III.I. Scientology Meets the Definition of Any Religious Tradition
Many scholars in the field of Religious Studies define religion in purely functional terms. Perhaps the two most widely accepted scholarly definitions of religion in this vein are philosopher Paul Tillich’s description of religion as “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern” and historian Frederick J. Streng’s characterization of religion as “a means of ultimate transformation.” For such approaches, any concern that qualifies all other concerns as preliminary or any power that transforms a person to the core can be regarded as essentially religious in meaning and purpose. These functional approaches to the scholarly definition of religion are quite similar to the legal definition of religion set forth in Seeger v. United States, 380 U.S. 163 (1965), which stipulates that “religious training and belief includes and extends to those sincere and meaningful beliefs which occupy a place in life parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in a Supreme Being.”
While appreciating the scholarly usefulness and legal propriety of such functional approaches to religion, my purposes as a scholar are better served by a somewhat narrower definition of religion. Similar to the approach of many other scholars in the field of Religious Studies, I define religion substantively as any system of beliefs and practices claiming to align individuals and communities with the transcendent ground of their existence. All elements of this definition are important because they point to important and indispensable aspects of every organized religious tradition. Every religion is a system of beliefs and practices. A religion provides both a way of understanding and engaging the world in all its mystery and meaning. Every religion sustains and supports individuals and communities. A religion relates the individual to a community of like-thinking and like-acting persons. Most important of all, every religion is rooted in a transcendent ground. By “transcendent ground” I refer to the distinction that religions typically draw between the ordinary world and that extraordinary being or power which unifies and completes the ordinary world. Religions often speak of this transcendent ground as the Sacred, the Divine, or the Infinite while assigning it such names as God, Allah or Brahman. But however named and explained, every religion affirms some ultimate reality that answers the life-and-death questions of human existence. The distinguishing mark of any and all religions is a relationship to this ultimate reality.
Without question, Scientology meets both the functional and legal definitions of religion as “a state of ultimate concern” or as “a means of ultimate transformation.” But just as certainly, Scientology meets the narrower scholarly definition of religion that I have proposed. Scientology presents a system of beliefs and practices which claims to align both individuals and communities with the transcendent ground of all existence. More precisely, Scientology meets the sine qua non test of any religion, since it affirms the reality of a transcendent ground of human existence and understands this transcendent ground in a fully spiritual way.
Scientologists see human life bent on survival across eight dynamics, or purposes. They represent these eight interactive dynamics as concentric circles, wherein the first dynamic of individual existence is successively surrounded and sustained by more encompassing dynamics of communal and spiritual existence.
Scientologists see human life bent on survival across eight dynamics, or purposes. They represent these eight interactive dynamics as concentric circles, wherein the first dynamic of individual existence is successively surrounded and sustained by more encompassing dynamics of communal and spiritual existence. Thus, existence across each dynamic participates in and points toward life’s ultimate spiritual origin and destiny. The first dynamic is the urge toward survival through individual existence; the second dynamic toward survival through family life; the third dynamic through groups; the fourth dynamic toward survival through the human race; the fifth dynamic toward survival through all life forms; the sixth dynamic toward survival through the physical universe; the seventh dynamic toward survival through the spiritual universe, and the eighth dynamic toward survival through a Supreme Being or as Infinity. Thus, while the first six dynamics are primarily concerned with spiritual well-being in the everyday world, the seventh and eighth dynamics tie these planes of everyday existence to spiritual dimensions of reality which radically transcend the everyday physical and social world.
