

Scientology boasts proudly of the five Australian High Court justices’ decision to recognise it as “a bona fide religion”, as opposed to a cult or a business. But the justices, read closely, did anything but endorse Scientologist beliefs.

By way of background: Lafayette Ronald Hubbard had been a traveller and writer of science fiction, western and other genre novels for two decades before publishing Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1950. It is a thick and often repetitive volume, creating its own terminology as it goes. It describes itself as “an exact methodology which enables a person to erase the irrational fears and emotions, psychosomatic illnesses (illnesses caused or aggravated by mental stress) and the underlying cause of stress, by getting rid of the negative power of the reactive mind”.

Over the next four years Hubbard established the first Scientology church, in Los Angeles, before branching out across America. I have great difficulty summarising the cosmology and epistemology of Scientological belief. Brevity risks trivialising it. Detail risks losing the reader, and I must say, for my own part, that the language of Scientology has a glossy impenetrability that slides off the surface of the eye. No doubt that is part of its attraction: opacity invites effort, and just like the great postmodernist works of fiction of the twentieth century, effort can be rewarded with enlightenment. This opacity also offers an inducement to the reader who breaks through. It lures the novice with the prospect of becoming an initiate, one of the elite.

Scientologists are said to believe in aliens, which is not quite fair. Hubbard wrote that 75 million years ago a galactic tyrant named Xenu tricked billions of aliens into coming to a planet called Teegeeack – Earth – where he lured them into volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. Humans, who are inhabited by spirits called “thetans”, were infected by the remnants of these dead aliens. Scientologists learn techniques to cleanse themselves of these remnants or “engrams”, which are akin to bad memories carried over from previous lives. Stored in the “reactive mind”, the remnants are responsible for depression, anxiety and other ailments of the mind. Someone who has applied these cleansing techniques is known as a “clear”. The rest of us are “preclears”. Scientologists believe that most mental illnesses are psychosomatic and curable through their techniques.

Scientology kept the Xenu story secret as long as it could, for obvious reasons, although it may be read simply as a metaphor for the existence of eternal souls: if our souls are eternal, they had to come from somewhere before humans inhabited the earth, right? An initiate had to pass through years of auditing before learning the origins of engrams. Defectors published the Xenu story on the internet in the mid-1990s, setting off a new war between Scientology and its apostates, their battleground cyberspace.

The essence of Scientology is both simple and, for a religion, astonishingly narrow in focus. Scientology is an approach to mental health that is similar to psychiatry, but resolutely opposed to it. Except in the most extreme cases, it rejects psychiatric drugs (but not all pharmacology), advocating instead its own patented educational techniques. Scientology also posits a Supreme Being. Belief in Scientology can coexist with other spiritual beliefs, and many of its doctrines echo those of Buddhism, from which Hubbard drew freely. Its religious fundamentals are less controversial than its structural and organisational fundamentals – its deployment of power – but these were not the concern of the High Court in 1983.

Scientology migrated early to Australia. In the late 1940s Hubbard’s early writings on Dianetics were mimeographed and shared as a kind of samizdat. Believers established beachheads in Melbourne in 1955, then Perth and Sydney in 1960. Hubbard visited Australia in 1959. Complaints about the church’s “mind controlling” techniques were investigated by a Victorian commission of inquiry in 1963. The investigator, barrister Kevin Anderson QC, concluded:

 

There are some features of Scientology which are so ludicrous that there may be a tendency to regard Scientology as silly and its practitioners as harmless cranks. To do so would be to gravely misunderstand the tenor of the board [of inquiry]’s conclusions … Scientology is evil; its techniques evil; its practice a serious threat to the community, medically, morally and socially; and its adherents sadly deluded and often mentally ill.

