The World's Fastest-Growing Religion
THE LIMESTONE AND granite Church of Scientology in midtown Manhattan is located just northwest of Times Square, at 227 West 46th Street. Blending in seamlessly amid Broadway theaters, restaurants, and hotels, the place is very easy to miss, though it is seven stories tall and marked with a large metal awning proclaiming SCIENTOLOGY in gold letters. At various times during the year, clusters of attractive young men and women are posted on nearby street corners, where they offer free "stress tests" or hand out fliers. Ranging in age from the late teens to the early twenties, they are dressed as conservatively as young bank executives.
On a hot July morning several years ago, I was approached by one of these clear-eyed young men. "Hi!" he said, with a smile. "Do you have a minute?" He introduced himself as Emmett. "We're showing a film down the street," he said, casually pulling a glossy, postcard-sized flier from the stack he held in his hand. "It's about Dianetics—ever heard of it?"
I looked at the handout, which featured a large, exploding volcano, instantly familiar from the Dianetics commercials that played on local television stations when I was a teenager. The flier, which invited me to come and see the free introductory film ("Showing Now! Bring Your Friends!"), proclaimed that Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health was "the most popular book on the mind ever written" and a bestseller for over fifty years, with "over 25 million copies in circulation in 50 languages on Earth."
"Okay," I said.
"Great!" A huge grin spread across Emmett's face. He escorted me across the street.
Inside the church, two young women in long skirts stood by the reception desk. Like Emmett, they seemed to be about twenty, had blond hair, and looked freshly scrubbed, reminding me of Mormon missionaries. They led me down a set of marble steps, and we entered the main lobby, a large glossy space with lighting that bathed everything in a pinkish-golden glow. Aside from my guides and me, it was completely empty.
The room appeared to be set up as a Scientology museum. Books by Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard—more than fifty of them —lined the walls, as did black-and-white photos of the man, all presenting him as a robust patriarch with graying sideburns and a benevolent smile, dressed in a sports jacket and ascot.
But far more prominent than Hubbard was Tom Cruise. Projected on a large video panel, his image dominated the space: earnest, handsome, dressed in a black turtleneck, looking directly into a camera and apparently giving a testimonial to the faith. What Cruise was actually saying, however, I couldn't tell. His words were almost completely drowned out by the sound of myriad other videos playing simultaneously nearby. The Church of Scientology, unlike other houses of worship, did not invite somber reflection on its beliefs but rather offered a technological wonderland: music videos promoting the group's Youth for Human Rights campaign played alongside infomercials extolling the wonders of Dianetics, which appeared alongside videos and documentary-style reports on the great work of Scientology's "volunteer ministers" at Ground Zero, which played next to a video of Tom Cruise receiving an award for outstanding service.
I was escorted into a small screening room to watch the free introductory film. This turned out to be a high-quality, rather long infomercial featuring a cast of ostensibly real people who explained how Dianetics had changed their lives and improved their health dramatically, curing them of ailments ranging from brain cancer to depression. It was fifteen minutes of fantastic and totally outlandish claims, and yet each testimonial was presented in such