First off, as both camps insist, Scientology is not Christian Science.
In fact, it’s not even Christian — though the church, founded in 1952 by visionary writer L. Ron Hubbard, claims compatibility with most other religions. It, however, famously disparages modern psychiatry.
“Scientology is a religion that gives you tools to help yourself,” Sylvia Stanard, government relations director for Washington, D.C.’s Founding Church of Scientology, said of the esoteric creed. “It’s more in the Eastern tradition, so it’s more [in keeping with] developing your own spiritual relationship with God — and not [that of accepting dictated] beliefs.”
The offspring of Hubbard, a prolific organizational and science-fiction writer who died in 1986, and of his foundational 1950 book, “Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health,” Scientology claims methods to achieve spiritual insight across previous lives — and greater fulfillment and effectiveness in the present one.
“If you’re not enjoying life, something is wrong,” Stanard said of the freedom-prizing and mental-clarity faith that teaches a form of reincarnation. “[Scientology] gives you a lot of tools and techniques and spiritual help, so you can do better.”
The international church, which numbers some 46 financially independent churches in the United States and a church-estimated worldwide membership of 10 million, is headquartered in Los Angeles. It holds that human beings — “thetans” — are immortal and essentially good, but have become “aberrated” by ancient and present traumas.
Known as “engrams,” these traumas, which impede spiritual consciousness and human potential, can be dispelled through church programs administered through “auditing” sessions with trained Scientologists and attested to through experience, not faith.
About 40 percent of the church’s offerings are free, Stanard said, but others, which escort an initiate along the esoteric path from “pre-clear” to “clear” and ultimately to eight levels of “operating thetan,” are fee-driven, with recruiters being offered commissions.
A prospering religion, Scientology’s commercial side has invited critics, some of whom claim the tax-exempt church is but a trans-national corporation posing as a religion.
Others — pointing to several, recent high-profile brushes members have had with the law — charge that the church ruthlessly surpresses dissent and exercises a cult-like control over its adherents.
“It’s amazing stuff,” said D. Charles Stewart, a Columbia Scientologist who uses Hubbard’s management systems in his office. “You learn how to do things that make your life better.”