The modern academic study of religion that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries must be distinguished from the classical disciplines of theology. While the task of theology was the exposition of the faith of a particular community (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc.)—this most commonly meant the Christian faith in the west—the academic study of religion was concerned to offer a scientific description and analysis of all religious phenomena. Thus one of the first tasks of the modern discipline of the study of religion was to free the definition of religion from its typical identification with Christianity. Standard dictionary definitions of religion still reflect this tendency to identify religion in general with the characteristics of especially Christianity and other monotheistic faiths. Those definitions often indicate that the sole or central characteristic of religion is “belief in a Supreme Being.” But scholars of religion knew of great and ancient religions that had no such “belief in a Supreme Being.” The principal examples were Buddhism, especially in its Theravadin forms where such a belief was explicitly rejected, and Jainism, which also explicitly rejected this belief. Yet these religions were more than 2,000 years old. Moreover, the Confucian traditions minimized the emphasis on the Transcendent and maximized emphasis on proper human relations. And in Hinduism one encountered many gods and goddesses and not just a single “Supreme Being.” Moreover, the very mystical traditions of the monotheistic faiths of the West were often critical of the very notion of God as a “Supreme Being” and insisted that the Reality of God transcended such conceptions. Thus it was seen as essential to have a definition or understanding of religion that was adequate to the wide variety of religious traditions found among human beings throughout history.
At the same time, there was a recognition that in the religious traditions of humankind there was a dimension that transcended the mundane. However, that dimension or reality was named in a wide variety of ways. While Christians might strive for “union with God,” or Muslims seek “submission to Allah,” Buddhists were more bent on achieving “inner enlightenment or satori,” Hindus more directed to realizing the “eternal atman or Self,” and Jains strove to cultivate a “good mind.” Thus the definition of religion that emerged in the modern study of religion included some recognition of “a Beyond” understood broadly enough to include those religions that either did not have a notion of a “Supreme Being” or explicitly rejected such an idea in the name of another conception of the Ultimate. While every religion identifies a sacred dimension of life, not every religion identifies the sacred with a “Supreme Being.”
While Western Protestant Christianity may have especially emphasized belief as central to religion, other strands of religious life, Christian and non-Christian, put more emphasis on practice. In Buddhism, for example, the issue is practice: the practice of the Eight-Fold Path as the Way to overcome suffering. In Hinduism one encounters a whole Way to the Ultimate where the whole life is one of practice (rajyoga) or work (karmayoga). But practice is not just meditation or contemplation or action, it is also prayer, ethical behaviour, familial relations, and a host of other practices. In all religious traditions, though in varying degrees, there is a whole life that is to be lived in conformity to the ideal of the religion and that is a life exemplified in practice. Thus, practice in conformity to the ideals and the ethical guidelines of a given religious way was seen as a further dimension to the understanding of what religion is. Moreover, the practice we observe in religious communities and traditions is often ritual practice.
Thus, the modern study of religion was led to acknowledge a further dimension of religious life, namely, the ritual dimension. Rites and rituals are structured acts of the religious community to facilitate communion with the Ultimate dimensions of life. In some of the Chinese traditions, rites were considered essential to maintain the order of the cosmos and were elaborate events spreading over several days. Some religious traditions downplay the role of ritual, e.g., Quaker Christians, but even here they would consider the “gathering in silence” to be essential to their community. Though the ritual dimension varies greatly from tradition to tradition—and even within a given tradition as is witnessed in the ritual splendor of Orthodox Christianity and the ritual simplicity of the Mennonite meeting house—it is a dimension present to the religious life of humankind.
These elements of belief, practice, and ritual do not stand in splendid isolation but come together in the life of religious community to create its distinctive way of life or culture. Hindus, then, are people who share a complex of beliefs, practices, and rites that serve to facilitate their way of life, a way that has both mundane and supramundane dimensions. The Latin root of the term religion, religare, means “to bind together,” and here we can see the two-fold meaning of that “binding together.” There is the “binding together” of “the human and the divine” through a religion, and the “binding together” of human beings in a religious community.
It is in the light of these considerations that there has emerged in the modern study of religion an understanding of religion as a community of men and women bound together by a complex of beliefs, practices, behaviours, and rituals that seek, through this Way, to relate human to sacred/divine life. It is essential, however, to understand that each dimension of this definition of religion—community, belief, practice, behaviour, ritual, Way, and divine—will be understood (a) within the specific terms of a given religious tradition and (b) with relatively more emphasis to some rather than other elements in a given tradition. Thus, for example, the “community” dimension of religion might receive more emphasis in Orthodox Judaism than it does in Taoism or even in other strands of Judaism. Likewise, the divine might be understood as a Transcendent Reality as in Judaism or as an immanent, though unrealized, Self, as it is in many Hindu schools. But such variations do not invalidate the definition of religion, but simply reflect the variety of religious phenomena that must be covered by a modern, academic account of religion.
