Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fear Not The E-Meter, Part III

The first test I took at the Scientology Center was called the Oxford Capacity Analysis. The test evaluator told me that the test was invented by people at Oxford (I assume she meant to imply the University) but a little bit of research shows that it came out of the Church – either written by Hubbard himself or by some associates. We could respond to each question on the test in one of three ways: "Agree," "Sometimes Agree," "Disagree," or something like that. The test had two hundred questions, and we were supposed to take as long as we wanted to answer. The questions were generally standard questions about one's mood and personality, like: "I sometimes feel depressed for no reason at all" or "I have no trouble acting decisively."

There were a few more peculiar questions thrown in, though, like: "My muscles sometimes twitch for no reason," "my voice is monotonous rather than varied in pitch," or, "Children sometimes irritate me." A very few were quite peculiar, like, "I would be able to kill an animal to put it out of its misery" or "I believe in class distinctions and the color bar."

While we were taking this test, the promotional videos were blaring and two staff members had a loud argument in the hall. It was very hard to concentrate. "How come I never get to use a test room?" one yelled. "I never get a test room." The CA looked at me sadly and said, "those Scientologists are having trouble communicating with each other. I guess they're not Clears yet…"

When we had finished this test, our nice host came back and took it away and gave us a second test, theoretically a timed, half-hour IQ test. I have no idea whether this was a real IQ test or not. There were a lot of simple math problems, analogies, and pattern recognition problems. Some of the analogies were absolutely terrible – so bad that the CA and I would have to stop and consult on a problem, and it would become clear that there was no correct answer whatsoever. The CA and I went to good schools and we're just killer test takers, so we were enjoying this even though the Timed Test With No Right Answers is basically the Organization Kid's nightmare. In fact, we got very competitive about it. (The CA ended up beating me by about seven points, if you must know.)

Other peculiar elements - the answer sheet was numbered right to left, so if you sat down without paying attention you would fill it in all backwards. I asked afterward whether this was an element of the test, meant to see whether you were paying attention to detail, but the test evaluator didn't know. (I told the CA that my noticing this should count for at least three IQ points.)

Finally, there was a timed test that I believe was intended to check how well you read directions and how fast you could act under time pressure. The first three questions were a couple of simple logic problems. #4 on the test was just the statement: "A triangle has three sides." There were no boxes to check, or questions that followed this statement, so I had no idea what to do. The CA wrote "True" and I just skipped it. We judged which of two lines was longer, and we wrote our names in the margin of the page and circled our last names twice and first names once. Then we wrote down how long it took us to finish the test.

When we finished the test, we moseyed around for about 10 minutes until our tests had been scored. (How did they do it so fast? It wasn't electronic, because we were using red pens.) Then they escorted us into separate rooms (quickly, before we had time to protest), where evaluators talked to us about our test results.

The "Oxford" test scores different aspects of your personality, from -100, which is bad, to +100, which is good. The metrics include "unstable/stable," "depressed/happy," "nervous/composed," etc. I was in a good mood, so I scored above 0 on everything except "responsible/irresponsible" and "appreciative/lack of accord." I
scored particularly high on "aggressive," and so did the CA. But "aggressive" was listed as a positive quality. Odd. Or, I guess, if you think about Tom Cruise, not really so odd.

The evaluator sat me down, closed the office door, and asked me deep questions about my life based on this test. She was young and slender, with an accent I couldn't place and extremely thick black eye makeup. She seemed shy. Were there circumstances in which I felt unappreciative of other people? she asked. Was I sometimes critical of others unnecessarily? She told me I was careless in the third test, the timed test, but as far as I could tell, I hadn't made any mistakes on the test itself. She didn't give it back to me, though, so I'm not sure. She asked me whether I was careless because I was being distracted by issues in my life. She was a bit pushy about this, but nothing you don't encounter day-to-day with your basic AM New York pusher or film promoter on the streets around here. Perhaps I would be interested in taking a class on communication. She asked me about myself and my feelings. I could see where this was going. When you confide emotional secrets in a stranger, you feel a connection with them. You begin to trust them and you want to do what they say (recite Hail Marys, sign up for Scientology classes). I am certainly one of those people who, if you catch me in the right mood, close the door on me and ask me how I am feeling, I will burst into tears.

