Thursday, July 7, 2005; 1:30 PM
Washington Post staff writer Richard Leiby was online Thursday, July 7, at 1:30 p.m. ET to field questions about Scientology teachings and its celebrity adherents.
Leiby has covered the Church of Scientology for 26 years, on and off, ever since he was a young reporter in Clearwater, Fla., where Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard established an international headquarters in the 1970s. In 1979-80, he covered the criminal proceedings against 11 Scientology officials convicted of participating in plots to plant spies in federal agencies, break into government offices, steal documents and bug at least one IRS meeting. (Among those convicted was Hubbard's third wife, Mary Sue.) Over the years, Leiby has reviewed thousands of pages of Scientology internal policy documents and its uppermost teachings. In 1995, the church sued The Post, Leiby and another Post reporter in an attempt to prevent publication of its copyrighted, secret scriptures. The church lost the case.
Frank K. Flinn, adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., was online Tuesday, July 5, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss Scientology.
The transcript of the discussion with Richard Leiby follows.
Richard Leiby: Before we begin, I'd like to thank everyone for their well-considered questions. Although Scientology has been around for more than 50 years, it remains a source of mystery, confusion and controversy. Here is how the church defines itself on its Web site, Scientology.org:
"Scientology is an applied religious philosophy.
The fastest growing religious movement on earth, Scientology has become a firmly established and active force for positive change in the world in less than half a century. In a word, Scientology works."
The church says it can help people learn better, and live better, improving their communication skills, keeping believers off drugs, giving them confidence,assisting them with family life and solving day-to-day problems.
But critics of the church -- and there are many who've left its fold in recent decades -- say the only thing that works in Scientology are its lawyers. The church has a long history of retaliating against critics with hardball litigation and other tactics, including the use of private investigators to dig up dirt on journalists and detractors. (So far as I know, I have twice been investigated by Scientology operatives in my career.)
I have been in Scientology churches a few times, but never formally participated in "auditing" -- a central practice of the group, involving the use of a crude lie detector device that supposedly helps you locate and eliminate spiritual problems. Another basic: Scientology believes that people have souls and we have experienced past lives. And, at the highest level of training, members can gain superhuman powers: what founder L. Ron Hubbard called control over "MEST": Matter, Energy, Space and Time.
Hubbard, a former sci-fi writer who died in 1986, developed his own language, replete with acroymns, for the church he founded. To outsiders, it is impenetrable. While we've gotten used to hearing celebrities in Scientology endorse its positive impact on their lives, they never give the public any hint of the group's closely held secret beliefs. I'll attempt to do that here.
Reading, Pa.: Why is Scientology opposed to mainstream psychiatric treatment and associated drugs such as Paxil and Lexapro?
Richard Leiby: It's important to get this one out of the way first. Many people are coming to hear about Scientology only through Tom Cruise's recent, highly publicized condemnations of psychiatry and psychiatric medications. He is essentially following a script set in place by Hubbard many years ago --Hubbard openly declared war on the psychological and psychiatric profession in response to its doubts about the theories he put forth in his breakthrough 1950 book, "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health."
Many medical practicioners (including psychiatrists) considered Hubbard a dangerous quack. He, in turn, considered shrinks to be butchers, not healers. He incorporated his hatred for psychiatrists in his spiritual views, claiming that the "psychs" were part of an evil alien force that helped to enslave humanity millions of years ago.
Hubbard wrote in an internal policy bulletin in 1982: "The psychs have been on the [time] track a long time and are the sole cause of decline in this universe...They destroyed every great civilization to date and are hard at work on this one."
At the highest level, Scientologists such as Cruise and Tom Travolta are taught about the alleged evils of psychiatry. They echo many of Hubbard's policy statements (which are considered sacred scripture) but never fully explain why Hubbard hated "psychs" so much.
Berlin, Germany: Have you ever had a discussion about Xenu with a scientologist?
Richard Leiby: Ah, Xenu. A key player in the overall Scientology cosmology -- but only those well-schooled in its upper teachings know about this intergalactic overlord named Xenu.
Bear with me here as I explain Xenu's crucial role. Then I'll answer your question.
The apex of Scientology spiritual counseling occurs at the secret Operating Thetan (OT) Levels, which promise superhuman powers. Here, members pass through what Hubbard described as the Wall of Fire, at the OT III Level. (Tom Cruise and John Travolta have both reached this level.)
