I took a trip to L.A. a few months ago, and, taking a cue from this article I decided to go check out the Scientology Celebrity Center.
I went alone and didn’t tell anyone, and I have to say, given the press Scientology gets, and, frankly, given the bigoted things I’ve said/believed about Scientology, it felt a little like an Indiana Jones move: going to the temple of the crazy cult, all alone, the unsuited professional with his days of beard growth separating him from his home life.
Let’s start with the building, which is gorgeous: brilliant art-deco details imposed on neo-romantic architecture, carefully sculpted gardens and hand-painted frescoes everywhere. I had intended to grab lunch at the café, as proposed in the Time article, but as I walked up a woman approached me and, after asking me one or two preliminary questions, informed me that the café is reserved for parishioners, but I was welcome to have a tour of the building if I wanted. I waited in the bookstore and the clerk there nervously asked me a few questions, had me fill out an information card (on which I lied about everything), and had a totally normal, friendly conversation with me while we waited for a tour guide to come. After about fifteen or twenty minutes, the clerk just locked up the bookstore and gave me the quickie tour.
So, the building started as a hotel during the Errol Flynn era of Hollywood (I think the clerk-turned-tour-guide mentioned that Errol Flynn had stayed there at least three times). Scientology bought it in, if I recall correctly, the 70s, and renovated it back to its former glory. The building is maintained as a place for Scientology’s artist-parishioners to retreat to when needed. It isn’t presented as a celebrity center, once you’re inside… the public areas of the building are decorated with reference to all of the arts. There’s a quote from L. Ron Hubbard up in the hallway about great societies being defined by their artists, and the paintings in the hallways echo the emphasis on the arts. The restaurant (different from the café) had the walls hand-painted with panels representing dance, music, writing, poetry, playwriting (as separate from other writing), and music composition (I may be missing some, and my recollection of playwriting may be erroneous).
They also have up a resolution from some governmental body—I don’t recall if it was the government of California, or a congressional resolution—recognizing the Church of Scientology for its efforts in advancing the cause of human rights.
So here’s what I’ll say: they offered me an auditing session, the dude taking me around asked a couple of times if I was familiar with different aspects of Scientology’s beliefs, and I gave him a semi-understanding brick wall at those points: yes, I’m loosely familiar, no I’m not interested, but thank you. And that was it—no proselytizing other than that. Admittedly, he’s not a pro at this—he wasn’t supposed to be the one giving the tour, and it's possible the normal tour guide would have been more forceful. But I respect the respectful distance.
And here’s what got me thinking about this: I’ve seen, on a couple of blogs, a review of the Scientology holiday catalogue, and it reminded me of the gulf between the Scientology I see in the news, and the Scientology I saw that day. It’s easy for me to say that I feel bad for being such a bigot against Scientology, but this underlines the difference between Scientology and Scientologists. The people I met and saw there were nothing but gracious. The building was obviously lovingly cared for and represented a deep commitment to art, or at least thorough patronage of the arts.
But I also noted that they’re still a cult. At one point on the tour, we passed by an office that’s cordoned off by a velvet rope. My guide showed me the office from the doorway, and indicated that it’s reserved for L. Ron Hubbard, even though, he noted, Mr. Hubbard passed away some years ago (the guide did not suggest there was any expected “return,” which either means this is hollow and showy or he just wasn’t letting me in on the secrets). I was instantly reminded of how some Chabad houses save a chair, or a place at the table, or a desk, or something like that for the Lubavitcher Rebbe, for when he supposedly returns to the world in a more clearly messianic form. I guess if you’re a cult of the modern world, you borrow from the best (yeah, yeah, Scientology was probably doing this before the Rebbe died). And the proselytizing aspect is there; when I was approaching the building, the woman who came up to me first asked if I was an artist, and then asked if I work with artists, and I caught on after a moment that this is an outreach center for artists—she was seeing if I was an appropriate target for their solicitations.
So how does this change the way I look at Scientology?
There’s a South Park episode where they spend a lot of time trashing Mormonism, until, at the end, the Mormon kid on the show points out that even if his religion is kind of loony, he and his family are just good people who were trying to live life as solid members of the South Park community, but they had to leave because nobody could look past their religion, while ignoring the weirdnesses of mainstream religions.
The Scientology organization, if the former Scientologists and the people investigating Scientology, like Operation Calm Bake or that Rolling Stone reporter who did a big article on them a few years ago, are to be believed, is malevolent and expansionist. But individual Scientologists may just be people who needed guidance and found it there. And, as Scientology ages and generations are born into it, the balancing act of raising a family within a religious community will necessitate some moderation and bring the Scientologists into the mainstream, MAYBE. There was a hint of that in the Rolling Stone article, certainly.
This also reflects what I’ve seen among Jewish missionaries; people born into a religious community are much more sane. They can speak with people more directly, are less agenda-focused in their interactions. In short, when you’re born religious, you’re less alienated from people outside your community. People who leave the mainstream world to become religious have intentionally placed distance between themselves and their targets. As a result, time pushes religious groups in one of two directions: moderation, or radicalization by the institution’s leaders in order to prevent moderation. However, this will often lead to a David Koresh type of situation, and that’s why radical cults don’t’ survive if they stay radical.