XI. Indicia of Religion Applied to Scientology

XI.I. The Elimination of Cultural Bias

There are various distinct difficulties in appraising new religious movements. One is that there are, in most societies, unspoken assumptions concerning religion that put a premium on antiquity and tradition. Religious usage and expression is frequently legitimized by specific reference to tradition. Innovation in matters of religion is not easily promoted or accepted. A second problem is the strong normative stance of orthodoxy (particularly in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition) which proscribes deviations and which uses a heavily pejorative language to describe them (“sect”, “cult”, “nonconformity”, “dissent”, etc.). A third problem is alluded to in foregoing paragraphs, namely, that it is peculiarly difficult for those acculturated in one society and brought up in one religious tradition to understand the belief-system of others, to empathize with their religious aspirations, and to acknowledge the legitimacy of their means of expression. Religious ideas encapsulate certain cultural biases and blinker vision. But, in seeking to interpret a movement like Scientology, it is indispensable that these obstacles be recognized and transcended. This does not imply that to understand a set of religious ideas one must accept them as true, but a certain rapport must be established if the convictions of those of other faiths are to be given appropriate respect.

XI.II. The Case Thus Far

The foregoing discussion is necessarily wide-ranging and discursive, involving en passant comparisons with other religious movements, and a review of literature produced by Scientologists and literature about Scientology by academic commentators. The history, doctrines, practices, and religious organization and moral implications of Scientology have been briefly surveyed with particular attention to those facets most at issue in the present appraisal of the religious status of the movement. Such an assessment, in which many pertinent considerations have been brought forward, satisfies the contention that Scientology is a religion. However, since we have attempted (para II.I above) to set out in terms of abstract generalization those features and functions which are of wide distribution, and hence of high probability, in religious systems, it is now appropriate to bring this model into deliberate use as a bench-marker for Scientology’s claim to be a religion. There are wide divergences between the terminology used in Scientology and in the specifications of the model, but this might, at least to some extent, be the case for many—perhaps all—religious movements. None the less, allowing for the generality of the abstract concepts employed, it should be possible to perceive, without undue difficulty or potential for disagreement, the extent to which Scientology meets the desiderata of the inventory we have produced.

XI.III. Scientology in Light of the Indicia of a Religion

We now compare the attributes of Scientology with the probabilistic inventory of the features and functions of religion set out in Para II.I above. We note those items in which Scientology agrees, as Accord or Qualified Accord; those in which it does not correspond, as Non-Accord, or Qualified Non-Accord and other cases as Indeterminate.

(a) Thetans are agencies which transcend normal sense perception. It is also noted that Scientology affirms the existence of a supreme being. Accord.

(b) Scientology postulates that thetans created the natural order. Accord.

(c) Thetans occupy human bodies, which amounts to continuous intervention in the material world. Accord.

(d) Thetans operated before the course of human history, and are said to have created the physical universe and occupy bodies for their own pleasure, identity and the playing of a game. This is, however, an indefinite purpose and the Supreme Being in Scientology is not represented as having definite purposes. Qualified Accord.

(e) The activity of thetans and the activity of human beings are identical. The future lives of the thetan will be profoundly affected in so far as he gains release from the reactive mind, in addition to being profoundly affected by the same process in his present lifetime. Accord.

(f) Auditing and training are means by which an individual can influence his destiny, certainly in this life and in the lives of the bodies which he may later occupy. Accord.

(g) Rituals as symbolism in the traditional sense of worship (e.g., Catholic Mass) are minimal and rudimentary in Scientology, as they are among Quakers, but they do exist. None the less, to adopt a conservative position, we may regard this item as Indeterminate.

(h) Placatory action (e.g., sacrifice or penance) is absent from Scientology. The individual seeks wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. Non-Accord.

(i) Expressions of devotion, gratitude, obeisance and obedience to supernatural agencies are virtually absent, except in the rites of passage prescribed in Scientology. Non-Accord.

(j) Although Scientology has a distinctive language which provides a means of reinforcement of values internal to the group, and the Scripture or teachings of L. Ron Hubbard are held sacred in the popular connotation of the term, this cannot be said to conform to the technical sense of sacred, as “things set apart and forbidden.” Non-Accord.

(k) Performances for celebration or collective penance are not a strong feature of Scientology, but in recent years the movement has developed a number of commemorative occasions, including the celebration of the anniversary of Hubbard’s birth, the date of the founding of the International Association of Scientologists, and a date celebrating auditors for their dedication. Qualified Accord.

(l) Scientologists engage in relatively few collective rites, but the movement’s teachings do provide a total Weltanschauung, and so do draw members into a sense of fellowship and common identity. Qualified Accord.

