This site is best viewed using a highly standards-compliant browser
Scientologists and their critics are colliding in cyberspace.
The critics started the fight, creating an electronic bulletin board dubbed alt.religion.scientology on the Internet, a worldwide web of computer networks with an audience pushing 25-million.
Then they downloaded their knowledge and opinions in e-mail messages that just about anyone with a computer, a little money and a modem can view.
"As you will see, Scientology is astronomically prohibitive," one anonymous writer said on a.r.s in a message that reprinted the church's price list for counseling and training. "If you're not a celebrity or a very rich businessman, you'll be in for a few surprises."
Another, code-named "The Squirrel," chimed in: "I am plotting, for the umpteenth time, how I can reveal that yet another 'Scientology Truth' is just one of the many strange and somewhat stupid utterances that came from the lying lips of L. Ron Hubbard."
Scientologists were appalled when they found out about this bashfest three months ago. A church staff member in Los Angeles electronically deputized a posse of the faithful to counter the naysayers. Within days, the Internet was flooded with testimonials praising Scientology and with texts written by Hubbard, the late science fiction writer who founded Scientology in the 1950s.
Hundreds of pages of dogma hit the computer screens, including a chapter-by-chapter serialization of an 863-page Scientology book. From Largo, the manager of a software company threw in glowing weekly accounts of goings-on at the Fort Harrison in Clearwater, Scientology's international spiritual headquarters.
The message throughout: Try Scientology, it works.
Watching from afar, and laughing at both sides, is a splinter group calling itself the Free Zone. Its members love Hubbard's teachings and technology but reject the organization that is the church.
It's no surprise that Scientology is a hit on the Internet. For many religions, computer networks have become a place to pray, debate dogma, study the Bible, read the Koran and recruit new members.
But Scientology's niche is busier than most, and certainly more entertaining, say some of the 77,000 Internet "surfers" a month who run across the Scientology-related bulletin boards, called newsgroups.
The explosive growth of the Internet — and Scientology's presence on it — caught church officials by surprise. Scientology has always met its critics head on and spent time and money dealing with dissent. That was easier when the critics were earthbound, warm bodies with identifiable faces.
In the world of computer networking, the critics float unfettered, as anonymous as they want to be, connected to millions of others at the push of a button, disconnected and hidden just as easily.
Kurt Weiland, who heads Scientology's legal and public affairs branch, dismissed much of the Internet traffic as irrelevant and a waste of time. In the next breath, though, he acknowledged that "we asked our law firm to look into what was going on."
A private investigator working for Scientology posed as a journalist to quiz a computer user in Bloomington, Ind., who is believed to have started the anti-Scientology newsgroup.
"These people are welcome to speak their minds," Weiland said. But he added a caveat: "It is clear that some of this is written to be derisive of and libel the church."
And, as Weiland acknowledged, the Church of Scientology doesn't stand still in the face of what it believes is derisive, incorrect data.
Every few days, someone posts a message on the Internet asking, "Where is Elaine Siegel?"
They worry that Siegel, a staff worker in Scientology's Office of Special Affairs in Los Angeles, has been punished for letting a copy of her now infamous letter fall into the wrong hands — the critics' quick hands.
They have not received a response from her.
Siegel's letter has been posted more than a dozen times on Internet. It details a plan for Scientologists to counter their cybercritics.
"If you imagine 40-50 Scientologists posting on the Internet every few days, we'll just run the SPs (suppressive persons) right off the system," Siegel wrote. "It will be quite simple, actually."
She added: "Basically, as a group, we will NO longer put up with our religion being criticized, harassed and denigrated on the Internet. There will also be some legal actions, which you will be further briefed on."
Scientology is going to get its own link to Internet, Siegel said. She called the critics "jerks."
The critics went ballistic, half-upset at the takeover attempt, half-tickled at the impossibility of such a task. They began the "Where is Elaine Siegel?" e-mail campaign, its sinister-sounding question about her fate sure to tweak Scientology officials.
Weiland said Siegel's letter was distributed without her superior's approval and doesn't represent an official position. She has not been punished, he said. Weiland said he agreed with her basic message of countering negative news with positive but denied wanting to push anyone off the Internet, saying the critics' response suggests it is they who want to dominate the medium.
"That just shows that these people wanted a free-for-all on a forum that is meant for everyone," Weiland said.
Through Weiland, Siegel declined to talk to the Times for this story.
