Is Scientology a Religion?

by John Wijngaards, The Tablet August 1996.
My father, who was a linguist, once amused an academic gathering by remarking that, whenever scientists create a new “-ology”, they are trying to cover up their ignorance. He would certainly have raised his eyebrows at “Scientology” which has such tenuous connections with real science and which calls itself a “Church” without much evidence of religion. “Nomen est omen”, he would have grumbled.

The so-called “Church” of Scientology operates as a powerful, politically active, media conscious multi-national. During the past three decades it has fought over forty acrimonious court cases. It has been in conflict with authorities in the USA, Canada, Britain, Australia, Germany and France. It is not my intention, however, to judge what is going on in this arena of political intrigue and highly publicised controversy. In line with my own ministry to those involved in new religious movements, I would like to focus attention on the human face of Scientology.

In my experience, it is essential to distinguish between the ordinary foot soldiers and the military-style strategists and commanders at the top. A number of authors have tried to document what they see as the questionable aims and practices of the “Church’s” hierarchy. Worthy of mention here are: Paulette Cooper (‘The Scandal of Scientology’), Robert Penny (‘Social Control in Scientology’), Russell Miller (‘Bare-Faced Messiah’), Stewart Lamont (‘Religion Inc’) and Jon Atack (‘A Piece of Blue Sky’). Basing themselves on uncovered policy documents and the testimonies of ex-leaders, these authors provide an impressive dossier of evidence that suggests cynical manipulation of the ordinary membership by a small elite. The accusations include: the control of members by blackmail and psychological pressure, maximising profits through crude and subtle forms of extortion, the persecution of ex-members and the sanction of slander and intimidation in order to silence opponents.

 Since I have no first-hand knowledge of the inner dealings of the Scientology machine, I cannot personally vouch for the accuracy of such claims, nor for the sinister motivations imputed to the “Church’s” leadership. Discerning readers will see in this disclaimer on my part an attempt to escape a direct assault by the litigation-prone “Church”. They are right. If Scientology sued ‘Time Magazine’ for its article “The Rising Cult of Greed and Power” (May 6, 1991) in a $ 7 million law suit, the board of ‘The Tablet’ would hardly thank me for exposing them to a similar confrontation. For the record, ‘Time Magazine’ won on all counts — after 5 years’ uninterrupted court action (July 6, 1996).

What I do know, and what I am mainly concerned about, is what happens to the unfortunately all too numerous people who begin to ‘study’ Scientology. Since prevention is better than a cure, a brief description based on cases I have followed from nearby, may be a warning to the unwary.

Imagine Dave, a college student with healthy ambitions. Dave’s parents expect him to make the top grade in whatever he does, but he has recently encountered worrying setbacks. He failed an exam say, and he lost a girl friend. He has also begun to question whether all his studying will get him a job anyway. At this moment of time, with doubts eroding his self confidence, Dave either reads a book (18% of recruits), talks to a friend (34%), attends a meeting (23%) or passes a Scientology shop (10%). Dave’s initial interest invariably leads to him being offered a personality profile study.

The test consists of filling in a form and answering various questions. Dave subsequently meets a consultant who helps him analyse his strengths and weaknesses. And here Dave is put before a challenge. “Look here”, the consultant will say with flawless salesman’s savvy. “You obviously have great talents! What a pity you are missing this or that. Let me give you some advice. Unless you take some Scientology straight away, things will get worse.” Dave, as likely as not, may then be persuaded to enrol in the first drill, the Success Through Communications course.

 Another student, Debbie, enters the course via another route. She has been directly recruited by a senior member who has rightly chosen her for her idealism and outgoing character. “You can make a difference”, she is told. ”Join us and we can train you to help others and save our world.” The attention she receives and the thrill of adventure fill her with excitement and anticipation.

The actual courses (known as ‘TRs’, “training routines”) come as a shock to both Dave and Debbie. Under immediate supervision of an ‘auditor’ (tutor), Dave and Debbie are made to conform to strictly prescribed postures, responses and games. Critical thought and real discussion are discouraged. Students are forced to follow a step-by-step procedure in which progress is measured by compliance with graded requirements. Here a participant either decides to quit, or becomes hooked by the inner logic and rewards of the system.

One of the undeniable attractions Ron Hubbard gave to Scientology lies in his having created a secret lingo that distinguishes the insiders’ world from illusion (the ‘dream world’) outside. A ‘pc’ (= ‘pre-clear’, means “beginner”) will be happy to be told he has no ‘comm lag’ (time taken to receive and answer a communication), is judged ‘up-stat’ (competent) and ‘A-to-B’ (able to look at things directly). He may well say: “I had a ‘win’ today. Instead of being ‘keyed out’, I ‘cognited’ that the ‘tech’ (the instruction programme) works!” Language fabricates a new perception of reality and new needs. 

At the end of every course, another course is offered ‘up the Bridge’ (the complete ascent to knowledge). Each further course comes at a higher fee, at times amounting to thousands of pounds. The fees are justified by the excellence of the education offered. Those who cannot pay, are encouraged to sign credit notes which oblige them to render free services to the organisation, often for years and years to come. The web of thought thus easily becomes a web of duty and debt, of new faces and new friends. It is at this stage that Dave and Debbie may decide to leave their studies and their parents’ home, to settle in a Scientologist community while pursuing further courses.

 Through dianetic therapy, ‘pre-clears’ are helped to discover and discard their ‘overts’ (evil habits) and to erase ‘engrams’ (memories) engraved in their subconscious minds in previous existences, before their present incarnation. A ’Clear’ has been freed from all such ‘reactive mind’. ‘Clears’ are eligible to the more esoteric courses leading up to ‘OT’ (Operating Thetan) grades 1 to 8. ’Thetans’ are Spirits from other galaxies who in their zillions infest our planet. Dave or Debbie may by now be getting second thoughts, only
only to find their way out of Scientology blocked by more than imaginary Thetans. 

In all our dealings with new religious movements, my Housetop team has consistently found that our Scientology ‘cases’ are among the most painful and complex around. Parents have at times attempted to kidnap their child and have him or her “deprogrammed” – a plan of action which is both illegal and counter-productive. More effects can be expected from a consistent two-sided approach: a genuine, unchangeable acceptance of the child in love combined with an equally critical distrust towards the organisation. I do not know whether to laugh or cry whenever I see the smooth Scientology advert on Cable TV that keeps repeating “Trust me”. Then, because Scientology often makes members lean on their families, parents should refuse to pay the ever increasing fees for their children’s so-called higher courses. The crunch will come anyway, and it better come before a family loses its home and hearth as we have seen it happen. When an opportunity arises, the member should be made aware of the “dossier of criticism” against Scientology I referred to earlier in this article.      

If Scientology ‘is’ a religion, scientologists surely have a right to profess it and live it freely. Society owes it to them. But no amount of slick PR work or brutal legal confrontation can absolve Scientology itself from its duty to guarantee freedom. Like any other “Church” or organisation, it ought to ensure that its members have the freedom to think critically, to express themselves honestly and make their own considered decisions. It is the foot soldier’s dream.