Yesterday morning I was reading the local paper when I came upon this story about Scientology (part 1 of 3). Apparently 4 fairly prominent members of the religion have defected over the last few years and the St. Petersburg Times finally got them to agree to be interviewed. The Times is rolling out the interviews over 3 days, much to the chagrin of Scientology (part 2 of 3 is out today).
For those who don’t know, Scientology has a major headquarters in Clearwater, FL, which is about 30 minutes from where we live. It’s the training headquarters of the religion, not the corporate headquarters (that’s in LA), and not where the leader, David Miscavige, lives (that’s near San Jacinto, CA). As the training headquarters, there are lots of Scientologists living and regularly visiting Clearwater. The St. Petersburg Times (St. Pete is the adjoining city to the south of Clearwater) has a long history of investigating Scientology and the relationship between the two, Scientology and The St. Petersburg Times, is not very amicable.
I learned that Scientology had a strong presence in Clearwater shortly after we moved here and have wanted to go check out their digs ever since then. Seeing the story yesterday morning re-awakened that interest. Luckily, Debi and Toren were feeling rather generous yesterday, so they agreed to go walk around downtown Clearwater to check out the sites.
I did a bit of research before we went so I would know what there is to see. The St. Petersburg Times has a quasi-interactive though slightly dated map showing the property Scientology owns in Clearwater.
Another guy, who I believe is affiliated with Anonymous, has put together a Google Map of Scientology properties in the US that includes their many holdings in Clearwater:
Based on those two sites, I put together a little tour for us. Having driven to Clearwater last week when Brent visited, I knew there was a little park right near the water in Clearwater, so we drove there to begin with and parked on Drew St.. The park is actually adjacent to the Clearwater library:
The library itself is gorgeous. But it looks out over the park and this:
If anyone comes to visit us and has a day they want to spend just relaxingly reading in a library, well, I’m not sure you can beat this one. It’s a gorgeous view.
Toren was hungry once we got here, so we stopped for a bit to feed him. While Debi took care of Toren, I saw a sign that said “Sandcastle.” I knew that the Sandcastle resort was right next to the library, but I didn’t realize there was a separate entrance for their restaurant:
Feigning ignorance, I walked toward the restaurant (with my huge camera around my neck). The two security guards looked very skeptical, but I’m pretty good at acting like a tourist when I want to. I walked straight up to them and asked them if what I was seeing was a restaurant:
They said it was in what sounded like a native Spanish speaker’s accent. I then asked them if I could eat there. They hemmed a bit, then said that I couldn’t unless I was a member. I acted really naive here and said, “Oh, a member of what?” They said I had to be a member of the Sandcastle resort. I then acted like I was just seeing the sign and said, “Oh, is that affiliated with Scientology?” They nodded. I followed up with, “So, if I was a Scientologist I could eat here?” Yep. I told them that Debi was hungry and then asked if there were any other places we could eat nearby. They were very friendly and offered some suggestions. I thanked them then walked back across the street to the park. I waited for them to turn their backs before I snapped a photo of them in front of the restaurant.
Once Toren finished up his snack, we packed everything into the stroller and headed up Drew st. toward Fort Harrison Ave. where there were some restaurants. I snapped these along the way:
This is at the intersection of Drew St. and N. Osceola Ave.:
Directly east of the Sandcastle Resort is the Osceola Inn, which is also billed as a “religious retreat” and is owned by Scientology:
This was also taken at the corner of Drew St. and N Osceola Ave.:
From here we headed up Drew St. to Fort Harrison Ave. then turned South where we immediately encountered the West Coast Building, which is also owned by Scientology. There were uniformed Scientologists coming and going from the building while I snapped a few pictures. This first one is looking at the front of the building. It’s actually quite large and surrounded by parking lots on both sides (which I believe are owned by the Church of Scientology). What I liked about this is it shows two cameras. The first is just above the green bushes and is pointing down the street. The second is just above it and is a controllable camera:
They seem a little obsessed with security. We crossed the street and stopped at an Italian pizza place for dinner (owned by a Scientologist, but the employees were not; I asked). Then I snapped this shot of the front of the West Coast Building:
The building really does look unassuming from this angle, but it goes back quite far from the street. Also, you can’t see it from this far away, but on the front doors are two white crosses, which are symbols of Scientology.
