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.