What is Scientology?

Village Voice/January 1, 2012

Although we've written hundreds of articles about Scientology over the years, and other news organizations have contributed hundreds more -- not to mention the numerous books, television programs, and countless websites dedicated to the subject -- without fail we regularly run into people who ask us, "Yeah, but what is Scientology?"

We can't blame them. One of Scientology's appeals is its complexity and secrecy, and it can take years to fully absorb some of its arcane concepts. So for those coming to the subject for the first time, as well as those who want a deeper understanding, we're starting off the new year with this handy guide to L. Ron Hubbard's creation. We'll introduce concepts at a basic level, and provide links to further reading. With the help of our amazing commenting community -- which includes former Scientology executives with decades of experience -- we'll all learn more about an enigmatic organization that begins another crucial year of transition.

After the jump: a science fiction writer unlocks the secrets of the human mind...

What is Scientology?

Scientology is a philosophy of the human mind that, shortly after its founding in the early 1950s, began calling itself a religion.

Today, the Church of Scientology claims upwards of 10 million members around the globe, enjoys the tax-exempt status of a religion in the United States, is opening large new facilities around the world, and is known for attracting numerous celebrities to its ranks, including Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Kirstie Alley. Scientology offers self-improvement to new members through study courses and counseling, and claims to be improving society as a whole with its outreach organizations, which include drug abuse counseling (Narconon), prison counseling (Criminon), education aids (Applied Scholastics), anti-psychiatry reform (Citizens Commission on Human Rights), and disaster relief (Scientology Volunteer Ministers).

On the other hand, several lines of evidence suggest that Scientology is actually dwindling and has probably fewer than 100,000 active members. It is fighting with numerous governments that refuse to consider it a bona fide religion, especially because its counseling and self-improvement courses -- combined with a pressure to donate even more -- end up costing members exorbitant amounts of money. Much of that cash goes to Scientology's real estate boom, which includes numerous buildings that now stand empty. Its front groups have been criticized for focusing more on recruiting for Scientology than doing good works, and even some celebrities have been jumping ship lately.

And so we arrive at one of the most basic truths in understanding Scientology: nearly every single thing about it is contested bitterly by the church and its many critics, which include former longtime members.

That disagreement also surrounds Scientology's founder, a man named L. Ron Hubbard. To the church, he is a man of mythic proportions, a larger-than-life adventurer, explorer, writer, and researcher who is responsible for the greatest scientific breakthroughs since the discovery of fire. Or there's the less romantic view of a man who exaggerated nearly everything about himself, and who was actually undistinguished in his college and military careers, and was briefly a bigamist.

Lafayette Ronald Hubbard was born in Tilden, Nebraska on March 13, 1911. In the 1930s and 1940s, he became well known as a science fiction writer for the pulps. And it was in such a magazine, Astounding Science Fiction, that he first published, in 1950, a version of Dianetics before releasing it in book form. That year, Dianetics briefly became a fad as groups around the country gathered to try out Hubbard's claims of discovering a new way of understanding the mind, a sort of talking cure to rival psychoanalysis. A few years later, after the fad had died down and Dianetics had been roundly criticized by scientists and the press, Hubbard regrouped and started over, this time calling his new enterprise "Scientology."

But after initially announcing that in Dianetics he had discovered a new "science" of the mind which promised to cure illnesses, such claims brought Hubbard under the scrutiny of the Food and Drug Administration. So in the mid-1950s Hubbard began instructing his followers to refer to Scientology as a religion, and the organization began to take on the trappings of a church.

Hubbard also gave Scientology some of the trappings of his own personal navy, as he took some of his most ardent followers to sea in the late 1960s, having found the governments of both the United States and Great Britain to be hostile. In a small armada of ships, and calling himself "Commodore," Hubbard ran Scientology's global operation from a ship in the Mediterranean, and continued to research ever more esoteric levels of spiritual insight. In 1975, Hubbard's navy invaded Florida as it moved ashore to establish a base in Clearwater, its spiritual headquarters to this day. Hubbard himself became more and more a recluse as Scientology ran into troubles with the FBI. Still fearing prosecution and in hiding, Hubbard finally died in seclusion at a California ranch in January, 1986. He was replaced as church leader by a very young man, David Miscavige, who had grown up in the religion and who runs it to this day.

Scientology reached the height of its popularity in the 1980s, and largely because of one man: Jefferson Hawkins, who oversaw the marketing of Dianetics and created a television advertising campaign which those of us who saw it remember well. Hawkins left Scientology in 2005, but few are more qualified to describe the expansion and then decline of the church's fortunes.

