Scientology is a philosophy of the human mind that, shortly after its founding in the early 1950s, began calling itself a religion.
Today, the Church of Scientology claims upwards of 10 million members around the globe, enjoys the tax-exempt status of a religion in the United States, is opening large new facilities around the world, and is known for attracting numerous celebrities to its ranks, including Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Kirstie Alley. Scientology offers self-improvement to new members through study courses and counseling, and claims to be improving society as a whole with its outreach organizations, which include drug abuse counseling (Narconon), prison counseling (Criminon), education aids (Applied Scholastics), anti-psychiatry reform (Citizens Commission on Human Rights), and disaster relief (Scientology Volunteer Ministers).
On the other hand, several lines of evidence suggest that Scientology is actually dwindling and has probably fewer than 100,000 active members. It is fighting with numerous governments that refuse to consider it a bona fide religion, especially because its counseling and self-improvement courses — combined with a pressure to donate even more — end up costing members exorbitant amounts of money. Much of that cash goes to Scientology’s real estate boom, which includes numerous buildings that now stand empty. Its front groups have been criticized for focusing more on recruiting for Scientology than doing good works, and even some celebrities have been jumping ship lately.
And so we arrive at one of the most basic truths in understanding Scientology: nearly every single thing about it is contested bitterly by the church and its many critics, which include former longtime members.
That disagreement also surrounds Scientology’s founder, a man named L. Ron Hubbard. To the church, he is a man of mythic proportions, a larger-than-life adventurer, explorer, writer, and researcher who is responsible for the greatest scientific breakthroughs since the discovery of fire. Or there’s the less romantic view of a man who exaggerated nearly everything about himself, and who was actually undistinguished in his college and military careers, and was briefly a bigamist.
Lafayette Ronald Hubbard was born in Tilden, Nebraska on March 13, 1911. In the 1930s and 1940s, he became well known as a science fiction writer for the pulps. And it was in such a magazine, Astounding Science Fiction, that he first published, in 1950, a version ofDianetics before releasing it in book form. That year, Dianetics briefly became a fad as groups around the country gathered to try out Hubbard’s claims of discovering a new way of understanding the mind, a sort of talking cure to rival psychoanalysis. A few years later, after the fad had died down and Dianetics had been roundly criticized by scientists and the press, Hubbard regrouped and started over, this time calling his new enterprise “Scientology.”
But after initially announcing that in Dianetics he had discovered a new “science” of the mind which promised to cure illnesses, such claims brought Hubbard under the scrutiny of the Food and Drug Administration. So in the mid-1950s Hubbard began instructing his followers to refer to Scientology as a religion, and the organization began to take on the trappings of a church.
Hubbard also gave Scientology some of the trappings of his own personal navy, as he took some of his most ardent followers to sea in the late 1960s, having found the governments of both the United States and Great Britain to be hostile. In a small armada of ships, and calling himself “Commodore,” Hubbard ran Scientology’s global operation from a ship in the Mediterranean, and continued to research ever more esoteric levels of spiritual insight. In 1975, Hubbard’s navy invaded Florida as it moved ashore to establish a base in Clearwater, its spiritual headquarters to this day. Hubbard himself became more and more a recluse as Scientology ran into troubles with the FBI. Still fearing prosecution and in hiding, Hubbard finally died in seclusion at a California ranch in January, 1986. He was replaced as church leader by a very young man, David Miscavige, who had grown up in the religion and who runs it to this day.
Scientology reached the height of its popularity in the 1980s, and largely because of one man: Jefferson Hawkins, who oversaw the marketing of Dianetics and created a television advertising campaign which those of us who saw it remember well. Hawkins left Scientology in 2005, but few are more qualified to describe the expansion and then decline of the church’s fortunes.
I asked the man who once sold Scientology to the masses to reduce it to a brief definition.
“It’s a question that Scientologists themselves find difficult to answer,” Hawkins replied. “When I was working on church promotion, we were trying to boil it down to something like ‘answers for life’ or ‘knowledge for life’ or ‘knowledge to improve life.’
“Currently, I would probably explain it something like this: Scientology is a self-help system developed by L. Ron Hubbard from his earlier subject, Dianetics. Scientology holds that the individual is an immortal, all-powerful spirit (thetan) which is limited by the effects of past trauma, including past life experiences going back millions of years. Scientology has become increasingly controlling and in recent years has been accused of abuse, fraud and human rights violations, which has caused many members to leave the official church. Some still practice the subject as Independent Scientologists.”