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Introduction

The "Cult" of Many Personalities

Mark Rinzel Takes a Peek Into Scientology's Online Battle
The "Silicon Alley Reporter" magazine, Issue 27, Vol. 3, #7 (Oct 1999)
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"You could walk out that door and never think about Scientology again, and
it would be your choice. It would be incredibly stupid, but you are free to
do that. You could also jump off a bridge, or blow your brains out. That
would be another choice."


--Closing remarks from an introductory film from the Church of Scientology.

It was a crushing five minutes of reflection. I had just taken the Church of
Scientology's 200-question personality test, and, by all accounts, had
failed miserably. Jim, who worked as a sort of receptionist for the CoS's
New York headquarters, explained that my answers indicated severe levels of
irresponsibility, depression, anxiety, self-criticism and loneliness. The
only positive attribute I seemed to have was an abundance of energy.

"This probably means that you are working very hard at things, but you just
don't think it's enough," Jim said. My immediate response was denial. Having
just taken the test, I remembered the answers given, the questions relating
to my general happiness, and there didn't seem to be many cries for help.
"Do you often sing or whistle just for the fun of it?" Sure. "Are you
considered warmhearted by your friends?" In general, yes. "Do you make
efforts to get others to laugh and smile?" All the time.

I answered other questions such as "Do you openly and sincerely admire
beauty in other people?" with a resounding Yes. So I was mystified as to why
I had been given such an anti-social profile. Jim advised that I shouldn't
think of it in terms of how a specific question determines the results of
the entire test. "It's just according to 'Dianetics', which is a proven
science," he said. "Perhaps you would like to get a copy of the book."

I figured $7 was a small price to pay for an introduction to what could
ultimately bring greater happiness and serenity to my life, so I bought it.
I had also just sat through a 30-minute film on Scientology, so I really had
to get my hands on it. What can I say? I was raised Unitarian and remain
fairly open-minded regarding spiritual matters. I have no ingrained
mechanism for dismissing any belief system outright, no matter how silly
some of its terminology or practices may seem on the surface.

The "book" is "Dianetics", and it has served as my offline reading
supplement to my online voyage into one of the most colorful (and often
perplexing) Internet-based research expeditions: What is Scientology?
"Dianetics" is the predecessor to literally dozens of religious tracts from
author L. Ron Hubbard, the author of "Dianetics" and the founder of
Scientology. A 19505 B-grade pulp science fiction writer, Hubbard created
the Church of Scientology, one of the largest and fastest growing
alternative religions in the world. it has attracted controversy since its
founding, and it continues to reign as the religion of choice with
celebrities, most notably John Travolta. Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley. It's
been the source of a long running argument over whether it is a bona fide
religion or another opportunistic cult that preys on confused and gullible
people.

The controversy is nothing new. The CoS has been vilified in the press,
faced lawsuits and investigations in the U.S. and European countries, such
as the United Kingdom and the Benelux countries, sued by former members, and
almost banned in countries including Germany. Much of this criticism peaked
following the death of staff-member Lisa McPherson.

Hubbard died in 1986, but the CoS has grown to include an undetermined
number--somewhere between 100,000 to 8 million, depending on whom you talk
to--of international members. Its organization is often accused of being a
totalitarian, money-grubbing conspiratorial group that brainwashes the naive
into doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hopes of attaining
serenity in their lives. Much of this criticism is due to the fact that
Dianetics relies upon a series of expensive auditing sessions, which serves
as Scientology's version of psychotherapy.

Scientology has also been strongly defended by its more prominent members.
It has won many of its court cases, and it has been granted tax-exempt
status in the U.S. Scientology remains a mystery to the average person, but
the Internet has begun to change that. It has opened the Pandora's box to a
world of data most people could never get before.

The Internet was, in fact, my, first introduction to Scientology, and the
first place I looked was the Church's own website. A fairly modestly
designed page, with links to the Scientology bookstore containing
introductory information, it was on this site that I took the personality
test and made an appointment for a preliminary evaluation. The CoS is
Internet savvy on a recruiting level, to say the least.

The Troublemakers

"Had L. Ron Hubbard lived in more primitive times, before the mass media
(which he feared) and the information superhighway (which his successors
fear), he certainly would have succeeded."


