- MRJ Posted at 12:17 PM March 06, 2011, Melbourne Herald Sun
In recent years, as part of my job, I made a study of Scientology. It is part of my job to investigate such groups and to arrive at an independent, objective assessment of the place of such groups in contemporary religious life. Scientology has been around since the 1950s. It is a vast and complex topic. I do not regard myself as an expert on Scientology, but I do regard myself as sufficiently well-read in this field to have an informed opinion.
There is an extraordinary amount of hype surrounding this controversial topic; propaganda generated by Scientologists themselves, media sensationalism and virulent anti-Scientology propaganda generated by its detractors. My job, in part, is to sift through this material in search of the facts and in order to better understand Scientology both in itself and among other religious movements.
I do not have hardened and intractable opinions. Nor do I approach such studies with any hidden agenda, religious or otherwise. (I must stress that I do not have any links or affiliations with Scientology whatsoever. In fact, my personal affiliations are with traditional (conservative) religious systems in the Abrahamic faiths.) I am always prepared to change my position in line with new information and new research. The platform from which I make all my studies is a commitment to the spiritual autonomy of the individual, to a healthy religious diversity and to freedom of religion as a mainstay of a free, modern society.
Here are a few points about Scientology:
*I accept the ruling of the High Court of Australia which declared that, for all legal purposes, Scientology is a religion and is therefore entitled to the legal benefits that come with that status. Scientologists should be free to practice their religion under the rule of law just like any other group.
*Quite apart from the legal arguments offered by the High Court of Australia, I accept that Scientology is a religion in a wider sense. Although it has many unusual features that distinguish it from the more traditional religions, and in some ways it challenges conventional definitions of religion, its theory and practice is clearly of a spiritual nature. Its scope extends beyond a psycho-therapy and concerns the welfare of souls in eternity. It is therefore best classified as a religion. (Note: I did not always hold this view. For a long while I argued that Scientology is not a religion. After further investigations I changed my mind.)
*I do not accept claims that Scientology is "just a scam" and “nothing but a tax avoidance scheme." After carefully examining the evidence, I do not accept the common claim that L. Ron Hubbard cynically set out to create a religion as a way of making money. Certainly, on any reading, the origins of Scientology are far more complex than that.
*I have made a particular investigation of the claims that the roots of Scientology are in “black magic” and occultism, and find them unsubstantiated. I find that Hubbard had little association with the Satanist Aleister Crowley and that his brief “occult” phase when he lived with a follower of Crowley, Jack Parsons, amounted to little more than dabbling. (In fact, in an extant letter Crowley described Hubbard as a “swindler” - a big call from Crowley, I must say - and it seems Hubbard stole both Parson’s girlfriend and money.) I detect no significant similarities between Scientology and Crowley’s own religion, Thelema. Nor do I detect any other satanic elements in Scientological theory or practice. I find that claims that the higher levels of Scientology are openly satanic have no more substance than the same claims brought against Freemasonry.
*I do not indulge in judgments about the character and motives of the founder of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard. The Church of Scientology’s account of his life is clearly hagiographical and should be understood as such. Some of the non-Scientological biographies of Hubbard I have read strike me as excessively hostile. I am inclined to believe that the truth is somewhere in between. He was obviously a colourful larger-than-life character of unusual intelligence, wit and imagination who often took liberties with his own life narrative. I do not regard him as a saint of cosmic proportions, but neither do I regard him as a personification of pure evil. I doubt assessments that would portray him as a lunatic. His facility with and deconstruction of language is cogent and often impressive, even attracting the admiration of such considerable authors as William S. Burroughs. (Speaking personally, the veneration of Hubbard is one of the least attractive aspects of Scientiology. All my dealings with human beings have made me rather disinclined to cults of personality.)
*While some features of the belief-system of Scientology may appear strange and is often subject to ridicule in the media, I find Scientologists to be perfectly sincere in their beliefs. Scientology tends to be heavily jargonized. When we look beyond the jargon and the strangeness of appearances, the belief-system is not radically different to aspects of Hinduism or Jainism or some schools of Gnostic Christianity. The "science fiction" ("space opera") aspects of Scientology tend to be sensationalized and over-emphasized by the media. It constitutes very little of Scientology, in fact. In any case, many (or most) religions entertain "strange" beliefs (eg. virgin births, angelic visitations, etc.) Scientologists ought not be subject to ridicule and discrimination just because others might find their beliefs outlandish.
