This past spring, in a course I called "American Scriptures," my students and I listened to excerpts of a recording of L. Ron Hubbard lecturing on a boat in 1968. I had obtained the recording—which the Church of Scientology, the religious organization Hubbard founded, considers not for public circulation—from WikiLeaks, along with a transcript. I photocopied the relevant portions of the transcript and handed them out in class as aids to listening. The transcripts helped enable discussion of particular passages and allowed students to follow Scientology's famously idiosyncratic lingo—"squirreling," "ARC break," "F/N."
We did something similar with media productions of various other American religious movements, but what inevitably set Scientology's apart was that as I handed out the transcripts, I told the students that I would have to ask for them back at the end of class. I explained that I did not want to be accused of having reproduced Scientology materials for circulation, thereby risking a lawsuit. My students, with some mirth, thought I was being a little dramatic, and maybe they were right—but I took the transcripts back all the same.
This classroom moment exemplifies the tensions inherent in studying and teaching Scientology. Hubbard's teachings contain fascinating religious content that demands serious study—by those interested in religion writ large, and by those, like me, who study its American iterations. The organization that Hubbard created, however, frustrates that study.
The Church of Scientology has sought—through litigation and through extralegal harassment—to limit access to its materials and to discourage outsiders' discussion of its teachings. Moreover, the church's public profile—that of a belligerent, mendacious institution that produces couch-jumping celebrities—shadows the study of Scientology in the classroom. Students who are trying to take Scientology seriously as a religion worthy of study must come to terms with stories such as that of David Miscavige, the worldwide leader of the Church of Scientology, forcing his subordinates to compete to keep their jobs in a violent game of musical chairs set to the tune of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Two new books will make analysis of the Church of Scientology's history and character easier. Janet Reitman's Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) is, as she intended it to be, "the first objective modern history of the Church of Scientology." A careful, tireless reporter—she first wrote about Scientology forRolling Stone, in 2005—Reitman elaborates a more thorough and more human account of Scientology's complicated history than has ever been available. Hugh Urban, a professor of religious studies at Ohio State University, has written an equally essential work in The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion (Princeton University Press, 2011), which is more concerned with the questions Scientology raises than about Scientology itself.
Urban's interest is in using the church as "a critically important test case for thinking about much larger legal and theoretical issues in the study of religion as a whole." "Religion," he observes, as an academic area of study and as a label with moral, legal, and financial implications, does not have a static definition. In the 20th century, Scientology claimed the status of a religion over the objections of government agencies and public critics, and the ensuing process of negotiation allows us to watch the questions of religion being worked out with a unique level of transparency. "Which groups do we privilege with the label 'religion,' and which do we exclude?" Urban wonders. "More important, what are the stakes—legal, financial, and political—in laying claim to the status of religion?"
The two authors agree that Lafayette Ronald Hubbard understood those stakes. He was born in Nebraska in 1911, and his early life is the subject of two very different narratives. According to the church, he was an intrepid explorer, a war hero, a scientist, "the most published and translated author of all time"; to critics, he was a ne'er-do-well, a Navy junior officer who opened fire on some Mexican islands during World War II, a college dropout, a hack. The two narratives come together, though, around the publication of Dianetics,in 1950. Presented as the fruit of Hubbard's research into the workings of the human mind, Dianetics had nothing religious about it. It is a self-help book based on the idea that traumatic events in one's past are the source of all mental and most physical ills. By reviewing those events with the help of an auditor trained in Dianetics, those events could be cleared, Hubbard wrote—dissolved, their negative effects eliminated.
Despite criticisms from mental-health professionals, the Dianetics movement took off in 1950, spawning a network of loosely affiliated foundations. By one estimate, the foundations took in over a million dollars in the first year—and spent it all. As initial interest in the movement waned, Hubbard accepted funds from a wealthy supporter, effectively ceding control of his creation. In 1952 the remnant organization declared bankruptcy, and Hubbard was essentially back where he had started.