From here we only had to walk about another 1/2 block before we entered the heartland of Scientology. The corner of Fort Harrison Ave. and Cleveland St. is really the center of action. As we neared the corner we could see droves of Scientologists walking back and forth. We weren’t sure what was going on, but one of the many Scientology security guards floating around the streets of Clearwater (yes, you read that right, Scientology security guards patrol the sidewalks in Clearwater outside their buildings) helped clarify things. The first building we came upon is the former Clearwater Bank Building that was bought out by Scientology and refinished. There are no tours; they turned it into a cafeteria for Scientologists. Everyone was coming out the Church of Scientology training center (see below), walking down Fort Harrison Ave., crossing Cleveland, then walking down Watterson Street to a side entrance into the former Clearwater Bank Building where the cafeteria is. Strange. Here’s the building from further down Fort Harrison Ave:
Here’s a shot of a plaque on the front:
The security guard was very nice. He saw Debi and I looking around (we probably looked suspicious to some degree, though the baby is a great cover) and approached us, asking us if we needed some help. We did. We were actually looking for an ice cream shop for dessert (the dinner we had wasn’t very filling). He pointed out the Baskin Robbins down the street. I then asked him if we could take a tour of the Bank of Clearwater building. He was the one he told us that it was now a cafeteria. He did say we could take a tour of the Church of Scientology training center right across the street, though. But when I looked across the street I didn’t really understand what it was I was seeing as no one was coming out of that end of the building (poor design). We thanked him and headed to Baskin Robbins.
After we got our dessert, we found a nifty little side ally that took us to Park St. (turns out the side alley is where the Scientologists who are smokers hang out; I wonder if that is an engram they are working on…). Here’s Debi walking down the side alley:
At the corner of Park St. and Fort Harrison Ave. we had a good view of the main entrance to THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY. Toren also got a little hungry, so while Debi fed him I approached a uniformed member of the religion and asked her (she was from Columbia) what the building was. She said it was THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY. When I asked her to clarify she said, “No, really, it is THE church. It’s the main one. This is the chief church of all the churches in the world. They do training here that you can’t get anywhere else.” That explained why she was there, along with so many other foreigners – they needed the specialized training. I asked her if we could go in and she said yes. So, with Toren topped off, we headed in. Here’s the building:
Another security guard approached us as we headed that way. I forget his name, but he was also very nice and asked us if we needed anything. We told him we were just interested in seeing what was inside and learning a bit more. He was from Mexico but had only a minor accent (he had been in the US for 14 years). He guided us in to the main hallway, started a short video for us, then went to find one of the guides, Beth. We ended up hanging out inside this building for a good hour and a half at least, peppering Beth with questions. There’s no way I can recount the entire conversation, but I’ll try to hit on some of the highlights.
It did eventually come out that I’m a college professor and that I’m a Sociologist of Religion. They, of course, had no idea what that meant. But when they would ask me if I knew anything about Scientology, I always said, “Yes.” And when they asked whether I had heard anything good, I usually said, “Not much.” I think I surprised them when I told them that I had read Dianetics, which I really don’t recommend (wow is that a terrible, terrible book). Even so, they treated me like I didn’t know anything, which was kind of funny because I think I knew more about their religion than they did in some regards (neither of them showed any knowledge of Xenu when I asked them about him), though I did learn a few things. I asked Beth if Scientologists believe in a god-like entity. She said they did, kind of. She also said that you didn’t have to be exclusively a Scientologist to belong – Scientology is not an exclusive religion (i.e., you could be Jewish and a Scientologist). I asked if you could be an atheist and a Scientologist, but she said not really, as they believe in something akin to a soul (called a Thetan). Their notion of god is kind of Buddhist or Hindu – it’s an ill-defined supreme being that they associate with the term “infinity,” which is also the symbol of their god.
