A religious organization that spun off from the Church of Scientology held its annual convention in Reno
Scientology’s status as a hot button topic seems a little outdated. The e-meters, the aliens, the Tom Cruise jokes. It’s so easy to reduce the religion into a punchline that it’s not remotely fun anymore. Even in the months following HBO’s Going Clear documentary, the fact that nothing feels fresh is only compounded by the scandal-radar everyone has for church-related dirt.
For a religion that’s only been around for 63 years, Scientology has racked up quite a record. Confinement, overboardings, legal harassment, disregard for privacy—those are a few of the low points in Scientology history that are hard to deny in the internet age.
What’s easier to miss is the congregation that has formed in the shadow of the Church of Scientology. Known as the Freezone, this network of former and independent scientologists is something less than a religion and something more than a large decentralized Meetup group. Comprised of people who have become disillusioned with Scientology but still wish to practice its methods, the Freezone is both a symbol of free thought as well as a moniker for a group that legally cannot use the term Scientology.
“We don’t sit there and natter about the church or try to rally,” said Freezone Worldwide founder Rey Roble. “In fact, the opposite. The last thing we want is an organized religion. We love our freedom.”
Robles had been on both sides of the Church before landing in the Freezone, which he describes as “an applied philosophy of self-empowerment.” Robles holds degrees in psychology and social science, and discovered Scientology during his work at a California state hospital in the late 1960s. He credits Scientology with getting him out of drug culture and introducing him to the technology that changed his life. During the height of founder L. Ron Hubbard’s tenure, Robles cleared his way up the Scientology “Bridge” until he achieved OT (Operating Thetan) Class VII, became staff, and worked as a counselor at the Celebrity Center in Hollywood.
But things evolved in 1983 when current leader David Miscavige took over. “I left the church in 1990 because I saw the changes,” Robles said. These changes included a double-down on secrecy, price hikes and restrictive punishment for those who disagreed with the administration.
Now an OT VIII, Robles lives in Reno with his wife, Leslie. He runs a Freezone headquarters and counseling business out of a home office that prompts him to wear a suit around his own house. Robles also wears a smile and a sunny outlook on life that gives the impression that he’s much younger than someone who has been practicing Scientology for nearly four decades. Also, Robles loves to tell stories.
Like the story about why he lives in Reno. “Someone once paid me $1,800 about 12 years ago to find the safest place in the United States … not only to be, but to function as a Scientologist, as an independent. [Reno] hit all of the parameters.”
Of all the places a person could get stuck when shit hits the fan, Reno isn’t a bad choice. Back in ’02, it met Robles’ criteria for economic growth, water, education and access to an international airport—not to mention natural disasters. “It was close enough to California but also far enough away from California because of earthquakes,” said Robles. “These mountains save us from any tsunami.”
Reno has turned out to be more than just a geographic fortress. It’s also a political and social asylum for alternative schools of thought, thanks to a heavy streak of libertarianism that arrived with the Gold Rush and never left. Strains of “live and let live” can be heard ringing from every range, brothel, casino, and Burning Man-related event in the Great Basin.Conventional thinking
Recently, a small Freezone chorus sang its own refrain from the Silver Legacy Ballroom. The 14th Annual Freezone Convention started with little fanfare. Robles, the host, skipped the scheduled “Defining the Freezone” introduction, presumably because everyone already knew what it was. People had traveled from all over the United Stated to attend, with a few participants flying in from Canada and Russia. It was small but packed as three dozen independent scientologists sat mostly still while speakers from Copenhagen, San Francisco, LA, and Reno shared the latest wisdom about technology, marketing, support networks, and the Scientology equivalent of bestselling self-help book The Secret.
During one presentation, the speaker advised participants to stay “uptone” in their energy levels; reminding them that “the physical universe surrenders to the spirit of play.” In another workshop, a multi-millionaire entrepreneur shared his life principles and morning routine. Over Skype, two researchers presented a video of a man being counseled for a traumatic religious cult experience using the latest auditing techniques. One exercise led attendees through a detailed visualization of their 5- and 10-year “postulates,” along with any perceived blocks or “counter intentions” to achieving these goals.
An outsider could almost mistake it all for a high level self-help seminar if it weren’t for the special language. Motivational statements like “Imagine you have no limits,” and “You’re not energy, you are creators of energy,” were punctuated throughout the convention with acronyms like LRH, CS, OT, TR, and terms such as dianetics, analytical mind, clears and preclears.
This nested language is both a positive and a negative for Freezoners.
On the one hand, each term is shorthand for a hefty concept (the first book of Scientology consists of 677 pages on dianetics alone). Strung together, Freezoners can layer meaning on top of meaning on top of simple empowerment technique. This has the effect of bolstering the entire thing being said.
The flipside to special language is that those who are new or not associated with Scientology have an immediate barrier to understanding. This barrier either requires a certain level of interest and study to clear it, or—more likely—a head scratch and a heel turn. Since most independents come to the Freezone after being turned off by the Church, this is not a fundamental obstacle. It’s more of a marketing problem.
With more bad publicity targeting Scientology, Freezoners are well aware that their biggest recruiter has a credibility issue. And because the two groups are so similar in their stated goals, beliefs and terminology, it’s easy for the Freezone to get lumped in with the Church and lose out on new practitioners as well as favorable public perception. The Reno chapter of the Church of Scientology declined to comment for this article.
Freezone Convention attendee and OT VIII therapist Ronald Allen explained, “People don’t realize there’s a difference between the technology and the application … [but] if you don’t use the S-word (Scientology), the D-word (Dianetics), and the H-word (Hubbard), people love it.”
For Freezone leaders like Robles, changing the conversation to something decidedly less religious is a life’s work. “[Scientology] wasn’t designed to monopolize. Hubbard’s philosophy was to give this to the world,” said Robles. “Even though we left the church, we never stopped doing it, practicing it, expanding our minds.”