I asked the man who once sold Scientology to the masses to reduce it to a brief definition.

"It's a question that Scientologists themselves find difficult to answer," Hawkins replied. "When I was working on church promotion, we were trying to boil it down to something like 'answers for life' or 'knowledge for life' or 'knowledge to improve life.'

"Currently, I would probably explain it something like this: Scientology is a self-help system developed by L. Ron Hubbard from his earlier subject, Dianetics. Scientology holds that the individual contains an immortal, all-powerful spirit (thetan) which is limited by the effects of past trauma, including past life experiences going back millions of years. Scientology has become increasingly controlling and in recent years has been accused of abuse, fraud and human rights violations, which has caused many members to leave the official church. Some still practice the subject as Independent Scientologists."

What do Scientologists Believe?

Hawkins brings us to the next point: what is it that Scientologists believe? In Dianetics, Hubbard claimed that he had discovered a new way of understanding the human mind -- that previous ideas about an "unconscious" were incorrect and really didn't go far enough.

In fact, while we may not be conscious of it, or remember everything in our lives, memories -- particularly the things that we experienced which were traumatic -- are faithfully recorded in minute detail in something Hubbard called the "reactive mind."

Dianetics, Hubbard's 1950 book, focuses particularly on the trauma of childbirth. What we experienced as we developed as fetuses and then as we were delivered had a tendency to harm us for life, recorded faithfully in our reactive minds, akin to scars on our psyche -- scars Hubbard referred to as "engrams." But through the processes he had discovered in Dianetics, Hubbard claimed that his counseling techniques -- called "auditing" -- could help a subject relive those traumas and erase them, ridding the reactive mind of engrams, one after another. Auditing includes talking about these past traumas while holding the sensors of a small device called an "e-meter." The simple mechanism measures skin galvanism, but to Scientologists, the way its needle bounces while a subject talks can indicate many things about engrams and other conditions of the mind. Taken as a whole, Hubbard's processes and philosophies are called "the tech" by his adherents, and they believe that only the tech can help them undo the damage done by past traumas and tap into our true potential and experience wondrous gains in perception and intellect.

If early Dianetics counseling focused on childbirth trauma, soon Hubbard and his adherents were going back even further to find the engrams that had scarred them much earlier -- in fact, we each carry the scars of traumas that happened to us in past lives, going back eons, Scientologists believe.

Over the "whole track" of our real lives, each of us actually contains an inner soul that has inhabited countless different bodies and in many different places. This soul -- called a "thetan" -- is incredibly ancient. (Actual scientists may say that our universe is only about 15 billion years old, but Scientologists talk about a universe that is trillions, even quadrillions of years old.)

When the traumas of our current and past lives have finally been swept away from our reactive minds through auditing, then we are truly "clear," and can live to our true potentials. Hubbard made fairly astounding claims for what a "clear" would experience -- total recall, raised IQ, an imperviousness to disease, even the ability to affect matter with only the mind.

But that was only the beginning. Beyond "clear," Hubbard discovered even more advanced techniques that would put a subject in closer touch with his or her thetan. These so-called "Operating Thetan" levels of advancement he developed in the late 1960s while he was sailing the Mediterranean, and are among the most controversial (and embarrassing) secrets of Scientology.

One of the people who brought those secrets to the outside world is an ex-Scientologist named Dennis Erlich.

I asked Erlich to describe for us, very briefly, the whole progression that a church member goes through, from beginner to the highest levels of Operating Thetan as Scientologists move up what they call "The Bridge to Total Freedom":

"The mental reprogramming begins with the basic courses and early one-on-one sessions," Erlich says. "These sessions train the individual to expect to have his communication, attention, and body completely controlled by the practitioner (auditor) without objecting. In later sessions, his attention is directed inwardly to parts of his so-called reactive mind. The auditor's commands guide the individual to areas which, according to the tech, release native abilities trapped in earlier unpleasant experiences that he has failed to completely 'confront.' After going through all the mental training processes, step by step, up the 'bridge' to the state of clear, one has erased the reactive mind and is returned to an 'unaberrated' state of healthy mind and body.

"Continuing up toward higher states than clear one reaches the level of Operating Thetan III, and learns that it has not been one's own reactive mind that has been causing the pain, negative emotions, or inabilities, but rather the reactive minds of the thousands and thousands of other individual spirits who are also inhabiting one's body and thinking one's thoughts. These alien spirits, one is told, were brought to Earth (then named Teegeeack) 76 million years ago by the evil galactic emperor Xenu, placed around volcanoes, blown up with hydrogen bombs and then implanted with 36 days of false memories -- including Christianity, and everything else upon which modern society is based. All human problems allegedly stem from this 'Wall of Fire' incident and the subsequent possession of humans by these 'body thetans.'