Here, Scientologists -- who have already spent thousands to reach the level of "clear" -- pay tens of thousand more to learn that their spiritual traumas stem from an intergalactic holocaust perpetrated 75 million years ago by Xenu. As a Scientology brochure for members puts it: "Here you will find...the precise details of a catastophe that harmed billions and laid waste to this sector of the universe, encompassing a confederacy of 75 planets."
In the secret texts, portions of which have been widely leaked by disgruntled members, Hubbard wrote that Xenu, the leader of the Galactic Federation, solved an overpopulation problem by freezing excess people in a compound of alcohol and glycol and transporting them to Teegeeack -- which we now know as Earth. There they were put in volcanos and exploded with hydrogen bombs.
And hence our spirits became infested with evil alien spirits, called "body thetans." There could be untold numbers of such bad thetans fomenting problems in each of our souls and minds.
To become truly free, Hubbard teaches, parishioners must detect these alien invaders and get rid of them using the E-meter device (Hubbard's lie detector). You hold a metal can in each hand and focus on a point in the body where a sensation or pain is perceived. Only through such rigorous "auditing" can they be removed -- allowing the untormented Operating Thetan (the OT) to emerge.
Getting back to your question: At the lower levels, Scientologists don't know anything about Xenu -- they just know about the basic communication courses and Dianetics. (I can assure you that Katie Holmes, for example, isn't hip to Xenu.) Even those who reach "clear" don't have the Xenu material.
Those who have passed through OT-III will not discuss it with outsiders. In 1979, I first heard about Xenu's holocaust and published an article about it in the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun. When I called a Scientology spokesman for comment, he basically accused me of attempting to ridicule his religion.
Richard Leiby: I checked and it turns out that my first article on Xenu -- whom I indentifed as "Xemu" based on a variant spelling used at the time -- actually ran in 1981. Here is a link: http:/
Downtown Washington, D.C.: The recent Tom Cruise/Brooke Shields argument made me go online to research scientology and why it was so opposed to psychiatry. I was amazed at some of the stuff I unearthed about church doctrine: aliens, Xenu, past lives, etc. If all this is true, why in the world does Scientology have any shred of credibility? To me it sounds like science fiction on acid.
Richard Leiby: Well, most religions have their share of stories that you have to take on faith. Did Moses really part the Red Sea? Did Jesus walk on water? Are our spririts really reincarnated, as other religions hold?
But critics of Scientology contend that the church should be more open about its sci-fi beliefs -- and not wait for parishioners to pay upwards of $300,000 before they get the core message.
Laurel, Md.: Mr. Leiby, contrary to what many advocates of increased religious presence in government argue, the press generally treads very lightly on completely groundless belief systems if they represent a religion.
Ignoring for the moment their imtimidation tactics, do you think their psychological pseduo-science has gotten much too free a pass from a press that treats religious claims with insufficient skepticism?
Richard Leiby: Yes, over the years the press has definitely gotten softer on Scientology and other so-called "cults."
Unlike in the 1970s, when cults and deprogrammers flourished, the public, I think, has come to accept the fact that informed adults have a right to join groups despite their controversial, non-conventional beliefs.
The press doesn't question Cruise or Travolta or others too hard on Scientology for fear of losing a big-name celeb.
washingtonpost.com: War of Words (Brooke Shields, The New York Times, July 1, 2005)
Philadelphia, Pa.: I've seen Scientology do a lot of good for a lot of people. In a country where freedom of religion was a founding principle, it is imperative that we protect that freedom and maintain one of the principles that makes American great!
Richard Leiby: Philadelphia Freedom: Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the First Amendment. And for that very reason, I strongly believe that the press has the right to cover Scientology and that the church should divulge, up front, its core beliefs to anyone who participates in its counseling sessions.
Sewell, N.J.: I have been in Scientology for over 20 years now. It has helped me considerably in my personal life (getting off drugs), my married life (I have had a wonderful marriage now for about 20 years), and has helped me with my children (two outstanding young men who contribute to society in an ethical manner). AND - I still consider myself Jewish! So, I would venture to say that there are critics out there that do not understand how valuable and vital Scientology is to the world. Are journalists that hell-bent on not reporting truth or researching all aspects before they slander? Is the "story" just more important then the FACTS?
Richard Leiby: Well, you know what Hubbard himself said: Journalists are "merchants of chaos" and "suppressive persons."
In other words, if we hold Scientology to any standard of examination or critique, we are deemed enemies.