 

The Bolte government banned Scientology under the Psychological Practices Act of 1965, and South Australia and Western Australia followed. The bans were lifted in the early 1970s – evidence, according to Scientology’s Australian president Vicki Dunstan, that the Anderson enquiry was “hysterical and undertaken at a time of widespread religious intolerance”. In 1973, Scientologists were licensed to celebrate marriage in Australia. Nevertheless, Anderson’s criticisms are still held by most of the psychiatric profession: that Scientology’s claim to cure mental illness involves a kind of brainwashing by unqualified practitioners, risks driving patients into deeper mental disorder, and is predatorily costly. In 1963, Anderson found that some adherents had paid up to £1,000 for the auditing courses they undertook. Today, although they start as low as $10, the most often quoted figure for the cumulative cost of courses up to the Tom Cruise level (OT VII, one step from the top) is between $300,000 and $500,000. According to the church, the average annual donation by Scientologists in Australia and the US is $1000, though generous donors have paid millions. Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, reportedly donated US$11 million to the church last year, dwarfing Cruise’s reported US$2 million. On the other hand, Vicki Dunstan says she has only ever donated around $600 in 27 years, “and you could go through years of auditing without paying a cent”. The church’s desire, she says, is not to raise money through its members but for them to recruit new auditors.

Scientology lost its religious tax exemption in the US in 1967. In many countries, most notably France, Germany and Greece, its claims on religious status remain unfulfilled. The fight-back in Australia culminated in the 1983 case when Scientology, under the name of the Church of New Faith, took its battle with Victorian tax authorities to the High Court.

Lionel Murphy, one of the five justices who made the unanimous judgement in Scientology’s favour, said the group had “easily discharged the onus of showing that it is religious. The conclusion that it is a religious institution entitled to the tax exemption is irresistible.” The judges were not assessing the credibility or ethics of the church, however. Murphy said that Australian law could not differentiate between churches on the basis of reason. It was, he said, “one-in, all-in”: “Any body which claims to be religious, whose beliefs or practices are a revival of, or resemble, earlier cults, is religious.”

The greater the mumbo-jumbo quotient of Scientology, then, the firmer its entitlement to tax-free status.

*

In the Scientology case, the High Court defined religion in Australia. A religion had to have belief in a supernatural being or principle and “canons of conduct that give effect to that belief”. It had to have a building and a paid minister and it had to be open to the public.

It is in this spirit, then, that the Sydney Church of Scientology was obligated to accept me again when I visited for a Sunday service some weeks after my personality test.

The service was held in a room in the Surry Hills building. Two walls were covered with a crimson curtain. A third wall had a bookcase containing six trophies awarded to the ‘Sydney Org’. There was a lectern and a wooden Scientology cross. Eighteen plastic chairs were lined up for the congregants. Ten came. All, including myself, attended as single individuals. None came with partners or family. Most were men.

At the front was Pastor Steve, who, to my surprise, wore a dog collar. Pastor Steve had greying hair, a thin down-turned mouth and a calm manner: an ordinary suburban Thetan. At the beginning we recited the Scientology Creed, which expresses “inalienable rights” to things like religious practices, sanity and freedom. The centrality of mental health to Scientology lodges within the creed: “That the study of the mind and the healing of mentally caused ills should not be alienated from religion or condoned in non-religious fields.”

Pastor Steve’s sermon was as blandly agreeable as most of what is said on any low-church Sunday. He told a story about a couple he had counselled, quoted Hubbard three or four times, proclaimed that “the great discovery of Scientology is to define life”, and stressed that the purpose of family life is to “get on well together”. He used some Scientological terms such as “OT Maxims” (an ‘OT’ is an ‘Operating Thetan’, which one can become through completing Scientology courses) and spoke of unenlightened “Preclears”, that is, us. The service ended with the ‘Prayer for Total Freedom’; Scientology places enormous emphasis on ‘freedom’, an emphasis which perhaps arose from Hubbard’s personal experience. He spent several years conducting his religion from a boat while his followers (including his then wife Mary Sue) were prosecuted for stealing government documents pertaining to investigations of Scientology. The ‘Prayer for Total Freedom’, a plea to be left alone, can be read as a coda for Hubbard’s 1970s.

