The Church of Scientology and the cult of tax avoidance

The Promised Land

America is not only the host of ever more innovative models of commercial enterprise but also to some of the quirkiest interpretations of religion on Earth. And to the European outsider, it can be a challenge to differentiate between the two—some of the religious organisations that have taken root over on the other side of the Atlantic are both quirky and innovative. Take Spiritualism for example, this particular practice revolves around a medium who purports to communicate between the living and the dead. It was born in the 1840s out of so-called paranormal phenomena issuing from three young American sisters, who seemed mysteriously able to channel messages from a deceased person in a series of raps to coincide in number with letters of the alphabet, to form words and sentences; the actual origin of which are still hotly disputed to this day. It is believed by sceptics that the strange sounds were simply made by the girls’ unusual ability to loudly crack the joints in their big toe at will; and what started life as a mischievous prank became an opportunity to service a profound need in humans to get in touch with their lost loved ones (where there is desperation, there is usually a dollar to be made). To top it all, the United States Constitution affords considerable legal protection to a weird and wonderful spectrum of religious denominations, cults and sects, so that they may pursue their chosen confession without interference from the state, and this includes the opportunity to make money and gain the much coveted tax exemption status.

In America—unlike Britain where religion is generally a more sober affair—it isn’t strange to see preachers in sharp suits creating near hysteria among a vast congregation with supercharged ecclesiastical performances, that can even culminate in attempts to miraculously cure the seriously ill. In return, these churches may receive massive funding in generous donations from the faithful. There is little unease with a so-called spiritual activity pulling in considerable wealth, nor with the material trappings of the preachers.

In a country where unorthodoxy is considered orthodox, it is no surprise that cults and sects can rise and fall in spectacular fashion: in 1993, 76 members of the Branch Davidians, an apocalypse-yearning schism of the Davidians (Seventh-day Adventists), were burnt to death when a 51 day armed standoff was broken by the FBI who stormed their compound in Waco, Texas. What is notable about these cults is the apparent gulf between the mental dexterity of the leader and the vacuous personality of the followers, who don’t seem able to convincingly articulate their belief system or to defend it in any coherent way—utterly brainwashed, in other words.

Scientology

Scientology … comes from the Latin scio, which means “know” and the Greek word logos, meaning “the word or outward form by which the inward thought is expressed and made known.” Thus, Scientology means knowing about knowing. Scientology is an applied religious philosophy developed by L. Ron Hubbard. It is the study and handling of the spirit in relationship to itself, universes and other life. (Iasmembership.org, 2017)

The name hints at the rigors of scientific thinking, but the actual doctrine of Scientology is pseudo-scientific. Nonetheless, the general idea is in keeping with any systematic approach toward greater self-awareness, and Scientology proudly touts itself as the means by which the world may be free from the affliction of insanity, criminality and war. The use of jargon and abbreviations in Scientology make it seem at home with any modern organisation, especially the military. Take the HCOPL ‘(Hubbard Consultant Outpoint-Pluspoint List), for example: a list of illogics (outpoints) and logics (pluspoints) used in an auditing process to help the preclear locate and handle illogical thinking in the area being addressed)’. And then there is the infamous SP ‘(Suppressive Person: a[n antisocial] person who possesses a distinct set of characteristics and mental attitudes that cause him to suppress other people in his vicinity. This is the person whose behavior is calculated to be disastrous.)’.

The man behind the curtain

The founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was a prolific author of science fiction throughout his life and a man whose prodigious imagination meant he could straddle the world of fact and fiction and treat them as if they were components of one overarching realm of existence. Rather than merely offering up something fantastical in a pulp-fiction publication for general consumption—escapism in a few hundred pages—he went much further and beyond those ambitions by offering the world a completely new religion, some of the mechanics of which were recycled from the older systems and dressed up to suit the modern age.

The problem with someone who does not distinguish between fact and fiction is that there is no such thing as common falsehood; because they inhabit a hyper-reality, the normal anxiety that might trouble the conscience of many people when it comes to deceit doesn’t apply. Such people are exceptionally convincing liars—if they believe it is thus, it must be thus. In the case of L. Ron Hubbard, his insistence on an otherworldly realm was no different to any other metaphysical belief or faith—not falsifiable. But his fondness for tall tales concerning his own wartime naval service as a commander of a corvette were more difficult to swallow because they tended to deal with the tangible; his glamourized accounts, like those of the literary figure Baron Von Munchhausen, contradicted many details of his military records. And if Hubbard’s former wife’s version of incidents from their domestic life are to be believed, his deceits regarding his family were calculated for reasons of control and were sometimes very cruel.

