Scientology might not be as big in the UK as it is Stateside, but with ten British bases and a newly launched TV channel, should we be worried? Let us fill you in on everything you need to know about the Church of Scientology…
Where are they based in Britain?
There are ten Scientology bases in the UK, including buildings in London, Brighton, Birmingham and Poole. Those who’ve visited the small West Sussex town of East Grinstead will know that its British Headquarters, Saint Hill Manor, is a sprawling estate, complete with 59 acres of lush, gardens and a grade II listed building whose corners are rounded by fat barrel turrets. Built in 1959 and once owned by L. Ron Hubbard himself, it boasts a rather interesting statue of a man carrying a shield adorned with the religious movement’s unmistakable emblem.
Once a thriving hub in the 70s and 80s, Saint Hill doesn’t see many scientologists these days. In 2014, a former member of the church told Vice: “Nowadays, Saint Hill's car park is usually all but empty. You can almost see the tumbleweed blowing through. Scientology was never big business in the UK.”
How many Scientologists are there?
Around 25,000 people in America identify as Scientologists. But as for the UK, a 2011 census revealed there are more practicing Jedi Knights (176,632) than there are Scientologists (2,418) in Britain. However, the church insists this is misleading, stating: “Many Scientologists are also Muslims and Christians. Well over one hundred thousand UK residents happily receive our church magazines.”
Why is the religion so controversial?
Let’s start with the basics: Essentially, most people believe Scientology is a cult. The creation story at the heart of the religion says 75 million years ago an evil extra-terrestrial ruler called Xanu lured in unsuspecting subjects, froze them and shipped them to earth, placing them near volcanoes, and dropped hydrogen bombs on them. This transformed them into ‘Thetan’ souls, which attach themselves to humans. Only the didactic teachings of Hubbard – who, coincidentally, was a science fiction writer before founding the church – can help humans to harness these souls.
And it turns out, mastering your Thetan soul is actually pretty pricey – it’s rumoured the church is tax-exempt because it’s recognised as a religion in most countries, but members must still pay to become part of the church. Steve Mango, a former Scientologist, told documentarian Louis Theroux he had spent about $50,000 (£35,000) on Scientology books and courses between 2009-2012.
The list of dubious behaviour carried out by the Church of Scientology is endless. For starters, they’re notoriously secretive – during the making of Theroux’s My Scientology Movie in 2016, the film-maker and his crew were followed and harassed by a number of church members, finding themselves under constant surveillance in an effort to intimidate them into ceasing production.
There’s also the fact they make it incredibly hard to leave the church, and once you finally do, you are immediately excommunicated – meaning if you leave any family members behind, you’ll likely never see them again. These intimidation tactics also come into play when any former members try to speak out against the church, as actress Leah Remini – who had been a member since she was nine years old – discovered when she decided to go public with her experience after leaving.
Scientology’s current leader, David Miscavige, has been accused of emotionally and physically violent behaviour by many ex-members. Stacy Young, Miscavige's former secretary, previously claimed he emotionally tormented staff members on a regular basis. "His viciousness and his cruelty to staff was unlike anything that I had ever experienced in my life," she said. "He just loved to degrade the staff.”
In fact, Miscavige and the church were under FBI investigation after multiple reports of human trafficking emerged, but since religions and their practices are protected by the First Amendment in the US, the investigation was dropped. Miscavige’s wife Shelley also allegedly hasn’t been seen since 2007, prompting some ex-members (including Remini) to file a missing person report.
What about in the UK?
The British branch of the church has been pretty busy causing controversy over the past year. In June 2017, the church erected a tent outside the Grenfell Tower relief centre in the days following the devastating fire. After victims sought refuge in the Westway sports centre, Scientologists set up a bright yellow tent nearby, emblazoned with the slogan of the Scientology Volunteer Ministers: ‘Something can be done about it’. While other religious organisations offered food, tea and clothes, the Scientology tent handed out leaflets, facemasks and massages – delivered with just one finger.
“They had a lot of leaflets and were offering personality tests,” Guardian columnist Dawn Foster said. “I was there for about ten minutes and saw about 20 people come up, all of whom told them to leave or shouted at them to f*** off.”
But Scientologists aren’t giving up their efforts to garner positive PR – in November 2017, a £50,000 donation from the church was given to the Queen Victoria NHS hospital in East Grinstead, where their headquarters are based. Ex Lib-Dem health spokesperson Normal Lamb said it was “completely inappropriate” for the NHS trust to accept funds from the organisation.
Earlier last year, the Evening Standard revealed 35,000 children had been exposed to lectures in schools inspired by Scientology. Under the guise of an anti-drugs talk by the organisation Narconon, the schools were completely unaware of their link to Scientology. Noel Nile, President of Narconon UK, fought back against criticism, saying: “We’re in the business of saving lives. The lectures are not concerned with religion.”
But Narconon isn’t the only group Scientology has infiltrated to reach young people. In an article published by investigative journalist Tony Ortega, it was revealed the church had shifted its attention to “kids, kids, kids”. A website called FightForKids.org and accompanying social media platforms were set up by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights – an organisation affiliated with the church. It promises to “use innovative technology to create a global movement of advocacy and engagement for the love and protection of our children”.
The Scientology Network, a television channel dedication to the church, launched on 13th March, coinciding with Hubbard’s birthday. It began broadcasting on Roku, AppleTV, FireTV and the Apple and Andriod app stores at midnight for UK viewers.
Vice reported the channel airs such shows as Inside Scientology (“It was basically just explaining what Scientology could do for you”), Meet a Scientologist, Principles of Scientology, Destination: Scientology and I Am a Scientologist. So, not a massive amount of variety, but if you’re keen to learn more about (an undeniably biased view of) Scientology, tune in.