I was interested to hear, over tea and biscuits, that Pastor Steve had joined Scientology 30 years earlier over the objections of his mother, “who didn’t understand Scientology” and “contacted the newspapers” in her attempt to keep him out of the church. He spoke of her pityingly, as someone who “didn’t understand”. He did not say if he was still in contact with her. Pastor Steve also mentioned that one woman he had been counselling used to sell Avon products.

Defectors from Scientology have criticised the religion for being structurally akin to pyramid-selling, in that a high material value is placed on recruitment. I picked up a copy of Impact, the magazine of the International Association of Scientologists, and noted an “Honour Roll” of those who have “reshaped the destiny of Earth” for the church. To reshape the destiny of Earth, one must recruit new members. For instance, to get a “Diamond and Two Sapphires” stickpin, one must recruit 1000 annual or lifetime members. At a cost of US$500 (annual) to US$5000 (lifetime) each, recipients of this stickpin have individually raised anywhere between US$500,000 and US$5 million for Scientology. Estimates that the church has a worldwide annual income of US$400 million in its peak years may not be too wide of the mark, although Scientology does not report its finances under corporations law, so its wealth is hard to quantify.

The membership numbers, however, are easier. When I said earlier that I might already have become a Scientologist, I meant that by doing the personality test and putting my name on a mailing list I am now numbered among the 250,000 adherents that the church claims in Australia and New Zealand, and the 9 million worldwide. These numbers clash with the 2006 census figures, in which only 2513 Australians said they are Scientologists, fewer than Wiccans and Jedis, among others.

My request for an interview was granted by not one, but three senior Australian Scientologists. Dunstan, 50, was a naturopath who was introduced to Scientology in her twenties; she has risen to the administrative post of president in the Asia-Pacific. Virginia Stewart, 40, was born to a Scientologist family in New Zealand and attended Catholic schools before “deciding Scientology was the one for me”. She is the church’s social-reform director.   Cyrus Brooks is a 37-year-old science and IT graduate. He moved here from America in 1997, after reaching a fork in the road: “a job came up for developing better missile systems [in California] and I decided that that was what the world didn’t need”. Like Stewart, Brooks is a child of Scientologist parents. He is the church’s community-relations officer.

The trio was friendly and very talkative, especially when we moved to the subject of Hubbard and the skills he taught in Dianetics. Perhaps I noticed this only in contrast to what I know to be my own bloodshot eyes, but the whites of their eyes were all a conspicuous white. I don’t mean to say that they seemed zealous; just that they shared a certain clarity.

They had no ready answer for the Australian church’s numbers. There are 750 people employed by Scientology’s Australian missions and 250,000 on the mailing list, but outside those figures, says Brooks, “we don’t keep tabs”. This lends an inevitable airiness to claims of the church’s actual presence in Australia. Judging by the Sunday attendance at Sydney’s main church – nine, plus me – only in a good week would the full 2507 Australia-wide be going to their Scientology service.

Professor Gary Bouma, who holds the UNESCO Chair of Interreligious and Intercultural Relations at Monash University, says:

 

I treat the census as a very good indicator of what Australians say when asked,  “What is your religion?” Many more say they are Anglican than ever attend by a large factor. Other groups have a different relationship between active participants and those who ‘identify’ … From what I know, I have no reason to doubt that at least 200,000 people in Australia have undertaken one session given their active marketing in public places. I also believe them when they say that there are more ‘regulars’ than appear in the census – how many, I would not hazard a guess.

 

The publicised number of parishioners of the church projects an amplified sense of the scale of Scientology. This led me to enquire more about how Scientology is represented in public debate; I also spent some weeks reading clippings about the church over the past 20 years. In doing so, it emerged that senior staff also spend a lot of time scanning the media for news about the church.

Trailing the public history of Scientology in Australia is a shadow history, comprised of the church’s reply to what is written and spoken about it. To an astonishing degree, Scientologists are engaged with the media. Whenever an article is published, a church spokesperson writes a letter in response, usually containing boilerplate declarations about Scientology being a recognised religion that believes man has an eternal soul, as well as denials of whatever whackiness the article attributed to the church.

