Avatar is a self-actualization "technique" created by an ex-Scientologist named Harry Palmer, who defected from the "church" in 1986 to found a lookalike multi-level-marketing version where he serves as a commission-earning "upline" from practitioners who teach his high-priced "courses" — his Scientology-alike borrows heavily from the original cult and even used some of its symbols until he lost a trademark suit to Scientology.
Avatar adds to Scientology's own impenetrable jargon with a healthy dose of fantasy role-playing terminology and imagery, promising to make you into a "wizard" if you take their courses.
Sektesignaal, a Dutch anti-sect group, has called for an investigation into Avatar's infiltration of Dutch institutions, including six private "democratic" school and some local councils. Proponents of cultish self-actualization courses routinely pressure their co-workers, subordinates and students to repeat their training, sometimes after being pressured by their gurus/teachers, sometimes out of a kind of missionary zeal.
Scientology is particularly notorious in this regard: its members have been sanctioned for forcing employees to practice the cult's religious observances, they run a dangerous, fake "addiction rehab" service that unwitting people commit their troubled loved ones to (other dangerous Scientology practices get pushed on law-enforcement and other first responders); accusers say Scientolgist employers used religious discipline to cover up a scammy robosigner that helped JP Morgan steal houses from mortgage borrowers; and people all over the world have quit their jobs after realizing that their Scientologist colleagues have packed management with co-religionists who freeze out anyone who isn't in the faith.
Scientology operates a kind of internal police force that coordinates dirty-trick campaigns to suppress criticism of the cult, and church execs who cross the (autocratic and paranoid) senior management face "The Hole," a torture camp. (This is a great introduction to the cult's current practices).
According to Sektesignaal, three Dutch councillors have become Avatar wizards and are using public money to send public servants to take wizarding courses. Once you qualify as a "Master" or "Wizard" you can offer your own wizarding courses, provided you remit large slices of the course fees to Palmer and Avatar — there's an implication that these councillors aren't just indoctrinating their subordinates, they're also lining their pockets, possibly at public expense. One councillor contacted by the BBC admitted to giving wizarding courses to his subordinates, but insisted they were paying for them out of pocket.
The BBC also went to one of the schools claimed to have been taken over by Avatar wizards, and was told by staff and students that wizarding wasn't on the curriculum, despite some of the instructors having been earned wizarding certificates.
Avatar borrows heavily from Scientology doctrine, with "rundowns" and "integrity" courses that cost $500-$7500. According to Palmer, its central doctrine is "what you believe has consequences in your life… [with] tools, techniques, processes for taking control of one's own mind, of connecting beliefs and actions to their consequence."
Palmer claims 1,000,000 people have taken Avatar courses.
In the lobby we met social studies teacher Samuel Dirkse, who was clasping a mug of tea and wearing a beanie.
"I'd never heard of Avatar," he said. "I knew of the movie, of course, but nothing like Scientology – it was the first time I'd heard of it."
One of the staff did an Avatar course. "She'd never mentioned it before and she's not a Wizard or anything, it was only for personal development," Mr Dirkse said.
"Parents are scared because they see the reports and think there's a cult. The journalists didn't come here, they just make these accusations. A few of the pupils are very angry. Now people are looking at them like they're from some kind of cult."
Avatar: Scientology-style sect causes concern in Netherlands [Anna Holligan/BBC]