Inside The Church of Scientology
by Gino Fanelli | published Oct. 3rd, 2015
It's noon on Sunday, September 6 in Buffalo, NY. I'm sitting in a waiting room mulling over a copy of L. Ron Hubbard's "Dianetics" while a man in his late twenties named Francois banters cryptically into his phone with a thick French-Canadian accent. The wooden rafter above him is adorned with three brass insignias: a cross with a star in its center, two interlocked triangles with an "S" running through them and a single triangle sporting an infinity symbol across its center.
This is the Buffalo Church of Scientology, an official chapter of the international Scientology religion. Today it calls a historic church in Buffalo's Allentown District, opened on June 30, 2012, home. Scientology, in short, is a belief system founded by twentieth century science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Fundamentally, Scientologists believe that all of mankind's bad feelings, faults, emotions and mental illnesses are caused by bad memories, carried on by our immortal souls, or " an official chapter of the international Scientology religion. Today it calls a historic church in Buffalo's Allentown District, opened on June 30, 2012, home. Scientology, in short, is a belief system founded by twentieth century science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Fundamentally, Scientologists believe that all of mankind's bad feelings, faults, emotions and mental illnesses are caused by bad memories, carried on by our immortal souls, or "Thetans," from life to life. Through a counselor, or "auditor," a person is able to cleanse themselves of these faults and acknowledge their Thetans, which in time can lead to a person becoming smarter, more socially conscious, more agile and — at the higher levels — develop abilities such as ESP or telepathy. Perhaps the concept seems a bit far-fetched, but not much more so than other religions.
With a modern decor and a relatively inviting atmosphere, the interior of the church doesn't differ much from that of any other religion. Rows of texts that could be be Bibles or Qu'rans are replaced with copies of "Dianetics," the walls are consistently adorned with symbols reminiscent of traditional religions and the staff has the typical energetic, smiling exuberance expected of young parishioners. From the waiting room, it's difficult to truly see anything fundamentally different about this church from any other modern institution.
"'Dianetics' means 'Through the mind,'" Francois said. "That was the first book in 1950 that Mr. Hubbard wrote regarding his discoveries about the mind, about how these past negative experiences and accidents have emotional charge in it, and how that affects a person on a daily basis."
Francois led me into the main chamber of the church, a large, open area occupied by screening booths fitted with flat screen televisions, each playing videos discussing different facets of the religion. Each booth focused on a different topic of Scientology, from the fundamentals of Dianetics to the pathway to ridding yourself of addictions to nicotine, drugs and alcohol, all of which were explained as burdens a Thetan puts on the body. In other words, an addiction is essentially a physical manifestation of a Thetan's natural negative energy.
"If you were to have a kidney removed," the narrator in the video on the basics of Dianetics questions, "Would you feel as if you were a different person afterwards? Of course not, and that is because your being is much more than a body, but rather a host for your immortal soul."
Again, the philosophy of any religion can seem absurd from an objective observer's standpoint. Is our free will being the result of Christ's sacrifice truly that much more of a logical conclusion than the idea that we are all immortal beings floating from host to host? It's a belief that many religions have already postulated in theories of reincarnation. Faith doesn't have to be based in rationality, but the very construct of how the Church of Scientology presents these beliefs can, at times, become unnerving.
Behind the booths sits a plastic box featuring a needle gauge and several dials hooked up to two electrical cables attached to aluminum cylinders.
"This basically helps a person to locate a thought," Francois said. "A person will hold onto these two sensors, and the needle will move. The person's who's helping can say 'What about right now?' Pictures can go fast, and this machine can help a person track down the memories they didn't know they had, and then the person can talk about it."
This machine is called an electro-psychometer, or "e-meter." Invented by chiropractor Volney Mathison in the 1940s, the e-meter essentially puts out an extremely small electrical charge into the two handles held by the user. The meter calculates the resistance of the current, which is then displayed by the needle. While the Church maintains that these changes in resistance are measurements of "the mental state and change of state in individuals," or stress, the reality is that the slightest change in moisture, involuntary muscle contractions or nerve activity can cause a change in resistance and cause the needle to move. Also of note is that the auditor has the full ability to manipulate the machine to produce different results, as well as the fact that the Church must legally declare that this is not a medical device due to a 1963 FDA raid, on the grounds the Church was attempting to treat mental illness without any medical authority.
