Monday, December 11, 2006

THAT Wedding ... Tom and Katie Get Hitched the Scientology Way

A guest blog by David V Barrett, author and PR and religion consultant at Aquarius PR

Now, Tom, girls need clothes
And food and tender happiness and frills
A pan, a comb, perhaps a cat
All caprice if you will
But still they need them.
Do you then provide?
Do you?

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were getting married. The look on the BBC Breakfast presenter’s face as I read part of their service said it all: science fiction writer and Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard was hot favourite for the 'Worst Poetry in the Known Universe' award.

This was the fourth time in four weeks I’d been in a TV studio talking about Scientology -- and I was beginning to realise that we were playing the Church of Scientology’s game. Two film stars were getting married in an Italian castle, so there was plenty of romance and glitz and glamour (and the Beckhams were there too), but the news coverage focused on the fact that they were Scientologists. The publicity value of Tom and Katie for their Church was incalculable.

Until recently Scientology had a reputation for being litigious and for wanting to control what was written about them. (I have a 9-page letter from some years ago from top libel lawyers Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners, on behalf of the Church, accusing me of multiple counts of defamation.) But now they seem to have changed their approach, and are actively courting publicity.

Scientology is based on Dianetics, a personal development or self-help technique devised by founder L Ron Hubbard. Through auditing, which has much the same effect as therapy or counselling, members are helped to deal with their hang-ups and problems. The promised benefits include better health, a better memory, clearer thinking and being in control of who you really are – effectively becoming a 'superman', which is of great appeal not just to top film stars.

It’s a progressive religion, in which members climb a “spiritual career path” through taking courses, often costing thousands of pounds each. The mythology at the heart of Scientology, only taught at the highest levels, includes science fiction stories of cosmic proportions to explain all the ills of the world.

In October Scientology opened a new church in London. The £23 million cost might have earned them a column inch or two, but the hours of TV coverage were because Tom Cruise and John Travolta were rumoured to be attending the event. I watched the increasingly weary attempts at excitement of the Sky News reporter standing in the pouring rain, every time a new huddle of people approached the building: Might this be…? But they didn’t come.

A few days ago I spoke to a senior PR official from the Church about the event. “We never said they would be there,” he said; “that was just media speculation.” True, but the Church hardly discouraged it, because without the possibility of Cruise and Travolta no one would have bothered covering the story: “Religion opens new church” (yawn).

Scientology is getting increasingly good at media manipulation, and journalists keep falling into the trap. It has also, according to the Guardian last week, been offering meals and entertainment to the City of London Police. Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley, a guest at the spectacular opening of the new church, praised Scientology as a “force for good”, saying it was “raising the spiritual wealth of society”. These quotations are pure PR gold to the Church. The police, meanwhile, are reviewing their hospitality policy.

Another trap the media fall into is taking Scientology’s claim of 10 million members worldwide at face value.

Membership figures are notoriously problematic. Are Church of England members everyone who has been baptised into it? Or all those who say they are C of E, meaning they’re not anything else? Or Christmas or Easter communicants? Or an average Sunday’s attendance? When someone quotes a religion’s membership you need to know exactly what the figure means. So what about the 120,000 members Scientology are claiming in Britain?

This astonishing figure is easily refutable. In 2001 for the first time the UK Census asked about religious affiliation. In England and Wales, 1,781 people said they were Scientologists – less than 1.5 percent of the number the Church claims. The 2001 Census figures for other English-speaking countries are similarly low: in Australia 2,032 people said they were Scientologists, in Canada only 1,525, and in New Zealand a mere 282.

Where are the other 9 million or so? They must be in the USA, Scientology’s home country. Well, no. In fact the American Religious Identification Survey estimated in 2001 that there were just 55,000 Scientologists in the USA. As the majority of Scientologists in the world are in the States, the actual worldwide membership must be under 100,000 – rather less than the claimed 10 million.

How can we account for this 100:1 disparity? Church president Heber Jentzsch let slip on a 1992 radio programme that the Church of Scientology claims as a member every single person who has ever taken even an introductory Scientology course since the Church was founded in 1954. Even leaving aside all those “members” who must now be dead, is this really membership? But 10 million make the Church of Scientology sound a lot more significant than 100,000.

Like many other new religious movements Scientology has difficulty retaining its new members. Could this partly be because they are so strongly urged to view everything that L Ron Hubbard wrote as the work of a genius? His later novels, lauded by the Church as “wonderfully wrought”, are derided by most SF readers. Let’s return to that wedding.

Then be cautioned so
And take thy own
E’en though they sleep
Beneath foul straw
And eat thin bread
And walk on pavement less than kind
And keep thy wife and they who come beside thy side.

It’s sad that members of any religion have to accept such mediocrity as the True Quill.

A version of this blog was first published in the Church Times

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