"The remainder of the 'Bridge to Total Freedom' consists of various exorcism techniques which address the health and spiritual problems inherent in alien possession."

And these techniques are not cheap. While beginners may be asked for just small amounts to take an initial communications course, upper level teachings like Operating Thetan III costs thousands of dollars per step, and can take months, even years, of auditing to achieve, also costing thousands more.

Which brings us to our next subject: The business of Scientology.

Why Does Scientology Have Tax-Exempt Status?

Scientologists continue to begin their spiritual journey with Hubbard's 1950 book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.

But if Dianetics is a "science" of mental health, and if it charges hefty fees for "technology" (counseling sessions) that it promises will raise your IQ, and if Scientology does not pray to a God or engage in "worship" or even have weekly prayer services, how does it get to call itself a religion and not a business?

In fact, for most of its existence, Scientology was considered a money-making enterprise and did not qualify for tax-exempt status under U.S. law. That changed in 1993, and the reason behind it is a fascinating story. The short version: for years, Scientology wore down the IRS with thousands of nuisance lawsuits until tax authorities simply gave in.

Since the IRS and Scientology came to that 1993 agreement, the church has, quite understandably, pointed to its tax-exempt status as the US government's acknowledgement that it is a bona fide religion. But as Ohio State University professor Hugh Urban recently asked in his excellent history, The Church of Scientology, does it make sense that a tax agency, the IRS, gets to decide what is or isn't a "religion?"

Urban points out that in 1953, as Hubbard was shifting from the early Dianetics craze and was building his new organization of Scientology, he wrote in a letter that he was interested in pursuing "the religion angle." At the time, he was feeling the heat from the FDA and the American Medical Association for his claims that auditing could cure disease. But if critics call Scientology's move from science to religion a cynical one on Hubbard's part, Urban points out that it's not so easy to say what is or isn't a religion, even with the IRS's stamp of approval. And anyway, that designation comes with its own risks:

For the Church of Scientology, the stakes in laying claim to religious status are multiple and have changed significantly over time. These have included not simply the obvious benefit of tax exemption but also protection from FDA scrutiny; control over its copyrighted and highly profitable esoteric materials such as the OT levels; legal defense in a wide array of civil and criminal court cases; recognition from the U.S. State Department; and support overseas in the face of a variety of foreign governments. But at the same time, ironically, the claim to religious status also opens the door for other groups to challenge, contest, and undermine that claim. Thus, the more Scientology insists that it is a "bona fide religion," the more the media, anticult groups, Internet activists, and ex-Scientologists can target and subvert its claim to religious status.

In fact, that's precisely been the case as Scientology's critics continually question its motives, its prices, its control over members, and even its corporate structure.

Under the 1993 agreement with the IRS, Scientology promised to keep separate its non-profit and for-profit entities (which include its publisher for Hubbard's science fiction, for example). But repeatedly, critics have used Scientology's own documents to show that the church is in violation of this agreement and that every part of its far-flung enterprise is under the dictatorial control of church leader David Miscavige.

Scientology's current, byzantine corporate structure is the product of a 1980s reorganization, and one man who helped create that structure is a former Scientologist named Larry Brennan. I asked Larry to describe, briefly, how that structure is supposed to work.

"Scientology maintains a highly complex corporate structure that makes it appear that its activities are controlled by local corporate authorities," Brennan told me. "But the real controls in Scientology often differ from the ones it presents to the public. In part this is done to spread its assets out into as many different legal entities as possible, making it more difficult for individuals or governments to get to those assets through litigation or otherwise. Another reason: it's harder to make liable the people at the top who really do control the organization."

So although Scientology appears to be a collection of many different entities, each supposedly with its own governance -- the alphabet soup gets pretty thick with names like RTC, CST, CSI, ASI, CSRT, SIRT and many, many more -- insiders say Miscavige still sits on top.

"There's no doubt in my mind that Miscavige controls it all," Brennan says. "Even after we launched CSI, RTC, CST, etc. I was at the top on the Watchdog Committee and witnessed Miscavige running things."

Former insiders say the only thing that matters is that money must flow from individual members to local "orgs" and ultimately to the international church. In order to keep that money flowing, members are constantly pressured to keep making their (increasingly expensive) steps up the "bridge," and also to make other donations for Scientology building projects.

