Hugh Urban: An Interview With the Professor Who Took on Scientology

Urban, with Nancy Jesser, their daughter Maya Urban-Jesser, and Shiva the dog
Urban, with Nancy Jesser, their daughter Maya Urban-Jesser, and Shiva the dog

In June, we reviewed a remarkable new book about Scientology. A review copy of Hugh Urban's The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion, put out by the Princeton University Press, had arrived at our desk almost the same day as Janet Reitman's highly anticipated book about the church, Inside Scientology.

We were impressed by the way Urban, in only 216 pages, not only laid out a robust history of Scientology in a highly readable narrative, but also did what others really hadn't before: put L. Ron Hubbard's creation in the cultural and political context of its time -- Scientology is a Cold War product, and absorbed all of that era's paranoia and desire for secrecy.

Urban's book was also impressive for its depth of research -- here in one volume were citations of many of the most significant court decisions that have rocked Scientology over the decades, as well as concise rundowns of many other church controversies. The book makes for a great companion to Reitman's journalistic approach: both books have come out at about the same time, and both with common goals of looking at a controversial subject from an objective, scholarly point of view.

I really only had one question after I was finished with the book: who the heck is Hugh B. Urban?

With his book now in stores, I called up Professor Urban to talk to him about his background and his goals now that he's put out such an impressive volume.

The Ohio State University professor tells me that he's the son of a psychologist, and comes from a religious Episcopal family, which may help explain why he's been interested in particular in the way secrecy is used in religion.

"I work mostly on the religions of India, and I have more recently been working on the new religious movements of America and Europe," he says. "I guess questions about knowledge and power and what it means to keep information hidden from others has always fascinated me."

Looking into the way secrecy is used in Indian religions, he turned to the way secrecy is used in new religious movements here, and naturally, that brought him to Scientology: "It's the most interesting case," he points out, and he'll get no argument here.

"The first real thing I did on Scientolody was the 'Fair Game' article, which eventually became the core of Chapter 3 in the book," he says, referring to his 2006 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, "Fair Game: Secrecy, Security, and the Church of Scientology in Cold War America."

"That was driven by my interest in secrecy and religion. It's not the best thing I've written, but it was well received," he says -- and more importantly, it's the article that sold the Princeton University Press on Urban writing a full book about the subject.

To me, that in itself is significant. It's been many years since we've had books about Scientology, and now two come out nearly at the same time, and from a major, mainstream publisher and a university press. What's changed that has made publishers suddenly more interested in the subject?

Urban says publishers may be more comfortable now that Scientology has stopped automatically filing lawsuits against newspapers and publishers. "Since the lawsuit with Time magazine [a $416 million monster in 1991 that was dismissed, costing both sides millions in legal costs], they've changed strategies. It's dropped off significantly," he says. "Look at South Park and the episode that revealed the Xenu story -- they didn't do anything, really, to them...It seems like they've realized that the 'sue everybody' strategy isn't working, and it has the opposite effect of making them look more defensive and reactionary."

And besides, he points out, Scientology has its hands full with other problems. "I think they have so many things to deal with, especially since Rathbun and Rinder came out, they don't have time to go after publishers," he says, referring to Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder, two high-level church executives who defected in recent years and are now speaking out about abuses in Scientology.

Instead of experiencing harassment, he says, he's found the church to be uncharacteristically benign. "I think they are trying to present a friendlier face. After your review of my book showed up, [Scientology spokesman] Bob Adams called me and we had a pretty lengthy conversation about this. He seems to be taking a different strategy of being more open."

Of course, he points out, it's still an odd approach -- the church ignored him and only contacted him after his book was published. Still, he says, he can't complain about the treatment he's been getting lately. "In general my interactions with the church have been pretty cordial," he says.

Scientology hasn't blasted his book the way it did Reitman's -- at least not yet. Urban admits that he didn't know her book was coming out at nearly the same time as his.

"It's a happy coincidence that the two books came out at the same time. I think they do make a nice pair. Hers does the more journalistic expose kind of of thing, and mine is a more academic approach." Both strive to give Hubbard his due for creating such a long-lasting enterprise.

"Even people who leave Scientology acknowledge that he had charisma. And his literary output is astonishing," Urban says, referring to sheer amount of words the man put to paper. "That's one reason the movement has declined, is the absence of Hubbard. David Miscavige just doesn't have the same charisma to run the show."

Urban's book also wrestles with the definition of religion itself. "Scientology has been central to our view of how religion has changed in the post-war era," he says, and that changing definition is part of a larger conversation that involves academics, the government, and the press. Both Urban and Reitman seemed to arrive at the same conclusion about this: whether Scientology is really a "religion" is less interesting than how it behaves.

"The behavior is really what hasn't been looked at closely enough, and that's because the religious status gives it a hand's off attitude for some people," he says. But increasingly, allegations of abuse are coming to the surface about the way Scientology staff is treated. "If those allegations have any basis to them, that needs to be investigated, I think." (Lawrence Wright's New Yorker story in February revealed that the FBI has been looking into claims of abuse in Scientology, but there's been no indication since whether anything will come of it.)

Urban sounds eager to plunge into more writing about Hubbard's organization. "It's not a long book. I could have written five times as much based on my notes and interviews," he says, and we spent some time discussing what areas in the field could still use a book treatment.