--Former Scientologist describing Hubbard's closed system methodology.

Following my disappointing results with the personality test, which I wasn't
allowed to take home, I returned to the Web for some third-party perspective
on the test specifically and Scientology in general. My coworkers watched
with amusement and sometimes horror as I delved into the online Scientology
world and came across some of the most defiant and exhaustive campaigns on
the Internet-anti-Scientology websites.

Despite its use of the Internet to attract new followers, the Church is
clearly frightened of the Internet and the power it has to expose its inner
workings. In recent months, the Church has succeeded in strong-arming one of
the Internet's biggest players--AT&T. In early June, a former subscriber to
AT&T's Internet service had his personal information revealed to the CoS.
According to Wired News, the user known as "Safe" posted some of the CoS's
most secret and sacred documents on the Web using his AT&T WorldNet account.
Using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Church was able to subpoena
AT&T for Safe's personal information.

Since last summer, the CoS has been deploying a customized version of
Cybersitter software-called Scieno Sitter--to its members, according to
Salon magazine. As chronicled in Salon, the customized filter prevents users
from viewing certain pages, and even words, that the church deems dangerous.
It is supplied to every member on a CD-ROM that also includes a template for
members to construct their own Scientology homepage, a tactic Salon pointed
out as a means of flooding search engines with pro-Scientology destinations.

What does the CoS have to fear from the Internet? A lot, if it doesn't want
its members exposed to dissenting voices. There are countless
anti-Scientology destinations on the Web. It is probably one of the most
controversial subjects on the Internet. Why this is, I have no concrete
answer. Perhaps the way Hubbard used his gift for weaving science fiction
and techno-speak into a dazzling matrix of borrowed folklore and religion
(something "Star Wars" auteur George Lucas is equally guilty of) has rubbed
the Net community the wrong way. From a certain perspective, Hubbard could
be viewed as a brilliant entrepreneur. He makes compelling. even addictive,
content. But to many Netizens, he has used his powers for evil and not for
good.

The sheer volume of anti-Scientology sites is too vast to enumerate. They
come from all over the world, predominantly from the U.S. and Europe.
Anti-Scientologists are eager to link with one another and share information
they have found on the CoS. The sites feature everything from negative media
reports to academic publications condemning Scientology as total poppycock
to first-hand accounts from Scientology "survivors."

It's the last of these that are the most sought after, and the accounts are
taken from anonymous submissions, affidavits, and other sources. A
post-doctoral student of philosophy named Martin Poulter, who lives in
Bristol, runs one of the most extensive sites. One section of Poulter's site
aggregates a series of human rights abuse claims against the CoS. Poulter's
site alleges incidents such as insubordinate members being forced to run
around a pole for hours on end.

Other allegations of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder,
harassment and irreversible psychological damage are found throughout the
site. Poulter says he was inspired to create the site only after the CoS
began its campaign to censor the Internet. He adds that the organization's
attempts to block the dissemination of information about Scientology only
fed the flames of the entire anti-Scientology movement.

"The ethos of the Internet is, of course, very strongly anti-censorship, so
it is understandable that [the Net community]would react very strongly
against these tactics." he says. "The response has taken the form of the
creation of literally hundreds of anti-Scientology websites and a great deal
of street activism."

And has Poulter himself had any unwanted visits from Scientology members, or
received a cease and desist order from the organization?

"The Church of Scientology has not challenged any statement of fact on my
pages, although I and other anti-Scientology activists have had various
written or verbal personal attacks and threats," he asserts. "This only
exposes what in my opinion is their true nature and makes me more keen to
inform the public about the facts that they are trying to keep secret."

Feet In Both Streams

"The irony is that while critics blame Scientologists for being unable to
question. think, and communicate, they are often the first to display these
very failings."


