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Is Scientology a Cult?

Scientology has been in the news a lot lately due to events ranging from Tom Cruise's couch dancing episode, to Comedy Central's last-minute pull of South Park's Scientology spoof, to a recent article in Rolling Stone magazine painting a frightening picture of the inner workings of the organization. What is this mysterious entity, endorsed by many celebrities-a religion, a cult, or something very different?

Founded 1953 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology at first glance seems to walk the line between religion and cult. Scientologists believe that, seventy-five million years ago, a galactic ruler named Xenu deployed H-bombs and murdered billions of drugged alien beings whose souls now inhabit our bodies, necessitating our shelling out thousands of dollars in "auditing" sessions until we are "clear" of those haunting aliens. Sound hard to believe? Really, it's no more farfetched than the Catholic Church's belief that by purchasing indulgences or taking confession we free ourselves from the consequences of our actions. Cult experts, however, suspect that the Xenu story was concocted to serve as a bait and switch device to lure people into spending more money.

The beliefs of Scientology, like those of the Catholic Church, provide an easy and lucrative solution to the human condition but otherwise explain nothing. Let's say that Hubbard's science fiction-like Xenu tale was true. If it was true, those dead alien souls would still need to obey the laws of physics and manifest in our bodies as nervous energy patterns of thoughts and habits. And since a Scientology "auditor" would be unable to tell the difference between patterns created by one's upbringing, cultural history, past trauma, and patterns created by Xenu's aliens, the Xenu story is superfluous-unless it serves another purpose that Hubbard wished to hide from his clients.

While Scientology's beliefs do not sufficiently warrant it being called a cult, the manner in which it uses its beliefs raises a red flag. It has been studied by many cult experts, who generally concur that it is a cult. However, after in-depth study of the history and concepts underlying Scientology, I have concluded that it is not a cult-or at least not a cult in the traditional sense. I consider the cult experts incorrect because they do not take into account that an entity has to at fall into the category of religion before it can become extreme enough to be considered a cult. Scientology is dubbed a religion-even by the IRS, after some arm-twisting-and it certainly follows the pattern of a centralized institution in that it that indoctrinates followers in a narrow sense of self, but I submit that these are superficial aspects of the organization employed in the service of an a priori purpose and that Scientology is not, in fact, a religion.

On the other hand, some cult experts consider Scientology, dubbed by Time Magazine the "Cult of Greed," as the most dangerous and pernicious cult in the world. (Time Magazine, Richard Behar, May 6, 1991) That cults and religions lie within the same spectrum implies that Scientology would become a religion if it ceased its extreme defensiveness. Extremes can be found in every spectrum of life: the extreme of advertising is propaganda, the extreme of business is the mafia, and the extreme of a republic is tyranny. Similarly, cults are the extreme of religious ideology. However, while its critics may be right to say that Scientology is guilty of extreme behavior, they cannot say that it displays an extreme of a religious ideology. This is why I must argue that Scientology is not a cult. In my view, Hubbard's arbitrary nomenclature for the mind, detoxification methods, drug rehab programs, and pseudo-psychology will not offer any grounding ontological meaning to life, nor do they have roots in a cosmic sense of life. Its tax-exempt status notwithstanding, Scientology could never be a religion any more than could psychology or medicine-a conclusion that is not necessarily a bad thing for Scientology.

Another reason Scientology is labeled a cult is because, like religions, it expects its followers to accept the claims behind its methods without question. However, Scientology could better silence its critics by allowing its methods to be tested against the rigorous standards of science. Until it allows an unbiased scientific analysis of its methods, Scientology will never be taken at its word by any rational mind. Scientology, like most things in this world, is what it does; and if it represents methods that are effective, then it does not need a multi-million dollar legal defense team to cover up the lies of critics. Science could either set Scientology free or free humanity from Scientology if the organization allowed publicly disclosed research. Since Scientology's methods have never been scientifically verified or disproved, however, critics suspect that the leaders of the organization, like Hubbard, don't want to take any chances and find out if Scientology is genuine or bogus. Instead, they would rather legally protect their methods by placing them under the canopy of religious beliefs. And again, that the heads of Scientology avoid any investigation leads cult experts to conclude that Scientology is a cult.

In addition, Scientology has always been aggressively litigious, a fact that all but admits its guilt in the mind of cult experts like Rick Ross, who notes that Scientology is attempting to erase from Internet archives unflattering details of Scientology's and Hubbard's past. These details, such as Hubbard's severe mental illness, stand in stark contrast to the mythic Hubbard that Scientology has erected. The attempted cover-ups validate the widespread criticism that Scientology is quick both to hide its past and dredge up the pasts of others. Hubbard, like many businesspersons, politicians, and church officials, clearly wanted the public to see only what he wanted it to see. But cult experts claim that Hubbard, a "pathological liar," also wanted Scientologists to think what he wanted them to think, even going so far as to invent a new terminology. This, ex-Scientologists explain, is why any criticism of Scientology is referred to as "natter," or meaningless chatter to be quickly silenced. It is this extreme degree of defensive and silencing behavior that leads cult experts to conclude that Scientology qualifies as a cult.

Cult experts suspect that Scientology would only need to resort to smear campaigns, aggressive litigation, and avoidance of a critical review of its methods if there were no scientific foundation to its practices and it wanted to hide that fact. Until Scientology leaders allow scientific research, they do a disservice not only to the public but to the teachings of Scientology as well. What if Scientology could proven accurate and effective, aid research in the fields of psychology, heath care, and drug rehabilitation, or even be improved upon by rigorous experimentation?