I also asked Beth how many Scientologists there are. She claimed, initially, 2 billion. After I stopped guffawing and choking on my tongue, I asked her if she was sure. It took her a few minutes, but eventually she realized her mistake – she meant 2 million. Okay, I could live with that number (probably an over-estimate, but that’s okay; some religions do that…).
I also asked her who or what created their Thetans. She said she didn’t know. Then I asked her how old the Thetans were. She also couldn’t put a specific time on it, but said that she, herself, was older than the Earth (they believe in past lives). When I told her that meant she was at least 4.6 billion years old, she nodded and said that she had dealt with engrams that went at least that far back (Note: Beth is a 27 year veteran of the religion; she was probably in her late 40s or early 50s). I asked her if Thetans predated the known universe. She said she had been created some time after the creation of the universe, but she couldn’t put an exact date on it. So, Beth (i.e., her Thetan component) is somewhere between 4.6 and 14 billion years-old. That’s better than most religions can do!
I was peppering her with so many questions that she eventually pulled me into a backroom and showed me The Bridge to Total Freedom:
Apparently what this shows is the different levels of Scientology. On the right are the levels of self-improvement (a.k.a. “processing”) that you can attain. In Dianetics, Hubbard only talks about getting to the “Clear” stage (all your engrams are gone). Apparently they have introduced additional stages that include more knowledge. However, the last 6 or 7 stages have yet to be revealed. Beth, my 27 year veteran guide, was a Grade 0 on the self-processing side. The other side is the levels of training you can receive (so you can audit other Scientologists). She was a Class II or III. This chart gave me a ton of questions. I asked her what “Total Freedom” is. She said it is complete control over time, space, matter, and energy. Basically, if you reach that stage you no longer need a body and are kind of omnipotent. I asked her if L. Ron Hubbard, the founder, who died from a stroke in the 1980s, had reached Total Freedom. She said she assumed so because he was the one who knew about it. I asked her why not all of the stages had been revealed since L. Ron Hubbard had to have known about them. She said that Scientologists were not ready for them. I asked her if anyone knew what they were. She said she thought David Miscavige must know them but he was waiting until Scientologists were ready to hear them. I asked how he would know. She said that L. Ron Hubbard must have written some indicators that must first occur before they could be revealed, but that they had to be included in his final papers. I asked her how L. Ron Hubbard figured them out. She said he studied. I asked her what he studied. She said philosophy and science. So I said, “Well, that means all of this secret knowledge must already have existed then.” She agreed, but said that it was L. Ron Hubbard (LRH for short) who was able to discern between the truths and the falsehoods. There are millions of falsehoods mixed in with the truths; his special gift was being able to discern the truths. Then I said, “Well, how did L. Ron Hubbard know what is special and what is not?” She said he used a scientific method. I almost lost it at this point when I said, “Well, you must not mean the same thing I mean when I say I, a scientist, use the scientific method.” She said his scientific method was taking out of the many ideas those that worked. I asked what the alternative approach would be. She said you could do things philosophically and just take what you like. So, what made LRH special is he had a “scientific method” for discerning truth and it was based on “what works.”
We talked about a bunch of additional things, but I ended with a final question (it was starting to get dark and we still hadn’t made it to the Fort Harrison Hotel). I asked her, “Beth, why are you a Scientologist?” She said, “I was raised a Methodist and never felt like I found happiness or contentment in life. Methodism didn’t hold the answers for me. When I found Scientology I found happiness and contentment. Scientology has the technologies and tools to bring me peace and happiness in life.” I asked her if she thought that was the reason most people join and she said yes.
This last question does bring up some of the basic elements of the religion that I was less familiar with and seem to be quite prominently on display in the center. A lot of what I saw in The Church had to do with pop psychology stuff (which is what Dianetics is, except it’s really poorly written, obtuse, and retarded). The current teachings seem to be all about overcoming your own problems and learning how to interact with other people. They still do this using auditing and e-meters (which are known to be hokum). They now also include some pseudoscientific gobbledy-gook about toxins in our bodies and a detoxing program that includes vitamins, potions, special food, and time in a sauna (a good way to get you to spend more money on their processing programs). So, maybe it has helped Beth. Who knows. But it does seem like a lot of people are interested.
