Religion Is 'Where The Money Is'

Source: Irish Times
Date: November 22, 1997

Reportedly, John Travolta and a number of his Church of Scientology friends wrote to Channel 4 chief, Michael Jackson, urging him not to broadcast this week's Secret Lives, which focused on Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard. "I'd like to start a religion - that's where the money is," Hubbard said in the late 1940s. So he did ... if a hotch-potch of sci-fi and conveniently twisted Freud can reasonably be described as a religion.

All lives have secrets, of course. But Scientologists, it seems, have secret past lives best uncovered by giving loads of loot to their church. Ron's son Nibs, for instance, once recalled a past life as a clam in the primordial ooze. Nibs, whatever about his life as a clam, was gay while human. In Ron's world being gay was like being black at a KKK convention. Nibs, whose Dad had turned him on to amphetamine, finally committed suicide. But thousands of other devotees didn't give up their lives - they just gave up their money.

And that was the core of the criticism against Ron, a sci-fi writer turned self-proclaimed messiah. He was, this documentary suggested, as so many religious and cult leaders have always been, in it primarily for the money and the perks. Certainly, he thought big. At one stage he attempted to take over a country. Naturally enough, seeing as he had had a past life as Cecil Rhodes, he decided to annex Rhodesia. But Ian Smith (like various other ruling politicians) gave him the bum's rush and Ron took to the high seas.

Afloat, Ron's captain was Hana Eltringham. Hana was a natural choice seeing as, in a past life, she had flown spacecraft. (Well, for the job in question, it looks better on a CV than "clam".) Most of the rest of Ron's shipmates were 13, 14 and 15year-old girls.

There were younger children too, among them four-year-old Derek Greene, who once chewed a telex. Ron was not impressed with Derek's telex-chewing, so he had him locked in a small, closed metal container for two days and two nights.

It was for the child's own good, you understand. "It's going to take a lot more ethics and a lot more punishment than anyone can easily withstand to get the world back in shape," Ron told his followers. Oh, the rigours of the messianic life with its dreadful flotsam of unworthy devotees! Anyway, Ron's followers swallowed it all. "He had a magical, magnetic, hypnotising effect on us," said a former shipmate. He must have had because the depth of gullibility required to sustain Ron was unfathomable.

So, how did he do it? On this crucial point Secret Lives was out of its depth. Clearly, Ron was seldom economical with his lies.

They were almost always big ones - real whoppers, flame-grilled with cheese 'n' pickle - and that seems to be a vital part of the trick. Mind you, from an early age, Ron put in the groundwork for his lies: he invented a wealthy, adventure-filled childhood for himself; he told of a visit to the Himalayas and of fighting an octopus; he claimed to have cured his own wartime blindness. All porkies, all nonsense . . .

Still, his influence has been phenomenal. For a brief period in the early 1950s, he was America's newest and brightest guru (until a stage show in Los Angeles, at which he promised an exhibition of "total recall" by an early star pupil, became a farce - she could recall nothing). Even today, Scientologists regularly display fanatical fervour. Is it conceivable that people have been helped by Ron's diet of "dianetics" and "ethics"?

Who knows? But it appears that a rule of proximity is crucial in any assessment of Ron. Many of those closest to him - at least on the evidence they gave to Secret Lives - denounced him as a charlatan. Devotees further from the centre seem to find it easier to find a reason to believe. Like working in a sausage factory, those closest to the action characteristically become less enthusiastic about their product.

Ron Hubbard died in 1986, or, in Scientology terms, he moved on "to research the next level". He had been a talented sci-fi writer who degenerated into torturing people mentally. His Church of Scientology, which has its HQ in Clearwater, Florida, raked in $80 million last year. Lisa Marie Presley is a devotee. As portrayed in this documentary, Hubbard was a nasty nutter, not a lovable rogue. Before heading off to research the next level, he had become a sort of poor man's Howard Hughes - reclusive with long hair, longer fingernails and money to burn. Far from being a messiah with a message, he was just a mesmerizer in a mess.

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