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Scientology: still battling to find its place in Spain

Thirty-four years after it arrived, the religion has yet to find a foothold in Spanish society

Iván Arjona runs the Church of Scientology in Spain.
Iván Arjona runs the Church of Scientology in Spain.

The young couple isn’t keen on going in, despite the polite persistence of the young man inviting them to see “a very short video.” Eventually, they move on. The scene takes place one Sunday morning in late spring outside the Madrid headquarters of the Church of Scientology, a former convent that cost the organization €12 million. It’s been 34 years since the religion set up in 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard came to Spain, and almost a decade since it moved into this elegantly restored 19th-century building a stone’s throw from Congress in the center of the capital. “They have invested a lot of money, but with few results,” says an academic who has researched the organization, and asks to remain anonymous.

But Iván Arjona, a 34-year-old who has been a Scientologist for the last 17 years and now runs the organization in Spain, disagrees. “Things are going very well,” he insists, explaining that a new center will be opening in Bilbao shortly, adding to its 13 others. The expansion has proved costly, and even though it has managed to be accepted as a religious organization in Spain, this has not brought the Church of Scientology any financial benefits.

“It is easy to register a new religion, but these days it doesn’t really give you any special rights; it’s just a way of establishing a legal identity and providing an aura of respectability,” says Javier Martínez-Torrón, professor of ecclesiastical law at Madrid’s Complutense University. Neither does it mean tax breaks: “That only applies to religions with a historical presence here that have signed agreements with the state.” In other words, the Catholic Church, the Protestant federations, the Jewish faith, and Islam. Everybody else has to pay tax, even on donations.

A new center will be opening in Bilbao shortly, adding to its 13 others

Arjona believes that religions should be self-financing. In Spain, there are just 11,000 Scientologists, all of whom pay for the privilege. Crossing the bridge of freedom to spiritual liberation, as Scientology proposes, requires cash. Auditing, which involves being hooked up to a galvanometer, or E-Meter (a device similar to a lie detector), while an experienced Scientologist monitors your answers to find conflict, must be paid for. Then there are the scripture study courses, which become more expensive as they progress. Training to become an auditor takes six months and costs €6,000: “around the cost of a Masters,” points out Arjona.

The head of Spain’s Scientologists occupies a small office in the fifth floor of the building. He’s wearing a black suit, the uniform of the Sea Organization, a kind of internal warrior priesthood. Despite his youth, Arjona is a veteran of the good fight. In 1988, dozens of members were arrested in Madrid, and 15 brought before the courts, although they were later absolved. Such experiences have made him wary of the media, and he regularly writes letters protesting about what he sees as distortions and untruths. He is rattled when he hears L. Ron Hubbard described as a science-fiction writer: “He wrote about a great deal more than that.”

L. Ron Hubbard founded his religion based on his psychological research, which was used as the basis of his bestseller Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, published in 1950. The Church of Scientology, which now has a presence in more than 100 countries, celebrated the centenary of Hubbard’s birth in 2011 by publishing an official, 16-volume biography of the great man that costs €300 and is available in its churches.

Born on March 13, 1911, in a small town in Montana, Hubbard died on his California ranch in 1986. Little is known about his private life, although Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 movie The Master is supposed to be loosely based on him. Arjona says that he won’t be seeing the film.

A prolific writer, adventurer and explorer, he was a World War II hero and a man who understood the mysteries of the human soul, according to his admirers. His detractors accuse him of being a skillful manipulator who made up stories about his past. Among his most vociferous critics are his son and a grandson.

Hollywood appeal

Scientology has managed to attract many figures from the world of entertainment over the years, notably Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Juliette Lewis. “He always understood the important of artists in helping forge dreams,” says Arjona. In Spain, the organization has not been so successful, instead focusing on the general public.

Critics of Scientology accuse the organization of being secretive, particularly about its teachings, which are only revealed gradually to members as they progress to different levels. In 1985, following a lawsuit in Los Angeles brought by a disgruntled former member, Hubbard’s version of the origin of the world was revealed: 75 million years ago, the tyrant Xenu, who ruled the galaxies, reduced the population of earth by sending people into volcanoes, which were then bombed. The tormented souls of these victims clustered in living beings, since when, they have tormented us over the course of our successive lives.

“Scientology is now trying to normalize relations with a society that continues to believe falsehoods about it”

“That is not true,” says Arjona, who nonetheless admits that he has not yet reached a high-enough level to be able to read the material. “I have not read it, nor do I wish to, whether it’s true or not. I believe in my structure. In our religion we believe that that knowledge is harmful for somebody who has not yet reached the right level.”

Alejandro Frigerio of Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research describes Scientology as “a region of initiation, which is why knowledge is revealed to its members on the basis of their preparation.” But others see it as a further sign of the organization’s secretiveness. “Both its recruitment approach and the way that it holds on to its members are about emotionally and spiritually breaking people. It coerces people to prevent them leaving the organization, all of which show that it works along the lines of a sect,” says Miguel Perlado, a Barcelona-based psychologist and specialist in sects. He believes that sects operate within many organizations, including the Catholic Church, and that some NGOs also function along similar lines.

Gabriel Carrión, the author of Spanish-language title Cienciología. La batalla más larga (or, Scientology, the longest battle), which tells the story of the beginnings of the organization in Spain, says, “the period of discrediting is over, and now it is trying to normalize relations with a society that continues to believe falsehoods about it.” Carrión says Scientology will find its place in Spanish society, but is unsure how long the process will take.