Melbourne Scientology spokesperson Mary Anderson has had some 45 letters published in newspapers, while Brooks has had 32.Across the country, Scientologists have had their protesting letters published more than 150 times in the past decade. “So many errors are published about us,” says Stewart, “and if they’re repeated often enough, people will believe them. So we think it’s important to get the truth out there.” For all the letters that are published, Dunstan adds, “we write many more that get ignored”.

What all this correspondence does, as well as clarify the record, is magnify it. For every article published about Scientology, the church ensures an echo. The cumulative effect is to make the church seem exceedingly prominent.

It also confirms Scientology’s reputation for wanting to control the public record. Hubbard might have died in 1986 or, as his successor David Miscavige put it, “moved to another level of research”, but his tactic of contention lives on. Since the advent of the internet, Scientology has been a self-driven vanguard of censorship, using copyright laws to stem criticism and prevent its high-priced secrets from being published. Dunstan’s argument is matter-of-fact: “Since the internet, people have been able to put up anything, no matter how false. If we don’t address that, the man on the street will believe it.”

As early as 1995, Scientology fought the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup to shut down critical comment. A defector, Arnaldo Lerma, put  136 pages of Scientology’s advanced teachings on the net and the church used copyright laws to have it taken down. This strategy has continued, albeit with limited success. Last year, a video featuring Tom Cruise in a state of Scientological overheat was posted on YouTube. Again, Scientology claimed copyright protection, but the video continues to exist and to offer a peculiar kind of schadenfreude. Cruise allegedly leveraged his influence in the entertainment industry to have a CNBC reporter sacked because of his criticisms, as well as to stop the airing of television shows mocking Scientology. But his media campaign has not proven successful in Germany, where his film Valkyrie was resisted due to his beliefs, nor in France, where he was refused honorary citizenship for the same reason. Scientology’s attempts to massage its image on Wikipedia (arguing it was acting defensively against saboteurs) show how lively the online battle between the church and its critics has become: ultimately both sides were sent out of the room. In Australia, perhaps signifying how few Scientologists, and defectors, there are, the conflict has been quieter. The group calling itself Anonymous staged Australia’s first ‘flash mob’ protest outside Scientology’s Melbourne headquarters in August 2003: a group of 120 gathered with yellow gloves, pointed at the sky and dispersed. While versions of the narrative of ‘Defector exposes church brainwashing’ are common in American media, such stories are rare here. Last year, 71-year-old David Graham spoke to the Sun-Herald after being a Scientology member between 1976 and 1990. “I enjoyed a lot of my time in Scientology, and I think at its lower levels some of the auditing [counselling] can be very useful,” he said. “But at the upper levels a lot of the teachings are useless. I think it needs to be totally dismantled to help save the people in it. It is not run like a religion. It’s more like a cult. My concerns are about the constraints it puts on an individual and the denial of human rights. It is run by fear.” Graham himself refused to disclose his place of residence. That he is such a rare case of a ‘Suppressive Person’ (as defectors are called) speaking publicly could point to a number of things. It could suggest that Scientology does not brainwash many people; it could indicate that Suppressive Persons in Australia are hiding in silence; it could reveal that there are just not very many of them – Scientologists or SPs.

*

Though a master in using the media and the courts to protect and project its image, Scientology has not always been so ostentatious in its proselytising. The church is an umbrella for subsidiary groups, such as the Citizens’ Commission for Human Rights, Drug-Free Ambassadors, Kids for a Drug-Free Future, Narconon, Youth for Human Rights Australia, and Scientology Assist. Scientology’s ‘Volunteer Ministers’ materialised to give aid in the aftermath of September 11, the Virginia Tech shootings, the Asian Tsunami and, in Australia, Cyclone Larry in 2006. “We are not recruiting, we are just here to make people feel better,” said Sasha Hutcheon, a VM in Innisfail to provide ‘assists’ (Scientology massages that are meant to draw out negative energy).