Metaphysics & methodology

The basic objective of Scientology is to partake in a program of gradual self-liberation, to become clear, free from the bedevilment of engrams—deep-seated negative emotional states, psychosomatic illnesses, residual trauma and so on—caused by what Hubbard referred to as the reactive mind, mainly by way of a process known as auditing, from the Latin audi—to listen. Auditing of a preclear (a subject who is not yet clear) entails something like an unburdening of the soul to a suitably qualified minister, an auditor, within the Church of Scientology, with the aid of an E-meter (Electropsychometer). An E-meter is a customised electronic device, somewhat like a polygraph, that purports to highlight, electronically, areas of distress buried deep within the unconscious of a subject, including memories from past lives (engrams); the subject holds a cylindrical terminal in each hand through which a tiny electronic current passes during the auditing session, and a needle supposedly indicates when the mind is reactive. So there are also elements of what would traditionally be understood as regression hypnotherapy. The sessions can be extremely revealing, and are often recorded; it might be fair to say that there are also similarities to the practice of confession within Catholicism and also psychotherapeutic techniques.

This cleansing methodology is called dianetics from the Greek word dia, meaning ‘through’, and nous, meaning ‘soul’. However, Scientology doesn’t directly refer to the soul to avoid the dogma associated with older religious terms. Instead, it prefers the term thetan as a more expansive reference to any immortal consciousness that is ‘aware of their own awareness’. This disassociation with traditional terms of self-reference is comparable to the German philosopher Heidegger’s Dasein—interpreted as ‘the being for whom Being is a question’. This might be more simply described as any being with elevated awareness of the self and who is actively seeking deeper meaning.

The taxman cometh

It might not surprise people to learn that to gain a clear state doesn’t come cheap—and the Church of Scientology has drawn into its fold two major celebrities, John Travolta and Tom Cruise, who sometimes act as ambassadors to the organisation and raise the profile, no doubt helping to secure a healthy income. They are often gushing in public over all the benefits Scientology has provided over the years regarding their personal improvement and career advancement.

The Church of Scientology has spread internationally, but the road to wider acceptance has been dogged with controversy: Hubbard was continually harangued by the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) in America and the Inland Revenue in Britain. At one point he was forced to reorganise on a fleet of ships with a crew of devoted followers who sailed aimlessly around the Mediterranean so as to operate beyond the authorities’ inevitable demands for tax. The volunteer crew were set to task doing long hours of menial chores like scrubbing and cleaning for little or no remuneration. Scientology’s standards of ethics meant recalcitrant members could be ceremoniously punished by being thrown overboard (a dunking, really).

Suppressing the suppressors

Throughout its rise in popularity over the years, Scientology has reacted aggressively to any perceived negative criticism in a way that one might find slightly sinister coming from something proclaiming to be the lofty solution to insanity, criminality and war. Any threat to the organisation is usually met with intense resistance, including harassment and attempts to defame any critical individual. The legal courts were also used vigorously by the Church of Scientology to sue their way toward the all-important tax exemption status, despite them owning millions of dollars’ worth of real estate and the woeful exploitation of those who work in connection to the organisation for very little in the way of a living wage. Those who become disillusioned within the organisation and go public with various claims of bullying, physical and mental abuse, exploitation and mind-control are ruthlessly pursued. They are considered apostates, for want of a better word, and singled out for special treatment, disparagingly referred to as squirrels. What is particularly creepy are the dossiers of intimate details kept on all the members gathered from years of auditing sessions. Are there any laws protecting the confidentiality of those being audited? If not, the wealth of sensitive information could be (and allegedly is) unscrupulously deployed against any potential 'squirrel'. This must create a claustrophobic climate of fear and control. It’s like a trade-off: tell me your darkest secrets and we will see you alright, but never turn your back on the organisation that sustains you, never go public, or else...

Parting thoughts

Can the Church of Scientology be trusted to safeguard such an abundance of sensitive data? Despite some very harsh and destructive criticism from former members who have blown the whistle on some of the more unsavoury aspects, along with damning exposés by investigative journalists, Scientology is putting down roots all over the world some thirty plus years after the death of Hubbard. But the biggest irony is surely the emphasis on auditing from one of the most elaborate tax-avoidance schemes in the world.

References

Iasmembership.orgScientology Glossary. (2017). [online] Available at: https://www.iasmembership.org/feature/glossary/ [Accessed 27 Mar. 2017].

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. (2017). [film] Alex Gibney