We got a rare glimpse recently into just how much pressure is applied to average members in a blockbuster series, "The Money Machine," which appeared this November in the St. Petersburg Times. Journalists Joe Childs and Tom Tobin found that Scientology is fabulously successful at getting large sums from its members:

Scientology rings up astonishing sums: $100 million a year just from services sold in Clearwater, a minimum of $250 million since 2006 for the International Association of Scientologists, tens of millions for new church buildings called Ideal Orgs, and untold millions more from selling new volumes of church scripture.

In their series, Tobin and Childs introduced us to Hy Levy, a former "registrar" whose job was to convince his fellow church members to donate money, even when they protested and said they had no more to give. Over his 16-year career, Levy estimates that he -- on his own -- brought in more than $200 million to the church by convincing Scientologists to max out their credit cards and take additional mortgages on their homes. After finally giving up his 12-hour-a-day job, Levy says he walked away with a $500 severance check.

Which leads us to our next question: where does such dedication come from? For Scientologists, it's not really about their current leader, David Miscavige, but still about their admiration for the man they think discovered the true nature of the universe.

What Was L. Ron Hubbard Like?

Although Hubbard died in 1986, he is still very much in control of Scientology: all of the church's "technology" comes only from Hubbard, who is known as "Source" in church parlance. Even newer (and controversial) books put out by church leader David Miscavige that all Scientologists are expected to purchase are marketed not as the works of Miscavige himself, but as Hubbard's books which have been freed of previously undiscovered errors.

Hubbard's word is still law in Scientology. Policies that he wrote 50 years ago are still adhered to carefully. And his written works are considered so precious, the church has spent millions building special vaults in places like New Mexico, California, and now Wyoming where Hubbard's books and policy letters and lectures are stored on steel plates in titanium capsules so they can survive a nuclear holocaust.

To carry out such work, and to ensure the purity of Hubbard's vision, an inner circle of hardcore Scientologists carries out much of the crucial work that holds the organization together, as well as providing raw human labor for whatever needs to get done, no matter how menial the task. This elite corps, called the Sea Organization, or Sea Org, is made up of church members so dedicated, they are typically the children of Scientologists, recruited as teenagers (or younger), and they sign billion-year contracts, promising to work for Scientology lifetime after lifetime, and are paid about $50 a week, even when they work weeks of up to 100 hours of labor.

What kind of a person could engender that kind of loyalty and veneration, even 26 years after his death?

I decided to ask someone who actually used to work with him. Hana Whitfield sailed with Hubbard as a Sea Org member on the Apollo in the late 1960s as the ship plied the Mediterranean. She sent me these remembrances:

What was LRH like? On the outside he was charming, captivating, and attentive, and exuded a sense of a well educated authority figure who was worth listening to. As I got to know Hubbard beyond his social self, the outermost layer, I got to know a man who was both a great intellect, a fearless leader, a compassionate superior, and a truly gifted manager, as well as someone who was as deeply flawed as every other imperfect human being walking the earth.

To work with? In a word, unpredictable. I was never sure whether he appointed me to the positions I held in Scientology and the Sea Organization because he thought I could do them well, or if he simply had no one else for the job at the time. The times I was able to perform according to his standards, he was fine; if not ready with a round of applause or a commendation, he at least gave me a 'Well Done.' When I could not meet his goal for the job or project, for whatever reason -- whether it was my failure to understand what he wanted in the first place, or my inability to complete his project on time -- he either distanced himself from me or had a shouting and crying temper tantrum. In all honesty, I must say that with me, the last occurred infrequently; many others were far less fortunate. I can see that during the years I worked with Hubbard, I was on constant alert for his next uproar, and constantly in some degree of fear that it would not be about me.

To talk to? Always fascinating and educational. Hubbard had his favorites, and they changed frequently. As one executive or crew member fell out of favor, another would take that spot. It was inevitable; not one of us could have met Hubbard's complex demands all the times, demands that themselves changed with the shifting political and ethical situations Hubbard was constantly creating. In the first year of the Sea Org, Hubbard spoke with me personally and helpfully several times, and I was deeply touched by his focus and interest. It strengthened my belief that he was who he claimed to be, the returned savior of this earth, and that belief held me in the Sea Org later on far beyond the time I should have left. Later on, he spoke to me less frequently, and only about my job. In group settings, though, Hubbard let himself go. He talked expansively and forever, cracking jokes and wandering off into topics that had nothing to do the subject at hand.