Thus, being behind this closed door made me nervous, and my Aggressive and Lacking in Accord sides came out. I was irritated that she kept telling me I had problems. The IQ test strategy had backfired - my trusty Organization Kid instincts had kicked in, and the test had built my confidence up instead of breaking it down. Plus, the questions were just so terrible. How could I respect a scary cult with such mediocre standardized testing?

With my nerd-powers surging, I brushed aside the evaluator's questions about my feelings, and instead asked her about herself, the tests and the classes. And she faltered.

"I'm just an evaluator," she told me. "I don't really know the answers to these questions. Let me get you someone in sales."


I've read that other people had experiences with much meaner or pushier evaluators at the Scientology center. That some of them got told that their personalities were in deep trouble and that the situation was urgent and they had better take some classes ASAP. It could have been my fabulous test results that saved me from this experience, but my gut feeling is that my evaluator just didn't have the nerve to follow her script, or she had decided that her own sales tactics were better. Or maybe she'd already written me off as a waste of time.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Fear Not The E-Meter, Part II

There are three main Scientology centers in New York. One of the three centers is in Harlem, one is in the theater district near where I live, and the third is on a posh block on the Upper East Side. This third is known as the Celebrity Center, and it is open primarily to "leaders in business, entertainment, and the arts."

I called this center on the phone to try to find out how it was different than the Scientology Center near me, just to see if I would be missing anything by going to the regular center in my area. The lady answering the phone said no, it was basically the same. The Scientology website elaborates:

"The largest of these churches, Celebrity Center International, is located inHollywood and ministers to parishioners who excel in the arts, entertainment and business professions. Celebrity Center International also provides ecclesiastical management assistance to the other Celebrity Center churches located in such places as Paris, Vienna, London, Munich, Florence and New York. By example and through their art, celebrities influence millions.

The receptionist then asked me in a perky voice, "And what do YOU do?" I didn't answer the question, because I didn't want to get into a whole discussion, and instead I asked her more questions about why there was a separate center for famous people. She didn't explain this particularly well, but the official website answer is below:

L. Ron Hubbard once wrote, "A culture is only as great as its dreams and its dreams are dreamed by artists." An artist in a number of fields himself, he recognized that artists supply the spark of creativity and the vision of the future which helps improve the condition of society. Thus, the Church established Celebrity Centers,
Church organizations specifically geared to provide Scientology services to such parishioners.

This lady then asked me again, in a warm, positive, friendly voice, exactly the same as before, "And what do YOU do?" This scared me, so I said in a warm, friendly voice, "This answers all my questions" (I'm a little bit of a mimic when I'm intimidated) and I hung up. Whew.

Since I live in the theater district, I decided to sidestep the Friendly What Do You Do Lady and visit the Scientology Center nearest to my home. The Companionable Atheist joined.

The entrance to the Church of Scientology is displayed prominently but not gaudily on Forty-Sixth Street just off Broadway. It has a "Church of Scientology" sign out front that looks a little bit like an old-fashioned Broadway sign. The building is very neatly decorated in glass and black metal. When you enter, you are on a wide staircase between two levels of the building. The receptionists are down a level and encourage you to go down to them. The building is bustling with people. Some of the people are obviously tourists – casually dressed, clutching their boyfriends and giggling, or trying to kill an hour between engagements – while others are obviously Scientology staff, dressed formally and rushing around on their various errands, or
standing crisply in the corners waiting to be of service. The building is noisy – aside from being filled with Scientologists and tourists, the building is filled with the noise of twenty televisions playing promo videos at the same time. There are three big flat screen TVs on every wall or panel of the floor, all showing different short videos about various aspects of Scientology. The generic Friendly Male Narrator Voice echoes from all these promo videos, throughout the building. It kind of gives you a headache. All in all, the center gives off the impression of a busy, well-staffed, new science museum that went a little too heavy on the TV displays.