*I find some anti-Scientology campaigns extreme and unfair and impede the right of Scientologists to openly practice their religion. Scientologists - more than almost any religious group I know - are subject to misunderstanding, caricature, ridicule, suspicion, conspiracy theories and abuse. Many Scientologists feel the need to hide their religious affiliations because people will suspect them of nefarious deeds and hidden agendas. It is of great concern to me whenever any religious group (Freemasons and Mormons are examples that come to mind) become targets of widespread contempt and derision. No religious group should be beyond criticism and critical examination, but nor should any religious group be hounded to the point of persecution. Much anti-scientology material available on-line goes far beyond reasoned critique and expose; it is abusive hate literature. Sensationalized tabloid journalism brings this into the mainstream. It often amounts to religious vilification. I think the recent characterisation of the Church of Scientology as a "crminal organisation" by Senator Xenophon in the Australian Senate was excessive - it effectively labelled all Scientologists criminals - and an abuse of parliamentary privilege (an abuse that the Senator has since repeated in regards to other religious groups.)
*Unlike many critics of Scientology I do not find its objections to psychiatry a cause for blanket condemnation. Many people have legitimate and well-founded concerns about psychiatric practices; much of the history of psychiatry is indeed barbaric and many of its current practices - including its relationship with drug companies – is questionable. Through my own reading of R. D. Laing, Michel Foucault etc. I am myself sympathetic to critics of psychiatry. (This is an important matter in religious studies today. In some contemporary psychiatric literature there are very worrying moves to pathologize all religious experience and world-views.) While the views of Scientologists on psychiatry often strike me as over-stated, I note that there are many instances where Scientology has exposed serious abuses by the psychiatric profession. (An example in Australia is the Chelmsford scandal.) This is a positive contribution Scientology has made and continues to make to our society.
*I find the Scientological practice of "disconnection" - where Scientologists are ordered to disconnect themselves from family or friends deemed "suppressive persons" - objectionable and socially destructive. I object to the practice of "shunning" in all religions. I find groups where exclusion and shunning is a core practice (the Exclusive Brethren, for example) particularly problematic. I am concerned about any religious group that requires or encourages its members to turn away from their wider network of family and friends or that isolates people from the general community; isolation is always a recipe for trouble. Scientology does not do this in a systematic way but there are many documented cases where the practice of "disconnection" has caused trauma in families and has led to cult-like abuses.
*I do not take the cynical view that all Scientological organisations - including charities run by Scientologists or affiliated with Scientology or deploying Scientology "tech" - are merely "fronts" for the Church of Scientology. Programs such as Narcinon (drug rehab) and Criminon (criminal rehab) should be applauded wherever they do good work in the community. Such charities, of course, should be required to operate within appropriate guidelines set by law. Where this happens I think such charities should have the same status as charities run by, say, the Salvation Army. There is no basis for discriminating against properly run, legally appropriate charities simply because they have affiliations with Scientology. The same applies to other applications of Scientology "tech" such as "Applied Scholastics". There are no grounds for schools rejecting Applied Scholastics simply because it is based on ideas proposed by L. Ron Hubbard. Such systems as Applied Scholastics should be assessed on their own merits and according to objective (evidence-based) criteria.
*Against the Church of Scientology I support the rights of those Scientologists who endeavour to practice their religion outside of the control of the official organisation, i.e. in the so-called "Freezone". I find the Church's aggressive litigation against individuals in the Freezone, and the heavy-handed application of copyrights etc., disturbing. Usually in matters of religion my instinct is to support the rights of individuals over corporate and collective controls.
*In Australia there seems to be an on-going problem in the Church of Scientology concerning the distinction between paid and volunteer labour. There are persistent reports that suggest that the Church engages in exploitative labour practices. The emphasis on “upstats” driving employees to long hours of work and ever higher levels of productivity, easily leads to exploitative situations. In Australia at this time at least it is clear that the Church of Scientology needs to do more to adapt its practices to Australian labour laws.
