Long shrouded in secrecy about its practices, leaders at the local Church of Scientology have opened up to discuss basic processes they employ to achieve Scientology's ultimate goal: increase stability in a person's environment through an increase in rational, sane behavior.
Eric Everett, director of community services for the Scientology Mission of Memphis, says Scientology is an "applied religious philosophy" appropriate for any faith tradition.
"We live in a society under siege, bombarded by an onslaught of drugs and toxins. No one escapes the pollution," Everett says. "The Scientology Purification program is the solution to this drug and chemical problem."
The program uses a combination of sauna- and exercise-induced sweat, vitamins and oils, and a diet of pure foods and water to rid participants of addictions to alcohol and other drugs. Everett says it is also an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome, as well as those interested in freeing themselves from the effects of environmental and workplace pollutants. Other than its high doses of widely available vitamins, particularly niacin, the program uses no drugs.
Developed by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Dianetics and Scientology and a prolific author of science fiction novels, the purification program claims to release body fat that stores residual effects of drugs and toxins, replacing it with healthier fat. The program is the outgrowth of Hubbard's investigation into the "spiritual nature of man," Everett says.
Hubbard first published his work in the early 1950s. He died in 1986, having attracted more than 8 million followers world-wide to the Church of Scientology. Followers like Isaac Hayes and Lisa Marie Presley continue to spread his findings.
Hayes and Presley funded the mission here specifically to give Memphians access to Scientology's educational programs.
Everett says Scientology makes three assumptions: that man is a spiritual being, that there is a creator other than man, and that man's purpose in life is to improve himself, his life, his family and mankind as a whole. He says Scientology "rehabilitates a person's creative ability" as he studies and applies the "technology" developed by Hubbard.
But before someone can begin to apply that technology, he must free himself from the effects of accumulated toxins and traumas. The purification program begins the process.
In his writings, Hubbard says the use of toxins like alcohol and illegal drugs is a stumbling block to spiritual development and represents the "single most destructive element present in our current culture," responsible for societal violence and wasted lives. He also says that psychotropic drugs, electroshock therapy, hypnosis and environmental pollutants are toxins.
The purification program lasts from two weeks to as long as it takes, Everett says. Custom designed for each person, the program costs about $1,500, depending on its specifics. That cost covers the necessary vitamins and oils, use of the treadmill and sauna at the Scientology mission, and a program supervisor. It also includes an estimate of the cost of a physical exam required by the mission before a person can start the program. The individual chooses his own private physician for the exam.
Once a person is free of chemical toxins, Scientology offers Dianetics sessions to free him from the effects of memories of past traumas. Hubbard says Dianetics is a "science of the mind, a technology" that "isolates the source of problems relating to thoughts."
Claiming that the common denominator across all people is the desire to live abundant, prosperous lives, Hubbard says memories buried in the unconscious are the "single source of irrational behavior" in man. Like toxins, these memories become barriers to success. He says the mind -- which is not equivalent to the brain or its chemistry -- stores a mental picture of every event a person has experienced and these memories are used to solve "problems of survival."
According to Hubbard, the mind has two different places to store these mental pictures: the analytic mind, which uses memories to solve future problems, and the reactive mind. The reactive mind retains memories of painful physical and emotional events. Hubbard says those memories have no constructive value for survival because they act like a "post-hypnotic suggestion" to influence behavior in later situations that seem similar to the original painful event.
Everett says Dianetics is a form of counseling that "re-stimulates" those memories to bring them into consciousness, allowing a person to re-experience the past. A guide known as an auditor facilitates each Dianetics session, using an "e-meter," a device that measures the changes in electrical resistance in the body when a person recalls painful memories.
"But Dianetics is not psychotherapy," Everett says.
Hubbard says Dianetics allows a person to re-experience the past and move through it to a more productive life. About 12 hours of Dianetics costs $200. An hour of psychotherapy usually costs at least $100, depending on the credentials of the therapist.
In addition to its purification program and its Dianetics sessions, the Memphis mission offers "life improvement courses" costing $35 to $80 or more.
Everett admits that Scientology is somewhat controversial.
"We've taken a public stance against psychotropic drugs," he says, "because they create a dependency. If [the purification program] is as effective as we know it is, it reduces the value of drug treatment."
He says the medical community has a vested interest against Scientology since drug therapy is profitable for doctors and pharmaceutical companies.
Cult, religion or something else?
Psychiatrist Steve Rice, M.D., says Scientology is "anti-standard medical practice in general and specifically very anti-psychiatry, especially when it comes to psychiatric medications and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). They go to great lengths to criticize standard treatments that have helped many people. That prevents people from getting the help they need."
Rice is sure Scientology does some good, but he questions the confidentiality of information auditors obtain in Dianetics sessions. The exercise and sweat/sauna portions of the purification program also can be risky for people with heart disease, high blood pressure and other medical problems.
Rice says the Church of Scientology meets the criteria for a cult, which typically forms around a charismatic leader whom members elevate to divine-like status, quoting his sayings and following his pronouncements without question. Cults also maintain a high level of secrecy about their belief systems and evidence some degree of paranoia.
"I can't tell you what really goes on" at the Church of Scientology, says Harvard-educated Mark Muesse, Ph.D., an associate professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.
"Nobody I know has a real good understanding" of the church, although Muesse adds that Scientology fails to meet the criteria for a religion.
Muesse says a religion must offer a comprehensive world view and belief system, a well-developed mythology and specific rituals. As far as he knows, Scientology has no rituals or ceremonies, has an "exceedingly vague" belief system, has no official prayer and no specific image of a god.
But labeling a group a cult invokes stereotypes and prejudices that may prompt the group to become even more secretive, Muesse says.
"It's not a helpful term," he says.
Scientology's reputation for secrecy serves two purposes, Muesse says: Only initiated persons get access to the particular kind of knowledge, or faith beliefs, that the organization touts; and secrecy "protects the money" because access to information about the church comes only after payment for various courses.
Muesse says Hubbard has essentially assumed the role of savior or messiah, but he considers Scientology a form of psychotherapy, not a religion. He notes that unlike psychotherapists, Scientology auditors are unregulated, have no structure for accountability to a licensing authority, and have no code of ethics.
"It's not a free religion, but an industry," he says, geared to the middle and upper classes. He says Hubbard's teachings are all derivative -- based on findings and theories from various traditional sciences -- but given different terminology with a "21st century spin."
By claiming to be a church, Scientology qualifies as a non-profit organization, gaining both social and tax benefits.
Muesse likens the Church of Scientology to the Church of the Latter Day Saints, commonly called Mormons.
"They're two indigenous, unique American religions," he says, marked by a history of persecution because they challenge traditional Christian -- "specifically, Protestant" -- ways of thinking and because they center on a Messiah-like figure who is not Jesus Christ.
The way members live, their ethical code, is critical to Muesse.
"The Mormons aren't quite as secretive as the Church of Scientology," he says. "The Mormons are good, basic people with a good work ethic. From what I know about Scientology, it seems mildly helpful to people. On the surface, it seems harmless."