Happy Independence Day! And to our international readers, Happy Monday!
Here in America, we’ll be enjoying cool drinks by the pool or the beach or at the backyard barbecue, and the news cycle should be slow. So we thought we’d take this relaxing time to ruminate about something that tends to come up from time to time with Scientology watchers: just how many Scientologists are there, anyway?
That question came up again this week when the Associated Press, reporting on an interesting development in Russia*, happened to mention that Scientology claims 10 million members worldwide.
If that number were true, Scientology would be a little smaller than Judaism around the world, and well ahead of the Baha’i faith.
And if you think that’s true, we have a lovely bridge here in New York City that you might be interested to hear is for sale…
Before we get to the better-documented numbers, let’s deal with this incredible figure that the AP repeated in a fairly shocking case of ignorance.
Scientology has claimed millions of members forever. But I’ll never forget watching a video deposition of Heber Jentzsch† in 1999 or 2000 — he was at the time the president of the Church of Scientology International, a figurehead position — during which he admitted where the inflated number came from.
When Scientology says it has millions of “members,” Jentzsch admitted under oath, it is actually talking about the total number of people, since L. Ron Hubbard first came up with Dianetics in 1950, who have ever picked up a Hubbard book, or filled out a “personality test,” or taken a course, or otherwise had any interaction with the organization in any way.
As Janet Reitman pointed out in her excellent book Inside Scientology, she herself is a Scientologist by that definition because she began her research on the church by taking a couple of courses.
In other words, the claim that Scientology has millions of active members is a ludicrous notion and no legitimate news organization has any reason to repeat such nonsense, no matter what the church tells them. Associated Press, you blew it.
So if there aren’t millions, how many are there?
There are several interesting ways to count Scientologists, and I’ll save my personal favorite for later on. But for now, let’s look at what official, government surveys tell us.
The U.S. Census Bureau, for example, provides at its website some very interesting data from Trinity College in Hartford, which has been surveying Americans about their religious affiliations for more than 20 years.
In 2008, the school released its latest American Religious Identification Survey, based on talking to 54,000 Americans. (The Census Bureau link will take you to an Excel spreadsheet that breaks down the minor religions individually.)
Go to the ARIS website, and you’ll find a number of interesting stories coming out of the survey, such as that Latinos are losing their religion at a surprising rate, and that overall, “None of the above” is among the fastest, er, “religions” in America.
There don’t seem to be any stories at the website about Scientology. Apparently, it’s just too small to be concerned about. How small? Well, brace yourself. According to the latest survey, the total number of people who identify as Scientologists is just 25,000 in this country of more than 300 million human beings.
That’s one Scientologist for about every 12,000 Americans.
In other words, the total number of active U.S. Scientologists is about the size of your run-of-the-mill local credit union.
But there’s more. As paltry as that number is, the news is even worse for Scientology, because previous surveys by the same researchers show a steep drop in membership in recent years, reflecting anecdotal evidence that there’s been a “mass exodus” (as Reitman calls it) under the leadership of David Miscavige.
In 1990, ARIS had found about 45,000 Scientologists. In 2001, it found 55,000, and in 2008, it found 25,000.
Obviously, these are estimates, but you’d think Miscavige might be concerned to see the number of people willing to tell a researcher that they belong to the church of Scientology drop by more than half over a seven year period.
Let’s put those numbers in some further context. I’ve put the results of the 1990, 2001, and 2008 surveys in some simple graphs to show how Scientology compares to some other minor religious affiliations (numbers in 1,000s):
Yes, according to the ARIS survey, fewer Americans identify themselves as Scientologists than Rastafarians, Sikhs, and whatever the heck Eckankar is.
And finally, let’s visualize where Scientology stands now with some other faiths in this country (in 1,000s):
Meanwhile, surveys from other countries show similarly paltry numbers. A 2001 census found only 1,525 Scientologists in Canada and 1,781 in England and Wales. A 2003 study in Australia found only 741 members.
One person in a position to know these numbers is Jeff Hawkins, who was once Scientology’s PR genius and was largely responsible for the church’s biggest growth in the 1980s. We wrote about his excellent book about his life in Scientology, Counterfeit Dreams. He also blogs about leaving the church.
“I have an advantage here because I used to work for Scientology’s Central Marketing Unit, and had access to all of the actual lists and statistics,” he wrote at his blog last year. And he explained how he came up with an overall number of worldwide members:
I know that event attendance internationally was somewhere in the region of 25,000 to 35,000. The International “Bodies in the Shop” (people actually in the orgs that week for service) was 16,000 to 18,000. IAS was struggling to get 40,000 members. Based on this and a lot of other information I was privy to, I estimate the actual number of Scientologists at a maximum of 40,000. That’s on the high side.
So, 40,000 total worldwide members. As others have pointed out, that wouldn’t even fill Citi Field for a Mets-Yankees showdown.
But there’s more. My favorite single piece of data for how to measure the number of active Scientologists — at least the ones leader David Miscavige could count on to shell out significant amounts of cash — comes from Marc Headley, whose exciting escape narrative, “Blown For Good,” we’ve written about before.
In the book, Headley describes his experiences working for Miscavige at Scientology’s secretive headquarters in the California desert, where he at one point was overseeing the fabrication of “e-meters,” the devices that measure skin galvanization and whose fluctuations Scientologists believe can help identify a past-life trauma while a subject talks about his or her memories.
Scientologists take the devices very seriously, and are willing to pay amazing prices for them. Reitman, in her book, describes a former Scientologist who hasn’t been able to part with his $20,000 gold-plated e-meter!
Anyway, Headley writes that some years ago, a new line of e-meters was about to be released, and Miscavige told him that he wanted enough of them manufactured so that every Scientologist in the world could buy two of the devices. (Headley explained that members are supposed to have a backup machine, just in case.)
And in order to have that many on hand, Miscavige asked Headley to make sure 30,000 of them were made.
I told Headley that his story implied that Miscavige himself knew there were only about 15,000 Scientologists around the world with the money or desire to pay for the machines.
“The actual number is more like 10,000,” he told me.
As Reitman and others have pointed out, Scientology seems to be dwindling at the same time that it’s buying up or developing property like crazy. Hunter Walker at The Daily did the math, and figured that today, the church owns 484 square feet of property for every active Scientologist in the world.
That’s a lot of empty buildings.
So the next time the AP or some other news organization feels obliged to mention Scientology’s bogus claims to millions of members, please keep in mind that it’s just an unfortunate result of the mainstream media’s misplaced dedication to he-said-she-said ignorance it mistakenly refers to as “balance.”
Meanwhile, with an increasing number of longtime members leaving to join the Independence movement that Marty Rathbun writes about at his blog, such a drain is bound to be significant when it comes to Scientology’s bottom line.
And so we’ve managed to bring things full circle on this Independence Day. So stop reading about Scientology and go light a sparkler or something. Happy Fourth!
Update: And right on time, here’s a story from Switzerland which says that Scientology is rapidly dwindling there. [h/t: Rick Ross]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 4, 2011