When driving, Cathy Brown says she can make red lights turn green. At home, she can make someone visit or call simply by thinking about them.
But the Minnetonka woman’s remarkable powers to control “matter, energy, space and time” don’t end there, she said.
“I can also go out of my body at will,” said Brown, a private school administrator. “Although I’m not very good yet at seeing things while I’m outside.”
Brown attributes her abilities to the late L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology, which the science fiction writer founded in Los Angeles in 1954 after publishing a bestselling self-help book, “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.”
Dianetics was an alternative to psychiatry. Hubbard called it “a milestone for man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his inventions of the wheel and arch.”
It became the basis for his new religion, which has been controversial from its genesis.
The spotlight on the church has intensified recently thanks to the couch-jumping theatrics of actor Tom Cruise, a Scientologist since 1986.
Critics have labeled Scientology as everything from a dangerous cult run by amateur psychologists to a scam exploiting money from its members.
“We don’t expect mainstream religions to lie, to exploit people, to engage in illegal activity,” said David Touretzky, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “Scientology is not a true religion, because it does all of these things.”
But church members say Scientology, which focuses on rehabilitating the human mind and spirit, is the world’s best hope for ending war, crime and various psychological maladies.
“Every religion on the planet has come under attack at its beginning,” said Audrey Steinbergs, 46.
Scientology on Cruise control.
Scientology has always been famous for its close identification with celebrities, who Hubbard saw as publicity machines for his church.
– Justice Anderson, Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, quoted at What judges have to say about Scientology
So the church maintains celebrity centers worldwide to pamper the likes of actor John Travolta, actress Juliette Lewis and singer Lisa Marie Presley.
“A lot of people, when they find out I’m a Scientologist, say, ‘Oh, yes, Tom Cruise or John Travolta,'” said real estate agent Lotte Seidler, 77, a member of the Church of Scientology of Minnesota since it opened in 1965 in Minneapolis.
Cruise has been especially vocal of late about his religious beliefs. He set up a Scientology massage tent on the set of his movie “War of the Worlds.” He chastised actress Brooke Shields for using prescription drugs to deal with depression. On the “Today” show, he railed against psychiatry.
“We’re getting a lot more people coming in, especially in the last few months,” said the Rev. Brian Fesler, director of special affairs for the Church of Scientology of Minnesota. “People are just curious what all the talk is about.”
But, as has been true throughout the church’s short but colorful history, not all of the talk has been good.
In the 1940s, a near-penniless Hubbard reportedly told friends and other writers that the best way to make $1 million was to “start your own religion.”
The church disputes the story. True or not, it illustrates a chief criticism of Scientology: its hunger for money.
A 1991 Time story labeled the church a “thriving cult of greed and power.” Critics often refer to it in writing as $cientology or the Co$.
Unlike other religions, which freely give away their knowledge and copies of their sacred writings, Scientologists sell theirs through study courses.
All members, from the lowliest acolyte to people such as Brown who reach the highest levels, must take the courses. As they move up the chain, or across the bridge as it is called, the courses get more esoteric and expensive. Conservative estimates place the costs of completing the eight levels at tens of thousands of dollars. Higher-end estimates place the lifetime cost at $350,000 or more.
Brown, who is at the highest level, won’t say how much she has paid but says it’s been worth it: “This is how our religion gets its income. Everything I have tried has worked. How much is happiness worth? How much is confidence worth? A lot.”
When Brown joined Scientology in the 1980s she found people ignorant of the religion or hostile toward it.
One woman, Brown said, “asked me if it was true that we ate our young. I started laughing. But she was serious.”
Scientologists say attitudes are changing, especially as the church has tried to go mainstream after winning tax-exempt status and federal recognition as a religion in 1993.
“More and more lately, people are hearing about Scientology, and it hasn’t been all negative,” said Natalie Hagemo of Excelsior, a member since the mid-1980s.
