New church members work toward becoming clears by attending increasingly expensive classes and auditing sessions. A church magazine encourages members to make pilgrimages to a church center in Los Angeles to complete their journey across "the Bridge" to become clears. Critics estimate the total cost of that journey to be about $100,000 to $200,000. Once a clear, a Scientologist is also known as an operating thetan, or OT, referring to the ability to communicate with his or her inner thetan, an entity somewhat analogous to a soul. Members then continue their spiritual journey, moving to levels such as OT II and OT III and up to OT VIII, the highest current level attainable. John Travolta is reportedly an OT V.
It's only at OT III--a step that alone costs more than $8,000, according to a recent church price list--that a believer is told the true nature of the thetan inside him or her.
According to materials made public in a lawsuit brought by a former believer, Scientologists who reach OT III are told that thetans are space aliens exiled to Earth 75 million years ago by Xenu, an evil galactic overlord.
Numerous ex-members have confirmed the authenticity of the OT III materials from the lawsuit, but the church has never officially acknowledged that Xenu is, in fact, a key figure in its theology.
Hubbard himself wrote that the OT III materials sometimes proved too much of a shock for his believers, and he emphasized that they not be revealed to a pilgrim too soon.
Critics point to such writings and charge that Scientology is more a money-making scheme than a religion. What other church asks its believers to pay such huge sums to find out what the church is about? they ask.
Increasingly, outside observers have asked the same question. In 1991, Time deemed Scientology a "ruthless global scam"--on its cover. The church responded with a $415 million lawsuit against the magazine. Eventually, a federal judge dismissed all but one of Scientology's claims of libelous statements.
Two years after the Time story, a new forum for discussions about the church emerged: a newsgroup on the burgeoning Internet. Called alt.religion.scientology, or a.r.s for short, the newsgroup rapidly became one of the busiest in cyberspace. If Scientology operated by holding back information from its members, the Internet provided a way for the church's critics to make those secret teachings available instantaneously and all over the world. Pro-Scientology retaliations to postings on a.r.s--in the form of illegal message cancellations--eventually brought the newsgroup to the attention of computer geeks with no interest in the Scientology debate. Someone was canceling a.r.s postings critical of the church, a violation of federal law, and Internet sleuths tried, with little luck, to identify who was pushing the delete button. When a Scientology lawyer tried to have the entire newsgroup removed, the battle over a.r.s became for many computer enthusiasts a struggle for free speech in general.
The church sought help from the federal government to combat the posting of its secret, copyrighted teachings--teachings that critics argued had been made part of the public domain through numerous court filings. Armed with federal warrants, church officials raided the homes of several computer critics they believed were behind publication of OT materials. Computer enthusiasts, meanwhile, howled in protest.
And some of them, including an Arizona contributor to a.r.s named Jeff Jacobsen, began to picket churches of Scientology.
For Jacobsen, the Internet gave him an outlet for his most abiding passion: his interest in cultish new religions.
Since 1984, Jacobsen has helped his father and sister publish Single Scene. He also runs Friday-night dances sponsored by the paper at several Valley resorts.
But Jacobsen's real interests lie in what he believes are churches that wield undue influence over their members.
He says he belonged to such a church as a young man, a strict Christian sect in South Dakota. Jacobsen now calls that particular United Pentecostal Church a cult, and says that for six years he lived like a slave for the demanding religion.
Today, he says he belongs to a more open Christian church, but his experience left him with a curiosity about other cultish organizations.
For years, nearly all of his attention has been devoted to a single church--Hubbard's Church of Scientology.
"The more contact I had with Scientology, the more I could see it was much more dangerous than the group I was involved in," he says. Jacobsen began a methodical study of the religion in 1987, and has collected hundreds of volumes of the writings of L. Ron Hubbard. He also regularly participates in the debate on a.r.s, and has helped coordinate national pickets of Scientology churches with other members of the newsgroup.