Features

Superpower religion

Culture | Scientology lives on, thanks to superhero gimmickry

Issue: "Soldiering on," May 27, 2006

Special effects and stunt doubles render Tom Cruise super-humanlike in the mega-star's latest film, Mission Impossible III. Thanks to a new bit of high-priced religious quackery, such fantasy can now extend well beyond the silver screen. The Church of Scientology (CoS), in which Mr. Cruise boasts high-ranking membership, is slated to complete work on a "Super Power" program by next year.

The Super Power operation, housed at the church's massive headquarters in Clearwater, Fla., is designed for such well-endowed practitioners as Mr. Cruise. But while the CoS employs a substantial public-relations department, it has released minimal information on its foray into superhuman powers.

Prominent investor Matt Feshbach, who underwent a trial version of the Super Power program a decade ago, told the St. Petersburg Times earlier this month that he is no longer dependent on his physical senses to perceive reality. He said the heightened levels of awareness wrought by the Super Power program helped him save a young boy from being mauled by a pickup in a Los Angeles crosswalk.

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Mr. Feshbach only received access to the supposed perception-enhancing techniques after dumping megabucks into the program. Mr. Cruise has likewise donated large sums to the church in climbing to the seventh of eight levels.

"High-level courses are aimed at the old-timers, not to recruit new members," explained leading critic Andreas Heldal-Lund, a Norwegian researcher who operates the website xenu.net. "It is just one more attempt in a long series to invent new stages for members to buy courses. Since they don't deliver what they promise, the cult needs to always make up new courses they can buy to resolve the reasons the last course didn't help."

Since the 1950s, when science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard first introduced his bizarre self-help concepts, Scientologists have sought to free themselves and new converts from secret alien control to achieve maximum human potential-even superpowers. Despite a stream of well-documented books and media reports discrediting Mr. Hubbard as a charlatan, his pay-as-you-go religion has maintained enough devoted followers to achieve fabulous financial standing.

A latter-day influx of celebrity practitioners like Mr. Cruise and John Travolta has propelled Scientology into mainstream consciousness: The number of Google searches for the word Scientology surged dramatically last summer when Mr. Cruise criticized anti-depression drugs and psychiatric treatment-both considered shams in Scientology.

The CoS believes such public attention is good for business, calling Scientology the world's fastest-growing religion and claiming between 8 million and 9 million members worldwide. But Mr. Heldal-Lund disputes such numbers, placing the church's grand total between 100,000 and 300,000, according to his study of international statistics. Mr. Heldal-Lund told WORLD that Mr. Cruise has unwittingly harmed his religion by prompting people to investigate it on the internet: "Cults thrive best under threats or in darkness. The internet has seriously disarmed the Church of Scientology, and it has never been as illuminated as it is now."

Web searches spiked again this spring when Isaac Hayes quit his job as the voice of a popular South Park character in protest of the Comedy Central cartoon's lampoon of Scientology. The episode in question exposed the secret doctrine of the evil space lord Xenu, whose use of Earth 75 million years ago to free his planet from overpopulation resulted in the mass alien possession of human souls.

The far-fetched Scientology narrative, outlined accurately in South Park, is only known because disgruntled ex-Scientologists released the information and documents proving it. CoS refuses to admit its own doctrine to the general public and does not share it with new members until they reach the higher and more expensive levels. Many uninitiated Scientologists claim that Lord Xenu is not part of the church's teaching. And members who leave the church upon learning the nature of its doctrine are often harassed and publicly slandered.

Some dissatisfied Scientologists have attempted to recover their lost funds with lawsuits alleging fraud. The most prominent case involved former member Lawrence Wollersheim, awarded $30 million by a jury in 1986. That amount was reduced to $2.5 million on appeal, but the CoS refused to pay and bragged it would never extend one thin dime.

When it finally succumbed to legal pressure in 2002 and issued a check that included 11 years of interest, Mr. Wollersheim celebrated his receipt of 86 million thin dimes. Perhaps a few church sales to M:I:III's superman covered those losses.

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