Over at The Chronicle, Seth Perry reviews two recent books on Scientology, Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion (2011) and Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion (2011). This assertion grabbed my attention: “Hubbard’s teachings contain fascinating religious content that demands serious study—by those interested in religion writ large, and by those, like me, who study its American iterations.”
Although I have done a fair amount of reading on Scientology, a mysteriously lacking effect is that I’ve never taken the “religious content” seriously, or even seriously considered it. I’ve always had the idea that Scientology rather belatedly styled itself a “religion” when the organization realized the tax and other benefits that flow from the government’s decision that a particular set of beliefs do in fact amount to a “religion.”
Lafayette Ronald Hubbard may or may not have had such benefits in mind when (in 1953) he was reconstituting Scientology based on what he specifically identified as “the religion angle.” We may never know whether Hubbard was being sincere, cynical, or pragmatic, though it wouldn’t surprise me if Hubbard was being all three at once. He was complex that way and clearly understood that religion can captivate (or capture) people in ways that self-help therapies cannot. He also recognized that founding a “religion” was a great way to make lots of money.
I will confess to being ambivalent about taking Scientology’s “religious content” seriously. I’m not sure what that content is. If it is Xenu, Thetans, and Clear, I’m not buying it. However fuzzy, there is in my mind some kind of dividing line between the kinds of supernaturalisms associated with historic “religions” and straight up science fiction. I am inclined to agree with governments around the world that see official Scientology as a scam and pseudo-religion.
If there is in fact Scientology content that deserves serious study as “religious,” I haven’t seen it. As Perry’s review suggests, this may be because Scientology keeps it secret. Then again, it may be kept secret because the content doesn’t look, smell, or feel much like “religion.”
There is a difference between acknowledging something as a “religion” legally and considering something as a “religion” academically. Juridical recognition doesn’t compel intellectual recognition. I have yet to be convinced that Scientology deserves serious study as a “religion” rather than something else altogether more bizarre and difficult to categorize.