Is scientology a dangerous cult?

HEAD TO HEAD: YES The manipulative methods used by Scientology to control its members put it beyond the pale of legitimate religion…

HEAD TO HEAD: YESThe manipulative methods used by Scientology to control its members put it beyond the pale of legitimate religion, says David Murphy.

'THE PHELAN Family [from Clonmel] has not seen or heard from their brother Tony since January 2002. Prior to that we had only seen him on a couple of occasions since 1994 when we made our first public protest against Scientology. Tony's involvement in Scientology has led him to disconnect from us. He has a family who loves him and wants him to reconnect. Scientology has broken up our family." - flier handed out by members of the Phelan family at a protest in Dublin on April 12th, 2008.

Is the Church of Scientology a dangerous cult? Absolutely. This is not a question of being intolerant of the beliefs of others. Rather, this is about recognising a dangerous and manipulative organisation for what it truly is. The Church of Scientology engages in suppression and harassment, not only of its critics, but also of its own members.

One method by which the Church of Scientology controls and retains its members is the policy of "disconnection" mentioned above. If a Scientologist is in contact with friends or family who are critical of Scientology, they can be ordered to "disconnect" - to completely sever contact with them. Scientologists are told that those friends or family are "Suppressive Persons" or "SPs", and that they must disconnect to avoid becoming a "Potential Trouble Source", or "PTS".

By surrounding converts with other Scientologists, and isolating them from those who have differing opinions from the church, they make it extremely difficult for people to break away.

In addition, the mental and emotional abuse suffered by members of the church has been well-documented both here and abroad. In 2003, Scientology's Mission of Dublin settled an eight-year court case taken by Irishwoman Mary Johnston, who claimed she had been subjected to brainwashing and other mind control techniques.

In an interview on RTÉ television's The Late Late Show, Ms Johnston also told of how the church had trained her to deal with family and friends who were sceptical of Scientology.

Also troubling are the deceptive techniques used by the church to recruit members of the public. A common introduction is the personality test offered at Church of Scientology missions.

Virtually all test-takers are diagnosed to be unhappy, unstable and liable to depression - all findings designed to induce fear and feelings of inadequacy.

Once prospective converts have taken the test and been shown their results, "problem" areas are highlighted and they are pressured into taking Scientology courses to treat them.

Upon completion of these courses, a further set is recommended, again playing on any perceived emotional or psychological weaknesses. This can be very effective in coercing recruits into progressing further into the church, to the very highest levels of Scientology teaching, the so-called "OT levels", which are reported to cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete.

The dangers of this test have made world news of late, following a recent tragedy in Norway. On March 28th this year, a 20-year-old student, Kaja Ballo, the daughter of a Norwegian MP, took the church's personality test. According to the church, Kaja's results showed that she was "depressed, irresponsible, hyper-critical and lacking in harmony".

A few hours later Kaja had taken her own life leaving a suicide note to say she was sorry for not "being good for anything".

Another Norwegian MP, Inga Thorkildsen, stated to Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet that "everything points to Scientology having played a direct role in making Kaja choose to take her own life".

Many countries already recognise the dangers of the Church of Scientology. It has been banned from Greece, is officially considered a cult in France and is considered by Germany to be such a threat to democracy that a special commission, the Scientology Task Force of the Hamburg Interior Authority, has been formed to monitor it. Germany's concerns, though seemingly far-fetched, are based on clear evidence.

During the 1980s the wife of L Ron Hubbard (the founder of Scientology), Mary Sue Hubbard, was convicted and imprisoned, alongside several other high-ranking church members, for the burglary of the Washington offices of several federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, in the case of United States vs Mary Sue Hubbard et al (District of Columbia District Court, 1979).

Some may find it easy to dismiss the Church of Scientology as yet another new age religion, bizarre but harmless. To do so would ignore the very real danger the cult poses to Ireland and its citizens.

Any organisation which has shown such blatant disregard for the human rights it so frequently claims to espouse should not be encouraged to operate within our borders.

David Murphy is a member of the anti-Scientology campaign, Anonymous.

NO:Scientology seems bizarre because it is new, but it is really no stranger than mainstream religions, argues Mark Oppenheimer.

