excerpt – The Church of Scientology

The Founding Church of Scientology in Washington, D. C.BIRTH OF A RELIGION

As the twenty-first century opens, the Church of Scientology1 has emerged as one major focus of the ongoing controversy on new religions and their role in the rise of religious pluralism in the west. The teachings of founder L. Ron Hubbard enjoyed some immediate success with the public following their initial appearance in 1950, but one could have hardly predicted Scientology’s meteoric rise or its history of public conflict from its modest beginning. The controversy over Scientology has extended at times to almost every aspect of the church and its founder, and while those issues have been largely resolved in North America, the very status of Scientology as a religion continues to be seriously questioned in some quarters and has been the subject of multiple court cases. True, it has been recognized as a religion in many countries of the world, including the United States; but opposition continues in some quarters. In the modest space allowed, this essay cannot cover every point at issue, but does attempt to provide (1) an overview of the life of L. Ron Hubbard anchored by the generally agreed upon facts; (2) an introduction to the church’s beliefs, practices, and organization; and (3) a summary of the major points of the controversy.

The Founder

Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (1911-1986) began life in the rural Midwest, born in Tilden, Nebraska, to U.S. naval officer Harry Ross Hubbard and Ledora May Waterbury.2 Six months after his birth, the family moved from Nebraska to Oklahoma, then settled for a time in Montana, eventually establishing itself on a ranch near Helena. The land was still frontier country, and the youthful Hubbard learned to be at home on a horse. Befriended by the local Blackfoot Indians, he was made a blood brother at the age of six.3 After some five years, the family was on the move again, and in October 1923 headed for Washington, D. C. Memorable on the trip East to the twelve-year-old Hubbard was a meeting with U. S. Navy commander Joseph “Snake” Thompson. Over the next couple of months, Thompson, a student of Sigmund Freud, introduced Hubbard to the inner workings of the mind being explored by depth psychology, and the youth felt encouraged to begin his own independent explorations.4

In March 1925 Hubbard returned to the family homestead in Montana and was still residing there when, in the summer of 1927, he made his first excursion to foreign lands, a summer trip that included brief stops in Hawaii, Japan, China (including Hong Kong), the Philippines, and finally Guam, where he taught school with the native Chamorros for several weeks. Returning for a last year at Helena High School, he got a start on his writing career with articles submitted to the school newspaper (including stories of his summer travels). He also became an editor for the newspaper. In 1928 he returned to the Orient for a longer visit. For fourteen months he journeyed around China (including at least one inland trip), Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia, and for a period served as helmsman and supercargo aboard a twin-masted coastal schooner. In September 1929 he returned to finish his high school education at Swavely Prep School in Manassas, Virginia, (February 1930) and Woodward School for Boys in Washington, D. C. (June 1930).

After graduating from Woodward, in the fall of 1930 he enrolled at George Washington University (GWU). He led a varied student life that included singing and script-writing on the local radio station, writing dramas, and taking a course in subatomic physics. As flying captured the imagination of the nation, Hubbard became an accomplished pilot and president of the GWU Flying Club. In fact, his flying enthusiasm occasioned his first sale of a piece of writing, a non-fiction article, “Tailwind Willies,” to Sportsman Pilot (Jan. 1932). He soon followed it with his first published fiction stories, “Tah” (The University Hatchet, Feb. 1932) and “Grounded” (The University Hatchet, Apr. 1932). As the school year closed, he won the GWU Literary Award for his one-act play, “The God Smiles.”

While writing had clearly manifested as Hubbard’s primary talent, his early travels as a teen also prepared him for what was to be a significant sub-theme—exploring. He was still in his early twenties when in 1932 he organized and led more than fifty students on a two-and-a-half-month tour of the Caribbean aboard a 200-foot, four-masted schooner. Amid the fun of the trip, a scientific team that joined the cruise gathered a selection of tropical plants and animals later deposited at the University of Michigan. Soon after the trip, Hubbard left again for the West Indies to work on a mineralogical survey in the new American territory of Puerto Rico.

Hubbard left the university after only two years, and in 1933 married. It was time to settle down and make a living, and the popular pulp magazines provided employment. His first story, “The Green God,” appeared in Thrilling Adventures in February 1934. He wrote rapidly (a talent his fellow authors would always envy) and turned out story after story that frequently appeared under a variety of imaginative pen names (Winchester Remington Colt, Bernard Hubbel, René Lafayette, Scott Morgan, Kurt von Rachen, and John Seabrook). It was a common practice for pulps to rely upon a few valued writers while appearing to draw from a much larger stable of writers than they actually possessed.

