Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Spoof the Church of Scientology

LOCATION: The corner of R and 20th St, right across from Cosi on one side, and Le Tomate on the other.
EQUIPMENT: Yourself, a sense of irony. OPTIONAL: A friend, wigs, painted-on track marks.

This unassuming building is the Founding Church of Scientology, established by Ron Hubbard in 1955! They are open quite late - until 10pm most nights - and offer free tours (anytime) and video screenings (hourly) every day. You can learn more about the history of the Washington DC Church of Scientology here.

I'm fascinated by cults. So I wandered in with my friend Rikhil one afternoon for a tour. We were welcomed warmly by a rosycheeked doyenne and told to wait for our guide. It felt like a quaint old museum in there - you know, wood banisters, well-preserved furniture, dark red tapestries, black & white framed photographs. There were also some colour photographs of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Scientology's founding, held on five gigantic yachts. "These guys are loaded," Rik muttered in my ear.

Our sparsely-moustached guide was perfect for our malicious purposes, since he was weak and wishy washy but very friendly. "I've been feeling down recently," I told him, regarding my interest in the Church. "Lonely and depressed and dirty."

"What do you do for a living?"

(Note: At the time I was a strategy consultant. It was a strange career choice, considering my personality, and even when I pretended to myself that I enjoyed it I had a tendency, when asked, to mumble "Consulting," with a downward inflection, apology already in the voice. And since nobody knows what consultants actually do (including many consultants), this led to annoying conversations about what consulting was, why I was pretending to enjoy it, etc etc. So then I would overcompensate, with great confidence and chin in the air: "I'm a strategy consultant." Picture the hipster waitress at a family restaurant chain who knows the management surveillance cameras are taping her: "Hi, I'm Zoe and I'll be your server tonight!" Except that the only surveillance cameras were in my own silly psyche.)

So: "I'm a strategy consultant!" Chin up, shoulders back.

In response - I swear to Hubbard it's true - our tour guide rubbed his hands together and smiled. "Veery nice. I bet that's a pretty lucrative career."

"It certainly is," as I elbowed the suddenly quivering Rik.

Our guide showed us around the first floor: ole Ron's memorial office, where he wrote some of the seminal Dianetics texts, with bookshelves brimming with leather textbooks and his garish pulp science fiction novels (they always keep the lights on there to honour him); the sitting room, with those yacht pictures and big scrapbooks of newspaper clippings; the bookstore, with a full selection of seminal Dianetics textbooks and pulp science fiction novels.

"I'm gay," Rik told the guide. "How does Scientology feel about that?"

"Well, that is okay," the guide said eagerly. (He'd been remarkably solicitous ever since my career revelation, despite our occasional weirdness and muffled giggles.) "Scientology is compatible with a lot of things: Christianity..."

"Actually I want to be cured," Rik said. "Could you help with that?"

"Oh! Oh, yes. Certainly, we can help you to be normal."

The second floor was much more interesting. They had this room where you'd get interviewed by psychologists. There were all these coloured blocks on the table which the guide said were helpful for illustrating the problems in your life. "Like, this" - and he built a cube of blocks - "could represent a problem in your life, and here's how you could get around it" - rolling a sphere over a ramp.

"What fun! Toys!" I exclaimed, doing a little dance. "When can I get an interview?" Our guide laughed, wanting to humour me but a bit defensive. He started to explain that they were not toys, they were incisive psychological tools. I picked up a trapezoid and bobbed it in front of his face. "Look, it's a train. Choo, choo, choo!"

On we went. Our guide was explaining about all the valuable community service Scientology members did. They really valued literacy. Blah, blah, blah. I poked my head around a corner and saw a poster with a diagram of the different levels of scientological enlightenment.

Now you see, Scientology is definitely a cult. They think that humans are all descended from the ghosts of gods on Mars, and when you reach a certain "level" (there are MANY levels, all with cute faux scientific names, all of which basically require huge payments to spiritual seminars for you to advance) you're able to astrally project your soul back to your birthplace on Mars. And they are indeed loaded - thanks to all those seminar payments - to the sweet melody of about $500 million, including a 440-foot cruise ship, two publishing houses, a 2,845-acre California ranch, and 45 buildings on 500 acres in Riverside County, California. But Scientology is also good at PR and they don't mention any of these bizarre details until you're already hooked. Instead they emphasize all the anti-drug education and community service stuff.