I said there will surely be material for a book that simply traces what's currently happening as Scientology seems to be splitting apart.

"I think we could be witnessing a reformation," Urban says, in agreement. "The survival of Scientology may depend on it. If they keep fighting wars on the Internet, it's not a very productive thing for their future. What Rathbun is doing seems like it might have more life to it."

For now, Urban says he's busy with a new project: "One thing I'm trying to do now is create a Church of Scientology archive at our special collections here at Ohio State," he says. He's received material from Nancy Many, who appears prominently in his book, and Chef Xenu, a member of Anonymous who appears in it has also been helping to amass material.

He's also keeping an eye on what Scientology is up to in Columbus, Ohio. "They're building a new Ideal Org in a former Time Warner building. It has capacity for 800 people, which seems a stretch. They told me downtown [at the current 'org'], there are only about 100 families involved."

It does seem exceedingly strange that Miscavige is pushing for new buildings around the world as every reliable source we can draw from indicates that church membership is actually very small and declining. Why new buildings when they don't have the bodies to fill them?

"I can only speculate. One obvious strategy is that 'if you build it they will come.' The other is that it's an investment. And third, buying nice old buildings can give you some kind of historical weight," he says.

"The other mystery I'm interested in is this link between the Nation of Islam and Scientology. I don't really understand it at all," he says. But that mystery may have to wait for another day. For now, Urban says, he's next going to tackle "the testimonies of ex-Scientologists and how to use them."

Some in the academic religious studies field argue that talking to defectors is unreliable for getting an accurate picture of how a new religion is evolving. But Urban and I both agreed that such a concern is no reason to discount entirely the testimonies of so many people who have left Scientology and are speaking out about it -- not when they tell the same exact stories, over and over.

Well, I'll be very interested to see what Urban comes up with about that question.

The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology #8: Mike Rinder #9: Jason Beghe #10: Lisa McPherson #11: Nick Xenophon (and other public servants) #12: Tommy Davis (and other hapless church executives) #13: Janet Reitman (and other journalists) #14: Tory Christman (and other noisy ex-Scientologists) #15: Andreas Heldal-Lund (and other old time church critics) #16: Marc and Claire Headley, escapees of the church's HQ #17: Jefferson Hawkins, the man behind the TV volcano #18: Amy Scobee, former Sea Org executive #19: The Squirrel Busters (and the church's other thugs and goons) #20: Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and other media figures) #21: Kendrick Moxon, attorney for the church #22: Jamie DeWolf (and other L. Ron Hubbard family members) #23: Ken Dandar (and other attorneys who litigate against the church) #24: David Touretzky (and other academics) #25: Xenu, galactic overlord | @VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega

See all of our recent Scientology coverage at the Voice

Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared
Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications. Among his other stories about L. Ron Hubbard's organization:

The Larry Wollersheim Saga -- Scientology Finally Pays For Its Fraud The Tory Bezazian (Christman) Story -- How the Internet Saved A Scientologist From Herself The Jason Beghe Defection -- A Scientology Celebrity Goes Rogue The Robert Cipriano Case -- A Hellacious Example of Fair Game The Paul Haggis Ultimatum -- The 'Crash' Director Tells Scientology to Shove It The Marc Headley Escape -- 'Tom Cruise Told Me to Talk to a Bottle' The Aaron Saxton Accusation -- Australia turns up the heat on Scientology The Jefferson Hawkins Stipulation -- Scientology's former PR genius comes clean The Daniel Montalvo Double-Cross -- Scientology lures a young defector into a trap A Church Myth Debunked -- Scientology and Proposition 8 Daniel Montalvo Strikes Back -- Scientology Hit with Stunning Child-Labor Lawsuits When Scientologists Attack -- The Marty Rathbun Intimidation A Scientologist Excommunicated -- The Michael Fairman SP Declaration The Richard Leiby Operation -- Investigating a reporter's divorce to shut him up The Hugh Urban Investigation -- An academic takes a harsh look at Scientology's past Giovanni Ribisi as David Koresh -- A precedent for a Scientology-Branch Davidian link Janet Reitman's Inside Scientology -- A masterful telling of Scientology's history The Western Spy Network Revealed? -- Marty Rathbun ups the ante on David Miscavige Scientology's Enemies List -- Are You On It? Inside Inside Scientology -- An interview with author Janet Reitman Scientology and the Nation of Islam -- Holy Doctrinal Mashup, Batman! Scientologists -- How Many of Them Are There, Anyway? Roger Weller's Wild Ride -- Scientology When it was Hip The Marc Headley Infiltration -- A Scientology Spying Operation Revealed Placido Domingo Jr: Scientology's Retaliation is "Scary and Pathetic" An Interview with Nancy Many, Former Scientology Spy The Paulien Lombard Confession -- A Scientology Spy Comes Clean The Deputy Benjamin Ring Hard Sell -- Scientology wants your 401K The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology -- the whole series! The Squirrel Busters Busted -- Unmasking the Scientology PI in Charge Tommy Davis, Scientology spokesman, secretly recorded discussing 'disconnection' Scientology internal document says its Office of Special Affairs will 'handle' the Village Voice

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