Scientology is currently under fire for its pseudo-scientific health system, which uses terms like "clinic" and "HealthMed" that come dangerously close to terms normally associated with licensed medical practitioners. Scientology-identified celebrities promote its health programs, which in itself is not an issue since many businesses promote diet regimens and preventative health methods. Yet unlike Scientology, those businesses are not tax-exempt churches that viciously attack critics in fear of any scientific or historical evidence that contradicts their standing. Again, this is troublesome to cult experts.

Though Hubbard was a vicious opponent of the psychiatric field, Scientology auditors behave not unlike uncertified psychologists, protected by laws that allow for freedom of religion. This leads cult experts to suspect that Hubbard may have been opposed to psychiatry because it represented the competition. It is interesting to note that Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis-whom some modern scholars feel was also a pathological liar-was convinced that psychiatrists would relieve priests of their jobs. Perhaps it is poetic justice, then, that a new order of priests is now attempting to get those jobs back. Indeed, with the extreme emphasis placed on psychiatric drugs in the United States, especially mood pills, due in large part to the powerful lobby of pharmaceutical companies whose excessive greed cult experts suspect Scientology can relate to, Scientology and psychiatry are hardly strange bedfellows.

To better understand the phenomenon of Scientology, let's review the era during which L. Ron Hubbard was forming his ideas. In the Cold War-influenced 1950s, America was rife with tall tales in the realm of science fiction, mostly focusing on UFOs. Scientology, it seems fair to say, was Hubbard's contribution to his times. Perhaps Hubbard wanted to combine his love of science fiction with his hatred for psychology, aptly naming his brainchild Scientology. Considering the time period, it is likely that Hubbard's untested ideas of the mind are, of themselves, as harmless as science fiction books or a visit to a psychic. His "E-meters," devices used during auditing sessions, are fairly harmless too; they seem to be little more than props that gave the '50s American mentality some sense of "technology" and effectiveness.

Hubbard originally billed Scientology as an alternative to psychology, a way to understand the mind and human existence. But Hubbard, in my estimation, did not create a competing brand of psychology, nor did he offer further understanding of human existence. He merely invented a new system of nomenclature that labels the superficial workings of the mind and serves as a fa├žade for genuine understanding, since giving new sci-fi names to mental phenomena does not explain those phenomena. Instead Hubbard developed a coded insider's language, a dictionary for the initiated, resulting in a narrow psychological environment. And it is precisely for these reasons that Hubbard's boasted knowledge, reminiscent of the innumerable con artists of his time who claimed bizarre sightings, UFO footage, and E.T. visitations, is harmless. Cult experts would have little to hang their hats on were it not for the perceived fanaticism behind his boast and the manner in which the walls of Scientology's narrow psychological environment are enforced and defended.

In short, L. Ron Hubbard wrote science fiction stories and new lexicons designed to satisfy the average individual at a time when psychiatry was still young in America and few people could make knowledgeable comparisons. But Hubbard's understanding of the mind was superficial, despite his claim that he was the reincarnation of the Buddha, a yogi. An understanding of the mind can only come when the mind is under one's complete control. And as much as Scientology deals in mind control from a cult expert's perspective, its methods will culminate in no more control of the mind for its follower than will a visit to a psychologist or a church.

It is important to realize, however, that Scientologists are like the followers of any other psychological self-help movement. They are decent people seeking answers, and if plugging into an E-meter and sharing one's life story with an auditor helps some of them to at least temporarily feel better, then good. But it helps them simply because being around others and sharing the stories of our lives through verbalization is a natural way to reflect on the past and cathartically release issues. A Catholic confessional, a Tupperware party, a colloquium, an AA meeting, or quality time with one's spouse or a wise and unbiased friend, could work just as well if not better. Likely, the only reason people would pay Scientology large sums of money for such a simple thing is that they are either lonely or vulnerable to the suggestion that their issues can only be addressed through Scientology's methods. But this is not much worse than the tens of millions of people convinced that their problems can only be addressed by a psychologist, purchasing an indulgence, holly rolling, simplistic forms of meditation, or a mood pill-and many of these things are insured or tax-deductible as well.

The U.S. government did not recognize Scientology as a religion for 25 years, denying the organization tax exemption because the IRS saw it as merely a business practicing an untested brand of psychology without professional backing. Scientologists cited religious discrimination, comparing themselves to Jews persecuted under the Nazi regime-a blatant misuse of the term religion since Scientologists cannot claim a two thousand year history of anti-Scientology, boast surviving centuries of pogroms, or point to the six million Scientologists gassed and murdered during a holocaust. Even entertaining such fiction only reveals their lack of religious identity, willingness to capitalize on the suffering of millions, and disrespect not merely for those identified with Judaism, but for the plight of the human race in suffering scapegoating and stereotyping.

Ironically, Hubbard's earliest intentions were seemingly not to start a religion anyway; he was forced to claim Scientology a religion to avoid losing millions of dollars to the government. Though Hubbard grafted some religious notions onto Scientology when it became a church, I consider those notions incidental to Scientology's principal activities. That may change, but until then the spirit of Scientology will continue to reek of materialism. Until Scientology comes forward and tests its methods in a free and public examination, it is fair to suspect that the real business of Scientology is and has ever been to sell untested medicine and therapy under the protective canopy of organized religion.

Ultimately, Scientology is neither a religion nor a cult but a business: an aggressive, defensive, and paranoid organization that administers to its clients a heavy dose of denial. Scientology is a racket, posing as a legitimate religion in much the same way that the mafia poses as a legitimate business. And like all rackets, Scientology hates any exposure it does not authorize. The most powerful racket in the world is the one no one knows about, and Scientology is a tax-exempt racket. The failure of the United States government to uphold the spirit of its laws in relation to religious tax exemption, allowing a psychology racket to hide behind the walls of a church, is a tragedy for millions of people all over the world.