Would you be able to kill small animals? Do you twitch during the night? Would you have more than two children, even if you couldn’t afford them?
Just three of the bizarre questions you are asked if you try to enrol in the Hubbard Academy of Personal Independence, the Scottish base of Scientology, the controversial sect with famous adherents such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Labelled a cult by its critics, defended as a bona fide religion by devotees, it is never far from the headlines, though it is generally viewed from these shores as another American oddity.
But Scientology does have a foothold in Britain, claiming up to 7,000 members in Scotland alone. And the strange world of Scientology, which believes aliens visited Earth millions of years ago, was exposed last week by a Panorama documentary.
Millions watched as BBC reporter John Sweeney, who was attempting to investigate the organisation, claimed he had been continually followed by “creepy” strangers, shouted at, repeatedly called a bigot and had his hotel invaded late at night by camera-toting Scientologists.
By his own admission, the BBC reporter “lost the plot” and bellowed “like an exploding tomato” in one confrontation with senior Scientologist Tommy Davis.
In an attempt to find the truth about the organisation, and especially its links to Scotland, I went to the grandly titled Hubbard Academy on Edinburgh’s South Bridge. Its crested owl logo evoked images of austere ivory towers and a leafy campus, but the reality was somewhat different.
On arrival, the owl sign pointed me up some stairs to offices where fresh paint and newly laid wooden floors indicated a movement on the rise.
The reception area was lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with official Scientology literature and dominated by a bronze bust of L. Ron Hubbard, one-time science fiction writer, pilot, musician and photographer who founded Scientology in 1952.
With his wide-open mouth and pronounced widow’s peak, the cravat-wearing Nebraskan looked an unlikely candidate for international veneration. He died in 1986, but a DVD of him on a constant loop ensures he is a constant presence.
I was there for the free personality, IQ and aptitude tests advertised on the Scientology website. “Expert evaluators will help you identify your strong points and weaknesses so that you can be in control of your life and career,” it promised. “Know yourself. Know your future.”
After being greeted by a pleasant, smartly dressed, middle-aged English woman, I was directed to a desk and given a 200-question personality test. As I checked box after box, a broad range of sect members glided past, from teenagers to senior citizens.
Scientology is one of the fastest growing sects in the world, claiming more than eight million members around the globe, including Hollywood stars Juliette Lewis and Kirstie Alley, soul legend Isaac Hayes and musician Beck. If anyone doubted the movement had crossed the Atlantic, this was dispelled by the opening of a huge new headquarters in London last October. Then, chief superintendent Kevin Hurley of the City of London Police praised Scientologists as “a force for good – raising the spiritual wealth of society”. It later emerged that at least 20 of his fellow officers had accepted hospitality from the Church of Scientology, including invitations to the premiere of Mission Impossible 3 and tickets to a £500-a-head dinner attended by Tom Cruise.
A Scientology offshoot, the Association for Better Living and Education, sponsored stalls at both the Labour and Conservative party conferences last autumn to promote Narconon, the cult’s drug rehabilitation programme which advises children to avoid addiction by taking saunas and eating vitamins.
Since its inception, Scientology has been dogged by claims that something sinister lurks beneath the glossy brochures and wide smiles of its adherents.
Even in the 1950s, the American magazine New Republic described Dianetics, a key part of the Scientology creed, as a “bold and immodest mixture of complete nonsense and perfectly reasonable common sense, taken from long acknowledged findings and disguised and distorted by a crazy, newly invented terminology”.
Today, the anti-sect website Operation Clambake labels Scientology “a vicious and dangerous cult that masquerades as a religion”. There have been persistent claims that members have been subject to psychological manipulation and that strong steps are taken against those who criticise or disown Scientology.
Ian Howarth, founder of the Cult Information Centre, has been a longstanding critic. “Scientology is a multimillion-dollar empire and operates all over the world,” he said. “I often quote Judge Latey of the High Court of Justice who in 1984 characterised the Church of Scientology as ‘corrupt, immoral sinister and dangerous’.”
Howarth said the assumption that only loners and misfits were attracted to such movements was a common misconception. “The easiest people to recruit are those who have an economically advantaged background, an above-average intelligence, a good education and who are idealistic.
“They are idealistic in the sense they are caring and would like to make their world a better place. Scientologists describe themselves as a religion but they have never been allowed charitable status.”
As the BBC’s Sweeney found to his cost, those who openly challenge Scientology are often faced with vociferous rebuttals. He claimed Scientology operated a policy of “disconnection” where relatives and friends of members who were sceptical about the organisation were completely cut off and shunned.
This pugnacious reputation, warranted or not, led one expert on religion to turn down the invitation to comment on Scientology. He said: “Scientologists have a longstanding policy of attempting to discredit or sue academics who speak out about their activities in any negative way. There is no way I am going to put my head above the parapet.”
Back at the Hubbard Academy, the questions went on and on. I was asked whether I believed in maintaining social classes and segregating people on the basis of their colour, whether I would be able to kill small animals and fish in a “hunting situation”. Did I twitch at night or shake involuntarily during the day? Would I be suspicious of people seeking to borrow money?
Eventually I finished and handed back the completed questionnaire. It took a surprisingly short time for the answers to be analysed by a smiling young woman who produced a graph based on my answers.
I was then ushered into another room by a man in his thirties whose down-to-earth manner put me at ease. My results, however, did not.
The graph undulated sharply from jagged point to jagged point. I was told there was a narrow band of acceptable results. Mine, unfortunately, were way off normal for all categories, veering towards depression rather than happiness, irresponsibility rather than responsibility.
Following this bombshell I was asked a series of questions that seemed to require an emotional response. Had I lost anyone recently? Had I been on anti-depressants or any form of medication?
My inquisitor looked slightly puzzled by my cheerful responses and demeanour. I think this was the point at which the script suggested I would spill my guts about my problems and beg for help.
Not to be undone, he prescribed a book about Dianetics and handed me a leaflet advertising other books, DVDs and CDs expounding Hubbard’s creed. The tomes and “self-improvement kits” on offer ranged from £5 to £50.
I left the academy feeling that Scientology was more self-help business than religion. I also left with a smiling, open invitation to return. I don’t think I’ll be taking up that invitation.
Despite repeated attempts to engage the Church of Scientology in this article, no comment or statement could be obtained.
Sidebar: Thetans, engrams and L Ron Hubbard
Scientologists believe aliens were brought to Earth millions of years ago by a warlord called Xenu, who buried them near volcanoes before blowing up the creatures. Their souls, called “body thetans”, became attached to all living things, causing problems only Scientology can solve.
- Members practise auditing, a technique aimed at addressing negative memories, known as “engrams”. They use a Tone Scale to assess how happy they are and study the works of L Ron Hubbard to achieve a state of “clear”, or contentment.
- A huge Church of Spiritual Technology symbol is carved into the ground at their US Trementina Base.
- At Scientologists’ weddings, friends and family of the couple must give their agreement to the union. During childbirth everyone in the room, including the mother-to-be, is asked to remain silent to ensure the child has a calm entry into the world.
- Scientologists vehemently oppose psychology and blame psychologists for the Second World War, the rise of Stalin and Hitler, and the Holocaust. They also campaign against giving drugs such as Ritalin to children.
- In the late 1940s Reader’s Digest quoted Hubbard, then a sci-fi author, as saying: “If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”
Additional reporting by Marc Horne