Scientology: Faith or Fake?

Fans of the Comedy Central series “South Park” had to know the show’s creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, wouldn’t let bygones be bygones when they sat down last week to watch the season 10 premiere. Isaac Hayes, who had been with the animated show as the voice of the character Chef since it debuted in 1997, abruptly quit the show March 13, telling the Associated Press he could no longer be part of a series that disrespected others’ religious beliefs and practices.

Hayes practices Scientology, the religion of Tom Cruise, John Travolta and many of Hollywood’s elites, and one that, not coincidentally according to Parker, “South Park” lampooned in a scathing satire titled “Trapped in the Closet” in November.

“(We) never heard a peep out of Isaac in any way until we did Scientology,” Parker told the AP. “He wants a different standard for religions other than his own, and to me, that is where intolerance and bigotry begin.”

Indeed, “South Park” had made a name for itself by leaving nothing sacred – taking shots at Catholics, Jews and Mormons – but the spoof of Scientology, which has a long history of legal action over defamation, may have bordered on risky lines, attacking not only the religion, but its highest-profile followers, Cruise and Travolta.

But the show’s fans know Stone and Parker aren’t ones to shy away from controversy – the two declared “war” on Scientology in a statement released shortly after Comedy Central pulled a scheduled rerun of “Trapped in the Closet” from its programming lineup March 15. Stone and Parker had a lot to live up to with their season 10 premiere March 21.

And the two didn’t disappoint the 3.5 million viewers – the largest audience for a season debut for the show since 2002 – who tuned in to watch the opening stage of “South Park’s” attack.

Chef returned to the town of South Park amid much excitement from it residents, but the townspeople noticed something was different about Chef, who had been traveling around the world for three months with the “Super Adventure Club” – a thinly veiled metaphor for the Church of Scientology.

Some of the practices of the “Super Adventure Club,” which achieved immortality by traveling the world and molesting children, paralleled some of the reported practices of Scientology, although the word “Scientology” was never mentioned in the episode.

Parker and Stone made it known what they believed to be the cause of Hayes’ resignation and comments about “South Park” through 8-year-old character Kyle’s pronouncement after an attempt at mind control by the leader of the “Super Adventure Club.”

“The reason Chef has been saying those terrible things about us is because he’s been brainwashed,” Kyle said. “By that fruity little club.”

But what is Scientology exactly?

Miguel Leatham, an assistant professor of anthropology with an expertise in religious movements, dismisses the idea that mind control plays any part in the religion.

“Brainwashing is bunk,” Leatham said. “That’s just total bunk. People make decisions to join religious groups, new religions included.”

Cathy Norman, director of special affairs for the Church of Scientology of Texas in Austin, said Scientology is not a story or a dogma about God but a path to spiritual enlightenment.

“Scientology is a big subject,” Norman said in a phone call from Austin. “It’s essentially a study of the human spirit. We believe that you are an immortal spiritual being that exists separate and distinct from a body.”

The International Church of Scientology was founded in Los Angeles by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, and the main tract followed by the religion is contained in Hubbard’s 1950 book “Dianetics,” Leatham said.

He said while no one really knows the figures for Scientology’s membership globally, the church could have as many as 8 million members.

Norman said she doesn’t know how many practicing Scientologists there are in America, but said she has recently seen figures that say there could be as many as 1 million. She said there are four Scientology churches in Texas, with the closest being in Dallas, but said that number pales in comparison to the 44 churches in California.

She said Scientology has churches in more than 150 countries and “Dianetics” has been published in more than 50 languages.

“Scientology probably has more people in the United States, but it’s growing more rapidly in other parts of the world,” Norman said.

Both Leatham and Norman likened Scientology to Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, and Leatham said Scientology focuses on the idea of its members achieving self-perfection or self-deification.

“Like transcendental meditation and other groups, basically (Hubbard) was interested very much in the idea of psychological liberation of some kind, only he links it to a cosmology,” Leatham said. “He really came up with a whole cosmology – a whole sacred story about human purpose and origins and so on.”

The religion’s origin story can be found in “Dianetics,” which Leatham said presents a theory about the nature of blockages that inhibit a person’s mind, some of which are present in a person at birth.

“(Hubbard) came up with a series of techniques for liberating people from those, the main one being auditing, where a person strives to become a ‘clear,’ to become cleared of these problems,” he said. “It’s pretty much like psychoanalysis; the idea of confronting your fears, confronting your problems, and then once they’ve been identified, they can be removed.”

Although Scientology has a relatively recent origin, Leatham said, the church has well-established techniques, rituals and organization.

“Their beliefs basically center around what they call the ‘road to total freedom’ or the ‘bridge to freedom,’ which is the notion that individuals can be freed or liberated from what amount to psychological problems,” Leatham said.

Norman said auditing allows people to achieve a higher state of being and frees them from emotional scars that can cause illness or immoral behavior.

“The basic theory of ‘Dianetics’ is that bad things happen to people,” she said. “People have incidents in their pasts, in their physical or emotional past, and the memory of those things are still affecting them in the present … If you allow a person to examine those memories through this technique, they get results.”

People have lived past lives and will live again, Norman said, and the memories that are inhibiting a being could be from his or her past or present life.

Auditing is the only way for a person to become clear, and each auditing session costs money, something that has become a lightning rod of criticism for the church.

“One of the most common problems that people have with Scientology outside the group is that they see them as money-grubbing or a ‘cult of greed’ type of thing, cult being a negative term, of course,” Leatham said.

Although there is a lot of money involved with Scientology and a lot of its followers are wealthy, Leatham said, a lot of new religions have been oriented around the accumulation of capital.