The man who exposed Siegel's private letter to the Internet is Chris Schafmeister, a third-year biophysics graduate student at the University of California in San Francisco. He posted the Siegel letter after receiving it from a Scientologist whom he said he befriended on Internet. Before tripping across the Scientology newsgroup, he had no experience with the organization. He is now a caustic critic.
"My role is to make sure they're never going to be comfortable on the Net," Schafmeister said.
Now, he is the one getting uncomfortable. After being interviewed for this story, Schafmeister said, he learned that someone claiming to be a reporter from Orange County, Calif., was checking up on him with other computer users. The "reporter" refused to identify his newspaper. In a second incident, someone claiming to be a parcel delivery worker phoned Schafmeister to get his home address. Schafmeister never got a delivery.
Weiland said he doesn't know of any Scientology inquiry into Schafmeister but acknowledged that a private investigator did pose as a reporter and question the Bloomington man who is believed to have founded the anti-Scientology bulletin board. Weiland said that was done because the person who started the board used the name of David Miscavige, the current leader of Scientology.
Stu Sjouwerman is vice president of a software company in Largo. The Dutch native has been a Scientologist for 12 years and is known to Internet users for his "Warm Regards" Stu closing on his weekly reports about what's happening in Clearwater Scientology.
Sjouwerman (pronounced Shauw-er-min) uses his Internet time to spread the word from Scientology's Clearwater-based Flag Service Organization, mainly detailed accounts of the speeches given at the Friday night graduation ceremonies at the Fort Harrison Hotel.
Sjouwerman, 38, also guides people on Internet to Clearwater, where the top Scientology courses and processing are available.
Sjouwerman said his motivation is to tell how Scientology has helped his life, how it keeps his marriage alive, how it helped him get the best job he has ever had.
". . . I'd like my fellow beings on this planet to experience this same absolutely wonderful feeling of spiritual freedom," Sjouwerman said in a written statement. "That is why I am here on the Net."
Others get similarly involved, posting lengthy passages from Scientology books, a list of every Scientology organization in the world and lists of available books and tapes. On the Internet, they describe how Scientology has helped them become better people.
"Ever wonder why the critics can't just let you do Scientology, while they simply not do it, since it's obviously not for them?" wrote one person who identified himself as a Scientologist. "What would be wrong with people getting better?"
Weiland said the Scientologists on Internet are individuals, not part of any church plan. Scientology's marketing branch, he added, is looking at the possibility of using the Internet.
All the benefits of Scientology at a fraction of the cost. That is the promise of the Free Zone, located on an Internet bulletin board called alt.clearing.technology.
Neither fish nor fowl, not Scientologist or basher, the United Free Zone Alliance and its estimated 3,000 adherents trade variations on Hubbard's theme, and some continue his research, an idea that is blasphemous to the Church of Scientology.
It also attracts believers in alternative mind-clearing technologies or religions outside of Scientology, people who practice processes aimed at ridding the mind of harmful, painful memories.
That kind of dissension and continued research, coupled with the freedom of choice to learn mind-clearing outside official channels, makes the Free Zone Scientology's "worst nightmare," said alt.clearing.technology founder Homer Wilson Smith, a computer artist from upstate New York.
"Scientifically this is very fertile ground," said Smith, 43. "Dogmatically, it sows the seeds of war."
Some even use the medium to discuss auditing techniques and tips, Scientology's confessional process that is used to locate and discharge areas of mental strife. The most expensive Scientology auditing costs $1,000 an hour. Free Zoners are doing it for nothing, or next to nothing.
Weiland called the Free Zoners "squirrels," a term for those who take Hubbard's teachings and use them outside the officials channels of the church or who alter them into something else. Scientology has pursued countless lawsuits against squirrels, aimed at ridding the religion of squirrel tech, as they call it.
Scientology has known about the Free Zone for years, long before it went on the Internet. As long as no Scientology copyrights or trademarks are violated, Weiland said, no legal action will be taken.
But what the Free Zone is doing is wrong nonetheless, he said. "We are not tolerant of any alterations or deviations from the standard technology. If you alter it, you may get some benefit, but it won't be the benefit you could get by following it."
Out in cyberspace, the skirmish for souls continues.
A man who identifies himself as a Russian writes: "My name is Alexander. I live in Moscow and I'm interested in Scientology very much. I'd like to know if it is possible to have your information in Russian?"
A Scientologist responds that most of the literature has been translated and that there are even several Scientology organizations in Russia. He offers to mail him more information.
That's too tempting for a critic in Arizona, who posts the last word.
"My critique of Scientology has been translated into Russian," Jeff Jacobsen writes, "in case you want a copy of that."
(Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Debbie Wolfe contributed to this report.)