Actress Katie Holmes' engagement to Scientologist Tom Cruise and her conversion to the Church of Scientology once again turned the media spotlight on this secretive group. To gain insight into Scientology's roots and its growth as an American religious movement, Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan spoke with Hugh B. Urban, professor of religious studies in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University. Prof. Urban, who studies secrecy in religion and contemporary new religious movements, is author most recently of 'Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religions.'

What are the central tenets of Scientology?

The tenets evolved over time. The movement started in 1950 as Dianetics, when [L. Ron] Hubbard published his book "Dianetics," originally in a science-fiction magazine, "Astounding Science Fiction."

Dianetics was originally more a self-help therapy, superficially pretty similar to psychoanalysis--basically an understanding of how the mind works and how to remove problematic memory traces from the mind.

Then by 1954, it had grown into a more recognizable religious movement as the Church of Scientology. And that's when Hubbard introduced more clearly religious kinds of beliefs, such as the idea of the Thetan, which is your spiritual self, or immortal soul-like entity. He introduced the idea of the Infinite, which is basically like God, and an idea of reincarnation because Thetans are reincarnated over and over again. But the basic principles of how the mind works stayed the same from Dianetics to Scientology.

And Hubbard's basic idea is that human beings have two kinds of mind: what he calls the analytic mind, which he describes as a flawless computer, and the reactive mind, which is sort of like Freud's model of the unconscious, even though Hubbard didn't like Freud much.

The reactive mind is the repository for what Hubbard calls "engrams," which are memory traces, specifically moments of pain that get sort of burned in the reactive mind and then cause us problems in the future, both physical problems and psychological problems. And the idea is that through a process called "auditing," you can go back and pinpoint where those engrams are and relive them and thereby clear them from your reactive mind.

The ultimate goal is to clear all of those problematic engrams. And that's the state called "clear," when you're completely free from all those negative memory experiences.

Dianetics really focused on dealing with the engrams of this particular life--going all the way back to childhood, even in the prenatal state. But in Scientology, Hubbard introduced the idea of reincarnation, so that you have engrams not just from this lifetime but previous lifetimes. And so Scientologists describe experiences like being killed in the Civil War or even more incredible sorts of things like being on other planets and experiences in previous lifetimes.

And the cosmology developed significantly between the introduction of Dianetics and its transformation into Scientology?

As Scientology developed, Hubbard introduced increasingly complicated levels of cosmology. Initially, in Dianetics, there were four levels leading up to the state of "clear." And then in Scientology, he introduced 15 higher levels that he called `Operating Thetan,' and they become increasingly complicated and also esoteric. So not that much is known about what is contained in these higher levels, but there have been some documents leaked. In them, you get pretty elaborate and, some might say, kind of odd cosmology about the pre-history of the universe and the earth and so forth.

Does Scientology have a code of morality or behavioral rules?

Hubbard wrote a book called "Introduction to Scientology Ethics." By my reading of it, it's more about loyalty to the Church of Scientology itself. From Hubbard's writings, I'd say there really isn't a kind of morality comparable to Judaism or Christianity. But since Hubbard's death, the church does emphasize the ethical virtues of Scientology--that Scientology makes you a better family member, a better citizen, a better employee, more successful.

So in Scientology goodness, or grace, is manifested through your material success, a kind of Calvinistic idea?

Hubbard never put it quite that way, but there's no contradiction between being materially successful and being spiritually developed in Scientology. In fact, your material prosperity, Hubbard would say, is sort of the logical outcome because if you're more spiritually developed, you're going to more successful in life. In fact, in several of his works, he describes life as a kind of game and Scientology makes you better at the game of life in all respects.

Is secrecy a part of the Scientology belief system and an inherent part of being a Scientologist?

I'd say it's both in the belief system and also in the way that the church operates. Hubbard modeled Scientology's structure on corporate structure, which is quite hierarchical, leading all the way up-in fact, it's been pointed out that he modeled it on Coca-Cola and AT&T.

The operating Thetan levels, as I said, are quite esoteric and [knowledge about them] is meant only for those who have gone through the proper training.

Is there secret knowledge that the higher-level operating Thetans have that other people can't attain?

Yes, that's right.

What is the initiation or learning process, and is it true that it is extremely costly?

Scientology does have open classes. Often, Sunday morning services [are held] at Scientology centers, and anyone can attend them. But auditing, the central practice of Scientology, does come with a price, and it becomes increasingly expensive as you go up in levels. [Operating Thetan] grades become increasingly expensive.

