Reviews – The Church of Scientology
The literature on Scientology has been characterized by extremes, with exposés such as The Scandal of Scientology (1971) balanced by glowing testimonials written by and for Scientologists. Impartial treatments by outsiders have been rare, making this slim but informative volume all the more welcome. Melton (director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., and author of the Encyclopedia of American Religions), begins his study with a history of Lafayette Ron Hubbard, a successful Hollywood screenwriter in the 1930s who also churned out voluminous pulp fiction under various pen names. In 1950 Hubbard published his seminal work Dianetics, which Scientologists now consider to be a work of scripture. A movement formed around him, and he was soon embroiled in controversy. In the 1970s, 11 high-ranking members were arrested for what Melton calls “morally questionable or even illegal acts,” such as the theft of government files about Scientology. (Melton balances hs discussion of these acts with the observation, often overlooked in anticult propaganda, that the church did not officially authorize their activities, and was angry enough to discipline those involved.) Melton offers a straightforward account of Scientology belief, its emphases on survival and personal growth, and its ongoing commitment to dianetics, or the “science of the mind.” The final sections outline church organization and Scientologists’ attempts to combat illiteracy and drug use, then discusses the group’s critics, its prolonged litigation with the IRS over tax-exempt status, and its possible future as a global religion. This brief introduction covers the bases admirably, presenting the views of Scientologists and their detractors.
Journal of Church and State, Derek H. Davis
This short book is the first in a series of general introductions to new religions offered by the Center for Studies on New Religions. Future titles will examine Baha’i, Sokka Gakkai, Unificationism, the Family, and other religions new on the landscape.
Gordon Melton needs no introduction. He is among the foremost experts on new and nonconventional religions. Few scholars understand Scientology better than Melton, and his expertise is evident in this crisp, cogent study of one of the world’s fastest growing religions.
Scientology emerged in the early 1950s as a movement that found its inspiration in the voluminous writings of L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986). Hubbard’s seminal work, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, published in 1950 and an immediate best seller, contained Hubbard’s conclusions about mental aberrations experienced by all human beings and how to “clear” them through a counseling technique called auditing. Dianetics, however, presented no comprehensive worldview that might be called a religion; it was strictly an analysis of how the mind functions. But Hubbard soon shifted his emphasis away from the mind itself to an emphasis on the greater entity that observes and directs the mind—what Hubbard called the thetan, from the Greek letter theta, for thought of life—what many religions call the spirit or soul. One’s thetan is eternal and, in keeping with Eastern thought (with which Hubbard was well familiar), is continually reincarnated. The term Scientology emerged as a description of this deeper understanding of humanity’s place in the cosmos. Scientology was soon serving as a religion for many of Hubbard’s followers; thus it came as no surprise that the first Church of Scientology was founded in 1954. As Melton relates, few religions grew as fast or drew as much attention in the half century to follow.
Melton traces the growth and development of Scientology, describing the structure of the church, its system of ethics and justice, its social betterment and social reform programs, its impressive commitment to religious freedom and other human rights, and its struggle to win acceptance. Many countries, including the United States, now give official recognition to Scientology as a religion, but many do not. It is widely condemned in many parts of Europe, especially Germany, as part of a growing “anti-cult” movement, yet it continues a meteoric growth not only in Europe but also worldwide. as Melton describes it, “Scientology has overcome one controversy after another, each of which inhibited growth in one country or the other for a brief period, [but] the overall trend has been one of continuous expansion.” Members of the church can today be located in most countries around the world, and its materials are now translated into fifty-four languages. Scientology seems to have found the permanence it has sought, although it is still too early to tell if it will win the acceptance it seeks.
Few books pack as much information into so little space. Anyone seeking a brief, insightful, objective, and scholarly summary of Scientology will find this book a valuable resource.
Journal of Contemporary Religion, Richard Singelenberg
With the exception of Roy Wallis’s monograph The Road to Total Freedom, published a quarter of a century ago (Wallis, 1977), Harriet Whitehead’s Renunciation and Reformulation (an analysis of the movement’s belief system based on fieldwork in the late 2960s, Whitehead, 1987), and scanty papers in peer reviewed journals and edited volumes, the amount of balanced accounts of Scientolgy correlate inversely with th deluge of writings from numerous adversaries and popular media. Melton’s concise description partly fills this void. It includes a biography of founder Hubbard, he genesis and development of his brainchild Dianetics as well as a sketch of Scientolgy’s contemporary beliefs, practices, and multi-branched organizational structure. As an indiction for the church’s controversial nature, the final chapter is aptly titled “But is it a religion?”.
Compared to the penetration studies by Wallis and Whitehead, the scope of this booklets introductory rather than analytical. Interesting details include Hubbard’s relationship with occultist Aleister Crowley, a fact that has so far been left out of the official writings of the Church of Scientology. Neither will the reprehensible acts and illegal operations of the notorious Guardian Office, the movement’s autarkic security unit during the late 1960’s receive much attention in the church’s publications. The author attributes Scientology’s fanatic litigious character to the actions of the federal authorities, as when they called the tax-exempt status of the church into question. That may well be so, but since, Scientology’s ideology corresponds with the current American value system, it is not surprising tht the movement resorts to the institutions that the very system provides. In the discussion about Scientology’s religious claims, the author offers some comparative perspective, although any reference to Bryan Wilson’s insightful ‘inventory’ of the movement’s belief system is notable missing (Wilson, 1990)
In View of Scientology’s reputation and, perhaps more importantly, what many critics consider Meltion’s apologetic statements in the aftermath of Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attack in Tokyo, sceptics and opponents may wonder if he is the right person to write about this thorny subject. For example, the author leans heavily on Scientology’s publications concerning the details of Hubbard’s course of life, dismissing references from adversaries, admittedly to be considered with reserve, too easily. The reader can hardly check many of these biographical data through objective sources. As for other details, the remark that Narconon, Scientology’s drug rehabilitation project, “has been recognized as an effective treatment program in Holland” (p. 74) is obscure, since no Dutch government agency or any advisory body has recommended or even acknowledged this therapy. These shortcomings aside, perhaps this practical book will elicit much-needed follow-up studies; Wallis’s classic still awaits and updated and worthy successor.
Soka Gakkai (“value-created society”) is a Buddhist movement founded in Japan in 1937. The founder, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944), died in prison. The movement now has upward of 15 million members. Karel Dobbelaere, emeritus professor of sociology at the Catholic University of Leuven and the University of Antwerp, describes their history, their religious and social characteristics, the process of conversion, their educational work and politics, and their publications. He includes twenty photographs and a bibliograpy.