The cult that wants to be a religion

From its sacred text to its absurd creation myth, Scientology is far closer to recognised religions than its critics allow. Just with a therapeutic twist.

Alexander Adams

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I have faith. You are a member of a religion. He is part of a cult.

Every participant in a discussion about the Church of Scientology reveals a position by using the nouns ‘religion’ and ‘cult’. The former is accorded a degree of respect and recognition (socially, morally and legally); the latter is regarded with suspicion and hostility. However, nominating a group as ‘religion’ or ‘cult’ does not – a priori – establish the veracity of its core beliefs. So what is Scientology?

Scientology is a religion/cult/philosophy which offers an all-American blend of self-help, psychological counselling, health improvement and Masonic-style careerism (especially in the acting world), based on ‘scientific research’ by science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard (1911-1986). Scientological methods have been claimed to reduce stress, reveal past lives, end drug addiction, cure mental illness and heal physical illness. Caught off-guard by the huge success of his self-help manual Dianetics (1950), Hubbard decided to start the Church of Scientology as an organisation to oversee the ‘auditing’ of subjects (a talking therapy utilising an ‘e-mete’ similar to a lie-detector) in order to control and monetise it. Scientology’s hostility to psychiatry, which Scientologists consider responsible for worldwide murder and degradation, is partly because Scientology was founded not in opposition to psychiatry but in competition with it, using concepts and techniques pioneered by psychiatry. Professional scientists were unimpressed by Dianetics. One of them described it not as science fiction but ‘fictional science’.

Scientology meets many of the definitions of a cult and at the same time has all the attributes of a religion, albeit a god-free, prayerless one. Many of the points it is criticised for are common to established religions: it has edited sacred texts on the grounds of expediency (see Mormonism); it fosters a culture of homophobia (see Christianity and Islam); it has an absurd creation myth (see all religions).

On the other hand, Scientology – unlike other religions – does not consider women subservient, encourage female genital mutilation and honour killings, or require death for the ‘crimes’ of adultery, apostasy, heresy and blasphemy. And it does maintain a hate campaign against psychiatry. Psychiatry is to Scientology what Zionism is to Islam: an invisible, unprovable conspiracy against which adherents must be zealously vigilant.

Ultimately, the principles and beliefs of derided cults are no more improbable than those of respected religions. The beliefs of Scientology should be accorded exactly the same amount of credence and respect as those of any established religion: namely, none.

The Church arouses suspicion because it reveals its full teachings only to those who pay for instruction (costing up to $400,000 for a full course to the upper levels) and who promise to keep the knowledge secret even from lower-level Church members. Practitioners at the highest levels are said to have powers of astral projection, levitation, telekinesis, telepathic control of others, even the ability to kill through thought power – surely worth half a million bucks of anyone’s money. These phenomena have not yet been demonstrated under experimental conditions, something of a drawback for a scientific system.

Since the 1950s, the Church has amassed a fortune worth billions of dollars and a large property empire. It pays batteries of lawyers to harry and intimidate critics. Not for nothing is Church leader David Miscavige internally referred to as ‘Chairman of the Board’. Yet the presence and influence of the Church is out of all proportion to its membership. Although it claims nine or 10 million followers and to be the world’s fastest growing religion, a former insider stated that the Church’s active membership totals only 30,000 to 40,000.

The tax authorities in different countries disagree as to whether the Church is religion or business. The US authorities say Scientology is a religion and therefore a tax-exempt charity which does not have to pay staff the minimum wage; the British say it is a taxable not-for-profit organisation; the German government considers it a manipulative business and bars Scientologists from holding positions in the civil service. Interestingly, specifically religious trappings, such as clerical vestments and the adoption of a cross, were taken up only in the 1980s and 1990s when the Church was campaigning for religious status in America. In Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright reveals that the Church effectively outmanoeuvred the mighty Internal Revenue Service (IRS) by withholding tax payments and engaging in extensive and prolonged litigation until the IRS and the Clinton administration caved in and agreed to change the Church’s status from corporation to tax-exempt religion.

Wright provides an overview of the movement (with biographies of Hubbard and his successor Miscavige) and documents the Church’s influence in Hollywood. A more personal journey into the Church’s tactics of intimidation is John Sweeney’s The Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology, which details his experience making two investigative reports for the BBC’s Panorama. Sweeney describes encounters with Church handlers and tells stories of members and ex-members. Both authors have based their accounts on a huge number of sources and witnesses, extensively documented in endnotes. This is a legally prudent move: Sweeney’s book is published only by a small British press and Wright’s book will not be published in the UK at all, due to the threat of ligation by the Church, it has been inferred.

The most remarkable parts of both books are investigations into the Sea Org, the Church’s clergy. Once applicants have signed a billion-year contract, it is alleged, they are assigned to a Sea Org centre on low pay (subject to deductions for infractions). The Sea Org is reportedly under the direct command of Miscavige who, according to these accounts, is allegedly a vain, unpredictable man who bullies, humiliates and physically assaults staff. It is said that Sea Org members are imprisoned in isolated properties for months, even years, to discipline them. Persecution, separation from family members within the Church and blackmail (by publishing personal details in the Church’s Freedom Magazine) deter Sea Org members from leaving.

Mistakenly, Sweeney identifies such objectionable and cruel discipline as being exclusively a cult-specific phenomenon, whereas in fact it is also commonplace in established religions. ‘Amy’s crime?’ asks Sweeney: ‘Having consensual sex with a man she was in love with and who she planned to marry. What kind of religion is it that places a 16-year-old on a punishment regime for slap and tickle?’ There are teenaged girls in jail cells in Sudan and in forced marriages in Pakistan who would be able to answer Sweeney’s question. Still, both books are compellingly readable and recount true stories that are by turns fascinating, ridiculous and shocking.

What of the future? Despite the consequences, many high-level Scientologists have left or lapsed, claiming Miscavige’s control has distorted Hubbard’s teachings and damaged the Church. It remains to be seen how long a secretive organisation that depends on copyrighting its holy scripture and isolating its clergy can survive in the internet age.

Alexander Adams is an artist and critic based in Berlin. He writes for Apollo, the Art Newspaper and the Jackdaw.

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