Nonetheless, these groups have been criticised for appearing at Australian schools, community open days, and even having police distribute their material, without declaring their Scientology background. In January 2007, NSW police withdrew anti-drug pamphlets from stations in the Hunter region when it was discovered they were provided by Scientologists. Two months later, students from Canterbury High School complained that volunteers from Youth for Human Rights Australia had been extolling Scientology at a human rights forum in NSW Parliament House. That October, the South Australian Department of Education withdrew a religious guidance DVD being distributed at Whyalla High School, because it was found to be a product of Scientologists. Drug Free Ambassadors were handing out their pamphlets on the Gold Coast last ‘schoolies’ week’ and, in February this year, a DVD condemning psychiatry was distributed to GPs across Australia by the Citizens’ Commission for Human Rights.

When I raised these examples, Virginia Stewart explained that the message in the pamphlets was more important than “one little line saying it’s been paid for by the Church of Scientology. Behind the scenes, the police told us that we should keep distributing the pamphlets, because they agreed with what we were saying but they had to avoid the controversy of being linked with it themselves.” Dunstan added: “We’ve never recruited a single new member from this kind of activity.” Yet these community initiatives are also the source of great pride. “We don’t invest in stocks and property, like the other churches. We spend money on funding these programs.”

The Citizens’ Commission for Human Rights is at the centre of Scientology’s dispute with psychiatry, and in Australia it achieved the church’s finest moment. Long before Tom Cruise or James Packer had even joined Scientology, long before John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth (the movie based on Hubbard’s writings), long before the rank silliness of celebrity Scientology  the church played a role in exposing deep-sleep therapy (DST) at Chelmsford Private Hospital in Sydney.

In the late 1970s a Scientologist nurse named Rosa Nicholson hid a camera in a Sustagen box and took photographs of hospital records in the lavatory. She then passed copies to Jan Eastgate, of the CCHR, who took them to the NSW Attorney-General and helped set in train both the eventual closure of Chelmsford and a subsequent Royal Commission into psychiatric care. The community was horrified to learn of DST, which used barbiturates to put patients into extended comas to ‘cure’ mental illnesses, including depression and drug addiction; the exposé was viewed as a triumph for Scientology. Its campaign against psychiatric drugs, one of the central tenets of Hubbard’s ideology, appeared to be publicly beneficial. Eastgate was rewarded with the top position at CCHR headquarters in America. For a brief moment, Scientology was seen as a white knight for psychiatric patients.

Another side soon emerged. An alleged proponent of DST, Dr Alex Sinclair, had been targeted by the CCHR for his role in the 1965 banning of Scientology in Victoria. Scientology was accused of being motivated not by patient welfare, but by revenge. In the late 1980s, when the Chelmsford Royal Commission took place, documents were leaked from Scientology’s Melbourne Office of Special Affairs – the department of the church that investigates Suppressive Persons – seeking evidence to discredit Dr Sinclair and other psychiatrists.

The campaign against psychiatric drugs is so central to Scientology that it makes the religious trappings seem extraneous. If Scientologists have a unifying fervour, it is not their belief in Xenu, but their opposition to ‘mind-altering’ drugs. Among these, it numbers common antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft, as well as rarer psychotropic medicines.

Psychopharmacological treatments are controversial, but Scientology’s outright opposition to them stimulates deep fears. Cruise’s very public advice to Brooke Shields to stop using antidepressants to combat her post-natal depression was the least of it. In February 2004, a family of Scientologists at Lake Macquarie, NSW, administered a fatal dose of potassium-chloride pills to their two-year-old daughter in the belief that the pills were Scientology-approved ‘vitamins’. The girl’s father had been an illicit drug user, who converted to Scientology and was given the so-called ‘Vitamin K’ pills to combat dehydration. Then, last July, in the Sydney suburb of Revesby, a 25-year-old woman fatally stabbed her father and sister after she had stopped taking her anti-psychotic medication. When it was revealed that her father was a Scientologist, the stabbings became known as the ‘Scientology killings’. (The church complained to the press council about the link, but lost.) Dr Mark Cross, the consultant psychiatrist and clinical director of Liverpool and Fairfield Mental Health Services, said the woman’s parents refused the treatment on their daughter’s behalf. Dr Cross said that she had a history of being diagnosed with psychotic illness in late 2006 at Bankstown Hospital, but follow-up from the mental health team was apparently declined by her parents because of “their alleged Scientology beliefs”.