Spinning personal authority out of nothing more than one's own assertions of special knowledge—the defining and most elusive ability of a prophet—is a supremely difficult thing. Hubbard did it not once but twice. He rebuilt around what he called, in an internal letter in 1953, "the religion angle." Hubbard's move into religious territory is typically thought of as a bald-faced strategy for tax evasion, but Urban demonstrates that the shift happened "in fits and starts" and was motivated by a number of concerns, perhaps not all of them financial. During "auditing"—Hubbard's counseling method— Hubbard said he had found that many subjects spoke of traumatic events in their pasts which could not have happened to them—could not, that is, have been events of their current lives. Hubbard's research, he said, led him into past lives and reincarnation—clearly, he felt, religious subjects. His thought expanded to contemplate his subjects' past lives as other beings, as other forms of being, on other worlds, across a vast expanse of time. The methods and principles of Dianetics (Hubbard came to refer to the book itself as "Book One") are still essential to Scientology—your past is still the source of the problems of your present. That past, though, now extends 76 trillion years. You have a lot of problems.
For the Church of Scientology, Hubbard wrote a creed, mandated that his officials dress like ministers, designed a cross, and created ceremonies for births, weddings, and funerals. Stung by the collapse of the decentralized movement that had grown up around Dianetics, he placed a powerful institution at the center of everything—auditor training and all publications flowed from it, and money flowed in, from individuals and from subsidiary organizations set up on a strictly controlled franchise model. Along with most previous works on Scientology, the two new books share a preoccupation with this institution.
Urban defines Scientology by the transparency of the institution's adoption of religious trappings—"Scientology is a self-conscious attempt to make a religion, that is, a concerted effort to use explicitly religious sorts of discourse to describe, defend, define, and redefine itself," he writes—and makes the process of this reimagination the centerpiece of his book, using it to talk about how claims to religious status are adjudicated in American law and public culture. He contextualizes Scientology's birth in the mid-20th century—focusing, for instance, on the cold-war mentality behind the church's constant suspicions and various CIA-like operations against perceived critics—and its future in the 21st, thinking through the significance of the Internet age for a religion that has depended on the modulated release of secrets.
For her part, Reitman is most concerned with the abuses that have been perpetrated by the institution. She spends no fewer than four chapters on the case of Lisa McPherson, the young woman who died in the care of Scientologists in 1995 after declining conventional medical care on their advice. Operation Snow White—the Church's shockingly successful attempt to infiltrate the IRS, the FBI, the Justice Department, and other government agencies in the 1970s—looms large.
Reitman carefully relates stories from former Scientologists about life in the Sea Org, Scientology's elite management corps, and these range from the frightening (accusations of forced labor and imprisonment) to the surreal: For much of his career, Hubbard gave orders through what he called his Messengers—mostly adolescent girls who were required not only to convey his words verbatim, but to imitate his voice while doing so. Her final chapter opens with the story of Miscavige's game of musical chairs and continues with one couple's harrowing story of escape from the church's inner sanctum.
The unearthing of the church's complicated, often ugly history is an essential part of the study of Scientology, but it does not need to be the sum total of that study. In both books, the religion that is Scientology is inseparable from the institution that is the Church of Scientology. Reitman takes some important steps in the direction of distinguishing the two, but with the exception of her interviews with one young woman, neither she nor Urban has significant material from current members of the church, and neither is able to present a clear idea of what it actually means for an average person to be a Scientologist. Urban asks what it means for Scientology to be regarded as a religion by various outsiders, but no study has yet answered the question of what it means for Scientology to act as a religion for its adherents.
A collected volume, Scientology, edited by James R. Lewis, published by Oxford in 2009, contains some essays that attempt to bring discussion of Scientology to this level—thinking through, for example, "The Development and Reality of Auditing," as one essay is titled—but much work remains to be done.
Future research will need to populate the world of Scientology with the range of characters that populate studies of other religions—from the militant and evangelistic to the lukewarm, the familially obligated, the dissenting. These people are the texture of a religion, and they participate primarily at local levels, far removed from the inner workings of the Sea Org and the behavior of David Miscavige.
To bracket the institutional presence and look instead at the content of Scientology opens up the possibility of looking at how individuals have understood and applied Hubbard's writings in their own lives. The material is rich—whatever else he was, Hubbard was an accomplished writer, and his texts exhibit a complexity at odds with his own demand that they be understood and applied in exactly one, officially approved way.