Scientology’s seventh dynamic affirms a spiritual dimension of existence that radically transcends the physical body and the material world. As such, this view of man as a spiritual being has affinities with Hinduism’s imperishable Atman and Christianity’s immortal soul. For Scientology, the real person is not the body, much less the things used to adorn and extend bodily life. The real person is an inherently good spiritual being who uses the physical body and the material world. Scientologists call this immortal spiritual being the “thetan.” Ideally, when fully operating, the thetan has unlimited capacities of knowledge and power. However, the thetan cannot fully and freely operate “at cause” in this way until it has been liberated from the mental blocks and their harmful physical and psychological side effects which have accrued over many past lifetimes of embodied existence. These mental blocks, which are called engrams by Scientologists, must be erased before the thetan can regain his creative power and wisdom. This process of erasing engrams, which is called Clearing in Scientology, has been discovered and perfected by Mr. Hubbard in the spiritual healing technology of Dianetics and the applied religious philosophy of Scientology.
Scientology’s eighth dynamic affirms a spiritual context of life that radically transcends the empirical self and the physical universe. Scientologists are reluctant to claim complete technological control and philosophical understanding of this highest level of spirituality. But such reluctance has a long and honored place in the world’s religions. The ancient Jewish scribe dared not write the name of God out of reverence before his “shekinah glory.” The medieval Christian theologian only spoke of God by “the way of negation” in recognition of God’s transcendent Otherness. The ancient Chinese sage insisted that “the Tao which can be conceived is not the real Tao.” The medieval Indian mystic addressed the Supreme Reality as “He before whom all words recoil.” Scientology echoes this same time-honored religious modesty when it clearly affirms but does not fully explain that individuals ultimately survive “through a Supreme Being” or “as Infinity.”
III.II. Scientology Pursues the Goals
of Any Religious Quest
Every religion is a quest for salvation. Indeed, the need for a religion in the first place grows out of a recognition that things are not right in the human world. Every human being lives under a sentence of death that threatens to bring everything to naught. Cultural ideals and social institutions may enhance the individual’s being and worth, but not universally and eternally. The causes which human beings espouse all fail. The empires which human beings construct all fall. But every religion promises a way through or around the disorder and destruction that seems to haunt all of human life. The world’s religions differ among themselves over whether that “way” is an individual or a communal undertaking, a human or a divine achievement, an earthly or a heavenly reward. But every religion promises salvation from death and over death for all those who learn the spiritual lessons and master the spiritual disciplines of life.
Salvation is not limited to a final triumph over death in some other world or future life. Religions offer salvation from the mental confusion, physical distress and moral chaos that disrupts human life in this world and this life. Religions typically promise the power and provide the means for coping with all the marginal situations of life. Religions offer strength and comfort to persons who are taken to the limits of their analytic capacities, physical endurance and moral insight. In short, religions are built to carry the “peak loads” of human bafflement, suffering and perversity.
Scientology not only promises a solution to death but also provides a way of overcoming human bafflement, suffering and perversity. ... For Scientologists, these problems besetting the human race are ultimately spiritual rather than merely physical or mental.
Like other religions, Scientology not only promises a solution to death but also provides a way of overcoming human bafflement, suffering and perversity. A standard definition of Scientology, appearing in the flyleaf of most of its publications, directly addresses these three ultimate threats to well-being: “Scientology is an applied religious philosophy and technology resolving problems of the spirit, life and thought.” For Scientologists, these problems besetting the human race are ultimately spiritual rather than merely physical or mental. There is an underlying flaw of the spirit or, more properly, of the thetan, that weakens the body and darkens the mind. But Scientology promises a way to release the thetan from the subconscious memories of those catastrophes it has suffered in past lifetimes and those debilities it has suffered in this lifetime which dim its awareness and cripple its abilities. Thus, Scientology pursues the personal goal of clearing the human mind, body and spirit of all aberrations.
Like other religions, Scientology is a quest for salvation embracing life in a “world” to come as well as life in this world. Scientology’s quest for salvation centers in the process of spiritual counselling called auditing—a process which has similarities to Western confessional and Eastern meditative techniques. Auditing both cleanses and centers the inner life of the thetan. The first stages of auditing deal primarily with the spiritual dynamics of individual, family, social and historical life and are designed to produce healthy and happy human beings. The succeeding steps of auditing deepen the individual’s spiritual awareness and ability, finally freeing the thetan from all dependence upon the physical body and the material universe. In short, Scientology holds out the promise of happiness in this life and immortality for all those who cross its “Bridge to Total Freedom.”