Through the mid-1930s, Hubbard produced many different kinds of stories for the pulps, from westerns to supernatural fantasy. He also turned out his first novel, Buckskin Brigades, in 1937. That same year Columbia Pictures purchased the film rights to a second novel, Murder at Pirate Castle, and Hubbard moved to Hollywood for a few months to work on the screenplay. His book was seen on the big screen as the serial Secret of Treasure Island. He remained in California to work on two additional serials produced by Columbia, The Mysterious Pilot and The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, and on The Spider Returns, an early super hero adventure done by Warner Brothers.

Shortly after his return to New York from the west coast, he came into touch with the publishers of Astounding Science Fiction. Though continuing to write in other genres, he would find his greatest fame in science fiction (and the related fields of fantasy and horror) and would become one of the noteworthy voices in that primal generation that created the field as it is known today. Over the next few years he would become friends with Astounding‘s editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., for whom he produced an initial story, “The Dangerous Dimension,” for the July 1938 issue. He also became a regular contributor to Campbell’s fantasy magazine, Unknown, for which Hubbard produced one of his greatest pieces of fiction, Fear, originally published in the June 1940 issue. He quickly established himself in the community of writers of popular fiction, a fact signaled in 1935 by his election as president of the New York chapter of the American Fiction Guild. Increasingly, during his spare time, he was sought out by aspiring writers looking for words of advice, encouragement, and assistance.

The Disruption of War

Though writing consumed his time, Hubbard never lost his adventurous spirit, and, with war already a reality in Europe, he found new uses for his interests. In 1940 he was elected a member of the Explorers Club and in June sailed under its banner as head of the Alaskan Radio Experimental Expedition. His group charted the coastline north of Seattle to the Alaskan panhandle for the U. S. Navy Hydrographic Office, experimented with radio directional finding, and included some anthropological observations of the Native American peoples of the region. As the expedition was drawing to a close, in December the U. S. Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation awarded him a “Master of Steam and Motor Vessels” license. Three months later he received his “Master of Sail Vessels” license for any ocean.5

Hubbard was commissioned as a lieutenant (junior grade) in the U. S. Naval Reserve in late June. He was called to active duty following the attack on Pearl Harbor and ordered to the Philippines. With the subsequent Japanese takeover of the Philippines, he began his wartime service with naval intelligence in Australia. His later posts during the war included command of convoy escort YP 422 in Boston; command of the sub chaser PC 815 in the North Pacific; and navigation officer aboard the USS Algol. It appears that PC 815 did engage and sink a Japanese submarine off the Oregon coast, a fact only recently substantiated because of the American government’s reluctance to admit that the Japanese were in fact operating off America’s Pacific Coast during the war. He spent the last months of the war at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California.6 While recovering, he had time to give consideration to the larger questions of the nature of the human mind and to help some of his fellow patients who had not survived the war in the best of mental health. It appears that the months in Oak Knoll provided an occasion during which the earlier ruminations on the human problem were intensified and a period of more systematic consideration of the human condition was launched.7

Following his release from active duty in February 1946, Hubbard to all outward appearances returned to his prewar life. His first marriage having ended, he married again and picked up his writing career. He churned out a number of short stories, among the most enduring being the “Ole Doc Methuselah” series, a collection of seven short stories which originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction under Hubbard’s pen name René Lafayette and more recently gathered and published as a single volume. The stories centered upon a 700-year-old Soldier of Light who traveled throughout the galaxy performing astonishing medical feats and, contrary to standard professional ethics, involving himself in interesting areas of interplanetary politics.

Immediately after the war, in December 1945, but while still a commissioned officer and on active duty, Hubbard became involved in one of the most intriguing episodes in his long life, participation in the activities of the Ordo Templi Orientis. The OTO is a ritual magic group, then headed by the aging Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), the famous and somewhat notorious occultist. It practiced what it saw as real magick (as opposed to stage magic); the secret ritual of the group involved the use of sex to raise magical energies. After World War II, the Agape Lodge of the OTO was opened in Pasadena, California, and one John W. (Jack) Parsons (1914-52), an explosives expert and key man at the California Institute of Technology, emerged as a leader of the small group. Soon after his discharge from Oak Knoll, Hubbard showed up at the Pasadena OTO headquarters.