I asked about the poster: "So how soon could I get to an Operating Thetan Level 8 if I was really, really good?" but our guide, while wishy washy, was fantastic at weaselling out of questions he didn't want to answer.

The last adventure was when he hooked me up to an emotional measurement machine - it looked like something Rube Goldberg would have built to check my blood pressure while toasting a bagel - and asked me a series of questions: was I satisfied with my life, did I feel anxious, had I felt dirty yesterday. There was certainly a focus on purity and addiction (which I have a feeling is a big selling point with Hollywood stars who are jaded by their lives of pleasure).

Then he ushered Rik and me back outside with a parting smile that was a mix of hopeful greed and suspicious befuddlement, and we stood there blinking in the suddenly sane sunlight.

IN CONCLUSION: It's a gigantic bizarre cult and it's right in your backyard! Go on, take a tour, watch a video, take a "purity" test. Waste their staff time. Impersonate bizarre people (try to get them to take you seriously, though).

THINGS TO PONDER: Now, my atheist friends I'm sure will say, "The Church of Scientology is a cult just like any other religion; they're just newer so they seem weird. C'mon, transubstantiation?" I happen to believe that's a facile point of view, but what is the difference between this and a "real" religion? The undignified nature of Hubbard's scifi/Hollywood trappings is just my point of view. And surely it's not just popularity. Love of the filthy lucre? But perhaps that's only a matter of degree, since any organization needs to survive. Lack of true belief among the leadership? But maybe they really do think they're descended from Martian gods... Honestly, I'm not sure, but I know what my tummy tells me.

Germany has outlawed the Church of Scientology. Is this an appropriate reaction to shelter their impressionable citizens or is it overprotective? Should the cash strapped DC government be letting the Church do their volunteer programs at schools and donate books? (What about if the Church did absolutely no proselytization there?) What's the appeal of Scientology anyway? Some seemingly very intelligent people are totally into it. Did anything they said seem disturbingly reasonable? How would you go about arguing with a convinced Scientologist? (Here's some ammunition.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Zoe, When I passed the lady spreading the L Ron Hubbard gospel the other day, I told her I'd already seen the movie and she seemed so pleased and surprised that she let me go and didn't try to talk to me about why i should join a religion based on Sci-fi.
xo Jamia

12:28 PM  
Blogger Clickbank Mall said...

Join the only TV advertised affilated program and cash in on the masses that will be joining TVcoop.netget paid to surf

3:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Help me Dude, I'm lost.

I was searching for Elvis and somehow ended up in your blog, but you know I'm sure I saw Elvis in the supermarket yesterday.

No honest really, he was right there in front of me, next to the steaks singing "Love me Tender".

He said to me (his lip was only slightly curled) "Boy, you need to get yourself a shiny, new plasmatv to go with that blue suede sofa of yours.

But Elvis said I, In the Ghetto nobody has a plasma tv .

Dude I'm All Shook Up said Elvis. I think I'll have me another cheeseburger then I'm gonna go home and ask Michael Jackson to come round and watch that waaaay cool surfing scene in Apocalypse Now on my new plasma tv .

And then he just walked out of the supermarket singing. . .

"You give me love and consolation,
You give me strength to carry on "

Strange day or what? :-)

12:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scientology must be destroyed. Its evil has gone to far as it is. These people are scum.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

From the news stories I have read (I know, I know, grain of salt & all that) Scientology is banned in Germany because its structure is that of an undemocratic organization.

The German Basic Law is more of a militant democracy & does outlaw organizations that are not compatible with democracy. Of course, this was a pretty reasonable step in the years after WW II & may still be today. I am into a country that makes it very difficult to run an authoritarian system that tries to enforce a very rigidly ideological 'truth'

I prefer how we handle it, b/c it is hilarious to see such a bizarre org mocked in this way.

10:03 PM  

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