“Scientology is clearly a made-up thing, and would be a great plot for a TV series or movie, not necessarily a real-life commitment.”
— Ashwin Rodrigues, Vice Magazine
I recently watched the exposé documentary on Scientology, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Like many who watched this documentary, I found it well put together, entertaining, and educational. This isn’t the first critical look at Scientology, and those who have read other accounts, such as Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology or Jon Atack’s A Piece of Blue Sky, will be familiar with the more controversial aspects of Scientology detailed in Going Clear, such as allegations of abuse and L. Ron Hubbard’s pre-Scientology activities.
While I think the abuses brought forward in Going Clear and elsewhere are certainly problematic, I couldn’t help but be concerned at the way Scientology was consistently portrayed as “not a religion” by its critics in Going Clear and in other cultural discussions, such as a recent article on the Vice website. In fact, despite claims to the contrary, it appears that Scientology meets several criteria for being a religion.
I want to look at a few dimensions of what we would normally consider criteria for religion and see if Scientology fits the bill. These are the criteria that come up time and again in classrooms in response to the question, “How do you define religion?” Although many, if not all, of these criteria apply to all religions, much of my comparison here is with Christianity. The reason for this is two-fold. First, Christianity is the dominant religion in the West and thus our normative definition of “religion,” it speaks to a common currency of knowledge in a way other traditions do not. Second, I do not wish to speculate in-depth about traditions I have limited knowledge of and have restricted my discussion to cogent examples which exist within my knowledge base.
I write this not as a supporter of Scientology, nor is this meant to be a defense of their beliefs and practices, and I want to make clear that I do not condone the alleged abuses perpetrated by the church. Nevertheless, I support Scientology’s claim of being a religion. The answer why may surprise you.
Does Scientology have a soteriological goal?
One critique of Scientology is that while Christians or Muslims or Buddhists have an end-game, Scientology does not. Such a religious quest, called a soteriological goal, suggests that the adherent is saved by a particular religious message and by living according to the tenets of that faith. For example, a Christian soteriological goal would be to go to Heaven (and conversely avoid Hell). A Buddhist would similarly seek Nirvana (and avoid reincarnation). These aims are said to bring the adherent to eternal peace, a peace that is granted through religious activity.
Scientology does have such a goal. In Going Clear, “The Bridge” is frequently mentioned. This is a mythical metaphor for the spiritual path of the Scientologist. Through the various techniques Scientology offers, the adherent ascends “The Bridge” to the state of “Clear” and later to that of Operating Thetan. Scientology scholar David G. Bromley describes this as a progressive attainment of personal salvation through which a Scientologist “restores themselves to their original, natural condition” (92).
This idea of personal restoration to an original state is also found in Judaeo-Christian faiths, Gnostic beliefs, Kabbalah, and even Buddhism (e.g. cleaning the mirror to reveal the true self). The idea that there has been some event that has led to an imperfect humanity that needs to be restored to perfection is not unique to Scientology, and is a common motif of religious thought rather than a “strange” credo.
Does Scientology have a soteriological goal?
Do Scientology’s adherents see themselves as religious or spiritual?
One of the things that stuck me about the documentary Going Clear were the accounts of ex-Scientologists. In particular, the story of Sea Org recruit Hana Eltringham Whitfield. The Sea Org is a division of Scientology which consists of elite members, but which has also come under scrutiny for abuses, such as unpaid labour. (Although it must be noted that several religious orders require service of their members for similarly low wages which are often re-donated to the religious group in question.)
Although later disenchanted with Scientology, Whitfield mentioned her initial joy at being invited to join the Sea Org. In fact, she said she was “so ecstatic…I was on my way to the greatest adventure in my life.” She describes her experience as a result of a “heady mix of emotion and belief.” Whitfield isn’t the only one to describe their involvement with Scientology as a spiritual or religious journey. In Going Clear, Ex-Scientologist Jason Beghe also describes his initial enthusiasm for Scientology as being “on a spiritual adventure.” While both Whitfield and Beghe have moved on and are now vocal critics of Scientology, it is interesting that both saw their early involvement as a spiritual journey.