(m) Scientology is not a highly moralistic religion, but concern for moral propriety has grown as the full implications of its metaphysical premises have been realized. Since 1981, the moral expectations of Scientologists have been clearly articulated: these resemble the commandments of the Decalogue, and make more explicit the long-maintained concern to reduce “overt acts” (harmful acts). The doctrines of the reactive mind and reincarnation embrace ethical orientations similar to those of Buddhism. Accord.

(n) Scientology places strong emphasis on seriousness of purpose, sustained commitment and loyalty to the organization and its members. Accord.

(0) The teachings of transmigration in Scientology meets this criterion fully. The accumulative reactive mind corresponds to demerit for the thetan, and such demerit can be reduced by the application of Scientological techniques. Accord.

(p) Scientology has functionaries who serve primarily as “confessors” (auditors), some of whom are also chaplains whose tasks are primarily expository and pastoral. Auditors, course supervisors, and chaplains (in fact all staff members) seek to preserve Scientology theory and practice from contamination, and in this sense are custodians. Accord.

(q) Auditors, course supervisors and chaplains are paid. Accord.

(r) Scientology has a body of metaphysical doctrine which offers an explanation for the meaning of life and its purpose, and an elaborate theory of human psychology, as well as an account of the origin and of the operation of the physical universe. Accord.

(s) The legitimacy of Scientology is in a form of revelation by L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard’s own sources include mention of the ancient wisdom of the Orient, but are claimed to be almost exclusively the results of research. This mixture of appeal to tradition, charisma, and science has been found in other modern religious movements, conspicuously, Christian Science. Qualified Accord.

(t) Claims to the truth of some of Scientology’s doctrines are beyond empirical test, but the efficacy of auditing is said to be provable pragmatically. The goals of Scientology depend on faith in the metaphysical aspects of the doctrine, however, even if the means are claimed to be susceptible to empirical test. Qualified Accord.

XI.IV. The Comparison Reviewed

The foregoing appraisal of Scientology in the light of the probabilistic inventory of religion results in eleven items in which there is accord; five items on which there is qualified accord; three items on which there is no accord; and one item which is indeterminate. It cannot be assumed that these various features and functions of religion have equal weight of course, and the numerical count should not produce an unduly mechanistic basis for assessment. Some items—for example, the existence of a paid body of specialists—although common to religions, are not confined to religions, and may therefore be deemed to be of less import than some other items. Similarly, the placatory element that is common in religion might be held to be merely a residual feature of earlier patterns of quasi-magical dependence from which more recently instituted religious organisations may have freed themselves. Whilst most traditional religions would meet most of these probabilities, many well-recognized denominations would be out of accord with some of them. We have noted this of Quakers with respect to worship, and of Christian Science with respect to legitimation. Unitarians would fall short on a number of items—worship, sacralization, traditional concepts of sin and virtue, and perhaps on the significance of metaphysical teaching. Neither Christadelphians nor Quakers would meet the criteria relating to religious specialists or their payment.

XI.V. Scientologists Perceive Their Beliefs as a Religion

The use of the foregoing inventory should not be allowed to create an impression that the findings set forth in this opinion rely on formal or abstract reasoning alone. The inventory is a basis against which empirical evidence—that is: observed behaviour—is assessed. Many Scientologists have a strong sense of their own religious commitment. They perceive their beliefs and practices as a religion, and many bring to them levels of commitment which exceed those normally found among believers in the traditional churches. In this respect, many Scientologists behave like members of Christian sects, who are generally more intensely committed to their religion than are the vast majority of believers in the old-established churches and denominations. As a sociologist, I see Scientology as a genuine system of religious belief and practice which evokes from its votaries deep and earnest commitment.

It is clear to me that Scientology is a bona fide religion and should be considered as such.

XI.VI. Contemporary Change in Religion Tout Court

We have noted that all religions have undergone a process of evolution: they change over time. It is also the case that religion per se undergoes change. As a social product, religion takes on much of the colour and character of the society in which it functions, and newer movements reveal characteristics that were not found in older movements (at least at the time of their origin). Today, new developments in religion make it apparent that there is much less concern with a posited objective reality “out there”, and more interest in subjective experience and psychological well-being; less concern, therefore, with traditional forms of worship, and more with the acquisition of assurance (which is itself a type of salvation) from other sources than the supposed comfort afforded by a remote saviour-god. We must, therefore, expect this emphasis to become apparent in the inventory that we have used as a model. The model reflects a great deal that remains extant in religion but which derives from ancient practice. Newer religions—even religions as old as the major Protestant denominations—will not find accord with all these elements: they reflect the characteristics of the evolutionary stage at which they came into being. We must, therefore, allow that modern movements will not be in accord with all items in our (relatively timeless) model. Taking all of this into account, it is clear to me that Scientology is a bona fide religion and should be considered as such.

Bryan Ronald Wilson
February 1995

XII. Bryan Ronald Wilson