The science behind Scientology

Examining the elusive nature of what makes up Scientology and its status in the religious community

supplied Scientologists often offer a free stress test to evaluate a potential convert’s mental state.
supplied Scientologists often offer a free stress test to evaluate a potential convert’s mental state.
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Supplied

Since widely popularizing Scientology in the early 1990s, celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta have worked hard to bring the belief system into the spotlight. Despite the existence of over 700 Scientology centres worldwide, it continues to be shrouded in controversy and isn’t recognized as an official religion in many countries—including Canada. In a YouTube video of Tom Cruise’s interview about his religion—accompanied by the Mission Impossible soundtrack in the background—Cruise said only Scientologists have the power to save mankind from an impending intergalactic war. But beneath intergalactic wars and Tom Cruise, what Scientology actually preaches remains quasi-mysterious—a mix of substantiated facts with stranger-than-fiction twists.

Scientology was founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1952, making it the world’s youngest religion. Since then, it has attracted controversy from the public domain: it has been characterized as a fraudulent cult in the Marburg Journal of Religion and dubbed the ‘Thriving cult of greed and power’ by TIME magazine.

In 1981, 11 of the world’s most important Scientologists—including Hubbard’s wife Mary Sue—were found guilty of sabotaging more than 100 private and government agencies, attempting to obstruct their investigation efforts into this new and mysterious religion.

All of the Scientology churches and centres throughout North America contacted by the Journal declined to be interviewed.

On its website, the Scientology Church of Toronto attempts to explain the purpose of Scientology.

“The Scientology religion provides answers to many questions about life and death,” it says. “It encompasses an exact, precisely mapped-out path, through application of Scientology technology principles in an auditing session.

“Sometimes a person becomes interested by meeting a Scientologist and seeing that he has ‘something’ — a positive attitude toward life, certainty, self-confidence and happiness — which they too would like to have. Fundamentally, people get into Scientology because they want to improve something in their lives or because they want to help others improve themselves and thus create a better civilization.”

Despite claiming to retain millions of followers worldwide, Scientology is also heavily criticized by former members, including the actor Jason Beghe.

Beghe, who left the church in 2007, told an Australian television show that Scientology keeps members in the dark for a major period of time. “Only when you reach OT-III, which is a high level of study, do they introduce you to the Xenu story,” he said. In the story, an intergalactic ruler—Xenu—who has performed genocide on aliens on the 76 planets which he ruled. After being paralyzed, the aliens were put into space planes, which Hubbard described as being nearly identical to CD8 aircrafts. The aliens were dumped onto the planet Teegeeack, Hubbard’s name for Earth, around every primary volcano on the planet.

According to Hubbard, the essences of these aliens’ souls now form around human beings, causing them to experience negative energy and spiritual harm.

The Xenu story is only revealed to members who contribute large amounts of money and time to Scientology. Since being leaked to the media, the story has been actively denied by practicing Scientologists.

“Everybody has problems and troubles in their life and spiritual, emotional and psychological issues. Scientology understands the real source of these, which is that you’re inhabited by space aliens,” Beghe said. In an interview with TIME, Cynthia Kisser, the Cult Awareness Chicago-based executive director said Scientology is unlike any other religion practiced in the world today.

“Scientology is quite likely the most ruthless, the most classically terroristic, the most litigious and the most lucrative cult the country has ever seen. No cult extracts more money from its members,” she said.

Siphiwe Dubé, assistant professor in the Queen’s religious studies department said it’s difficult to say whether Scientology meets the requirements for a religion, since these standards are generally very fluent and changing.

“The requirements for what constitutes a religion is a question that baffles everyone who studies religion—at least in the academic sense,” Dubé said.

“Different people have required different attributes in order to consider something a religion, but at least from my approach, I try to take as open an idea of the concept as possible—more of an anthropological approach, which argues that to a certain degree what religion is is only definable in the perspective of those who call themselves religious, so in that sense, pretty much anything can be considered a religion.”

Dubé said although theologists approach religion with an open mind, there are still certain inherent qualities that must exist to formalize a belief system into a religion.

“You can look at things like practice, ritual, scriptural foundation of sorts—whether oral myths or orally transmitted knowledge,” he said. “So even as some people argue that anything can be a religion—which is not an invalid argument because it’s such an open concept—we still recognize that religion deals with certain concepts like ultimate reality, attempting to answer what it is and what it looks like.”

Dubé said the notion of religious belief came to be extended to the ritual of watching baseball. “Baseball is obviously not a religion but it might have similar attributes. It has the aspects of ritual, people getting together, but at the end of the day the questions we ask from a religion and the questions we ask about a game of baseball are very different in nature,” he said.

Dubé said it’s difficult to determine whether Scientology is a cult or a religion. “We have to recognize that the world cult has a historical precedent, so we tend to speak of new religious movements as cults because a cult has a history of a certain religion defining another kind of religion as not being religious,” he said.

“The word cult has a very negative connotation and is considered in many senses inferior to religion. Cults are seen as a corruption of the real thing—which is religion.” Dubé said although Scientology has received some bad press, it’s not alone in its negative portrayal.

“I guess its just a reaction to this religious mosaic that we have and because Scientology is a new religion it had to deal with a lot more questions about what is it exactly and why it’s different from what we already have,” he said. “Some of the people who are inherent to this tradition have done certain things that to the sentiments of regular people watching television makes them question their actions—but that can apply to every religion.”

 Dubé said because people encounter others who are so ideologically different than them, as a result of colonial expansion, the rubric for what counts as religion has expanded.

“Even within different religious tradition different things have emerged that challenged what the orthodox belief of that particular tradition was,” he said. “Even in Christianity in medieval times emerged a belief that Christianity is not monolithic and that process of progression adds to the notion of the way someone understands Christianity in Southern Nigeria will be very different than how someone understands Christianity in Peru.”

Dubé said the proliferation of various religious traditions and encounters of different religions such as Scientology will help challenge traditional religions.

“Many new religious movements have many challenges with the notion of hegemony and of one world view—and they will be subject to much questioning because of this.”

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