In the constant search for enlightenment and self-improvement, an advert that promises a free personality and aptitude test is hard to ignore.
Which is why I found myself standing outside a door on Edinburgh’s South Bridge, gazing up the flight of stairs that leads to the Hubbard Academy, the place where the city’s Scientologists hang out and try to entice people in with promises of helping them change their lives for the better.
And who wouldn’t be seduced by such a promise? Look at some of its converts. Tom Cruise is one of the most successful Hollywood stars ever and he has been a Scientologist for years. Indeed, he claims he would never have become a megastar without it.
– The Selling of a Church: The Courting of Celebrities
In addition to Cruise, other heavyweights such as John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and rock musician Beck have proclaimed themselves avid Scientologists who uphold the movement’s creed of “encouraging development of the human spirit”.
And Victoria Beckham has also been spotted perusing a Scientology self-help manual about curing illnesses – sparking rumours that she may be turning to it to help her ill three-year-old son Romeo.
For despite being decried as “wacky” and “subversive”, it would appear Scientology is the latest celebrity craze – displacing Madonna’s favoured Kabbalah teachings as the new must-have religious ideology – and the organisation claims tens of thousands of recruits from around the world are joining every year.
Since being devised as an “applied religious philosophy” by science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, the Church of Scientology has grown into a multinational movement beloved by the rich and famous.
After all it’s hard to believe that an apparently rational and intelligent man like Cruise could be duped by a crazy cult.
So, after climbing two flights of stairs, I arrive in a brightly-lit room filled with assorted books and pamphlets about Scientology – as well as a large desk which I am ushered towards as soon as I explain why I’m here.
As I sit down, a fairly hefty questionnaire filled with 200 multiple choice questions is put in front of me. These, I discover, are designed to probe my psyche and discover the type of subconscious person that I really am.
Hmm . . . already I’m not overly convinced by this and I’m barely five minutes into the whole thing. Nor am I entirely convinced by some of the questions either – especially as a lot of them seem to focus on whether any of my past failures come back to haunt me or whether I get depressed easily.
But some of the others are very bizarre indeed. Do I get any unexplained muscle twitches, one asks, while another probes whether children irritate me or not.
I jot a simple “yes, no or maybe” to all of them before my question sheet is taken away to be quickly processed – far away from my prying eyes and without an explanation regarding how, exactly, the results are tallied.
Nevertheless, a rather impressive graph is soon drawn up to show me what parts of my personality and spirituality are ripe for improvement and I am led by an “expert analyst” called John into another room where he dissects my results. And it doesn’t look good. Despite giving what I considered to be a fairly rounded set of answers, I’m soon told that there are numerous negative parts of my spiritual wellbeing. Apparently, I’m verging towards being unstable, nervous and depressed while also being highly critical and unappreciative of others. In short, I’m a spiritual mess.
Not that they tell me outright, of course. Although none of my results are anywhere near where they should be on the graph – or at least what they should be in order to be a fully enlightened soul – John thinks it may be because I just have a natural mistrust of others or I’ve had a major trauma at some point in my life.
“Have you ever experienced a great loss?” he asks. “Have you ever been betrayed by someone close to you?” And, bizarrely, within minutes I’m beginning to recount long-forgotten memories of broken relationships and damaged friendships to a complete stranger.
I even find myself explaining what it actually is that I want from life – much in the same way that I would do to a psychoanalyst or counsellor – which is equally strange given the situation I’m in. After all, although I’ve gone in with an open mind, I’m certainly not looking for any kind of salvation or to join up.
Nevertheless, I’m told about numerous inquisitive people like me who have come into the centre and have ended up becoming more interested in finding their “spiritual freedom” through taking specially designed courses that the church runs . . . for a price. Naturally, they don’t tell me how much it costs – and there aren’t any prices on their website either – but I’m assured that taking a place can help me.
John suggests a communication course as a starting point, even though my graph score for this particular part of my spirituality is one of my highest. Surely something to help me get out of my alleged depression and nervousness would be better?
But, no – apparently it’s far easier to start with this one and build up to the other deficits I seem to have.
As he explains the process of “auditing” my spirit, using unfamiliar jargon and spiritual church-talk, I begin to fidget in my seat and my untrusting nature, pointed out earlier, starts to make itself painfully clear. It’s increasingly obvious I’m not going to take a place right now, so I’m encouraged to buy one of the many L Ron Hubbard books on display in order to read up on Scientology and make my own mind up about whether it’s for me.
Thankfully, I don’t have any money on me. Then they cheerfully mention their free nightly lectures and bid me a fond farewell. I don’t really know what to make of the whole thing.
On the one hand, their cheerful nature and focus on self-improvement is a welcome respite from the doom and gloom of other fundamentalist preachers. But on the other, I really don’t trust the whole “pay-as-you-go” mentality, as well as their swift denial about whether belief in extraterrestrials plays a part in their ethos (despite the fact that some of this information has been revealed in major court cases against the movement in the United States).
And who’s to say that, once you start taking a particular course, you won’t find yourself paying for more and more – while desperately striving to achieve the same kind of “enlightenment” and success as your Hollywood idols?
Maybe I should have bought one of Hubbard’s books to try to understand it a little better. Or I could just be thankful for my life as it is. To the Church of Scientology, I may be depressed, unstable and critical but at least I’m fairly happy as well.
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