Beth gave us 3 videos to watch and her card (I wanted it so I could call and get the time for a Sunday morning service some time). She also introduced the head chaplain at the Church. Oh, and I left out the little interaction I had with the security guard and Beth while Debi was feeding Toren. The security guard followed up with me about what it is I do. Not unlike most people who hear I’m a Sociologist of Religion, he didn’t know anything about what I do, about other religions, or about the worldwide picture of religion generally. So I gave him and Beth a quick rundown on which religions are growing where and why. He seemed genuinely interested in what I was saying, but Beth eventually interrupted – she was the one who was supposed to be teaching me stuff, not vice versa. This does seem like a common feature of many missionaries – they are so confident they are right and that they have “ALL TRUTH” that they don’t realize just how much they don’t know. If graduate school did anything for me it taught me how little I know. Case in point, I have a PhD in Sociology but was asking them questions to LEARN more about their religion. I know a lot about some things, but I also know that I know virtually nothing relative to what there is to know. Alas, missionaries don’t seem to realize that…
Anyway, once we got out of THE CHURCH, we snapped a shot of the Super-Power Building that is still unfinished (and has been under construction for quite some time):
We then headed down Fort Harrison Ave. to the Fort Harrison Hotel:
The bellhops kindly helped us carry Toren’s stroller up to the main lobby where we waited a good 20 minutes for a tour guide. One never showed up, so a bellhop showed me around briefly: the hotel has a very nice restaurant, Hibiscus, that isn’t too pricey but was empty. He also showed me their massive auditorium where they hold receptions, graduations, and services. It’s a swank hotel. We didn’t stay too long as it was getting late.
As we walked back to our car, Debi couldn’t help but reflect on just how bizarre this all was. She had no idea that Clearwater was really kind of Scientology-ville. (For my Mormon readers, imagine what downtown Ogden would look like if the Missionary Training Center was across the street from the Ogden Temple and the campus was open, not fenced in, and you’ll get a sense of what it is like.) Most of the people we saw were wearing Scientology uniforms and there were dozens of Scientology buses (all with “Flag” on them) shuttling people back and forth to buildings. While it’s kind of an exaggeration to say that Clearwater is now Scientology-ville, it really isn’t much of an exaggeration. Clearwater Beach remains a tourist spot with people of all stripes. But the old Clearwater downtown area does now seem to be dominated by Scientology.
If anyone wants to come visit us and check out Scientology-ville, here’s my recommended walking tour:
Start at the Clearwater Library and park:
100 N. Osceola Avenue
Clearwater, Florida 33755-4083
There isn’t much to see of either Sandcastle or the Osceola Inn, but you can check them out briefly through the foliage that surrounds them. Follow Drew St. to Fort Harrison Ave. Take Fort Harrison to Cleveland and check out the former Clearwater Bank Building. You can only see the outside, but it’s intriguing to see nonetheless. Take the little side alley to the east of The Church of Scientology, which is on the south of Cleveland opposite the former Bank (the address is 503 Cleveland St., Clearwater, FL; it’s also called the “Coachman Building”). Wrap around the building then enter the main doors and spend some time inside. You’ll likely be approached by someone inside (their version of a missionary). Spend as much time in there as you’d like, then exit back out the same doors and head down Fort Harrison Ave to the Fort Harrison Hotel (210 S Fort Harrison Ave, Clearwater, FL 33756). You can get a good glimpse of the Super-Power Building along the way. If they aren’t super busy you should be able to get a tour. You could even finish it off with lunch or dinner at the Hibiscus restaurant. As near as I can tell, there isn’t much else to see, just keep your eyes open for the swarms of Scientologists floating around the city, primarily around the Coachman Building. And if you’re feeling daring, go up and talk to a Scientologist; they don’t bite. They may even let you get a picture with them (something we didn’t do).