Believers dispute church’s ‘cult’ label

Argus Leader, Dec. 1, 2002
http://www.argusleader.com/
Jill Callison

In the Midwest, the Church of Scientology probably is best-known for its famous adherents, such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley.

Established in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology has been embroiled in controversy during its history, said Greg Peterson, an assistant professor of philosophy and religion at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

The church has faced governmental challenges in several countries and often is described as a cult, a charge the church and


“It’s often been described as a cult because it’s been alleged to have used pressure tactics and what’s kind of been called brainwashing,” Peterson said. “There’s been a very bitter battle, whether or not it’s a religion or an opportunistic cult. Those within it say it’s a religion; on the outside, they have significant qualms.”

Scientology falls into a broad category of new religious movements that emerged in the 20th century. It feeds the needs of people who are disenchanted with traditional forms of religion, Peterson said.

Most people are introduced to Scientology by a friend or relative, Hight said. Surveys show more than half of Scientologists learned about it that way. Another 20 percent learned about it by reading a book.

Church members make donations for religious counseling and training they wish to receive, Hight said.


“These contributions by Scientologists are the primary source of financial support for the church and fund all the religious and social betterment activities the church engages in,” Hight said. “There is no requirement that Scientologists tithe or make other donations.”

Lorrie Olson’s home in Mound City is more than 450 miles from the nearest Scientology church, in Minneapolis. She’s currently taking a correspondence course offered by the church that cost her $15, with another $100 for the book.

A Scientology volunteer minister, Olson said she is skeptical of anything that has “church” in it, but she likes what she knows about the Church of Scientology.

“I actually became a member of the Church of Scientology after I’d done the training” to become a volunteer minister, she said. “I found out that Scientology


As volunteer minister, she has trained to offer “assists,” which help people cope with trauma, injuries and other issues.

With injuries, instead of directing attention specifically to the physical part of the injury, a volunteer minister directs it first to the spiritual, Olson said.

“You can think of it almost like spiritual first aid, in a way,” she said. “It’s on the premise that the mind and the spirit are senior to the body. You address the person themselves.”

Olson, who said she acts as a volunteer minister at least once a week, also aids people dealing with grief, work-related issues or personal stress.

The assists that deal with mourning turn the stages of grief into a “rocket ride” rather than a long, slow process, Olson said.

Hubbard developed the mind-altering techniques in the mid-1970s. There are more than 15,000 volunteer ministers in 154 countries, Hight said. The church has more than 8 million members worldwide.

Peterson said there has been some movement to scientifically measure the effect of praying for people, and some studies do claim a measurable effect.

No specific study has been done on Scientology practices, he said.

A New York Times article after Sept. 11 said that volunteer ministers had helped in disasters such as earthquakes in Los Angeles and the bombings in Oklahoma City and Atlanta. The article said critics worry that disaster assistance could mask proselytizing, and “dissidents have accused Scientology of having cultlike overtones, and of preying on members financially.”

Peterson said he would call the 130 assists taught to volunteer ministers faith healing, although that term irritated a Scientologist who heard him say it.

Talking to someone who is unconscious or comatose may have a positive benefit, no matter what the cause behind it, he said.

“There is fairly good evidence for the psychosomatic effect,” Peterson said. “In that specific case, there’s probably some effect there, even though we might disagree what the cause is.”

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This post was last updated: Nov. 8, 2013