Do Scientology members see themselves as on a religious or spiritual quest?
Does Scientology have an evangelizing mission?
Some faiths, some forms of Christianity for example, have evangelization as a component of their religion: the spreading of a “good message” in order to convert others to their religious beliefs and practices.
Scientology, too, engages in such “evangelizing.” On one level, the recruitment of members and sale of Scientology literature, criticised as a high-pressure, is a huge feature of Scientology, and recruiters are lauded for their numbers. Being praised for conversion numbers or promulgation of literature is not unique to Scientology, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons also engage in such “high pressure techniques” in an attempt to sway converts.
But Scientology, like the LDS church, isn’t just about boosting numbers—they believe they are saving souls and saving the planet (Bromley 92). Whitfield states that through her involvement with Scientology, she “was deeply convinced that we were going to save the world.”
The idea that the entire world needs to be saved stems from the creation myth of Scientology. Although often mocked for the belief in evil space aliens, this myth is an apocalyptic tale which reveals the fall of mankind and the eventual defeat of evil (here personified in the galactic leader Xenu). This fall, caused by the evil Xenu, currently threatens the spiritual path of humans (Bromley 91). Through various practices, it is believed this evil influence can be eliminated, thus saving the world. Of course, this universal salvation narrative is not unique to Scientology. Replace “Xenu” with “Satan” and you have the underpinnings of Christianity and other Judeo-Christian traditions.
Does Scientology have an evangelizing mission?
Does Scientology Have a Holy Text?
Scientology can be considered to have several holy texts. Dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard’s first book to outline the basic principles of Scientology could be considered a holy text, as can the various literatures associated with internal Scientology study (including those related to Xenu and the creation myth). These works form the core of Scientology teachings, providing a template for member belief and practice. That these works have metaphysical import suggests that they may be considered religious texts.
Does Scientology have a holy text?
Does Scientology have a savior figure?
L. Ron Hubbard is viewed as the father of Scientology and the one who developed the specific “spiritual technology” to “go clear.” While alive, Scientologists revered him to the point of servitude (see Whitfield’s interview in Going Clear), and he continues to be revered by Scientologists after his death. It could be argued that, for Scientologists, Hubbard is a savior figure in that he invented the means for various individuals to “Go Clear.”
He is not, however, a savior in a Christian sense—he is not seen as dying for Scientology. Rather, his role here is different. Bromley sees Hubbard as a “Prophetic persona” who “claimed to have discovered both the source of human misery…and a technology for realizing the godlike potential that all individuals actually possess” (88). Scientology has valorized Hubbard’s role as the founder of Scientology, imbuing it with special meaning and a salvic quality. In this way, Hubbard is more akin to a prophet or holy man, albeit an extremely important one, who provides key religious knowledge to their followers.
Does Scientology have a Saviour Figure?
Does Scientology have Holy Places?
The most obvious candidate for a Scientology holy place would be the church buildings themselves. In a promotional video on the Scientology website, one person likens a Scientology church to any other house of belief saying, “We have our Sunday services, we do marriages, we do naming ceremonies.” Clearly, the Scientology portrays its churches (which also provide courses on the “theology of Scientology”) as sacred places for the transmission of the beliefs and practices of Scientology.
Does Scientology have Holy Places?
Is Scientology a Religion?
Final Verdict: Yes.
Scientology appears to share the same attributes of traditional religions. It has a soteriological belief system which promises its members salvation, its adherents see themselves engaged in a religious or spiritual quest, the organization evangelizes not just for individual but universal salvation, it has holy books and a prophetic leader who claims to have a special message, and its members meet in holy places in order to learn and transmit those teachings.
If Scientology is a Religion, Why the Criticism?
