So I found this book at the library, called The Church of Scientology. Glancing through it, it appeared to be an attempt to simply describe what Scientologists believe--not attack them, not proselyte for them, but simply say 'here's who they are, this what they believe.' I thought I'd give it a read. I'm a religious guy, and I like learning what other people believe. And unexpected side benefit: family members, seeing me reading it, ask, with some trepidation, what I'm reading. I show them the title, and then add, in the sincerest voice I can produce, "and it's changing my life." Always go for the funny.
Anyway, it's very interesting. The author, Hugh B. Urban, is a religious studies scholar, and it shows--some of the prose can get a bit jargon-y, and he clearly intends to bend over backwards to be fair--not just fair to Scientologists, but also to those who think of Scientology as a dangerous cult. So there's a lot of 'on the one hand, Scientologists argue, on the other hand, their critics insist.' This gets tricky, because Scientology is so controversial. Overall, though, I think Urban does a good, balanced job.
Here's the best sense I can make of their beliefs. Scientology is not a religion in the sense of Christianity; it's not questions of salvation, the next life, what we have to do or believe in order to be saved. It's probably more accurate to describe it as a religion in the sense of Buddhism--a religion built on a kind of mental/spiritual discipline, intended to provide enlightenment and healing and peace. In fact, Scientology used to be Dianetics--it's a self-help organization that became a religion for tax purposes, then its founder got deeper and deeper into creating a theology.
Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard, a fantastically prolific science fiction author from the Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov generation. A. E. van Vogt was an early acolyte, and John Campbell (the legendary editor of Astounding Science Fiction in the 50's) was his earliest editor. Hubbard wrote hundreds of novels, under dozens of pseudonyms--it's hard to sort out his entire oeuvre--and he seems to have been a tremendously engaging and charismatic guy. Urban calls him a bricoleur--a guy who built his religious beliefs like a kind of collage--some Buddhism, some Native American beliefs, a bit of Freud and a bit more of Jung, gnosticism, some occult beliefs, beliefs drawn from lots of sources, including mid-50's science fiction. My wife and I are both huge Heinlein fans, and as I read this book, I asked her if she could imagine Heinlein starting a religion. We both agreed it wasn't remotely implausible--Heinlein's religious views are sprinkled through a number of novels, most particularly Stranger in a Strange Land.
Scientologists use the word 'thetans', meaning, essentially, souls. We each of us are a thetan; our unique personality and spiritual identity. Once Thetans occupied their own universe, but somehow they got trapped in the MEST universe (Matter, Energy, Space and Time), where they're (we're) miserably unhappy. Waves of Thetans have entered MEST and tried to conquer it, but each have been conquered in turn by the next wave. Life is a battle--and Thetans strike me as rather amoral. Thetans live multiple lives--Scientologists believe in reincarnation, some of them here on earth, and some in other universes. In fact, Hubbard used to gather with his acolytes and everyone would tell stories of their past lives. Makes sense that actors would be drawn to it.
Our thetans aren't free. They're hurt, troubled by, something called engrams. Engrams are painful memories, damage done from terrible experiences which we've repressed. Hubbard invented a gizmo, an E-meter, which can read our engrams. What passes for 'treatment' is something they call an audit, in which engrams surface, are released, are sort of cured. The word they use is 'cleared.' It strikes me as really quite Freudian. Anyway, a Thetan Clear is a kind of superman, able to re-arrange time and matter and space through the power of the mind. (Kind of like a movie star can sort of do?)
There's lots of sci-fi stuff in their theology. You may know of Battlefield Earth,
for example, a 2000 film produced and starring John Travolta. It's
based on a Hubbard novel that apparently Scientologists take very
seriously indeed. Earth was once populated by Psychlos, who enslaved
mankind. Our Thetans fought a revolution and were freed. The movie's
apparently terrible--I haven't seen it, but probably will one of these
days, praise be to Netflix.
There are various levels of enlightenment. Earth is still haunted by
super-Thetans, an alien race that died here, but whose Thetans
remained. To get Clear of them, we have to go through various stages,
each of which costs lots of money--details of which have now surfaced on
One final point, which seems crucial; people who have been audited and Cleared describe the experience as difficult, painful, but ultimately euphoric. It helps. They feel better afterwards, and describe their lives as having changed in valuable ways. Scientologists proselyte aggressively, and members make serious financial sacrifices. Scientology is, as I said, a self-help movement that became a religion for tax purposes, in pursuit of which they fought a no-holds-barred for years against the IRS. Their aggressiveness, secrecy and money-making practices all lead people to regard them as a cult. And 'cult's' a very loaded and negative word, a word that serves to marginalize them and illegitimize them as a serious religion. But there's plenty of testimony that what they do works. It helps people. People go through a process, results are promised and, for many, delivered.
Do some Scientologists' beliefs strike me as squirrelly? Sure. So does Mormonism to non-Mormons. But I have a lot more respect for Scientology now, and I think of them as a uniquely interesting American religion.