Do Scientologists regard Hubbard as a deity?

The way I've heard him described is as "friend;" that is, he's not a deity, not a divine incarnation but a being who figured out how the mind works and thereby understood how the universe itself works and gave us the tools to get to the same place that he did. So because he had a deep understanding of how the human mind works, he was able to achieve knowledge of basically how the universe itself works and then to pass that on.

Are there sacred beings in Scientology?

The closest thing is the concept of the Infinite, usually represented with the infinity loop. And Hubbard laid out what he called, "Eight Dynamics," which are [the] instinct to survive and continue existing, ranging from the level of our individual existence, progressively expanding outward to survival as a community, as a species, as all life, the cosmos, and the highest one-the eighth dynamic. Our urge to survive is the Infinite, which is ultimately the realization that our Thetan, our spiritual self is one with this Infinite. And that would be the highest state of operating Thetan, when you're completely free of the limitations of the material world and realize your unity with the Infinite.

What religious ideas influenced Hubbard in the creation of Scientology?

Hubbard knew a lot about Eastern philosophy. He claimed that when he was young, he traveled to the East. His father was a military man who he claimed had taught him the mysteries of Oriental religions. He clearly incorporated some aspects of, especially Hindu philosophy-the Atman-Brahman idea. Also, his model of the reactive mind sounds a lot like the way the mind works in yoga.

And even though Scientology has a long history of hatred of psychoanalysis, it sure looks a lot like Freud's model of the mind. It's interesting that psychoanalysis and Scientology hated each other for so long and still do. I mean, from the psychoanalytic perspective, Scientology is kind of hokey. And in turn, Scientology has accused psychotherapy of basically numbing people with drugs. Scientology is especially opposed to drugs and still today goes after Prozac and other antidepressants.

In addition to psychotropic drugs, does Scientology oppose other kinds of medical treatment?

No. They are particularly opposed to antidepressants because they see them as a kind of Band-aid that's just superficially treating the problem rather than getting to the root of the problem, which is what auditing claims to do. So auditing claims that it can actually get to and pinpoint the exact origin of the problem and get rid of it.

There was one case, of a Scientologist named Lisa MacPherson, in 1997, who died in the custody of Scientologists at one of their centers. She had been denied medical treatment and the church claimed that it was treating her in an appropriate way, but she died of dehydration. She was [also] severely malnourished. And there was a criminal prosecution, and Scientology was eventually let off, but it's still hanging in the courts of the civil case, I believe. There's a website devoted to her.

Is "Dianetics" Scientology's sacred text?

I've never heard it described as a sacred text. My sense is that what's contained in the higher levels of "operating Thetan" [literature] is more like a sacred text. And some of them are handwritten documents of Hubbard's, at least of the things I've seen. But again, those higher levels are so esoteric, it's hard to know exactly what's contained in them. "Dianetics" is, at least the way Scientologists describe it, more of a kind of handbook to how the human mind works. They call it "The Owner's Manual of the Human Mind"-so it's more a kind of pragmatic tool than a sacred text.

Over the years, critics have dismissed Scientology as a cult. How would you define a cult, and does Scientology fit into that definition?

I don't like the word "cult" because today it has so many negative connotations. If you hear the word "cult," you immediately dismiss whatever it is that you're talking about. I prefer to call Scientology a new religious movement. That being said, there are a number of disturbing aspects of Scientology. There is the secrecy aspect, but then one of the more troubling things is the way in which they have gone after their critics.

In the 1960s, Hubbard introduced a policy that he called "fair game" that was in a number of policy letters. The idea is that anyone who is subverting the mission of the Church of Scientology by going against it or even selling some of Hubbard's teachings at a discount price was considered "fair game," and that means that one could do anything, go to any lengths, in order to discredit them or destroy them.

For example, a woman wrote a book critical of Scientology, and they launched what they called "Operation Freak-Out," which was intended essentially to drive her insane. Time magazine in 1991 did a cover story [about Scientology] called the "Cult of Greed," in which they basically attacked Scientology as a money-making business masquerading as a religion, and the author of that piece, Richard Behar, was hounded by a whole team of lawyers and private detectives, who got into his credit report and basically tried to destroy his career.