Finally, Scientologists do not limit the promises of spiritual well-being achieved through Clearing to the isolated individual. The ultimate purpose of the spiritual technique of auditing is to “Clear the planet,” thereby creating a spiritual condition of universal benevolence and perpetual peace. In auditing, Scientology claims to have the “spiritual technology” for removing the underlying spiritual causes of all hostility and prejudice, all inequality and injustice, all warfare and exploitation. Only when the planet is thus cleared will human beings achieve a “civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war.”
III.III. Scientology Exhibits the Dimensions of Any Religious Community
As the foregoing discussion shows, religion is not simply a private affair. Religion is a social and historical phenomenon, despite the fact that religions take their rise and find their home in the human heart. Individual religious experience grows out of a religious community which conserves and communicates that religion from one person to another and from one generation to the next. As such, every religious community is organized around four distinct and interrelated dimensions. Reflecting the fact that a religious tradition has theoretical and practical as well as individual and social aspects, religious communities are structured as a system of religious beliefs, religious practices, religious institutions and religious leaders.
Like all religions, Scientology affirms a distinctive body of religious beliefs. Individual Scientologists assimilate these beliefs through extensive individual and group study of the philosophical, technical, ethical and creedal writings of L. Ron Hubbard. Indeed, these writings provide the authoritative source for Scientology’s religious beliefs. Thus, Mr. Hubbard’s writings function as sacred scripture, carrying the same authoritative force for Scientology as does the Bible for Christians, the Torah for Jews, the Qur’an for Muslims, the Book of Mormon for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Science and Health with Keys to the Scriptures for the Christian Science Church. As such, Mr. Hubbard is regarded as the Founder of Scientology in a similar way that Mohammed is held as the Founder of Islam or Joseph Smith is regarded as the Founder of Mormonism.
Scientology affirms a distinctive body of religious beliefs. Individual Scientologists assimilate these beliefs through extensive individual and group study of the philosophical, technical, ethical and creedal writings of L. Ron Hubbard.
Like other religions, Scientology maintains a distinctive body of religious practices. Scientologists celebrate the rites of marriage, christening, and burial according to the ceremonies of the Church of Scientology. But the heart of Scientology’s religious life are the practices of spiritual auditing and training. Auditing and training make up the two sides of Scientology’s Bridge to Total Freedom. Scientology auditing, which bears some resemblance to Christian confession and Buddhist meditation, is not simply another version of psychological counseling or psychoanalytic treatment. Auditing is that spiritual discipline whereby thetans are “cleared” of their “engrams”—are freed from those spiritual entrapments which darken the mind and weaken the body. This process of clearing occurs in sequential steps. Each stage of auditing achieves ever higher levels of spiritual awareness and ability. Indeed, when enough individuals have been cleared, the entire planet has a chance of also being cleared. In accordance with these individual and collective goals of auditing, Scientologists are also involved in the sacred mission of spreading the message of Scientology and of providing auditing for others. Like such other missionary religions as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, Scientology seeks to spread its message and means of salvation to the whole world and eventually throughout the universe. Scientology training is absolutely essential for the fulfillment of that worldwide mission, in addition to being essential for the adherent’s own spiritual enlightenment. Training involves intensive and supervised study of the writings, lectures, and films of L. Ron Hubbard. Like auditing, training courses occur in sequential steps which are designed to deepen spiritual enlightenment and develop auditing technique. Finally, only an audited and trained Scientologist possesses the spiritual technology to guide others across the Bridge of Total Freedom.