“Outsiders often see them as being money grubbing and greedy, but there is a belief system,” he said. “There’s a fully blown, fully developed cosmology and belief system behind it. It’s not just a business. This is a religion.”

Norman defended the per-session cost of auditing, saying that unlike with other religions, the practice of Scientology is very much focused on the individual, and auditing sessions are a lot like counseling sessions that outsiders pay for on a daily basis.

“In Scientology, rather than pass the plate or having people pledge a certain portion of their income, we request a formal donation from people who are receiving auditing from the church,” Norman said.

The people who receive the most one-on-one attention pay the most, she said, but most do not spend more than 10 percent of their incomes. She said the church provides help for members who have recently gone through traumatic experiences but cannot afford auditing sessions.

The celebrity association with the church perhaps furthers the belief that Scientology is more of a business than a religion, but Norman said Hollywood types are attracted to Scientology for the same reasons anybody would be.

“Scientology is very oriented toward understanding yourself, understanding life and giving you practical tools that you can you use to make you live better,” Norman said.

James Atwood, an instructor in religion, said the lure of celebrity could attract people to Scientology who are looking for a new way of understanding reality and something that has a scientific basis.

“People follow celebrities,” Atwood said. “People are interested in what celebrities do almost by definition. What they do is give movements publicity – and sometimes they give it legitimacy.”

Leatham seconded Atwood’s opinion, saying that from the beginning of Scientology, the idea that it would attract an elite following was there.

“I think that makes Scientology quite visible compared to a lot of other religions,” Leatham said. “It’s not often that you see Hollywood people who are that adamant, that open and vocal about their religious affiliation.”

Despite all the publicity attracted by its famous followers, the group has been known to be secretive about some of its beliefs, Leatham said, and have sued former followers who have leaked Scientology’s secrets after signing contracts to keep that information secret.

Leatham said the group has to be secretive because it competes with other religions and has a method, auditing, which it believes needs to be protected.

“They do compete in the sense that other groups, other prophets, have made claims about techniques and human potential,” Leatham said. “If your group claims, as most of these groups do, that they have exclusive resources, then you need to hold on to that stuff.”

The church has been so active in filing defamation lawsuits against its critics that many social scientists have become afraid to even study the group, Leatham said.

“You have to be very careful about what you say about them,” he said. “The press has been taken to the cleaners by them.”

But Leatham said that in the course of trying to protect its image, the church has actually done just the opposite.

“I think one of the ironies, or what many outside observers see as sort of an irony about Scientology, is that by litigating against individuals – or groups, organizations, corporations – who have been perceived as being critical, they have stimulated further criticism,” he said.

But Bobby Amirshahi, director of corporate communications for Comedy Central, said in an e-mail that the network has never been contacted by the Church of Scientology regarding either episode of the series relating to the religion and fears no legal action from the church.

“We routinely run story ideas and content past our internal standards and practice and legal departments for review and to minimize any risk to the company before any show airs,” Amirshahi said.

Amirshahi said Comedy Central pulled the scheduled rerun of “Trapped in the Closet” to run a more Chef-focused episode prior to the season 10 premiere, which was called “The Return of Chef!”

Rob Sherwin, a Fort Worth attorney with Brackett and Ellis PC and adjunct professor of journalism, said it is unlikely that any suit the Church of Scientology brought against Comedy Central would be successful because, among other reasons, “South Park” is parody or satire, which is a defense that can be used in libel cases.

“Realize that you can always sue someone,” Sherwin said. “You can file a suit against anyone for anything. Whether the Church of Scientology would have a reasonable likelihood for success, I think would be doubtful.”

Atwood said the church has spent millions of dollars on court cases trying to secure religious freedom, and in doing so, has helped ensure the free practice of religion for other groups as well as for Scientologists.

“Their intention was not necessarily to broaden religious freedom in the United States, but what they’ve done is help clarify some of the issues for everybody,” Atwood said. “Indirectly, they furthered the cause of religious freedom for everybody.”

Norman said a lot of misconceptions about Scientology exist, but that as the religion grows, those misconceptions will begin to be cleared up.

“Even when I answer questions about what it is, I’m oversimplifying it,” Norman said. “It’s hard to explain sometimes because it’s not exactly like things people are familiar with.

“We believe that this is your afterlife. We believe that you’ll live here again. This world is something that we’re all responsible for. If we’re going to have a better existence, if religion is about seeking a better place, to some degree, that place is here and now.”

Leatham believes Scientology has just as much merit as any other religion.

“People who are members swear by it,” he said. “There are people who have come out of this who think this is bunk and then they do everything they can to prove that it’s just a commercial – a rip-off and that it’s all based on pseudoscience. Those people who have remained have been benefitted by it and are extremely loyal.”

Dianna Newbern, an instructor in psychology, said it’s human nature for people to turn to religion, any religion, to look for tools they don’t already possess to help them through times of trouble and when a religion provides those tools, that’s what give it its appeal.

“Religion can help provide us, people, with a sense of safety because it gives the brain a framework that it can understand for feeling safe in a pretty chaotic world,” Newbern said.

She said the brain reacts to elements of spirituality, so the effect of having steadfast beliefs, no matter what they may be, is real.

“I hypothesize that if we could take the essence out of all the religions, I believe that there might be a common set of things that are perhaps spiritual,” Newbern said. “The organizational structure of it is called Methodism or Buddhism or Scientology or whatever it’s called. My hypothesis is that if we extracted those things that are spiritual in nature, that some of those things that have deep truth to them, work.”

Most of Scientology, Norman said, focuses on making the world around its believers better.

“If something is wrong, something ought to be done about it – can and should be done about it,” she said. “People are basically good. The impulses you have that cause you to do something wrong or to hurt other people can be traced back to something that can be resolved.