SOME MAY consider Scientology perhaps a cult, maybe a violent sect, and certainly very weird. But Scientology is no more bizarre than other religions. And it's the similarities between Scientology and, say, Christianity and Judaism that make us so uncomfortable. We need to hate Scientology, lest we hate ourselves.

When it comes to Scientology, there's a hunger for the negative. I suspect that's because Scientology evinces an acute case of what Sigmund Freud called the narcissism of small differences: we're made most uncomfortable by that which is most like us. And everything of which Scientology is accused is an exaggerated form of what more "normal" religions do.

Does Scientology charge money for services? Yes - but the average Mormon, tithing 10 per cent annually, pays more to his church than all but the most committed Scientologists pay to theirs. Is Scientology authoritarian and cult-like? Yes - but mainly at the higher levels, which is true of many religions. There may be pressure for members of its elite "Sea Organisation" not to drop out, but pressure is also placed on Catholics who may want to leave some cloistered orders.

Does Scientology embrace pseudoscience? Absolutely - but its "engrams" and "E-meter" are no worse than what's propagated by your average "intelligent design" enthusiast. In fact, its very silliness makes it less pernicious.

And what about the Xenu creation myth that anti-Scientologists are so fond of? Scientologists have promised me that it is not part of their theology. Some say they learned about Xenu from South Park. Several ex-Scientologists have sworn the opposite.

Given his frequent conflation of science fiction, theology and incoherent musings, I think that L Ron Hubbard may have taught that eons ago, the galactic warlord Xenu dumped 13.5 trillion beings in volcanoes on Earth, blowing them up and scattering their souls. But I'm not sure it is an important part of Scientology's teachings. And if Xenu is part of its theology, it's no stranger than what's in Genesis. It's just newer and so seems weirder.

Religions appear strange in inverse proportion to their age. Judaism and Catholicism seem normal - or at least not deviant. Mormonism, less than 200 years old, can seem a bit incredible. And Scientology, founded 50 years ago, sounds truly bizarre. To hear from a burning bush 3,000 years ago is not as strange as meeting the angel Moroni two centuries ago, which is far less strange than having a sci-fi writer as your prophet.

That's not to say that all religions are "equal" or equally deserving of respect. I do have two criticisms of Scientology that one rarely hears from the Xenu-obsessed detractors.

First, while the introductory Scientology costs are not outlandish, the fees increase as adherents gain knowledge through advanced coursework - and it does make the religion resemble a pyramid or matrix scheme. More than one Scientologist explained to me that they don't have the financial resources of the Catholic Church that come from thousands of years of donations. They have to charge. Well, that's not the whole truth. The secrecy surrounding Scientology's higher levels of knowledge has no apparent analogue in the Abrahamic faiths, and the steep financial outlay to get higher knowledge also seems unique. Catholicism doesn't charge people to become learned, nor does Judaism. In fact, the greatest scholars in those faiths are often revered paupers: penniless rabbis and voluntarily poor priests, monks and nuns.

Poverty is not Scientology's style, to say the least. That leads me to my second criticism: bad aesthetics. Whether the Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles, or the church off Times Square in New York, Scientology buildings are filled with garish colours, flat-screen TVs showing silly, dull videos, and glossy pamphlets recycling the legend of the overrated Hubbard, whom Scientologists revere as a scientist, writer and seer of the first rank. In my opinion, his books are bad, the movies they inspire are worse and the derivative futuro-techno look that Scientology loves is an affront to good taste. It's a religion that screams nouveau-Star Trek-riche. For those of us who seek mystery, wonder and beauty in our religions, Scientology is a nonstarter.

But good taste, as art critic Dave Hickey says, is just the residue of someone else's privilege. Catholicism has its Gothic cathedrals, Judaism its timeless Torah scrolls. Scientology is new, but it has played an impressive game of catch-up. In its drive to be a major world religion, it will inevitably go through a period when its absurdities and missteps are glaringly apparent. But someday it will be old and prosaic, and there may still be Scientologists. And when some embezzle, lie and steal - as they surely will - they'll seem no worse than Christians, Jews and Muslims who have done the same.

The Dublin Mission of the Church of Scientology declined an offer to participate in this debate. Mark Oppenheimer is an American critic. This piece first appeared in the Washington Post.