How did Scientology begin?
Not as a religion. In 1950, pulp writer L. Ron Hubbard published an essay on achieving perfect mental health in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Dianetics, as he called his program, became one of the first pop-psychiatry fads. It teaches that every mental aberration—neurosis, compulsion, repression—and most common physical ailments are caused by subconscious mental images of past trauma. Hubbard dubbed these images “engrams.” He created a device called an e-meter, a kind of simplified lie detector, to detect buried engrams. As a person tells the story of his or her life, trained Scientologist “auditors” use the e-meter to ferret out the traumatic engrams, bring them to conscious awareness, and clear them.
Does this technique really work?
Scientologists swear that it does. A “Clear,” they say, gets rid of old mental junk, stops sabotaging himself, and experiences true happiness and mental freedom. Most illnesses disappear. A Clear’s life improves immeasurably. Lisa Marie Presley, for example, says that Hubbard “mapped a route out of the madness, misery, and unwanted conditions one can encounter in life.” Travolta says the “tools” Scientology gave him “put me into the big time.” But from the beginning, the psychiatric Establishment has rejected the e-meter as a fraud and Hubbard as a quack. In 1963, the Food and Drug Administration raided Scientology offices and seized e-meters. The agency later barred Hubbard from making medical claims for the device. Facing financial ruin, Hubbard decided to transform his self-help organization into a religion, where his teachings and practices like the e-meter would enjoy the protection of the First Amendment.
How do you start a religion?
In more than 500,000 pages of writings, including books and lectures, Hubbard laid out a complex belief system that became the foundation for the Church of Scientology. Hubbard taught that humans are actually spiritual beings called “thetans,” which live for trillions of years through reincarnation. Because engrams from past lives can damage a person in this one, Hubbard taught, it is not enough to become Clear. Clears have to continue to go through more auditing and detoxification rituals in order to become “operating thetans.” There are eight operating thetan levels, and the mysteries revealed as a person “flows up the bridge” are protected by copyright. Scientology says these teachings should remain secret because they can cause psychic damage to unprepared minds. But many disgruntled former Scientologists have revealed Hubbard’s core teaching.
What is it?
About 75 million years ago, Hubbard told his followers, a galactic dictator named Xenu imprisoned billions of beings on the planet Teegeeack, later known as Earth. He then dropped hydrogen bombs on them and implanted them with sexual perversions, false religion, and other psychoses.
(Article continues below this ad)
Taking a break?
Later, the contaminated “body thetans” escaped and attached themselves to other thetans, otherwise known as human beings. To reach the final stage of Scientology, one must telepathically contact the parasitic body thetans and persuade them to let go. Critics deride all this as bad science fiction. But religion scholar J. Gordon Melton, who has studied dozens of new religions, says Scientology’s theology is no more “irrational and ridiculous” than the creation myths of many mainstream religions.
But is Scientology really a religion?
In 1967, the IRS ruled that it was actually a commercial operation dedicated to making Hubbard rich, and revoked Scientology’s tax-exempt status. Scientology’s response was ferocious. Scientology spies broke into government offices to steal documents and plant bugs. In 1980, 11 church leaders, including Hubbard’s wife, were convicted of conspiracy and burglary. The church renounced their actions, but other perceived enemies—psychiatry, the media, disgruntled former members—have also been harassed, sued, and threatened. Scientology even hired private investigators to look into the lives of IRS officials.
– The Selling of a Church: The Courting of Celebrities
How did the IRS react to this?
In 1993, the IRS reversed itself and declared Scientology a tax-exempt religion. The surprising reversal came after several meetings between Scientology and IRS officials; at one of them, The New York Times later reported, Scientologists showed up at the office of then–IRS Commissioner Fred Goldberg and successfully sought a private conversation. The IRS has never denied this, though Scientology has said that all meetings involved many parties. The 1993 IRS ruling was a major breakthrough for the church; over the past decade, Scientology has been seeking a new legitimacy.
What’s the church up to now?
The estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Scientologists have been fanning out throughout the world to spread Hubbard’s teachings on numerous fronts, from business consulting firms to drug rehab clinics to literacy programs. After 9/11, Tom Cruise funded a special clinic to help rescue workers “detoxify” using Scientology’s vitamin and sauna treatments. Critics say the group remains a dangerous cult that engages in deception, secrecy, and brainwashing techniques. But that’s not how the IRS sees the group. Scientologists, in fact, enjoy special privilege: They can deduct their expensive training as a “donation” to the church. “Members of the Church of Scientology,” federal appeals court Judge Barry Silverman has said, “have become the IRS’ chosen people.”
A dream realized
In 1938, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard wrote to his wife, “I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form.” Hubbard and his followers later made many claims about his life—that he was a nuclear physicist or stunt pilot, for example—that would not withstand scrutiny. His most important story was that after being grievously wounded in World War II, he healed himself using only the power of his mind. Naval records show that Hubbard never saw combat and was hospitalized only for ulcers. In 1984, a California Superior Court judge, comparing Hubbard’s official biography with external evidence, called him “virtually a pathological liar.” Hubbard died in 1986, after five years in isolation—hiding, former church officials said, from subpoenas and tax agents. When details of his finances emerged, Forbes calculated that Hubbard earned as much as $1 million a week from Scientology, making him one of the 400 wealthiest people in the world. Scientologists continue to revere the Founder as the greatest man who ever lived. Or rather, who still lives. Church members always speak of Hubbard in the present tense, and all Scientology buildings have an office set aside for him.
- Sign up for The Week Newsletter: The Week Newsletter delivers excerpts from The Week and TheWeekMagazine.com every Friday—straight to your Inbox.
- Click here to subscribe to The Week