Taking Scientology Seriously?

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.

Did you like this? Share it:

6 thoughts on “Taking Scientology Seriously?

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    My inclination is to be somewhat less generous twords them, but they do have their share of devoted fanatics.

  2. Cris Post author

    I was careful to specify that I have my doubts about “official” Scientology being a religion, but I don’t doubt that lower level members or individuals believe what they believe is a “religion.” This kind of belief, however, doesn’t really change my analysis or quell my doubts. For instance, I could believe that the “Lord of the Rings” was real and profess some kind of faith on the issue, but this wouldn’t mean that scholars need to consider it seriously as a “religion.”

  3. Chuck Beatty

    Buying Scientology as a religion, first minus out all of it’s controversial BS, easily doable, if you consider the “independent” Scientologists, who have done that very step.

    Scientology is a therapy religion and an exorcism religion (and in the exorcism procedures, they use a bit of therapy on the souls they are exorcising in order to accomplish the exorcism).

    The end goal is a rehabilitated spiritual being, which each of us is, per Scientology.

    There are ex official Scientologists who for over 4 decades now, had continued the therapy and exorcism practice of Hubbard’s MINUS the bullshit official Scientology is caught up with.

    Scientologists, through the therapy, delve deeper and deeper into their pasts, jumping into their past lives, which is one way of convincing themselves of their personal immortal nature.

    Somewhere along the lines doing the Hubbard Scientology therapy, they often go out of the body, and that likewise gives them the feeling of their immortal spiritual potential.

    Hubbard’s stripped down theory, the “Factors” (google it), and the famous 1963 “Time Track Bulletins” (google them too), and you see Hubbard’s pretty clear speculations about the beginning of each of our “home universes”.

    The space opera writings and lectures, are easily found on YouTube.

    Xenu is just the space alien leader who mass murdered so many humanoids, that the souls of those murdered humanoids did NOT have enough bodies to re-inhabit (transmigrate into), and those souls have been roaming earth for the past 75 million years, re-infesting human bodies and hitchhiking and leaking their mental garbage into our minds (and each of us at our cores, we each are a single soul, inhabiting our body, but we have a LOT of surplus souls infesting us also, which you learn about, you learn to “confront” and find these souls, and exorcise them, using Hubbard’s “upper levels” numbered OT 3, OT 4, OT 5, OT 6 and OT 7, today.

    Scientology at the lower levels is talk therapy of a very structured type, and it in the vast majority of “cases” of the Scientologists leads them to discover and explore their past lives.

    On the confidential secret “upper levels” they learn of the Xenu story, which is merely an explanation for why in this sector of the galaxy there is this massive surplus of dead alien souls, which infest all human beings, and on the upper levels of Scientology, they engage in extensive high volume exorcism.

    I don’t buy it all either, I’m a born again atheist.

    This simple explanation is about all one needs to know of Scientology.

    It’s a highly structured talk therapy at the lower levels, and it is high volume exorcism at the upper levels.

    I wish both of the authors had studied it enough to simplify it like I did above.

    But this practice does engage ex official Scientologists, who consider themselves Scientologists still. They just don’t do the crazy excommunication that breaks up families, and they don’t charge each other exorbitant fees to receive the therapy and exorcism therapy. And the “independent” Scientologists do believe they are engaged in a practical spiritual improvement philosophy, some don’t like the whole religion trappings and bureaucracy crap that official Scientology is stuck with.

    Chuck Beatty
    born again atheist,
    former Scientology Sea Org staffer (1975-2003)

  4. Cris Post author

    Thanks Chuck. Quite interesting. I have lots of questions about this that will have to wait.

    My immediate question is if we accept everything you say about Scientology teachings or doctrine (which I have no problem doing for the sake of discussion), the “is it a religion” issue can be approached this way: We know that LRH decided that the “religion angle” for reconstituted Scientology was important. This suggests he wanted to simply make up a religion. So if LRH simply made up an impressive body of BS and doctrine, and people decided to believe it, does Scientology amount to a religion?

    This is a tough issue, because if the founder is a charlatan and knows he is being a charlatan but perpetuates a “religion” regardless, should we take the “religious content” seriously simply because some people buy into his BS or are stupid enough to believe it?

    I haven’t really thought this through, and have no interest in policing the porous and uncertain boundaries of “religion,” but Scientology raises many interesting questions.

  5. J. A. Le Fevre

    If being led by a cynical charlatan disqualified any organization from being a religion, there would be far fewer religions and thereby religious. To the strict question of ‘is Scientology a religion’, I would concede a yes – it has supernatural agents, ‘priests’ (professional practitioners) and temples (dedicated structures). I would, however, support restrictions on who gets tax exemp status.

  6. Cris Post author

    This is true; however, we’ve never had such good and obvious proof of charlatanry, which makes this something of a special case. So perhaps we should just say that LRH made up a bunch of BS so that he could found a “religion,” that LRH considered it a bunch of BS and knew it, so at this point — without going further — it was not a “religion.” But after LRH disseminated his BS which was not a “religion,” and people began believing the BS, it became a “religion.” Do I have this right?!

Leave a Reply