*My deepest reservations about Scientology concern its practice of charging fees for many of its core services and persistent allegations of its financial exploitation of its members. I accept that many religious organisations charge fees for counselling and other services in order to recoup costs, but the corporate structure and ethos of the Church of Scientology seems to extend beyond this to an unseemly emphasis on profit. I note that many Churches demand tithes and financial contributions from their members and that this is not the case in the Church of Scientology, but it concerns me that spiritual advancement up the “Bridge” is, in practice, linked to capacity to pay. I am suspicious of any model in any spiritual system other than voluntary donation. In general, there seems to be a lack of financial transparency in the Church of Scientology which I regard as unbefitting to a religious organisation. A model of religio-corporatism (complete with a “Chairman of the Board”) invites suspicions of financial misdeeds. I belief that public authorities are quite right to expose the Church of Scientology, and affiliated charities, - and indeed all religious groups - to careful financial scrutiny. The number of ex-Scientologists who feel that they were subject to financial exploitation by the Church is a matter of considerable concern.
*I understand the Scientologist's "E-meter" device to be like various "biofeedback" devices common in counter-culture circles in post-war America. I do not regard scientific assessments of the "E-meter" relevant to Scientology as a religion. In context, claims that it is "unscientific" carry no more weight than claims that prayer is "unscientific". In general, I suspect that Scientology is ahead of its time in applying "biofeedback" as a psycho-spiritual methodology. I expect that Scientology - and other groups - should abide by appropriate legal guidelines in all claims made for the powers of such methods. I note that the "E-meter" is now classified as merely a "religious artefact" and that Scientology has not made extravagant claims about the powers of the E-meter for many decades.
*I note that most of the complaints about the Church of Scientology concern the behaviour and tactics of the administrating organs of the Church. The Church has a strongly top-down mode of organisation. Such hierarchical and tightly managed organisations are prone to a culture of abuse and at very least tend to alienate people. Free-thinking individuals tend to resent regimentation and heavy-handed central control. This is also true of, say, the Roman Catholic Church, but it does seem to be an on-going problem with the Church of Scientology. Some of the governing organs of Scientology, such as the RTC, attract a high level of criticism and, very often, respond to such criticism with aggression rather than self-reflection and contrition. I find that there is a disturbing lack of self-reflection in the upper levels of Scientology management. In some cases the financial and legal behaviour of Church management may be a legitimate concern for law enforcement agencies.
*I note a disturbing number of cases over many years where ex-members of Scientology have reported that it was difficult for them to disentangle themselves from the Church. There is evidence that the Church has often behaved like a "cult" in such cases. Ex-members, or members seeking to leave the religion, have often been subject to harassment and intimidation. This is not uncommon in minority religious groups, but it seems to be a particular problem in the case of Scientology. Where this extends beyond low-level peer pressure, some of the practices of the Church regarding ex-members or disgruntled members may sometimes be a legitimate concern for law enforcement agencies.
*Despite the top-down and very controlling nature of Scientology's structures, there does appear to be considerable local variations in the behaviour of the organisation. The behaviour of Scientology in America isn't necessarily reflected in the Australian organisation. On the whole, I find Scientology in Australia law-abiding and socially benign. The American context can be quite different. American religiosity is quite different.
*While I note that there are plenty of complaints about Scientology from disgruntled customers, and the media is always ready to sensationalise such cases, I have met many people (both current and former Scientologists) who attest that Scientology has been a positive force in their life. I have met people who tell me, very sincerely, that Scientology helped them in a time of need, straightened out their life and gave them purpose. It is hard to argue with such evidence. Clearly, it works for some people. These are not robots with glazed stares. Often they are highly motivated, successful, intelligent people, perfectly sane and self-determining. (Actually, all of my dealings with Scientologists have been cordial and cooperative. They're nothing like how they are often portrayed in the media.)
*Finally, I note that Scientology has probably reached its peak and is, if anything, in decline. It is very hard to find reliable figures. The heyday of Scientology was the late 1980s-early 1990s. Since then, it has contracted. I see it as now in a consolidation phase. I see it has having a modest future as a minority religion that will necessarily change and adapt to a changing social milieu. I suspect Scientology will be better off when the current leadership moves on through generational change.
- Harper McAlpine Black