At the center of the floor, there is a room mostly walled off with glass, where 10 or 15 people (including a 10-year-old kid) were reading books on Scientology and doing some exercises on paper, it looked like. On the wall, there is a progress chart with names on it, that showed how far along people had gotten in their courses.

On the day that I went, the receptionists, naturally, were the two youngest and most attractive women in the building. They were in their mid twenties and wore sexy
black dresses that were a little bit see through, and black high heels. They seemed a little bit hyper. They ran back and forth, directing tourists toward introductory information and pointing Scientologist staff toward visitors ready for test-taking (see below).

The sexy receptionists showed me and the Companionable Atheist toward a hall full of colorful displays explaining the principles of Dianetics, and toward several video screens that also explained these principles and those of Scientology (Dianetics is a specific group of practices that Scientologists use, based on one main theory; Scientology is the overall set of beliefs and practices, which are basically outgrowths of Dianetics. Dianetics was first introduced to the public through an article Hubbard published in a science fiction magazine in the 1950s). Overall, this information is a combination between basic psychology/self help principles and totally bogus "scientifically proven" information about the human subconscious. It's a bit difficult to sum up, but I'll try to give you the short version of the practice, as a beginner would practice it, as well as I understood it (and I may be missing some key elements, so my friendly Scientologist commentator from the last post should feel free to weigh in here). Ahem:

Every human alive is traumatized in various ways. This trauma generally stems from incidents that occurred to people when they were unborn or unconscious. These traumatic incidents are called "engrams." If you are sometimes irritable, depressed for no reason, or if you startle easily, these are all signs that your engrams are bothering you. The initial goal of practicing Scientology is to get rid of all your
engrams. People who have gotten rid of their engrams (by taking many courses offered, at various prices, by the Scientology Center) are known as Clears. They are much better at dealing with others because they have worked through all their trauma. Another way of working through your trauma is by going through the Auditing process (that's the thing with the tin cans). The Auditor listens to you talk about your beliefs or experiences in your life, and notes when the meter spikes. The spikes represent stress, which represent areas of past trauma for you. Then through Auditing and through classes, you can get rid of that trauma.

Okay, so, you're starting to figure out what the core of the practice is, right? When you take an e-meter test, someone is listening to you calmly. You talk about your life and your problems. A person, who is clearly trained in some way, is paying attention to you talk about your life and your feelings and is not supposed to respond, only to draw you out as you talk about your life experiences. All the Scientologists I talked to on that day were very good about asking me about my own life. Which is a great way to get people to bond with you - because all of us like talking about yourselves! Scientologists are very sharp about this.

The Companionable Atheist and I spent some time perusing the displays and videos (after a sexy receptionist unlocked the video screen for us). There was a lot of discussion of not letting things in your past bother you – I remember something about how you are made up of who you are, what you do, and what circumstances you live in. You have two minds: the reactive mind, and the rational mind, and you can only be
really happy when you get rid of the reactive mind (and the engrams therein). When we came to the end of the videos, a nicely dressed guy of about 30 came over and introduced himself to us. He said that he'd been a church member for about a year, and that he'd found the church the same way we did – by walking by, walking in, taking some tests, and then getting excited about what he'd found. He invited us to take the tests that serve as the starting point of Scientology practice for beginners.

Stay Tuned For Part III: Hannah and the Companionable Atheist Take Some Rigorous Tests

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Oh Wow

Hi all,
I'd just like to point out that I posted this first blog entry at around 8:45. By 9:55, I received an actual comment on the entry by an actual Scientologist. Check it out below.

