Author’s Note: Title VI of the Political Constitution of the Republic of Costa Rica states that the Roman Catholic religion, while officially supported by the Government, does not preclude the people’s freedom to engage in other religions or doctrines. This article is not meant to be an endorsement of any religion over another. The Costa Rica Star respects our Constitution, as well as all religious and spiritual matters.
The Church of Scientology is undergoing a schism. Its organizational foundations in the United States appear to be coming apart, its faith has come under attack from outside activists like Anonymous, and rumors of a complete breakdown have rippled out to Europe, but here in Costa Rica Scientology seems to be growing and doing quite well. After all, L. Ron Hubbard was the best-selling author at the National Book Fair last year. This is a look at some key developments that may explain what is thought to be behind Scientology’s spurt of growth in our country.
A schism, as defined by the Princeton University lexical database, is the formal separation of a church into separate groups over differences in doctrine. Schisms are significant events in the history of humanity, as they denote a sharp turn of mindsets and philosophies. History is filled with schisms, from the creation of different schools of Buddhism to the sectarian rifts in Islam, and from the major Jewish denominations to the multiple splits and reorganizations within Christianity.
Some observers of Scientology claim that a schism has been going on for decades, but most people have only become aware of the deep state of discord among key members within the last couple of years. The estimated number of Scientology followers around the world is around 8 million, a figure that can be considered humble when compared to other major organized religions; however, the religion has achieved notoriety thanks to several high-profile followers. Consider the following actors and actresses: Tom Cruise and his wife Katie Holmes, Jason Lee, Karen Black, Bijou Phillips. Influential musicians Beck, Chick Corea and Isaac Hayes. Powerful Internet entrepreneurs like Earthlink founder Sky Dayton; the list goes on. These prominent names of the Rich and Famous tend to attract a fair amount of gossip and news media attention, and thus the public interest in Scientology is justified.
As for the rupture within Scientology, it has been spectacular. It would be easy to point fingers at the tabloid media, but respected media outlets like the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic and the The New Yorker have dedicated considerable journalistic resources to covering the schism. Publications such as the Village Voice feature ongoing coverage that is certainly fascinating to follow. Part of the fascination comes from the acidic discourse and pure vitriol exchanged between former members and ardent followers. Those who have dared to speak against Scientology in a public forum, to wit: American author William S. Burroughs in Rolling Stone, as well as Canadian filmmaker Paul Haggis on the pages of the New Yorker; have met the wrath of the faithful.
The most recent -and to some the most significant- evidence of a schism arrived in the form of a New Years’ email sent by Debbie Cook, a longtime Sea Org member (a woman of the cloth, so to speak) who also held a high-level management position at Scientology’s headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. The email, which to non-Scientologists can be difficult to understand, contained scathing allegations of financial mismanagement of hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as a possible move by current church leader David Miscagive to lead a coup or heretical power grab against sci-fi author and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who shuffled off this mortal coil in 1986, but remains as the top spiritual leader.
As a modern religion, Scientology must shoulder the burden of having come of age during the strange days of the Information Age. Part of its religious dogma can be found in Dianetics, the perennial self-help best-seller that is the most important source of converts for the Church. Hubbard was (or still is) a prolific and highly successful commercial author, and he also was responsible for writing the tenets of Scientology. The religion draws heavily from motifs that are nautical, behavioral, managerial, and extraterrestrial in nature. For those who may think that these are weird concepts, take a moment to consider the Transfiguration in Christianity, numerology in Judaism, the virgins in paradise in Islam, the giant cobra that shielded Buddha from harsh meteorological conditions, Norse mythology, Zoroastrianism, etc. If anything, Scientology can be seen as a reflection of the curious undertones of modern life.
Some time before L. Ron Hubbard’s passing (or liberation from earthly physiology), the Church of Scientology began to experience deep controversy, from FBI investigations to complex court litigation, and from coordinated cyber-attacks to incredible high levels of contempt and even outright hatred coming from former members. Through it all, the Church of Scientology has put up a formidable defense by allegedly using modern-day tactics like public relations, media jamming, social media manipulation, and even secret surveillance.
The Church of Scientology in Costa Rica
Scientology was officially recognized as a religion in Costa Rica in 1991. Before then, Elizabeth Morales began to spread the word and train Scientology auditors after reading Dianetics. The Church initially operated from a location near downtown San Jose. Although Costa Rica is just one of a handful of nations that are constitutionally Catholic (the others being Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, and the Vatican), in the last few decades different religions have been capturing the attention of Ticos. Self-help topics are also dominating the shelves of major bookstores, and thus this can explain some of the interest in Scientology.
In 2003, a Costa Rican organization dedicated to the study of religions, observed a Church of Scientology gathering in San Pedro, not far from the Automercado. The observer reported an absence of the traditional feeling of piety that is commonly seen in the rituals of major organized religions. There was also a strong focus on behavioral self-awareness and other quotidian emotional issues that the gathered faithful talked about in an elegant two-story home. The demographics? Young, middle to upper class Ticos interested in spending two hours discussing self-help.