It is in the light of the above that we can then ask whether or not Scientology is a religion. The brief answer is “yes, it is.” We can make this clearer if we now take the above understanding of religion and look at the case of Scientology.
In the Church of Scientology, do we encounter a distinctive set of religious beliefs concerning the meaning and ultimate end of human life? Even the most cursory familiarity with the Scientology community and its literature will lead one to answer in the affirmative.
Scientology is “an applied religious philosophy and technology resolving problems of the spirit, life and thought.” Those “problems of the spirit, life and thought” are not permanent but can be overcome...
According to their own literature, Scientology is “an applied religious philosophy and technology resolving problems of the spirit, life and thought.” Those “problems of the spirit, life and thought” are not permanent but can be overcome, according to Scientology. That overcoming of the “problems of the spirit, life and thought” is centered, in Scientology, in awareness and knowledge. Central to that awareness and knowledge are the thetan and the Eight Dynamics. Each requires a brief clarification in order to indicate some central aspects of Scientology belief.
According to Scientology, our humanity is composed of different parts: the body, the mind, and the thetan. The thetan in Scientology is analogous to the soul in Christianity and the spirit in Hinduism. Part of the problem of life is that human beings have lost an awareness of their true nature. In Scientology, this means an awareness of themselves as thetans. Yet awareness and knowledge of oneself as a thetan is essential to well-being and survival. Human beings often confuse their deepest reality with the body or the mind, or see themselves as only body and/or mind. But for Scientology it is essential that human beings recover and recognize their spiritual nature, that, in the language of Scientology, “one is a thetan.” As thetans, human beings are “spiritual, immortal, and ‘virtually indestructible.’”
Since the awareness of oneself as thetan has been obscured by “engrams” or lost in the confusions of thetan with the body and/or the mind, a chief religious task is to recover one’s spirituality. It is essential since “the thetan is the source of all creation and life itself.” This awareness then is the first stage in the practice of a religious way that will lead us to become, in Scientology terms, Clear. As human beings become aware of their true nature, according to Scientology, and of the concentric circles of reality, then, Scientologists believe, they can proceed, freely and creatively, through life’s Eight Dynamics. (See What is Scientology?, 1992 edition)
The basic message of life, according to Scientology, is survival across the Eight Dynamics. The first dynamic is “Self,” or the dynamic of life to survive as an individual. This first dynamic exists within ever larger circles of existence that extend to the eighth dynamic or Infinity. Since the delineation of the Eight Dynamics is fundamental to Scientology it is appropriate to outline each “dynamic” briefly. As indicated, the dynamics begin with the individual existence or “Self” and its drive to survive and proceed through the second dynamic which Scientology calls “creativity” or “making things for the future,” and includes the family and the rearing of children. The third dynamic is “Group Survival,” that compartment of life that involves voluntary communities, friends, companies, nations and races. The fourth dynamic is “the species of mankind” or the “urge toward survival through all mankind and as all mankind.” The fifth dynamic is “life forms” or the “urge of all living things” towards survival. The sixth dynamic is the “physical universe.” The seventh dynamic is the “spiritual dynamic” or the urge “for life itself to survive.” The eighth dynamic is “the urge toward existence as infinity,” or what others call “a Supreme Being or Creator.” “A knowledge of the dynamics allows one to more easily inspect and understand any aspect of life.” (What is Scientology?, 1992 edition, p. 149.) It is within life as a whole, or across the Eight Dynamics in Scientology terms, that the religious journey and task unfolds.
It is particularly within the Eighth Dynamic that one encounters the Scientology affirmation of “what others call” the Supreme Being or Creator. But Scientology prefers the term “Infinity” to speak of “the allness of all.” The reticence of Scientology in relation to “Infinity” has its parallels in other traditions. Before the Ultimate Mystery, mystics of all traditions counsel restraint, even silence.
Scientology beliefs concerning the thetan have parallels in other religious traditions, as does their belief in the Eight Dynamics and the ultimate spiritual nature of things. The religious quest in Scientology is more analogous to Eastern processes of enlightenment and realization than it is to Western versions of the religious quest which tend to emphasize conformity to the Divine Will. Some scholars even suggest that in Scientology we have a version of “technologized Buddhism” (See F. Flinn in J. Fichter, ed., Alternatives to American Mainline Churches, New York, 1983), while others emphasize its parallels to Eastern mind development practices. But one can also see in their belief in the Eight Dynamics a parallel with the medieval vision of the Soul’s Journey to God which culminates in identification with the Ultimate Mystery, God.