Fear Not The E-Meter: A Visit to The Church of Scientology Part I

The Church of Scientology has a presence in New York that is entirely out of proportion to its size. People returning to parked cars often find them decorated with flyers advertising Dianetics (Dianetics, invented by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, is the "science" behind Scientology.) The Scientologists in New York are best known for their “stress test” stations in the subway, where alarmingly normal looking people offer passers-by free assessments of their stress level by asking them questions while they hold a tin can in each hand (the tin cans are wired to a little box with a couple of dials known as an “e-meter.”)

New Yorkers, of course, generally assume that any strangers trying to speak to them about anything other than “Which way is Madison Avenue?” are insane, so the vast majority have never taken e-meter tests. But millions of people use the subway each day, so whenever you go by, the e-meter testers are always busy with interested customers. Thus, I have developed the subconscious assumption that there are many active Scientologists in New York City.

When I told my friends that Scientology was next on the tour, I was startled by their responses. “They mail people live snakes,” explained my roommate. "I wouldn't go in there - they take advantage of people" a co-worker warned. Another mentioned that the Church of Scientology employs a gargantuan legal team and would not hesitate to sue me if I, um, wrote anything inaccurate about it. As we will soon see, Scientology is based around a truly comprehensive and bizarre belief system. However, what is interesting to me is that it has spawned a second complete mythology about it that belongs to outsiders. People pass on myth outside the same way they pass along myth inside. Just last week, for example, Star Magazine reports that the Scientology church is punishing Katie Holmes for disobedience by forcing her to live in a sensory deprivation chamber and drink cup after cup of vegetable oil fortified with niacin (Scientologists believe niacin is very important to brain function). Since none of us on the outside have any clue whether this is a reasonable allegation or not, we pass it on to one another cheerfully without any attempt at rational reporting whatsoever. This leads me to what will become the Fourth Principle of Fear Not The Gods: It is reasonable and right to be concerned about any practice concealed from outsiders.

According to Scientology literature, L. Ron Hubbard believed that a person ought to find things out for himself. So I did. And I went.

By the way. This is a photograph of science fiction writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard as a young man.
Cool cat, isn't he?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Everyday Ritual I: The Phone Ritual

When you visit a museum that displays artifacts from the lives of Early Humans, has it ever struck you that an astounding percentage of these artifacts seem to be "for ritual purposes?"

I used to think this was probably just poor archaeology. But now I think that we still perform rituals constantly - we're just not as clear about what they are. My first example: the phone ritual.

Hannah makes a phone call.

Hannah: "Hi, X, this is Hannah. How are you?"
X: "Good! How are you?"
Hannah: "Good!"
X: "Good!"

Sometimes there are three people on the call. The ritual takes a lot longer.

Hannah: "Hi, X, this is Hannah and Y. How are you?"
X: "Good! How are you guys?"
Hannah: "Good!"
Y: "Good!"
X: "And how are you, Y?"
Y: "Good!"
X: "Good!"
X: "And your baby?"
Y: "Good!"
X: "Good!"

When this happens, I often get the urge to just say "Okay, good!" and hang up the phone before we go around any more times.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fear Not The Gods on hiatus for food poisoning

Was very sick this week. I am better now. Back up and running soon.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Forewarned is...

I am visiting the Church of Scientology on Sunday. People seem to have a lot to say about this. Do you? Leave comments!

In the mean time, please enjoy its orientation video. It's blurry because someone was filming it secretly. It's a weird combination of goofball 50's educational video, science fiction (duh), and 60-minutes style documentary.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Religious Updates

Article today about how the door-to-door proselytizing has been going for Mormons on the Upper East Side. Since everyone has doormen, it's hard to go door to door. Instead they stand on the street and hand out hot chocolate and stuff.

Also, according to the AP, a bunch of rabbis in Israel have decided they'd like to start sacrificing animals on the Temple Mount again. Great idea, guys.