Arlington, Va.: It has always been rumored, at least among Scientology's detractors, that Hubbard founded Scientology as the result of a bar bet with Robert Heinlein (or some other sci-fi writer). Is there any truth to this rumor?
Richard Leiby: I've heard that rumor but never was able to substantiate it. However, I was able to find witnesses to Hubbard's famous statement that writing was no way to get rich -- that it would be smarter to start a religion.
In a 1994 article I wrote for the Post ("Scientology Fiction," inked on this page) I investigated a statement in the church's media guide.
"Question: Did L. Ron Hubbard state that the way to make money was to start a religion?"
"Answer: No. This is an unfounded rumor."
The rumor got started in 1948, according to the church, when "one individual" claimed he heard Hubbard make such a comment during a lecture. "The only two people who could be found who attended the very lecture in 1948 denied that Mr. Hubbard ever made the statement," says the media guide.
But the man who invited Hubbard to speak, Sam Moskowitz, a 74-year-old science fiction editor in Newark, swears to this day that Hubbard made the remark in front of 23 members of the Eastern Science Fiction Association, most of whom are now dead.
The church also ignores a 1983 book by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, "Over My Shoulder: Reflections of the Science Fiction Era." Eshbach recounts a 1948 meeting with Hubbard and two others in New York:
"The incident is stamped indelibly in my mind because of one statement that Ron Hubbard made. What led him to say what he did I can't recall -- but in so many words Hubbard said: 'I'd like to start a religion. That's where the money is!' "
Two other Hubbard contemporaries quote him similarly in the unauthorized 1987 biography "Bare-Faced Messiah." And two science fiction experts contacted for this story confirm that Hubbard made such remarks before he wrote his treatise on Dianetics, which was first published in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. But church officials maintain that these people are sorely confused. The church says another famous writer said the exact same thing -- George Orwell, who wrote to a friend in 1938 that "there might be a lot of cash in starting a new religion."
"It seems that Orwell's comment has been misattributed to Mr. Hubbard," the church media guide tells reporters.
Only one problem: The Scientology operative who says he came up with the Orwell "explanation" is Robert Vaughn Young, who quit the central church in 1989 after 20 years as a spokesman. While researching the life of the Founder, Young says he talked to three Hubbard associates from the science fiction days who remembered Hubbard talking about getting out of the penny-a-word game for the more lucrative field of religion. Young ignored those comments, of course, and, by a stroke of luck, came up with the Orwell quote.
Washington, D.C.: In your estimation, why is Scientology growing so fast across the planet? Do you really think that millions of people are just "stupid" or have they actually found a religous philisophy that, when applied, improves their lives?
Richard Leiby: I do not believe that millions of people practice Scientology. Former insiders say that the church's numbers have steadily dwindled since the 1970s and that the core membership is now no higher than 50,000.
(Footnote: The church counts everyone who's ever signed up for a course, ever, as a member.)
Washington, D.C.: Does the church seek out high profile people like Cruise and Travolta for indoctrination? And are they then used to put a public face on the beliefs? Also, how do they justify the "fees" charged to become enlightened? It seems like it runs the risk of coming off as a glitzy pyramid scheme.
Richard Leiby: To Hubbard, celebrities were always key to gaining public acceptance for Scientology. In 1955, he launched "Project Celebrity," urging followers to target "prime communicators," and to hunt as their "quarry" the big names of the time--including Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Sid Ceasar, Liberace and even Billy Graham. "These celebrities are well-guarded," he warned, "well-barricaded, overworked, aloof quarry." But he generously promised, "If you bring one of them home you will get a small plaque as your reward."
A former Scientology official once told me that the creation of church "Celebrity Centers" -- the main one is in Los Angeles -- was aimed at bringing more stars into the fold so they could serve as mouthpieces for Scientology.
Hubbard craved celebrity endorsements because he knew the media loves celebrities -- and they could be used to vouch for Scientology's effectiveness in handling their problems.
The goal, according to a church directive, was to "mold the opinions" of the fans and the public into accepting the "good works" of L. Ron Hubbard. Sometimes celebs were brought in to offset negative publicity. One example: In 1985, John Travolta participated in a massive protest by Scientologists in Portland, Ore., following a damaging court decision against the church.
When some of the sacred scriptures--including the Xenu story--ended up in a court file, 1,500 Scientologists crammed the courthouse to block public access to the documents. In 1986 Travolta himself marched into Los Angeles Superior Court, hoping to make a pro-church speech in the case where the documents had been revealed. (The judge instructed Travolta to sit down, and he complied.)