Like all religions, Scientology has developed specialized social structures of organization and leadership for serving its members and spreading its message. Scientology is a voluntary religious community that is formally organized around highly differential religious activities under rigorously hierarchical controls. Scientology’s religious services are provided through five different kinds of religious centers, depending on the level of auditing and training available at a given center. Generally, the higher level organizations deliver all the services offered by lower level missions and churches. Scientology missions deliver all the “routes to the Bridge” as well as auditing on the lower “grade levels” to the state of Clear. Scientology churches, which are also called Orgs (short for “Organizations”) and located in major cities, offer all “routes to the Bridge” as well as training through “Class V Graduate Auditor” and auditing to the state of “Clear.” Saint Hill Orgs and Advanced Orgs, which are located in England, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, and Sydney, specialize in auditor training and intermediate “OT” (Operating Thetan) levels up through “OT V. ” Scientology’s Flag Service Org in Clearwater, Florida, delivers all services to the highest levels of training and auditing through “OT VII.” Finally, only Flag Ship Service Organization delivers the highest level of auditing, “OT VIII.”
The Church of Scientology’s hierarchical structure is based on religious grounds and serves religious purposes. The Church’s corporate structure was designed to align with and complement the ecclesiastical structure. Most of the individual organizations are separately incorporated and operate under the guidance and authority of the Church of Scientology International, the mother church of the religion which is charged with the dissemination and propagation of the faith. Religious Technology Center is the body responsible for maintaining the “purity” of Scientology’s applied religious philosophy and spiritual healing technology. In replicating a corporate model, the Church of Scientology reflects the dominant social institutions of its society, much as the Roman Catholic Church reflected medieval culture’s feudal aristocracies and Protestant denominations reflected modern culture’s capitalist democracies. But the particular organizational form that a given religion takes is clearly separable from the distinctive religious purposes that it serves.
Leadership in the Church of Scientology is based on the commanding religious vision and authority of L. Ron Hubbard. Unlike such ancient religious founders as Buddha and Jesus, Mr. Hubbard is not an object of religious worship among Scientologists, though he is accorded great religious admiration and affection. Rather, the applied religious philosophy and spiritual healing technology which he discovered and developed are alone vested with sanctity. Nevertheless, Scientologists see Mr. Hubbard as a singular figure in human and cosmic history since he alone has found a way through death and all those “pieces of death” that rob life of its natural health and happiness and its supernatural awareness and ability. Indeed, Scientologists believe that their Founder, who upon his death was freed from the limitations of his body and this earth, is carrying on his conquest of life “up the line at the other end of the Bridge.”
Scientology has not developed the full range of religious specialists found in older religious traditions. There is no room for “healers” or “saints” and no need for “prophets” nor “reformers” according to Scientology’s beliefs and practices. But the generic roles of “priest” and “teacher” have been firmly established, though Scientologists refer to these religious functionaries as ministers and as staff of the Church of Scientology. Scientology ministers are duly ordained by the Church upon completion of a prescribed course of study and internship and, as ordained ministers, they are especially empowered to conduct Sunday services, weddings, christenings and burials as well as delivering the appropriate services of spiritual auditing and training. Scientology staff are trained for a variety of specialized teaching and management roles in the various levels and arms of church organizations. Some Scientology ministers and staff also belong to a special religious order called the Sea Organization, whose members contract to serve for a billion years and who work together to keep Scientology Missions and Churches moving individuals up the Bridge, thereby advancing the Church’s goal of clearing this planet and eventually the universe. Finally, Scientology also spreads its religious beliefs and practices through a highly dedicated and trained laity, who are also able to deliver spiritual auditing and appropriate levels to Scientology’s public.
By reason of my professional training and the scholarly research which is summarized above, I am convinced that Scientology is a religion in all respects of the word. To be sure, Scientology’s spiritual disciplines and institutional embodiments are distinctive, as befitting a new religion that seeks to combine the spirituality of Eastern religions and the historicity of Western religions in a “pan-denominational” movement that respects other religious traditions while transcending them. Nevertheless, Scientology clearly meets the scholarly definition of any religious tradition, clearly pursues the goals of any religious quest, and clearly exhibits the dimensions of any religious community.
Scientology clearly meets the scholarly definition of any religious tradition, clearly pursues the goals of any religious quest, and clearly exhibits the dimensions of any religious community.