There is more to Scientology's appeal, perhaps, than an aggressive sales pitch. Extracted from their smothering institutional context, the faith commitments of Scientology have an aesthetic depth that has not been explored by commentators outside the church. "Pain is extremely perishable. Pleasure is recorded in bronze," Hubbard wrote in Dianetics. The Hubbard of Book One has an often graphic contempt for violence against women—an attitude that the world could certainly use more of—as well as a special concern for the well-being of children. Scientology's ideal state of "clear," Hubbard wrote, is, among other things, a return to childlike wonder:
"The glory and color of childhood vanishes as one progresses into later years. But the strange part of it is that this glamour and beauty and sensitivity to life are not gone. They are encysted. One of the most remarkable experiences a clear has is to find, in the process of therapy, that he is recovering appreciation of the beauty in the world."
In the light of such a sentiment, Tom Cruise's erratic behavior on Oprah's couch is maybe not so strange after all.
The precise methods of auditing, moreover, might appear odd, possibly even harmful, but the goal—to identify emotional hang-ups and face them as a means of eliminating them—is hardly unique to Scientology. Nor is the idea that your past is holding you back. Portions of Hubbard's teachings that were once secrets now circulate widely online, drawing laughs (the famous intergalactic-war narrative; the belief that we all share an evolutionary memory of having once been a clam). The church bristles at discussion of such things, quite often to the extent of bringing in its lawyers.
At his best, though, Hubbard was unconcerned with ridicule. "Tell people who want to invalidate all this, 'Your criticism is very just. It's only fantasy,'" he wrote in A History of Man, in 1952. Urban quotes a fascinating line from an early lecture in which Hubbard leaves the door open for an expansive, playful understanding of his thought. "I'm just kidding you mostly. ... I don't believe any of these things and I don't want to be agreed with about them. ... All I'm asking is that we take a look at this information, and then go through a series of class-assigned exercises. ... Let's see if we can't disagree with this universe, just a little bit."
At the same time, the church's strict enforcement of discipline and its aggressive attitude toward outsiders is directly traceable to Hubbard. In journalism and scholarship, the relentless focus on its institutional history reflects, oddly, an acceptance of the church's own stance that the religious content of Scientology is inseparable from the institution. Hubbard infused the Church of Scientology with an authoritarianism unrivaled even in the realm of religious organizations.
Hubbard's attitude toward his own and the church's authority is crystallized in a 1965 missive known as "Keeping Scientology Working," which he periodically rereleased and relentlessly emphasized until his death. "KSW," in Scientology's ubiquitous shorthand, makes plain that "standard tech"—Hubbard's term for his own teachings—always works. In cases where a subject is not getting better through auditing, whatever is being applied is by definition not standard tech but something broken, either through misapplication of Hubbard's methods or—much worse—through the personal innovations of the auditor. Hubbard called this "squirreling"—"going off into weird practices or altering Scientology." Moreover, any attempt to apply the principles of auditing beyond the auspices of the church is by definition squirreling.
Such thinking, however, is always misguided—ideas and practices never stay in the boxes that authorities build for them. Squirreling is the rule of religion, not the exception. Reitman interviewed a number of people who have left institutional Scientology but still find value in Hubbard's teachings, and she goes the farthest in positing that "Scientology as a philosophy" may have a future beyond the church as it has been known, offering an endorsement in her acknowledgments. If there is an argument to her book, it is that Scientology is due for its Reformation. "That a number of [ex-Scientologists] still value L. Ron Hubbard's technology, if not the organizational management of the Church of Scientology, ... is a testament to the growing number of Scientologists who hope to form an independent, and free, movement. I wish them all the best of luck in doing so."
Scholars will remain indifferent to such endorsements, but the growth of Scientology outside of the church's auspices would be an interesting thing to observe. Reitman and Urban have brought the study of Scientology to a crucial, long-delayed point—their work will allow for more critical reflection on an important part of 20th-century American religion. With this history available as a resource, scholarship on Scientology will be able to move away from obsession with the checkered history of a single institution and encompass the variety of ways in which individual Scientologists have lived their faith both within that institution and outside of it.
Seth Perry is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a Mellon Dissertation Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's McNeil Center for Early American Studies.