Many of the religion-specific criticisms leveled against Scientology by former adherents can be found in the critics of any religion who found themselves disillusioned over time. (See, for example, the number of self-identified “recovering Catholics.”) These are their experiences of Scientology, and as such their criticism can and should be taken as an insider perspective, albeit a critical one. The flipside is that anyone within the church, when providing their insider view, is liable to paint a diametrically positive view of the church. In other words, opinions are subjective. As we have seen, no matter how one feels about Scientology, it looks, acts and speaks like a religion and should be treated as such.
So why is there so much opposition?
The allegations of abuse certainly do not help Scientology. It is this dimension of abuse—but not belief—that most strongly recommends Scientology to be a cult in the modern sense. For many, I would imagine that it is difficult to separate religious practices from the sordid stories of kidnapping, harassment, and mistreatment which surround the church. But I do not think that this is the only reason there is so much opposition to Scientology.
That Scientology is a New Religious Movement is no doubt the biggest obstacle to acceptance. Established religions have the benefit of time to institutionalize and validate their beliefs and practices. Myths about omnipotent Gods, heaven and hell, savior figures, otherworldly prophets, and angels from the sky become accepted tradition that is passed along unquestioned. Beliefs about salvation become entrenched, and what were once fringe beliefs (Remember, Christianity was just one of many marginal Jewish beliefs which existed in Christ’s day) become an accepted way to perform religion.
New religious movements don’t have those benefits. New stories about sky gods and evil figures sound silly, or like science fiction. What modern person, armed with science and knowledge, could believe that their life is controlled by some superhuman figure from outer space? A holistic view, however, would note that there is little difference between a sky god named Zeus, a vengeful figure named Jehovah, or yes, a spiteful galactic ruler named Xenu.
Certainly, L. Ron Hubbard famously admitted that the best way to make money was to establish a religion. And, yes, Scientology is an invented tradition, but I would argue that all religion is invented tradition relative to the time of their adoption. Scientology clearly draws off timeless religious narratives as it reconfigures tales of humanity’s fall and salvation into a new belief system with modern spiritual technology (Hello, e-meters! Goodbye, confession!). Scientology’s newness doesn’t make it any less valid—or potent—as a religion. Its myths and methods are the similar to, or the same, as those found in other, older, belief systems.
We have seen that Scientology meets several criteria for a religion: it has a salvic goal, its members proselytize in order to save the world, it has a savior figure and holy places and a religious mythology preserved in books and literature. Scientology appears to very much be a religion. Is it a “true” religion? That doesn’t matter. What matters is that its adherents believe it to be true.
Bromley, David G. “Making Sense of Scientology: Prophetic, Contractual Religion,” in Scientology. Edited by James R. Lewis. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Gibney, Alex. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. 2015.
“Income of Members of Religious Orders,” Social Security Administration. https://secure.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/0500810700
McCombs, Brady. “Mormon Conversion Rate Lags Behind Missionary Increase,” in The Salt Lake Tribune. April 17, 2015. http://www.sltrib.com/news/2413326-155/conversion-rate-lags-behind-mormon-missionary
Plante, Thomas G. “A Shout Out to ‘Recovering Catholics’” in Psychology Today. December 18, 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/do-the-right-thing/201012/shout-out-recovering-catholics
Rodrigues, Ashwin. “I Had My Personality Tested by Scientologists,” in Vice Magazine. July 27, 2015. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/i-had-my-personality-tested-by-scientologists
Spellman, Jim. “Recovering Catholics Reveal Spiritual Journeys.” CNN.com. June 19, 2012. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/19/recovering-catholics-reveal-spiritual-journeys/
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Annual Collection Benefits 35,000 Sisters, Brothers, Priests in Religious Orders.” November 19, 2014. http://www.usccb.org/news/2014/14-193.cfm
“What is a Pioneer,” JW.org. http://www.jw.org/en/publications/books/jehovahs-will/what-is-a-pioneer/
Photo by Thomas Hawk.