My guide to the e-meter, a soft-spoken 30-something dressed in a white button up and black tie named Max, had me place the two cylinders in my hands and instructed me to hold them gently.
"You're not going to be able to see exactly what the guy is thinking," Max said. "You won't be able to read minds or anything like that necessarily, but based off of the question, they can help you locate the cause of your stress, and also indicate when that stress has been resolved."
I held the cylinders in my hands and patiently studied the meter.
"Think of different people and situations in your life," Max asked.
I stood in the same position, picturing friends and family. The needle jumped.
"You thought of something, that's for sure," Max said.
We continued to go through a series of mental images and pictures, each time the needle jumped, though sometimes after a momentary pause. But this is not to give credit to the e-meter. When asked to picture my mother, I mentally pictured Tom Hanks. The needle jumped. I was asked to picture my girlfriend, who is a work of fiction I developed on the spot. Again, the needle jumped. I began to understand that no matter what I thought, no matter what lies I fed to the auditor or the machine, the needle would jump all the same.
This was a surreal experience, but one that played into my growing understanding of how Scientology attracts people. It's a very simple concept of perpetuating the belief that something beyond your control — or that of traditional medicine — is wrong with you, and only they have the technology to fix it. It is why the e-meter is a device patented to the Church and presumably why Max continued to be intentionally vague when describing what the readings actually meant. This interpretation, that Scientology is essentially a self-help community under the guise of religion, was
I was given two tests over the course of an hour: a personality test and an IQ test, each with 200 questions. The personality test was simple enough, though odd in its own right. A seemingly endless list of questions which challenged me to agree, disagree or maintain uncertainty on topics such as "Do you enjoy working by yourself more than in the company of others?" or "Do you believe that all people are inherently good?" a personality test and an IQ test, each with 200 questions. The personality test was simple enough, though odd in its own right. A seemingly endless list of questions which challenged me to agree, disagree or maintain uncertainty on topics such as "Do you enjoy working by yourself more than in the company of others?" or "Do you believe that all people are inherently good?"
The IQ test consisted of simple multiple-choice logic questions, asking me to complete series of numbers or interpret patterns in shapes. All of the questions were relatively simple, though some impossible to answer due to typos.The experience was a tax on my patience, but I still managed to answer the questions thoughtfully and thoroughly.
Upon completing my test, Max sat down with me in a cubicle off of the edge of the main church floor. My personality test results were displayed as a line chart, displaying my results on various spectra, such as "depressed" and "happy," or "composed" and "nervous." At the center, a thick grey marker represented the levels for "normal."
"These are actually pretty good from most people I've seen," Max said. "You're critical, you easily find fault in the things that you do, while this shows lack of accord, meaning you don't necessarily get along with others the best. Those are the two main points, but you're also manic in regards to happiness. Which means you're not necessarily suicidal, but you fluctuate a lot."
These results come from the Oxford Capacity Analysis Test, and though the name rings with legitimacy, the test itself has been widely panned by psychologists for being inaccurate and used by the Church for facetious
All religions provide a promise of salvation or peace of mind. Yet where Scientology detaches from traditional religion in this regard is in the statement that medicine, or any traditional means, cannot help you, only the Church can. And help does not come cheap. Max urged me to enroll in courses through the Church, all with layouts that dictate what portion of your life they're going to help you fix. For example, a course on "Personal Efficiency" runs with a $50 price tag. A two-day seminar on "Dianetics," which promises to help you achieve self-respect and confidence, runs $100. Yes, a lot of churches accept tithes and donations, but few, if any, explicitly charge for what the religion offers.
Looking past the apparent cash grab, the promotion of any belief system that shuns traditional medicine can be harmful. Take the 2003 death of Elli Perkins, a senior auditor at the Church of Scientology of Buffalo. Perkins subscribed to her Church duty to shun psychiatrists, instead attempting to treat her schizophrenic son Jeremy through Scientology, which eventually lead to him stabbing her to death. The Church's reaction was to take strides to distance themselves as far from Jeremy Perkins as they could.
Faith is challenging, and from the outside looking in any religion can look absurd or surreal. But as I strode down Main Street in Buffalo away from The Church, I began to wonder about what the true goal of such a church could be. Was it hope for the desperate, or simply a flytrap for those desperate for hope?