Since 1993, Scientology, which many people have long considered to be a "cult," has been a religion in the eyes of the United States government, with the tax exemption that goes along with that. But whether it is actually a "religion" in the way that most of us think about religion is a wholly different matter.
To address the basics: there is no God in Scientology. There is also no prayer, no concept of Heaven or Hell, no turn-the-other-cheek forgiveness or love, nor any of the other things we typically associate with religion, at least in the Judeo-Christian context. There is also no "faith" - no concept of belief. Instead, there is knowledge, a certainty beyond a shadow of a doubt that Scientology's doctrine, all of which was authored by the church's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, is the absolute truth.
I like to describe Scientology as a global spiritual enterprise - a religious corporation with a far greater emphasis on the "corporate," profit-making side of the ledger. Since its founding in 1954, Scientology has appealed to people initially as self-help, something Americans, and many others, have been more than willing to pay for. And as self-help, Scientology essentially promises that there are techniques one can learn - through the rigorous study and exact application of L. Ron Hubbard's ideas- that can, for instance, help a person overcome their shyness, or empower them to end a bad marriage, or help them sell themselves more effectively in the workplace. But there is also a spiritual component to Scientology, which has to do with people realizing, through the counseling known as "auditing," that they have lived many past lives. That's where the religion comes in.
When I was reporting on Scientology, I was amazed by the number of ordinary people I met who truly knew - not just believed, but claimed to know - that they had lived before and would live again. That meant death was no longer scary! It also meant that we might even remember our prior lives so saying goodbye to friends and family would not really be a "goodbye." Even to me, a person who is agnostic about most religion, it was attractive.
That is what draws people deeply "in" to Scientology. And once in, Scientology becomes different things to different people. One woman I know compares Scientology to an onion. The outer layer, where the celebrities tend to be, is a place where people experience the church as self-help and community. For stars like Tom Cruise or John Travolta, it is the safest of communities because celebrities are catered to in Scientology in both a material way, with added perks and private counseling sessions, but also in a way that shields them from critics or intrusion into their private lives. Wealthy Scientologists are also considered "celebrities" because they tend to donate the most money and involve themselves most in Scientology causes, all of which raises their status.
Much is made of the celebrities in Scientology, though their numbers are very few - there are maybe a dozen actual "celebrities" who belong to the church. But these people serve a promotional function, and because of it are treated like rare birds, put on pedestals by all members, including church staff who endeavor to keep their experience in Scientology positive. This leads to profound isolation from some of Scientology's harsher truths. Celebrities certainly would not be aware of any abuse or harsh treatment of Scientology staff, which, though Scientology officials deny it, has been alleged numerous times by ex-officials over the years. While they would be obliged to obey the policy of "disconnection," by which church members shun anyone, including their closest friends or family members, who leave Scientology on bad terms, they would also tend to believe the word of church officials far more than "apostates," as those who have left Scientology and spoken out are called.
Screenwriter/director Paul Haggis, for instance, believed a senior Scientology official when he pledged that the Church of Scientology did not back the California anti-gay marriage bill, something the church - along with many other religious organizations - did in fact support. When Haggis discovered the truth, it propelled him to leave the church altogether. But Haggis is, so far, somewhat unique in that he did discover the truth. No Scientologist - be they celebrities or ordinary members - is supposed to read general media reports about the church. These pieces - anything critical - is considered off-limits or "entheta" in the lexicon of the Church of Scientology, and thus harmful to a member's spiritual progress. The truth is what they know via L Ron Hubbard; media criticisms of Scientology, on the other hand, are to Scientologists, lies or "religious bigotry." Thus they remain very much in the dark; they will not, assuredly, be reading my new book "Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion."
Beyond celebrities, the average middle class person, who for most of its history has formed the bulk of Scientology's membership, has a different far different experience in Scientology. For them, the deeper they are drawn into Scientology, the more indebted to it they become. In some cases, members have been driven into bankruptcy, forcing them to work for the church to continue to afford Scientology counseling. Once they sign up to work for Scientology, their experience turns more punitive: they work extremely long hours, at very low pay, and are expected to adhere to a paramilitary-style discipline that is absent in any workplace I've ever heard of outside of the United States military. At the innermost level of this management, within the Sea Organization, which is the senior management body of the church, there is far more, if not total, ideological control over members, strict adherence to the demands of a leader who has cast himself as a sort of pope, and many other things that would define Scientology, in that context as a more traditional "cult."
But it is only a cult to some. To others it is a community. To others it is self-help. And to others, it is absolutely religion - and in the case of young people who've grown up in the church it is the only religion they've ever known. I think the future of Scientology, if it has one, lies in its ability to retain its identity as religion and community, and even self-help, while losing the ideological totalism that makes it cultic for many. It is a significant challenge, and one that the church in its current incarnation may not be able to shoulder, but it is also the only way, in my opinion, that Scientology will become an enduring, and evolving, religion.
Janet Reitman is the author of the brand new book INSIDE SCIENTOLOGY: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion. She was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in 2007 for the Rolling Stone story "Inside Scientology," from which this book grew, and is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.