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What is Scientology?


Those who have been following the story of Tom Cruise’s breakup with Paramount Pictures will have encountered references to his religion, Scientology, as well as speculation about whether his involvement in the Church of Scientology played any role in the conflict.

All of this may prompt further questions about the nature of this relatively new spiritual movement that many have described as one of the fastest growing religions in the world and others regard as a dangerous cult.

What is The Church of Scientology? Founded in 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard, who first came to prominence in the US as a science fiction writer, the movement is perhaps best known today because celebrities like Cruise have identified with it. Almost from the beginning, Scientology has been surrounded by controversy and confusion. This, in part, stems from the fact that the movement’s leaders have tried to position it in a hard to define middle ground between science and religion. Note that Hubbard’s great leap from the realm of science fiction toward religion came with the publication of his best selling book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950).

Thus Scientology tries to package itself not so much as a religion, but as a way of life that is compatible with adherence to Christianity or other world religions. Critics, some of them referred to in websites listed below, suggest that Hubbard was actually deeply skeptical of traditional religion. Rather than putting itself forward as a ‘revealed religion’ based on a sacred text (as are Judaism, Christianity and Islam), Scientology stands upon three sources of authority: the inspiration of its founder, the validity of its ‘science,’ and the effectiveness of its technology, namely, the E-meter, an electrical devise used in a process referred to as ‘auditing.’ Through the use of the E-meter and other practices, Scientologists believe that painful and debilitating experiences from the past can be ‘cleared’ away and practitioners can be liberated to attain their full potential as human beings.

While maintaining that it has no creeds or theology, the Church of Scientology does promote a set of ideas that claim both scientific and spiritual legitimacy. In doing so, it attracts critics from the scientific community as well as from traditional religious groups who find its ideas deeply flawed.

A Typically American Religion

I would suggest that Scientology is a typically American spiritual movement in eschewing what it regards as outmoded tradition, emphasizing practical results, and making an unapologetic appeal to the rich and the famous. It is also typically American in its optimism, its affirmation of material success as one of the central fruits of spiritual practice, and in its willingness to adopt both science and technology as sources of wisdom. Ironically, many of these same traits are evident within that spiritual movement that is most critical of Scientology, namely contemporary American evangelical Christianity.

Bottom Line

Is Scientology a legitimate religion? A cult? Is it pseudo-science? A public relations stunt? A money making scam? Or is it a spiritual movement in an advanced stage of adolescence? If it’s the latter, and I think a good case can be made for that description, give it another hundred years or so, and you may find it taking its place in the pantheon of respected world religions.

CHARLES HENDERSON is a Presbyterian minister, publisher of CrossCurrents magazine, and Executive Director of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life. He can be reached at:



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