Fast forward to 2008 and a writer from Revista SoHo -where our choice for best blog of 2011 can be found- goes undercover as a spiritual seeker. He reports to the Lux Building, a stone’s throw distance from Libreria Universal on Avenida Central, the very heart of San Jose. For the multitude of Ticos who transit the busy pedestrian boulevard area, their first contact with Scientology takes place there; when someone thrusts a flyer right into the unsuspecting hands of passerby without uttering a single word. There are many variations of said flyer, but they all feature the cover of Dianetics, preceded by direct questions to the reader: “Do you suffer from nightmares, common fears, upsetting emotions?” The flyer directs the reader to buy and read Dianetics before contacting the Church of Scientology. Such is one of the most common recruitment methods here in Costa Rica.
The sadly departed poet and writer Felipe Granados admitted arriving at the Lux building with a few preconceived notions about Scientology. Raised Catholic, he mentioned doing some perfunctory research and coming away with the feeling that he was about to infiltrate a fantastic cult where Star Wars meets the Lost World by way of psychoanalysis and self-help literature. What he encountered on the ninth floor of the Lux building was a great view of San Jose and a business atmosphere that resembled a cubicle farm. Granados tried to get to the point quickly: How much is this going to cost me? The experienced auditor avoided talking about money with the skill of someone working at the any of the bilingual call centers near the San Pedro Mall. He instead left with an invitation to a meeting and a handful of brochures which asked those poignant questions that keep us awake at night: “Who are we? Where are we headed? Why?”
Granados attended the meeting the next day. He was ushered into a room where a table with snacks and coffee was set up before a business-like crowd in which women outnumbered men. There was reading from a big book which resembled religious scripture only in binding. The reading had to do with child-rearing, yet it used very cryptic terminology and phrasing. Then there was a curious physical exercise of dexterity, similar to the classic rubbing of the belly in circular motion while simultaneously tapping the head. Then there was touching between men and women; all non-sexual and similar to the mutual wishing of peace among Catholic congregations during Mass. Granados left confused and with even more brochures and a DVD. That was it.
Scientology on the Rise, and Under Fire, in Costa Rica
Scratching just beneath the surface, one can see why Ticos would be attracted to Scientology and self-help in general. Although Costa Rican society is generally happy and laid back, the Pura Vida veneer is not impervious to the complications of modern life. Many Ticos are adopting to lifestyles that are filled with new stressors, such as becoming a car-dependent culture, increased competitiveness in the workplace, technology, consumption, inflation, etc. The spirituality of Sunday Mass is becoming lost amid these new stressors, something that’s bound to push some Ticos into looking for self-help solutions.
A 2009 press release published by the Church of Scientology on Reuters told about a group of volunteer ministers who reported to Alajuela to provide relief in the wake of the catastrophic Cinchona Earthquake. According to the release, the Scientologists provided help in relief centers set up by the community and the Red Cross, and they also helped people to overcome the emotional shock left behind by the traumatic experience.
As mentioned before, L. Ron Hubbard was the best-selling author at last year’s Costa Rica Book Fair, at least that’s what a leaked internal communications document of the Church of Scientology indicate. At Why We Protest, an online platform for digital activists that includes members of the Anonymous collective, a full post-book fair report was exposed. The report brought attention to the success of the Bridge, the organization in charge of distributing L. Ron Hubbard’s literature in Costa Rica. The report, which can be read here, explained that the Publishing Association of Costa Rica presented a special acknowledgment to Hubbard, even though he wasn’t there to receive it.
Since the leaked report is an internal document, it has a fair amount of jargon that may seem confusing, but one gets the general idea that a planned business -rather than religious- strategy for Costa Rica, one that involves key relationships with publishers, bookstores and even the Ministry of Culture, is being considered. The usual facts and statistics about the country are laid out: peace, democracy, literacy, education, etc. From a business point of view, the document reads like a corporation getting ready to enter an emerging market by means of aggressive brand awareness campaigns. The document ends with quotes from Hubbard himself: “Let’s push this book. Let’s crowd it into people’s hands and demand that they buy it. Let’s develop the trick, when they ask us complicated questions, of stating that they should read Dianetics.”
There is a clear intent by the Church of Scientology to increase its presence in Costa Rica. This should not surprise anyone, as virtually all religions seek to expand their congregations around the world, and some degree of resistance and opposition is expected. It just seems that Scientologists have their work cut out for them: Anonymous and other online activists who are vigorously opposed to the Church of Scientology are expressing their opinions about its expansion plans in Costa Rica. Judging by some of the expletive-filled comments on Why We Protest, the reasons range from anger to sadness. These opponents aren’t just complaining, they are becoming organized and using social media to transmit their message of displeasure. In 2008, the March 15 protests organized by Anonymous against Scientology delivered a powerful blow against the religion, and are thought to have motivated several followers to join dissident organizations such as Operation Clambake. The Tico chapter of Anonymous was involved in this worldwide effort.
With the planned construction of a mega-church headquarters building in Clearwater, expected to cost $100 million, L. Ron Hubbard’s organized doctrine is guaranteed to remain in the spotlight. As a religion, Scientology has learned to become tenacious and resilient. Ticos can expect that the Church of Scientology will continue trying to expand in the country, and Scientologists can accordingly expect opposition.