As a result, Scientologists are encountering more tolerance. “Three hundred years ago I would have been burned at the stake,” Brown laughs.
Instead, today she finds herself at the pinnacle of an organization claiming to be the world’s fastest-growing religion. The Minnesota church has about 500 members, and Scientology worldwide claims about 9 million, at more than 4,200 churches.
Critics say the church has maybe 500,000 members worldwide. Some researchers even estimate membership might be as low as 50,000.
Like many longstanding denominations, Scientology also has community outreach efforts such as drug counseling and study programs, which Brown uses in running Flagship Academy in St. Louis Park.
In Minneapolis, the church started a women’s auxiliary in 2002 to help battered women’s shelters, collect school supplies, create Easter basket projects and conduct blood drives.
“We don’t go out and disseminate Scientology, that’s not what this is about,” said Hagemo, 34, who heads the women’s auxiliary. “Whatever people need, that’s what we want to provide.”
But critics aren’t buying into the notion that this is a kinder, gentler Scientology.
“I call this ‘cult lite,’ ” said Chuck Beatty, a former Scientologist from Carnegie, Pa. “Scientology is Hinduism crossed with science fiction.”
Fraud or savior?
No matter what face is put on Scientology, its alpha and omega will always be Hubbard, whose words and writings are law.
Even now his 5,000 writings, dozens of books and 3,000 tape-recorded lectures are considered sacred and infallible, not open to debate or interpretation.
Hubbard grew to such mythic proportions within Scientology that he once found it necessary to issue a memo telling members that he was not God.
And yet, Hubbard’s estranged son accused him of being a drug addict and a devil worshiper. A former wife claimed in a divorce filing that Hubbard was a paranoid schizophrenic.
At one point, before founding the church, Hubbard was hospitalized for a mental illness, which some say explains Scientology’s antagonism to psychiatry. The church says Hubbard went undercover to expose bad psychiatric practices.
Hubbard believed that humans are immortal spiritual beings composed of body, mind and spirit. He said the mind controlled the body and could, if trained, also control matter, energy, space and time.
Hubbard pointed to himself as what could be achieved. He said he could leave his body at will and that he had been to Venus, the Van Allen Radiation Belt and heaven — twice.
– Prefatory Note to the official Report of the Board of Enquiry into Scientology, by Kevin Victor Anderson, Q.C., Published 1965 by the State of Victoria, Australia
Exteriorization, as Hubbard called going out of body, was but one of the many things he promised Scientologists. He also talked of helping Scientologists achieve immortality, recall past lives, use telekinesis and master clairvoyance.
“He generally did believe his own delusions,” Beatty said. “He saw himself as this intergalactic savior of Earth.”
When Cruise criticized actress Shields for using antidepressants to deal with post-partum depression, she shot back that she wouldn’t take advice from anyone who believed in space aliens.
That was a reference to one of Scientology’s most closely held secrets: Hubbard’s assertion that intergalactic warfare and space invaders are behind the world’s problems.
Hubbard claimed that 4 quadrillion years ago (300,000 times longer than scientists believe the universe has existed) the first incident traumatized immortal spirits called thetans.
Then, 75 million years ago an evil galactic ruler named Xenu killed billions of his people by sending them to Earth in space planes, stacking them around volcanoes, then blowing them up by dropping hydrogen bombs into the craters.
Critics have focused on these incidents, and Hubbard’s belief in what he called space opera, to discredit Scientology.
“This is almost like Flash Gordon,” said Beatty, who like many other true believers signed a “billion-year contract” to serve the Church of Scientology. “Members are hyped up into thinking that we’re going to be intergalactic warriors who are going to carry on Scientology for a billion years … coming back lifetime after lifetime.”
But church members say focusing on these beliefs is nothing more than critics trying to marginalize Scientology.
“People are smart,” said Hagemo. “They can evaluate information and look at the source. It took Christianity hundreds of years to become mainstream.”