Scientology is a complex set of beliefs that combines a religious and church-like structure with a set of unique techniques for personal and spiritual development. It is probably the most widespread and well-known New Religious Movement1 founded in the 20th Century, and claims eight million members worldwide2.
The Church of Scientology3 is also the most controversial and criticised religious organisation of recent years; in fact, many critics don't consider Scientology to be a religion at all and see its development from essentially a self-help philosophy into a religion as a tax-avoidance tactic. Debate over the ideas and actions of the church has been polarised and often very bitter and if you search for Scientology on the Internet you will find many opposing views. Major sites include the Church of Scientology site and the critical Operation Clambake. On these sites, even some of the basic facts surrounding the simplest parts of the Church are contested.
The easiest way to make a lot of money is to found a new religion.
-Attributed to L Ron Hubbard
Scientology was founded by Layafette Ron Hubbard (1911 - 86), a journeyman science-fiction writer who was most prolific in the 1940s. Accounts of his early life are mired in the controversy common to most areas of Scientology; the church's official view of their founder claims that Hubbard possessed two doctorate degrees, was a distinguished naval commander and war hero and was a noted international explorer. In contrast, critics claim that the degrees were of the mail-order variety; he was only ever in command of a small naval escort vessel and tales of his exploring exploits were much exaggerated. There are also reports that Hubbard was involved with 'The Beast' Aleister Crowley, and that the major impetus for Scientology was a bet between Hubbard and a fellow sci-fi writer that Hubbard couldn't found a new religion. These last accounts are, understandably, hotly disputed by the Church.
Tellingly, Gerry Armstrong, a Scientologist tasked with writing an authorised biography of Hubbard in the 1980s, found such a discrepancy between the Church's version of events and the documentary evidence that he left the Church.
The Tech - Dianetics and the Birth of Scientology
Scientology began life as Dianetics - Hubbard's theory of the mind and mental health. It was originally published in 1950 in the periodical Amazing Science Fiction, where Hubbard had had stories published previously4. It was followed shortly afterwards by the book Dianetics: A New Science of Mental Health5.
In common with the predominant psychoanalytical theories of the time, Hubbard divided the mind into conscious and unconscious sections, labelling the unconscious section the 'reactive mind'. The reactive mind stores past trauma and unpleasant experiences (some reaching back to the individual's time in the womb and previous lives) in a manner that Hubbard described as 'engrams'. Disturbingly, the major examples Hubbard uses in Dianetics of engram-producing foetal experiences include a husband beating or raping his pregnant wife, or a mother attempting to abort the unwanted child.
The practice (or 'tech') of Dianetics involves a therapist (also known as an 'auditor'), who attempts to draw engrams out of an individual via intense questioning and the help of an E-meter6, a device which in a purely physical sense simply measures the small variations in minute electrical currents across the skin7. Once all an individual's engrams are eliminated (which usually takes hundreds of hours over a period of years, as well as a substantial financial contribution), the individual is said to be a 'Clear'.
Originally, it was claimed that becoming a Clear unlocked many new powers for an individual - complete recall of everything that has ever happened to him or her, prodigious mental agility and intelligence. Early public demonstrations of the abilities of Clears in the 1950s ended in failure and embarrassment, and subsequent claims for the abilities of Clears have become more modest.
Major Beliefs of the Church
Established in 1954 to further develop the spiritual implications that were implicit in Dianetics, the Church of Scientology has a very hierarchical structure of belief. As a Scientologist undergoes more courses and studies, he or she is taught more and more about the religious beliefs underpinning the Church. After becoming Clear there are a number of well-described 'levels' of membership known as Operating Thetan (OT) levels, which can be scaled by participating in various Scientology-approved courses (which again cost time and significant amounts of money).
Briefly, the OT levels concentrate on the individual's inner self (or 'thetan') and its relationship to their past lives. One of the major revelations that purportedly will irreparably damage the unprepared mind is level OT III (or 'The Wall of Fire'). It concerns a cataclysmic event 76 billion years ago involving a galactic overlord named Xenu who murdered the population of the galaxy by coaxing them to Earth, imprisoning them in volcanoes and blowing them up with hydrogen bombs. The spirits of these murdered people (known as 'body thetans') attach themselves to modern-day humanity and cause most of human suffering. Once at OT III, a Scientologist will be guided through the removal of these body thetans and consequently will continue to rise up the ranks - levels up to OT XV are mentioned in Scientology literature, but the last few levels are classed as 'not yet released'.
Scientology in Conflict
Scientology's relationship with established authority and the legal system began early in its history. The Church has been strongly against psychiatry virtually since its inception, with Hubbard originally citing psychiatry's fear that Dianetics would supplant it. The Church has continually campaigned against what it sees as the evils of psychiatry8 and alleges that a small group of psychiatrists (possibly backed by government agencies such as the FBI and CIA) are behind a lot of the persecution of Scientology. As an alternative to psychiatry and its associated medications, Hubbard proposed the use of Dianetics and (in extreme cases) a process known as 'Introspection Rundown' that authorities have described as actively dangerous. A mentally unwell woman by the name of Lisa McPherson has been the most high-profile victim of Introspection Rundown gone wrong - dying of neglect in 1995 after being isolated to cure her psychosis.
The Church has also had a rocky road establishing itself in countries outside the US. Foreign Scientologists were banned from the UK througout the 1970s and the tax-exempt status of the religion has been refused throughout the years in Germany, Australia and Denmark, among others. Some provinces in Germany have made it a legal requirement that applicants for government posts must declare if they belong to the Church of Scientology.
Major criticisms of the Church include accusations of cult-like activities (such as so-called 'brainwashing'), abuse of members and harsh punishments for dissent. Critics of Scientology (or errant members of the Church) in the 1960s ran the risk of being declared 'Suppressive Persons'; the Church advised in 1968 that such people were to be dealt with by a concept that Hubbard referred to as 'Fair Game':
...may be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologists. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.
Fair Game was officially abolished only a month after its inception due to criticism from within the Church; however, Scientologists have later testified that the practice continued at least into the 1980s.
Sea Org and the Church Today
L Ron Hubbard left the leadership of the Church in 1966 to found Sea Org, a training centre situated on Hubbard's yacht. Tales from former members9 suggest that conditions on the yacht were harsh, the work was hard (even for young children) and punishment was brutal. In 1986, Sea Org members were forbidden to have children, punishable by being 'busted' down to a low ranking Scientology centre on dry land.
Hubbard became a recluse in his final years, living aboard his boat and working on his final ten volume 'Mission Earth' series of science fiction novels. He died in 1986.
Today the Church is known for its courtship of celebrities - it boasts many prominent musicians, film and TV stars as its members and runs 'Celebrity Centres' for their use10. It has a large community in Clearwater, Florida, although the relationship between the town and the Church remains uneasy.
The Church also runs or advises dozens of ostensibly non-profit organisations such as Narconon (a drug rehabilitation service) and American Citizens for Honesty in Government. Some overtly promote Scientology in the course of their work, while others do so without openly declaring their affiliations. Many of these organisations have done worthwhile things, but critics question whether their humanitarian aspects are their primary goal.
It is important to note that many of the more eccentric beliefs of the Church of Scientology are not held by individual Scientologists (particularly those further down the hierarchy, who are necessarily ignorant of much of the higher-level knowledge).
Scientology is a polarising religion - large numbers of pleasant, law abiding people are adamant that the tech works for them and enriches their lives, while this doesn't seem to fit with the views of the many people who are violently opposed to the Church's teachings.