What was it like to sail with LRH? In the first year of the Sea Org, sailing with Hubbard was a huge, exciting adventure. He was mostly relaxed and happy, talking openly and joking with crew during or after work hours, and frequently sharing a bottle of wine, or two, in the evenings on deck as he spoke about other races in distant constellations and his awe inspiring goals for the Sea Organization. Yes, he had shouting tantrums during the Avon River refit in Las Palmas, and during the first voyage into the Mediterranean, but they were few and far between, and we, the crew, enjoyed a slice of life that I think few have experienced -- the sheer joy and thrill of traveling in close quarters with someone we revered, and who we knew held us close in a personal way that spanned generations. I know I will not experience anything like that again. It was the glue that held us together as times worsened down the line.

Charismatic, unpredictable, a raconteur, a recluse, a man generous with praise, a tyrant. Hubbard was all of these things.

He was also a product of his time. As Professor Urban showed so well in his recent history of the church, to understand Scientology, it's important to put it in the context of the times in which it was born -- the Cold War, and in an America hopped up on paranoia.

That's reflected in Hubbard's policies regarding the control of members and dealing with critics that, over the decades, have earned Scientology a reputation as a litigious, vengeful, and vindictive organization.

In recent months, we've been paying close attention to how these policies, written half a century ago, are still affecting Scientologists today:

Disconnection: When Scientologists give up the church or fall out of favor in other ways, they may be excommunicated by being declared "suppressive persons" or "SPs." Other Scientologists are then required to cut off all ties from the declared SP, even if that means splitting up families. A mother may literally be instructed to "disconnect" from a child if that child has been declared an SP, or vice versa. Although Scientology executives have denied that this practice goes on, we have recently published an audiotape, secretly recorded, of a high church official explaining to a former member, in danger of being declared, that he will lose all contact with his own mother and brother.

Fair Game: Although Scientology claims that Hubbard cancelled this policy in the 1960s, it's clear that he only canceled the use of the words "Fair Game" to describe the elaborate programs of retaliation that the church visits on its perceived enemies. This summer, we witnessed a fairly astounding case of Fair Game as an intimidation squad descended on the home of ex-Scientology executive Marty Rathbun to "make his life a living hell."

The RPF: Sea Org members who fall out of favor are sent to a kind of prison detail that the church claims is just a sort of religious retreat. But every ex-Scientologist we have talked to who experienced it describes the RPF as anything but voluntary, a miserable exercise in being shunned, forced to do hard labor, and a humiliating experience under extreme physical hardship. Working one's way out of the RPF, which used to take months, now takes years.

And more... 2011 turned out to be an especially difficult one for Scientology, as we learned that the federal government had become interested (for a time, anyway), in allegations of underage, sub-minimum-wage labor and forced abortions in the Sea Org and other complaints about the way Scientology workers are treated. We reported dramatic stories of escape from the organization, and we expect similar revelations to continue in the new year.

If you've kept up with us so far in this introduction, you've been exposed to some of the most bedrock concepts in understanding Scientology:

-- Hubbard as "Source," even 26 years after his death -- David Miscavige's total control of Scientology's elaborate structure -- Scientologists progress through levels of training that become increasingly expensive -- Scientology is consumed with taking money from its members in large amounts -- Each of us has an ancient "thetan" that has inhabited countless earlier bodies -- Parasitic "body thetans" that only advanced Scientologists learn about must be removed through exorbitantly expensive processing, something akin to Catholic exorcism -- The "whole track" is trillions of years and you will live countless times, so you and your current problems are insignificant -- therefore, give up everything you have for the ultimate goal of "clearing the planet"

There are many more facets to Scientology, its technology, its organizations, its history, and its controversies. Here at the Voice, we treat the church as a moving story, and one we try to write about every day.

Use this link to see what we've written about Scientology most recently.

Or keep an eye out for our regular features...

We start off the week with Sunday Funnies, and publish Scientology's most recent fundraising mailers that have been leaked to us.

Every Thursday, we do a roundup of stories from around the world, gathering Scientology's "stats" before the Thursday 2 pm deadline -- just as Scientologists do.

Fridays in 2012, we're posting excerpts from previously unpublished dispatches that L. Ron Hubbard wrote while sailing the Apollo in the Mediterranean between 1968 and 1971.

And every Saturday morning, we gather the week's best comments from our illustrious commenting community.

We also announce every new story at our Twitter account and on our Facebook author page. We hope you can become a part of our ongoing project.

Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications.

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