'Bernie,' former Scientologist, on anti-CoS bigotry

Bernie, a Belgium-based gentleman who goes by no other name, is a former
Scientologist (from 1975 to 1980) and Web-savvy critic. but you won't hear
any Scientology bashing coming from him. His site, 'Welcome to alt.religion.
scientology' (www.bernie.us-inc.com/ars.htm). serves as a watchdog against
what he calls "anti-cult bigotry." As an active member in the aforementioned
Usenet group, which is largely populated by vehement Scientology critics,
Bernie has been monitoring its posts since 1996 and leverages his own
website to point out, and often dismiss, its most unfounded rumors.

In many of the ARS posts, Bernie finds a disturbing anti-Scientology
hysteria that he believes is not based on fact, but rather on a blinding
prejudice similar to other forms of bigotry and hatred. In one section of
his site he's compiled a collection of flames from ARS users to those
suspected of being Scientologists. The posts include remarks such as:
"Conclusion: Wgert is an unethical Scientologist (are there any ethical
Scientologists?)
"...and "Scientology makes people into idiots"; "Anyone so
completely devoid of humanity must be a true Scientologist
"; and "I really
wonder [who's] worse at the top of a state, an alcoholic or a Scientologist?"


In one amusing rumor trait, Bemie excerpts a story involving a dead cat that
was left on one ARS member's doorstep. Like the childhood game "Telephone,"
Bemie follows the dead cat until its presence is ultimately--and unfairly,
according to Bernie--attributed to the Church of Scientology. The excerpts
begin with a simple: "My wife arrived at our house a few moments ago to find
a dead, but otherwise healthy-looking, cat on our doorstep. Who do you
suppose deposited this cat there?"
What follows is a thread of
anti-Scientology rants from the ARS community: "Disgusting Cult... I hope
your family is all right"
; and "There are some (rare) occasions when I'll
think, 'Well, Scientology can't be all bad. Then I hear about something like
this!"


We've all watched things like this snowball out of reason on the Internet,
which is probably the world's most powerful rumor mill. But is this just
good, healthy Internet rambunctiousness? Internet discussion groups are
famous for their lack of civility, and Usenet groups are a constant source
of ill-founded rumors. I asked Bernie if it were really fair to equate this
with bigotry.

"Unfortunately, it seems to me that on certain issues, the Internet Is
mostly a carrier of hate, separation and disinformation nowadays, although
one may get a more balanced picture from the variety of viewpoints." he
wrote in an e-mail to "SAR". Since people like myself are in the minority,
the 'variety of viewpoint' may sound pretty uniform for those who only have
time to take the most common sample."

In response to accusations that his site lends itself to becoming
pro-Scientology propaganda and portraying the CoS as a completely harmless
institution, Bernie is fairly unapologetic. "Compared to the paranoid
picture promoted by so-called critics, the CoS is relatively harmless," he
writes. "I believe the 'reality' about the CoS that is being promoted
through critical pages and the media is largely illusory itself and quite
remote from the reality at large."

Needing validation that I was not, in fact, a totally miserable person in
need of Dianetics auditing, I asked Bernie about the validity of the
Church's personality test results. Much to my consolation, he seemed to
agree with what many others had been telling me, that the personality test
was not to be taken to heart.

"The purpose of the test is really to make people 'aware' of their 'ruin,'"
he said. "According to Scientology, people on earth are deeply 'aberrated'
and don't even realize how unhappy they are, so 99 percent or so of those
taking [the test] will inevitably [be diagnosed] as depressed. I don't know
how the test manages to almost systematically come down with negative
results, but it does." I can't say I wasn't relieved to hear that.

Having waltzed through the Scientology battlefield relatively unscathed.
I'll leave the ongoing argument to the Internet community. The claims made
on Poulter's site are truly horrifying, but they are also not documented
except in the case of court affidavits, the trial resolutions of which are
rarely included. Bernie's position (which I tend to trust more than the
critics' only because he seems fairly self-aware and hip to the ways of the
Internet) is that Scientology is largely chosen and not forced upon people.
No one wants to think people actually choose to spend their weekends running
around a pole in order to prove themselves to someone they admired. But
whether that story is true or not, belief has inspired worse things (the
Spanish Inquisition, for instance). Ultimately, on the Net and elsewhere, I
say to each his own. But it sure is fascinating reading.

Mark Rinzel

The "Silicon Alley Reporter" magazine
Issue 27, Vol. 3, #7 (Oct 1999)