According to accounts published by the OTO, Parsons developed an immediate liking for Hubbard and invited him to participate in the OTO work, though Hubbard refused to become a member. Even though Hubbard was not properly initiated, he assisted Parsons on several magical operations in what he would later claim was in fulfillment of his military intelligence function.8 For whatever reason, early in 1946 Parsons and Hubbard had a parting of the ways. Parsons claimed that Hubbard had persuaded him to sell the property of the Agape Lodge, after which Hubbard, along with Parsons’s sister-in-law Betty, allegedly absconded with the money. Hubbard reappeared on a newly purchased yacht off the Florida coast. Parsons pursued him, and on July 5, 1946, a confrontation occurred. Hubbard had sailed at 5:00 p.m. At 8:00 p.m., Parsons performed a full magical invocation to “Bartzabel.” Coincidentally, a sudden squall struck the yacht, ripped the sails, and forced Hubbard to port, where Parsons was able to recover at least a small percentage of the money.

Hubbard’s account (and that of the present-day Church of Scientology) denies any attachment to the OTO. Rather, Hubbard claimed that in his capacity as a U. S. intelligence officer, he was sent to scrutinize Parsons and the lodge. The building that served as the lodge’s headquarters also housed a number of nuclear physicists living there while working at Cal Tech (and these physicists were among sixty-four later dismissed from government service as security risks). Hubbard asserted that, due to his efforts, the headquarters was torn down, a girl rescued from the group, and the group ultimately destroyed.

Both stories stand and, in fact, may be genuine perceptions of the events since Hubbard obviously would not make any undercover “investigative” operation known to Parsons. These events also appear to be the source of charges that Hubbard based Scientology’s teachings in part on Crowley’s. It should be noted that, whatever happened during Hubbard’s association with Parsons, the teachings of the Church of Scientology are at wide variance with those of Crowley and that the practices of the church show no direct OTO influence.9

Quite apart from the OTO, however, in light of the later emergence of the Dianetics movement and the Church of Scientology, it is obvious that Hubbard was spending the greater part of his energies during these postwar years on his personal research aimed at finding a technology of the human mind. He was synthesizing all he had read and learned into what would be a novel approach to the problem.10 He first compiled his thoughts in 1948 into a short book, The Original Thesis,11 which he circulated privately. It contained his basic conclusions concerning the nature of human aberrations and his early ideas about handling them through the counseling technique called auditing.

Knowledge of his new ideas within his friendship network led to his initial published articles on Dianetics, “Terra Incognita: The Mind,” in The Explorers Club Journal (Winter/Spring 1948/1950) and the far more influential one in Astounding Science Fiction.12

Favorable response to The Original Thesis led to his expanding it into a more substantial volume, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health,13 whose publication on May 9, 1950, is considered by Scientologists a seminal event of the century. The appearance of Dianetics has, they believe, ushered in a new era of hope for humankind. The next month it hit the New York Times bestseller list and there remained for the rest of the year. Concurrently, Hubbard founded the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he held classes to train people as auditors. He also toured the country lecturing on the principles presented in the book.

Overnight Hubbard had become the leader of a popular movement that was growing faster than anyone had expected. Above and beyond responding to people who wanted to know more or wished to be audited, he faced an immediate need to provide guidelines for auditors (from the Latin audire, “to listen”). People were purchasing his book and auditing each other with the instructions they found in its pages. Hubbard launched a series of training lectures and had the notes from his “Professional Course” (Nov. 1950) transcribed and published.

During 1951 he intensified efforts to offer direction to the growing movement. He increased the number of public lectures, but concentrated teaching time on the training of auditors. He also found time to write two important new texts—Science of Survival14 and Self-Analysis.15 Possibly the most important addition to Dianetics during the year, however, came with the incorporation of the electropsychometer or F-meter. Developed by Volney Matheson, following Hubbard’s designs, the small device measures emotional reactions to a tiny electrical current. To Scientologists, the changes in the F-meter measure changes in the mind and tell what the pre-Clear’s mind is doing when the pre-Clear is induced to think of something, though its indications must be interpreted by a trained auditor. (For more on these terms, see Chapter 2.) The E- meter gave Scientology a means of quantifying the counseling experience (a possibility about which most psychotherapists are extremely skeptical).16

Not everyone inspired by their reading of Dianetics came into association with the foundation. A number of organizations, each with its own variation on Hubbard’s ideas and practices, arose. At the same time Hubbard’s own investigations brought him up against the phenomenon of past lives. Through the first half of 1951, the subject of reincarnation became a matter of intense debate on the board, and in July some members of the board sought to pass a resolution banning the entire subject.17 Most notable among those supporting the resolution were John Campbell, who had supported Hubbard since the publication of the Dianetics article in his magazine, and Dr. Joseph Winter, a physician who had written a book on Dianetics and who had hoped to see Dianetics eventually accepted by his physician colleagues.18 With the changing personnel, his organization went through various corporate changes, and in 1952 Hubbard founded the Hubbard Association of Scientologists (later adding the word International) as a more permanent corporate structure. He also launched the Journal of Scientology to keep followers abreast of the growing movement and issued a regular series of technical publications to further the auditors’ training and keep them abreast of the latest developments.

