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There’s a new academic treatise on Scientology coming out this September, and it’s a very welcome addition to the literature surrounding L. Ron Hubbard’s odd organization.
Hugh B. Urban, Ohio State University religious studies professor, has given us, in his Princeton University Press tome, a history that does its best to keep above the fray between claims and counterclaims about Scientology, and, for the most part, he succeeds.
But along the way, if Urban is somewhat charitable to Hubbard at times, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion also holds very little back about the controversies that Scientology has found itself in, and that are largely of its own making.
For this longtime Scientology watcher, much of the material in the book was familiar, but Urban’s book is valuable for how well he organizes a massive amount of information in a well-paced, enjoyable read, and in only 216 pages.
Throughout that journey, what Urban does better than most is continually put Scientology’s bumpy beginnings and notorious scandals in a larger context of American history and the development of American culture and ideas about religion.
From the start, for example, Urban skillfully portrays L. Ron Hubbard and his early ideas about a “science of the mind” as utterly and completely a product of his time. Describing Hubbard as a “bricoleur” — someone who cobbles together whatever ideas are within his grasp into a kind of pastiche — Urban shows that the pulp science fiction writer was a man of the moment, debuting his Dianetics in 1950, right when a postwar America was hungry for new ideas and new religions.
As Hubbard then develops his “science” into a religion in fits and starts over the next two decades, and plunges it into paranoid secrecy and top-down control, Urban shows how much that was also a product of its time, with Hubbard and Scientology developing against a paranoid Cold War that gripped the American mind.
Repeatedly, Urban gives Hubbard and Scientology credit for reflecting what was going on in society as a whole, and there is no shortage of the church’s point of view about its various controversies. But for the most part, those controversies are delivered in healthy portions. We get at least something — including copious original quotations — about many familiar Scientology waterloos:
–Hubbard’s various claims for how Dianetics and then Scientology would not just clear the mind of the results of past trauma, but that adherents who reached the upper levels of teaching would literally be able to create their own universes, where they would be gods. None of Scientology’s exorbitant claims of physical healing and supernatural gifts has ever been demonstrated, of course.
–Hubbard’s intriguing involvement with rocket scientist Jack Parsons and the British occult master Aleister Crowley. (I never tire of reading about Hubbard trying to help Parsons create the “moonchild.” So kinky. So fun!)
–Healing claims about the use of the e-meter got Scientology in hot water with the FDA, leading Hubbard in the early 1950s to begin shielding the organization from government meddling by starting to claim that his group was a religion, not a science.
–Hubbard’s increasing ‘space opera’ elements (past lives, a soul that can create its own universe, etc.) drove away many early adherents who found these ideas too outlandish. Others were turned off by the increasing language about “religion.”
–Hubbard not only seemed to be drawing from his own science fiction stories for Scientology’s ideas, but he also poached from Eastern religions to the point that he was telling his followers that he was the reincarnation of Buddha himself. (Later, he would briefly flirt with the idea of promoting himself as a “Messiah.”)
–The early church not only flourished during the Cold War, it took on a heavy anti-Communist, McCarthyist line that, Urban theorizes, would forever put it on a secretive path. Hubbard repeatedly tried to feed the FBI information about Communism in America, but the bureau considered him a crank. Especially after he delivered what he purported to be a nonsensical Soviet guide to brainwashing, but that most experts assume Hubbard himself wrote.
–There’s a brief description of that favorite chestnut, the OT III materials, as well as quick rundowns of Fair Game, Suppressive Persons, but not, for some reason, Disconnection.
–Urban’s quick tour of Operation Snow White (Scientology’s massive infiltration of government offices, resulting in a 1977 FBI raid and the jailing of 11 top Scientologists, including Hubbard’s wife, Mary Sue), Operation Freakout (Scientology’s attempt to destroy Paulette Cooper, who wrote one of the first exposes of Scientology), and Operation Italian Fog (Scientology’s attempt to smear Clearwater Mayor Gabe Cazares, who opposed the church’s virtual takeover of his town) are brief but informative.
–There’s a nice rundown of costs of the upper levels of auditing that Urban says he took from a 2009 Scientology publication: OT Prep: $6,800 per 12.5 hours; New OT I: $2,800; OT II: $5,000; OT III: $8,400; New OT IV $7,800 (per 12.5 hours); New OT V: $7,800 (per 12.5 hours); New OT VI: $13,600; New OT VII: $2,800; New OT VII eligibility: $7,800 (per 12.5 hours). Says Urban: “The total costs to complete OT training will vary depending on the amount of auditing an individual Scientologist requires to get through each level. However, conservative estimates suggest that rising to OT VIII would require a minimum of $300,000 to $400,000.”
–A short but informative description of how Scientology subverted the Cult Awareness Network and how utterly strange it is today that Scientology owns and runs its successor, New CAN.
–An excellent overview of Scientology’s 26-year war with the IRS, culminating in the 1993 awarding of tax-exempt status to the church.
–A thoughtful summary of Scientology’s next big war, on the Internet. We get the Wollersheim FACTNet saga, the Fishman Papers, and the rise of Anonymous. Anonymous in particular gets a generally sympathetic appearance here, including an excellent interview with one particular young agitator, “Chef Xenu.”
In each case, Urban is careful to present Scientology’s point of view, but there’s little sign that he’s holding back on criticism of the church and its practices. Urban is more interested in, again, putting things in a larger context. In this case, he wonders, as many others have, is this thing really a religion?
Early in the book, Urban does a particularly good job exploding some myths about how Hubbard turned the “science” of Dianetics into the “religion” of Scientology. In the end, however, he comes back to that question, and asks flat out: is Scientology a religion? Scientology itself, of course, considers the 1993 cave by the IRS as a definitive “yes” by the U.S. government. But Urban asks, should the IRS really be in the business of deciding what is or is not a religion?
Ultimately, Urban does the classic academic thing of sidestepping his plain question. The problem with asking whether Scientology is a religion, he says, is the question itself. It’s too simple. Too black and white. While there’s no question some (increasingly fewer) number of people do find something valuable in their “religion” of Scientology, there’s no doubt that Scientology, as an organization, has acted less like a faith than like a money-grubbing business that will stop at nothing to fight its critics.
Urban finally concludes that a mature approach to religion in the 21st century requires that we can hold both views — that Scientology may be a religion to its adherents, but that doesn’t preclude criticism of its methods and practices.
It’s an interesting conclusion to a fascinating book, and I hope other Scientology watchers will find this book as valuable as I did.
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 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 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