Winston Salem, N.C.: Why not divulge your core beliefs? How does Scientology get people interested in joining their "faith" if they are unwilling to show why they believe what they believe up front? For example, in the tent Tom Cruise had set up on the set of "War of the Worlds", what kind of recruiting literature did he have?
Richard Leiby: I don't know for sure what sort of literature Cruise passed out on the "War of the Worlds" set but it was likely to include brochures written by Hubbard (e.g., "The Way to Happiness") and anti-drug literature touting Scientology groups such as Narconon.
Dumfries, Va.: Are you aware of the social betterment programs of the church of Scientology?
Richard Leiby: I am aware that some schools and prisoner-rehab programs use Hubbard-based materials. My problem with the schools program is simple: it's a gateway to a religious organization, and I don't believe ANY religion has a place in public schools. As for the anti-drug program: Fine, but it masks Scientology's anti-psychiatry agenda.
Herndon, Va.: Why does Scientology go to such great lengths to hide thier involvement in anti-Prozac/Paxil/Zoloft etc Groups? If they Truly think they are dangerous, why do they create so many front groups and shell corporations to get this message out?
Do you think it has more to do with the fact that Hubbard was himself involuntarily committed by his first ex-wife or at this point is more because a lot of their inital recruiting is aimed at the depressed and bordeline mentally ill?
Richard Leiby: I don't believe Hubbard was ever committed for psychiatric treatment but he did seek help from the Veterans Administration after World War II -- citing his own mental instability. You can find documentation of that, as well as other documents relating the Hubbard's divorce, bigamy and ravings to the FBI about commies, on the Smoking Gun site.
washingtonpost.com: The Smoking Gun
Richard Leiby: As for the first part of your question: Scientology has long used front groups in its war against psychiatry, but it's not hard to discover the connections. More obscure and worth noting, perhaps, are Hubbard's teachings on psychiatry.
Since the early 1960s, as best as I can determine, Hubbard religious edicts focused on his belief that Earthings are the pawns of aliens -- some of whom happen to be evil psychiatrists. He believed that we're all trapped on what he called the "whole track," a stort of eternal time loop.
He preached that in a past civilization, in a distant galaxy, alien "psychs" devised implants that would ultimately wreck the spiritual progress of human beings. The psychs and their "blackened souls," he said, were to blame for all violence, crime and sin.
"There is only one remedy for crime," Hubbard told followers in a 1982 policy lettter. "Get rid of the psychs! They are causing it! ... Their brutality and heartlessness is renowned."
And in his paranoia, he saw the evil hand of the pyschiatrists everywhere. According to his internal policy letters (which have since been reissued, giving them the status of holy writ), Hubbard considered the church's enemies to be "the heads of news media who are also directors of psychiatric front groups" and "bankers who are also directors of psychiatric front organizations."
Is it any wonder that Tom Cruise is so worked up about psychiatrists?
St. Pete Beach, Fla.: Richard,
Is it true that Scientologists now run the Cult Awareness Network? If so, how did this come about?
Richard Leiby: Yes, Scientologists do indeed now run the Cult Awareness Network (CAN). How the takeover occurred is a very long and complicated story, but it was essentially the result of a long and harsh legal campaign by Scientology to put CAN out of business. The church succeeded -- and then its members went on to buy the name after CAN went bankrupt.
Reston, Va.: Why do you credit the assertions of people who've left Scientology, while implying that the assertions to the contrary by Scientologists aren't valid? Do you feel that people who've left (or been kicked out) of a group have no axe to grind?
Richard Leiby: I'm not saying the views of practicing Scientologists aren't valid. Nor do I dispute that Scientology has given some people better life skills. But alternatively, those who spent 20 or 30 years of their life in Scientology tell very persuasive stories about being mentally indoctrinated and abused. As a journalist I've been hearing such stories for many years -- and I have covered cases where juries awarded significant damages for the church's actions against members. The public has the right to know about what the critics and courts say.
New York, N.Y.: In other words, if we hold Scientology to any standard of examination or critique, we are deemed enemies.
Don't we see this from any faith based groups?
Although the comments may not be as direct ... there are enemies of "the church," identified all the time.
Richard Leiby: True, but are those enemies subject to a church policy called "fair game"? That specific Scientology policy encourages the use of litigation and trickery to destroy those who challenge it.
USA: Does Scientology use hypnosis?
