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John Riceburg: I’m addicted to Scientology

Seen our May issue yet? It's all about addictions. Our writer John Riceburg has to admit he has one: he can't get enough news about one particular secretive and militaristic cult.

Image for John Riceburg: I'm addicted to Scientology
Photo courtesy of the Church of Scientology (Flickr CC)

In the middle of the desert near Trementina, New Mexico, hours from the nearest human settlement, stands a house. High walls and surveillance cameras surround the property. Who built this house? And what is it?

The house is the secret entrance to a vault. In a bunker designed to survive a nuclear apocalypse, every written word of L. Ron Hubbard is etched into stainless steel plates that are vacuum-sealed in titanium boxes. Next to this “alien space cathedral”, as the press refers to it, the logo of the Church of Spiritual Technology is carved into the ground, so the reincarnated soul of the deceased Hubbard can find it when he returns from space.

On March 29, HBO premiered the documentary Going Clear about the bizarre religion founded by Hubbard: Scientology. But in its six-decade history, this church has produced more weird stories that could fit into any two-hour film. The vault doesn’t even make an on-screen appearance!

Did you know that the wife of Scientology leader David Miscavige was banned to a different mysterious vault compound 10 years ago? On the internet you can find the location of six different hidden Scientology vaults in remote locations California, New Mexico and Wyoming. You can read interviews with former members who helped build them. You can find pictures of them from the road or the sky. You can learn how, in the 1980s, Scientology executives started the project based on Hubbard’s unreadable science-fiction novel Battlefield Earth.

All this stuff didn’t fit into the film. But who can get enough of these stories? Welcome to the world of blogs, podcasts and Youtube videos that follow the daily news from the secretive and militaristic cult of Scientology.

Every single day, I need my fix of Scientology news. If I don’t find at least one new blog entry by noon, I start to get jittery. It all goes back to that South Park episode from 2005: Here I learned how Hubbard, a spinner of tall tales and author of pulp fiction, founded a religion and ran it from a small armada of ships in the Mediterranean. Pre-pubescent girls in hot pants served on the ships as his “messengers”.

What is Scientology?

Scientology is based on the idea that humans are immortal beings called “Thetans” who have been around for countless trillions of years. With the help of an “Electropsychometer” we can do a kind of psychoanalysis of our past lives – as well as for thousands of disembodied souls that cling to our bodies. One can hand over increasingly large sums to the Church and progress up its Bridge to Total Freedom (TM) (how do you go “up” a bridge?) and eventually learn how all of our problems were created by galactic overlord Xenu 75,000,000,000 years ago. It’s a long story…

These “scriptures” themselves aren’t so fascinating. The thing is, I grew up reading stuff from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Compared to Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke or Philip K. Dick, Hubbard’s “religious” tales are kind of mundane. The fun stuff is the arcane news coming out of the cult itself.

Where to begin? While doing “research” on his ships, exploring lives he lived trillions of years ago, Hubbard used to punish his disciples by throwing them overboard or locking them in a chain locker for days at a time. His successor, Miscavige, has Scientology executives locked up in a double-wide trailer office called “The Hole” in Scientology’s secret desert HQ.

Drop by for a visit

So why don’t I just drop by the Scientology-Kirche in Charlottenburg and take that innocuous “Personality Test”? After all, I’ve read all about how the test is designed to prove you desperately need help. Lots of journalists have been there – including Ben Knight from Exberliner. Scientologists think that their “e-meter” works as a lie detector, but it didn’t seem to work when they asked Ben if he was a journalist. I stare longingly across the Otto-Suhr-Allee, thinking how much weirder it must be inside, but I could never work up the courage to walk in.

Why? Well I’m not worried about retaliation. Sure, Scientology has a secret service called the “Office of Special Affairs”, and when journalist Paulette Cooper was working on a book in the 1970s, they tried to frame her for making bomb threats and have her committed to a mental institution. Hubbard wrote that anyone who criticizes his Church is “fair game” and can be followed, sued or “utterly ruined”. But by now, Scientology has gotten used to the fact that anyone can read about their super-secret doctrines on the internet – even the level OT VIII, which a dedicated Scientologist might spend 10 years and half a million dollars to have revealed, can be found in two seconds on Google.

No, I’m worried that I might be just the right kind of sucker for a cult like this. I like things that sound scientific, and I’m intrigued by the idea of blasting off my neuroses with an electrical device. Fortunately for me, I’m thrice disqualified from membership in Scientology: I work as a journalist, I’ve associated with communists and I’ve tried LSD.

My girlfriend has tried to wane me off my Scientology habit by getting me books about other interesting cults. “Aum Supreme Truth” from Japan used to give recruits psychedelic drugs without their knowledge in order to facilitate spiritual experiences – before they attacked the Tokyo subway with Sarin gas. Or the “People’s Temple” from California used a Christian front to propagate their own version of Marxism-Leninism – and then all 900 of them drank poison Kool-Aid in Jonestown in Guyana. 

These cults just aren’t the same. Scientology’s story is ongoing – every day there are new plans for their opulent “Ideal Orgs”, new tales of abuse inside their paramilitary “Sea Org”, new rumours them spying on their celebrity members. I haven’t even mentioned the secret floor in a Scientology building in Hollywood used for doing “auditing” on Tom Cruise. There’s so much to read. Moral judgments aside, I’m hooked! Scientology, what would I do without you?

Good starting points are the blogs from journalist Tony Ortega or former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder, both of whom star in Going Clear.