The appearance of the term Scientology indicated the emergence of a distinct new emphasis in the movement Hubbard had founded. Dianetics concentrated on the mind, believed to be the mechanism which receives, records, and stores images of experiences. In several years since the publication of Dianetics, amid the time-consuming task of training auditors, Hubbard shifted his attention away from the mind itself to the entity observing the images that the mind was storing. That entity—he called it a thetan, from the Greek letter theta, for thought or life—closely resembled what other religions had called the soul or spirit. Hubbard was clearly venturing into theological realms, inspired somewhat by Eastern religious perspectives, especially manifest in his acceptance of past lives.

The development of a more comprehensive understanding of the human being that included consideration of humanity’s place in the cosmos suggested the emergence of Scientology into the field of religion. By 1954 students of Dianetics and Scientology were already acknowledging that Scientology functioned for them as their religion. Thus it came as no surprise when, in February 1954, some of Hubbard’s followers, operating independently of him but clearly with his blessing, organized the first local Church of Scientology.19

While the movement was expanding rapidly in the United States, Dianetics was also finding an audience overseas. In late 1952, when Hubbard first traveled to England, he found a group of people already using his book. And as he was opening the training center in London, he discovered that there were similar responses to his teachings throughout the English speaking world, from Ireland to Australia to South Africa. There were eager students even in far off Israel, and the second local Church of Scientology was opened neither in Chicago nor New York, but in Auckland, New Zealand.

In March 1955, Hubbard moved east where the Founding Church of Scientology in Washington, D. C., was opened, and he assumed duties as its executive director. From that post, he began the process of developing the church’s administration procedures. He also formed a distribution center to oversee the publication and dissemination of Dianetics/Scientology literature (the seed of what is now Bridge Publications).

The international spread of Scientology during the last half of the 1950s was capped by the opening of churches in Johannesburg, South Africa (1957), and Paris, France (1959), the first in a non-English-speaking country. World headquarters was moved to England where Saint Hill, a rural estate, had been purchased at East Grinstead, Sussex. Hubbard would live there for the next seven years. However, before he really settled in, he finished off the decade with a round-the-world tour highlighted by stops in Greece and India, and a series of lectures in Melbourne and London. The new decade began on an optimistic note, but storm clouds had gathered and a deluge was about to burst upon the young church.



1. Scientology and Dianetics are trademarks of the Religious Technology Center, and the works of L. Ron Hubbard quoted in this work are copyrighted by the L. Ron Hubbard Library.

2. The Church of Scientology has yet to produce a biography of Hubbard, though it has put out a series of biographical booklets which highlight important areas of his life through his own writings and added commentary, and a photographic biography:

L. Ron Hubbard, Images of a Lifetime: A Photographic Biography (Los Angeles: Bridge Publications, 1996). A comprehensive biography is due out soon. The best of the several biographies attempted by critics, The Bare-Faced Messiah, by Russell Miller (New York: Henry Holt, 1988), is seriously lacking as Miller did not have access to many of the documents relating to the rise and progress of the church.

3. On the 70th anniversary of Hubbard’s becoming a blood brother, a ceremony commemorating that event was held among the members of the contemporary Blackfoot tribe. Cf. letter from C. Emerson Fisher, Aug. 27, 1985, copy in the American Religions Collection, Davidson Library, University of California-Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California.

4. Indicative of the continuing relationship between Thompson and Freud is an interesting postcard found in the Freud papers at the Library of Congress in which Thompson is thanked for sending his mentor a “charming photograph of the 3 beauties at the Pacific Ocean.” Postcard from Sigmund Freud to Thompson, July 27, 1923, in Library of Congress; copy in the American Religions Collection of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

5. In 1970 an officer of The Explorers Club wrote of Hubbard, “His extensive experience in aerial mapping by camera under almost every type of condition was one of the many qualifying factors for membership. To his credit is the first complete mineralogical survey of Puerto Rico in 1932 and 1933; survey flights throughout the U. S. to assist in the adjustment of field and facility data; Caribbean Expedition resulting in valued data for the Hydrographic Office and the University of Michigan. In 1940 he went to Alaska to rewrite U. S. Coast Pilot, Alaska, Part 1, and to investigate a new method of radio-positioning entailing a new aerial and a new mathematical computation and instrument.” Letter from Marie E. Roy, Feb. 4, 1970, copy in the American Religions Collection, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.