Richard Leiby: One of the early criticism of Dianetics (by medical professionals) is that it was, indeed, a form of hypnosis.
I have never been "audited" personally, so I wouldn't know.
Cambridge, Mass.: As a Scientologist for about 15 years I have found the religion to be very helpful. For example I am now a successful photographer and artist. As a matter of fact I have found that artists in general do very well with Scientology because it unleashes their creativity. Why do you think Scientology is so helpful for artists?
Richard Leiby: I'm not sure. It's possible that you would have been a successful artist WITHOUT spending thousands on Scientology. Just as it's possible that John Travolta, who was a very promising actor in high school, would have become a screen star without joining Scientology.
Portland, Ore.: I read that that Purification Rundown by L. Ron Hubbard, has helped hundreds of NY firemen involved in the horrific 911 event permanently rid their bodies of the toxins and poisons they were exposed to. Wouldn't you consider this, at the very least, a very good thing?
Richard Leiby: The Purification Rundown, as I understand it, is a vitamin and sauna regimen. Is there any medical evidence that it has "permanently rid" those firemen of toxins? Or is that just your claim?
Good for the Goose?: I can't help noticing how much the "Scientology has done a lot of good for a lot of people" comments meant to justify its oddities sound eerily familiar to a recent discussion about how psychiatry and prescription drugs have "helped a lot of people I know personally."
Howling at the moon might help a lot of people too ... that doesn't mean it's not a little abnormal.
Richard Leiby: Good point! Except medical techniques are based on science, as I understand it. However, there is the placebo effect. And people are easily persuaded by the notion of "experts."
I bet if I wore a white coat, called myself a doctor, and told somebody that he'd feel much better if he stood on his head in the corner, he might just do it.
And just wondering: When is the next full moon?
N.Y., N.Y.: Do Scientologists believe in a God? Do they pray? Also, I believe Tom Cruise has said you can be a Scientologist and a Christian (or a Muslim, etc., I guess). How is this possible? Thanks for taking my questions?
Richard Leiby: Scientology literature says you can hold on to your original religion and still practice Scientology, but based on the internal documents I've seen, Hubbard believes that Heaven and Christ and other religious beliefs are, in fact, images implanted in our minds by aliens.
Washington, D.C.: Your assertion about the Church having a Fair Game Policy is completely false. You have been supplied documentation on this and yet repeat such false allegations. What is your bias?
Richard Leiby: The church's fair game policy was not canceled, just renamed by Hubbard to avoid bad PR. Here is the proof:
In a 1968 policy letter, Hubbard wrote:
"The practice of declaring people FAIR GAME will cease. FAIR GAME may not appear on any Ethic Order. It causes bad public relations. This PL [policy letter] does not cancel any policy on the treatment or handling of any SP."
(An SP is a "suppresive person," of enemy of the church.)
Arlington, Va.: What is the job of a "minder" in Scientology. I keep seeing pix in US and People mags pointing out a Church of Scientology minder who has been appointed to stay with Katie Holmes 24/7. What's she likely doing with Katie?
Richard Leiby: I have no idea. But celebrities in Scientology are treated as royalty so having a personal Scientology assistant on call would not surprise me.
Washington, D.C.: Very interesting ...this explains why TC thinks aliens are among us. So who are some of the celebrities beside TC and Travolta and Juliette Lewis?
Richard Leiby: Kirstie Alley, Beck, Chick Corea, and Isaac Hayes...and in the media, Greta van Susteren.
Silver Spring, Md.: What about these marriage contracts I've been hearing about? Are the common in Scientology?
Richard Leiby: I don't know about formal "contracts," but from what I know from covering the church, a mixed marriage won't work in Scientology: You have to get your spouse to become involved, too.
Northern, Va.: Why does Scientology make such direct connections from spiritual enlightenment to monetary costs? Most other religions seem to do a better job of hiding the fact that they are charging for their services. More bothersome are the billion year contracts for those that cant afford the costs. What is the full story behind this?
Richard Leiby: We could go on for several hours and never get to the "full story" of Scientology, I'm afraid. For those who want to know more, I suggest you plunge onto the Internet and look for both pro- and anti-sites. There are many archives containing internal church policies, as well as testimonials from members, and ex-members, and much court testimony.
As for the billion-year contracts: It's true. Staff members in the "Sea Org" sign them. Just Google and perhaps all will be revealed -- in this life or the next.
Thanks for your time and insightful questions.
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