So much of Scientology appears harmlessly whacky, and concerns about many of its more odious practices – the pyramid recruiting structure, the high cost of courses, the recent allegations in a Florida newspaper that Miscavige routinely abuses his staff – are dismissed as only affecting Scientologists themselves. The cosmology is no stranger than Christianity’s equivalent, and our notion of religious tolerance dissuades Australians from persecuting Scientologists for their belief in bizarre myths or for parting with their money in the search for enlightenment. The messages of volunteerism and good works, the education of the youth to eschew drugs and respect human rights, can at some level be applauded.

Yet the debate over psychiatric drugs is a serious one, and Scientologists’ rhetoric preys on the uncertainties of the vulnerable. Anyone familiar with someone who has been prescribed psychiatric medication knows that patients seldom need an excuse to desert their program. And there is a hefty medical and legal literature detailing the devastating results of these desertions. To offer an entire religious scheme, eternal life no less, as a substitute for psychiatric medication is in some cases irresponsible, not to mention reprehensible.

“We are not treating the mentally ill,” Virginia Stewart asserted during our interview. “There are genuinely psychotic people who have to be locked up and given medication. But we think mind-altering psychiatric drugs are used much too widely.”

One of the few things that can be said with certainty, I think, after my inquiry into the church, is that Scientology’s size and influence in Australia are highly exaggerated. The recruitment of celebrities has granted Scientology public prominence well beyond its actual significance. Since the 1990s, the roster of celebrity names – Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Kate Ceberano, Chick Corea, Isaac Hayes, Kirstie Alley, Lisa Marie Presley – has been more or less static. Save for a Packer or two drifting in and out. So Scientology can hardly justify its claim to be “on the march” into the world of the famous.

Scientology is indisputably a rich church for its size, but this can be attributed to its powers of raising donations from parishioners. Tellingly, when Vicki Dunstan wants to draw a comparison for the cost of Scientology auditing, she does not use examples from other churches, such as, say, the Catholic confession; instead she uses psychiatry. “We met someone who’d paid a psychiatrist $1200 to tell him he had a drug problem. For $1200, we could have had him off drugs.” In terms of winning recruits from its rivals, Scientology’s targets are not members of other religions, but the patient base of the psychiatric profession.

Which brings us back to the profound taxonomic challenge of Scientology: when defined as a ‘religion’, it seems more like a secular counselling service, but when defined as a counselling service, it carries mystical overtones which, in a country that prizes the separation of church and state, feel exploitative and, in the wrong hands, dangerous. The Scientologists I met phrase their beliefs in a way that makes them sound mainstream, almost bland. Yet the Australian mainstream has never been comfortable with the overlap of self-improvement, big money and spirituality.

When it comes to new churches enjoying the subsidy of everybody’s taxes, there are 80 to 100 practising Pentecostals in Australia for every Scientologist. If it were defined as a business, the Catholic Church would rank among Australia’s top three corporations. In his 1983 Scientology judgement, Lionel Murphy said: “The crushing burden of taxation is heavier because of exemptions in favour of religious institutions, many of which have enormous and increasing wealth.” If this country is genuinely to debate whether or not religions ought to continue to have their freight paid by everyone else, then Scientology should be recognised as nothing more than a patsy, an extreme and unrepresentative player in the argument. But if it has made itself an exaggeratedly large target, it has only itself to blame.

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and has won a Walkley Award for journalism. His books include Jamaica and The Life.
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