Moviegoers will gain insight into an L. Ron Hubbard-like cult leader in director Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master — scheduled for release here on September 14 — but the wild beliefs taught by the real Hubbard go beyond any fictional version.
Hubbard's Scientology is based on revelations by the science-fiction author that can't be made odder by embellishment:
Mental problems, for instance, often are caused by traumatic memories of past lives as clams, sloths, and cave people.
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You couldn't make this stuff up. But L. Ron Hubbard did — right here in Phoenix in the early 1950s.
Sixty years later, on June 23, Hubbard's church gave the "Birthplace of Scientology" its proper due by launching its new "Ideal Org" at the northeast corner of Indianola and 44th Street, just down the street from the house Hubbard rented from 1952 to 1955. In an October 13, 2011, cover story ("Alien Invasion"), New Times chronicled the fate of business owners at the building who were booted out after the church bought it.
During the opening ceremony in June, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton told a crowd he was "proud" that the religion had gotten its start in Phoenix.
How proud Phoenicians should be of this bit of history is debatable.
According to journalist Russell Miller's 1987 biography, Bare-Faced Messiah, Hubbard and his new teenage bride — his third wife — moved to the rental house near Camelback Mountain in April 1952. Some of his followers had launched the Hubbard Association of Scientologists at an office on Central Avenue, and Hubbard founded the religion officially that year.
Building on the past-life doctrines Hubbard first described in the 1950 bestseller Dianetics, which purported to teach techniques that could improve mental health, Hubbard created a universe populated with alien "Thetan" souls. (He later would reveal, in church materials that followers paid tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to read, that the souls are really the ghosts of alien beings destroyed 75 million years ago by the evil galactic overlord Xenu.)
The hyper-prolific Hubbard cranked out a foundational book in mid-1952 that provides details on how the extraterrestrial spirit world affects the mental health of people today.
Published by the Scientific Press of Phoenix and titled What to Audit (the name later was changed to Scientology: A History of Man), it was a tour de force of incredible claims that Hubbard insisted was a "cold-blooded and factual account of your last 60 trillion years."
Miller called it "possibly the most absurd book ever written," adding that "it was treated with great reverence by his followers."
For instance, Hubbard claims that humans' fear of falling stems from terror felt by clams as they were dropped by predatory birds. Hubbard made a demonstrable misstep by declaring that some mental anguish was caused by past-life memories of Piltdown Man, supposedly an early human with large jaws — but a year after History of Man was published, the remains of Piltdown Man were revealed to be a fraudulent amalgamation of human and gorilla bones.
Hubbard lectured to followers hundreds of times in Phoenix before moving to Scientology's headquarters to Washington, D.C, in 1955, and the church always has maintained a presence here as it grew into a worldwide phenomenon. Though the religion has far fewer followers than the 10 million it claims worldwide (perhaps as few as 25,000), it's not going away.
Church leader David Miscavige, though hated by some former Scientologists, who consider him a tyrant, launched the Ideal Org program in 2003 to help spread the influence of the religion — and make lots of money from followers in the process. Since then, Scientology has built or acquired 24 new facilities, including the one in Phoenix.
Critics say the new churches aren't needed, since membership, by many accounts, is shrinking. Once Scientologists fork over big donations to open an Ideal Org, they're hit up to make more contributions for renovations, as seen in flyers obtained by insiders and published online.
One flyer published last month encourages families to attend Sunday Services at the Phoenix Ideal Org, noting a "Special Kids Corner."
New Times went to one such Sunday Service last year, before the Ideal Org opened, at Scientology's other office at 1002 North Third Street, and found it sparsely attended.
Standing in front of Scientology's Christian-like cross, Chaplain James Bennett, wearing a white collar, spent a half-hour answering questions for six people sitting on folding chairs.
We asked him about Hubbard's claim in Dianetics that once someone becomes a "clear," essentially a devout follower of the religion, their eyesight transforms to a perfect 20/20.
Bennett, who wears eyeglasses, admitted that he was disappointed the miracle didn't work for him, though he had been "clear" for years. But he did know some people whose eyesight had been cured by Scientology, he said.
Bennett also admitted some of Hubbard's teachings had "science fiction" overtones. But in keeping with the church's penchant for extreme secrecy, Bennett wouldn't acknowledge the existence of "Xenu" in official church teachings. He later wrote in an e-mail that he had given his word not to discuss the issue "and I will continue to honor that agreement."
Visting the new Ideal Org, the public can find numerous books and audio recordings by Hubbard. But be prepared — the material isn't cheap.
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Bennett advised us to obtain a copy of History of Man and decide for ourselves whether Scientology is fact or fiction, but he sensed our skepticism.
"Unfortunately, you will never know the truth, and all the info you will get will be from those who are so unethical that they would sell their souls to the devil to either make money or make themselves right," Bennett wrote in an e-mail. "Either way, the truth is the truth and will remain that way regardless of how some try to discredit it and make it so 'weird' that it will keep others away. The funny joke is that [your] type of article actually pulls in more people."
We would agree with Bennett that History of Man, with its emphasis on the past lives of clams, is a fine place to get a taste of Scientology. Yet Bennett says "all the info" we might get on Scientology comes from unethical, evil, money-making sources.
The chaplain may have something there — at least about the information that comes from the church.