In Buddhism the problem and process is to move from unenlightened to enlightened and in Christianity from sinful to redeemed, while in Scientology, it is to move from “preclear” to “Clear” and beyond. Here the state of Clear is understood as an awareness of one’s spiritual nature and realized spiritual freedom, freed from the burdens of past experiences and capable of living a rational, moral existence.
Like some other religious traditions, Scientology sees the religious quest in largely religio-therapeutic terms, that is, the process of addressing the human problem is a process of actualizing a lost or hidden human spiritual power or dimension of life. In Buddhism the problem and process is to move from unenlightened to enlightened and in Christianity from sinful to redeemed, while in Scientology, it is to move from “preclear” to “Clear” and beyond. Here the state of Clear is understood as an awareness of one’s spiritual nature and realized spiritual freedom, freed from the burdens of past experiences and capable of living a rational, moral existence. This in Scientology is the nature of the religious quest, the goal of religious striving. This quest does not end in the state of Clear, however, but continues on to higher levels of spiritual awareness and ability on the upper or “operating thetan” levels. At these upper levels of achievement, one is able to control oneself and environment, or, as Scientology doctrine puts it, to be “at cause over life, thought, matter, energy, space and time.”
Coupled then with the beliefs outlined above is a religious practice and way. This dimension of Scientology is often described in their terms as “technology,” or the methods of applying the principles. Central to the religious practice in Scientology is the phenomenon of auditing, regarded as a sacrament by Scientologists. This is a process by which one becomes aware of the hidden spiritual barriers that keep one from becoming aware of one’s essential spiritual nature as a thetan and from properly exercising that nature. These obstacles to a fully functioning or realized life are called “engrams.” A religious artifact known as the “E-Meter” is used in auditing to assist parishioners or Scientology adherents to recognize and overcome these negative blocks on the way to Clear. (See L. Ron Hubbard, The Volunteer Minister’s Handbook, Los Angeles, 1976.) The auditing process unfolds between a religious specialist—an auditor who is a minister or minister-in-training in the Church of Scientology—and a person receiving auditing, a preclear. Following set procedures and questions, the auditing process is designed to enable the preclear to become aware of what he or she is and to develop their abilities to live more effectively. Scientologists believe that such a practice will allow a person to move from “a condition of spiritual blindness to the brilliant joy of spiritual existence.”
Such practices have parallels in the spiritual disciplines of other traditions that likewise seek to awaken one’s inner spiritual nature. While the technology of the E-Meter in Scientology is unique to our century, the idea behind it is not. It is analogous to the roles of mandalas in some Buddhist traditions, or meditation with the aid of external means in other Eastern traditions.
Moreover, it is precisely the belief of Scientologists that L. Ron Hubbard has both achieved insight into the nature of reality and a practical technology for the recovery of humanity’s true nature. The writings of Hubbard serve as authoritative texts within the Scientology community in ways analogous to the sacred literatures of other traditions: the Vedas in Hinduism, the Sutras of Buddhism, etc. But the insights of Hubbard are not, Scientologists claim, a matter of mere belief, since they are open to confirmation in experience through the practice of the religious way that Hubbard has devised. This also echoes the ancient Buddhist wisdom which gives priority to experience.
The practice of Scientologists extends beyond this central religious technology and way since, as one moves towards the state of Clear and beyond, all one’s action becomes more free, dynamic, and significant. On the way to that end, Scientologists read their texts, test their beliefs, act in the wider society, develop their inner life, marry, and in all their actions and behaviour seek to realize the ideals of their faith. In Scientology literature one finds numerous references to “Codes of Conduct” and other ethical guidelines that should shape the life of Scientologists.
Religion is not just a set of beliefs, rites, and practices, it is also a community of people joined together by such beliefs, practices, and rites. In Scientology we also find this dimension of religious life. In many parts of the world we find groups of Scientologists regularly gathering as a religious community. There one finds sermons, reading from Scientology Scripture, listening to L. Ron Hubbard’s recorded lectures, etc., acts meant to deepen one’s commitment to the faith and to extend knowledge of that faith to others. The community is composed of those who have found in Scientology answers and technologies that address the fundamental questions of life. (See Eileen Barker, New Religious Movements, A Practical Introduction, London, 1989.)
In the light of this review of Scientology in relation to the elements of the modern scientific definition of religion, it is apparent that Scientology is a religion.
Conclusion: In the light of this review of Scientology in relation to the elements of the modern scientific definition of religion, it is apparent that Scientology is a religion. It has its own distinctive beliefs in and account of an unseen, spiritual order, its own distinctive religious practice and ritual life, it has its own authoritative texts and community-building activity.