6. Hubbard left the service in February 1946 with twenty-one citations, letters of commendation, and medals on his record. It should be noted that the details of Hubbard’s naval career have been called into question by the critics of the Church of Scientology. Critics rely on an alleged copy of Hubbard’s notice of separation deposited at the Veteran’s Administration and accessible through the Freedom of Information Act. This copy, inter alia, mentions four medals and awards rather than twenty-one. The church has replied by filing in a number of court cases both the original notice of separation kept in the church’s archives and expert evidence by military specialists explaining why discrepancies may occur for a number of reasons between an original notice of separation and the copy kept by the Veteran’s Administration, insisting that the original should prevail.

7. Along with the assistance he offered to some of his fellow patients at Oak Knoll, Hubbard saw two prior events as forming the trajectory that led to Dianetics. While in college, he became curious about the nature of poetry and wondered why poetry affected us differently than prose writing. Of interest were not so much his results as the method he adopted to answer his question. He used a Koenig photometer (which shows the vocal patterns when held against the diaphragm) and produced graphs of the two kinds of vibration patterns. He then posed the question of how the mind might respond to different patterns. Second, in 1938 he authored an essay, “Excalibur,” which concluded with what became a basic Dianetics/Scientology insight that all life is directed toward survival.

8. Space does not allow a detailed discussion of Hubbard’s involvement with the Agape Lodge. I have included a more detailed discussion in the most recent editions of the Encyclopedia of American Religion (Detroit Gale Research, 1996), 162, and in my paper published as “Thelemic Magic in America: The Emergence of an Alternative Religion,” in Joseph H. Fichter, ed., Alternatives to American Mainline Churches (Barrytown, NY: Unification Theological Seminary, 1983), 67-87.

9. In an off-the-cuff remark during the Philadelphia Lectures in 1952 (PDC Lecture 18), Hubbard referred to “my friend Aleister Crowley.” This reference would have to be one of literary allusion, as Crowley and Hubbard never met. He obviously had read some of Crowley’s writings and makes reference to one of the more famous passages in Crowley’s vast writings and his idea that the essence of the magical act was the intention with which it was accomplished. Crowley went on to illustrate magic with a mundane example, an author’s intention in writing a book.

10. Critics of the church have gone into great detail to point out possible sources for the various aspects of the teachings of Dianetics and Scientology, and there are certainly numerous points of convergence between Hubbard’s teachings and individual ideas and practices available elsewhere. At present, it is not known which aspects of Dianetics Hubbard actually encountered in previously existing sources and subsequently incorporated them into his system and which parts occurred to him independently. The essence of Hubbard’s originality, however, lies not so much in the sources of the individual elements as in the synthesizing of them into a finished system.

11. The Original Thesis is currently available under the title, The Dynamics of Life (Los Angeles: Bridge Publications, 1983).

12. The article, “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science,” appeared in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and editor Campbell was for several years a major supporter of Hubbard’s new approach to mental health.

13. L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. A Handbook of Dianetic Therapy (New York: Hermitage House, 1950).

14. (Los Angeles: Bridge Publications, 1989).

15. (Los Angeles: Bridge Publications, 1982).

16. The E-meter has frequently been compared to a lie detector, but such a comparison is misleading. Their only common denominator is a Wheatstone bridge, but the two instruments are designed for completely different purposes.

17. See the discussion of the board’s inner turmoil in chapter nine of Hubbard’s early work, Science of Survival (Los Angeles: Bridge Publications, 1989), 74 (first edition, Wichita, KS: The Hubbard Dianetic Foundation, 1951).

18. Winter had written the preface to the original edition of Dianetics and then penned an early favorable account of Hubbard’s work, A Doctor’s Report on Dianetics, Theory and Therapy (New York: Julian Press, 1951).

19. In 1954, through the Professional Auditor’s Bulletin, Hubbard issued a most enlightening statement on the foundation of the Church of Scientology, the existence of which he had to explain against the criticisms of some of the students of Dianetics. See “Why Doctor of Divinity,” Professional Auditor’s Bulletin 32 (7 Aug. 1954).