One of the most remarkable examples of this "fair game" doctrine is [what happened to] the Cult Awareness Network. Cynthia Kisser of the Cult Awareness Network had branded Scientology the most dangerous, rapacious cult in America, and [beginning in 1991] Scientology bombarded the Cult Awareness Network with so many lawsuits that the Cult Awareness Network went bankrupt as a result. And when they were selling off the rights to the Cult Awareness Network, [its name, help-line phone number number, mailing address] and so forth, the person who showed up to buy them was a Scientologist. So now, the new Cult Awareness Network is owned by Scientology.

And that's why there's almost no critical scholarship on Scientology. There's one book by Roy Wallis, "The Road to Total Freedom," came out in the '70s and he got some pretty serious criticism from the church for that book. And since then, there hasn't been anything-I mean, there are articles here and there. There's one little book by Jay Gordon Melton that's very neutral. There haven't been any critical studies of Scientology since the '70s. It's because people are afraid to write on them. There have been a lot of popular books, but in terms of academic work, there's been almost nothing.

Does Scientology have characteristics similar to more mainstream religions? What is it about Scientology that allows us to call it a religion?

This is a question that's been debated both by scholars of religion and by governments. I personally would consider Scientology a religion just because I think it's better to have a broad definition of religion rather than a narrow one. But some of my colleagues would say Scientology is not a religion, it's a simulacrum of a religion. That is, it has an appearance of religion, even though it's more a money-making business.

It's also been an issue for government. Scientology fought a several decades-long battle with the IRS in this country and finally, in '93, won legal status as a religion. But in other countries, like in Germany, it still has not. And so it's actually a really interesting test case. In fact, in my courses, I often do a section on Scientology as an illustration to get the students to think about what is and isn't a religion.

I think there are three reasons that people have such a problem with Scientology. One is that Hubbard himself was an author of science fiction and most of his work before creating Dianetics was science fiction, fantasy, adventure stories. And then he published [his book] "Dianetics" in "Astounding Science Fiction." That's one reason it's hard for people to take it very seriously when he himself was an author of creative fiction. I think the second reason it's been so problematic is that it makes a huge amount of money; that's one reason the IRS had difficulties with it. You know, tax-exemption is intended for non-profit organizations.

How does that differ from tithing, the pratice in certain religious groups of giving a certain percentage of your income to the church?

That's a central question. A cynic would say that Hubbard and others found the greatest tax loophole. But a more sympathetic viewer might say, no, he's just doing what every other religion does; he's just a little more systematic about it.

What does Scientology have in common with other religions?

I use a pretty simple definition of religion, based on the etymology of [the Latin] `riligio' as something that reconnects or ties you back, specifically ties you back to some ultimate reality. A religion has to have a coherent set of beliefs and a coherent set of practices related to those beliefs [accepted by] the community. And if you use that simple definition, I think Scientology pretty well fits it. It has a concept of an ultimate reality, the Infinite. It has a belief system; it has a kind of ritual practice. It has services and also the auditing process. It's a much more individualistic kind of religion than most others.

Are there communal rituals or rites and practices?

There are, but my perception is that they seem kind of tacked-on and they also seem less central.

Can you give examples?

They do have Sunday morning services; there's a center here in Columbus [Ohio] that has Sunday morning services where anyone can go. You don't have to pay. But they're kind of odd; I don't even really know how to describe them. Sort of exercises to get you in touch with your existential situation.

Are they meditative? Do they include prayer?

They are exercises, such as standing and looking at the objects around you, and then they tell you to look at something that you can control, look at something you cannot control. It's unlike anything else I've seen elsewhere.

But are they ritualized? Would it be the same from one week to the next?

Yes. And I would also classify auditing as ritual process.

Auditing is done with one person who is the adept or master, and another person who is the seeker after knowledge, looking to be clear of "engrams." Is that relationship the heart of Scientology practice?

Yes. And that's why I think of it as much more individualistic than most other religions. When the church was fighting for tax-exempt status, it introduced a number of things that essentially made it look more recognizably religious, such as the Scientology cross. They [ministers] started using clerical collars. They started calling their centers parishes.

Do most Scientologists now attend the Sunday morning services?

My sense is that those Sunday morning things are more of an introductory gateway to get people who are sort of interested but don't know much about it.

The public face of Scientology?

That's my sense. And the more you become involved in it, then you might start getting into the auditing and so forth where the more serious business goes on.

How would you explain the number of celebrities who have been attracted to Scientology?

The first answer is that Hubbard set out to attract celebrity types. They built these pretty remarkable and opulent celebrity centers-like the one in Hollywood, it's probably the most impressive-that are specifically for celebrities. Hubbard targeted celebrities and tried to attract them as spokespeople for the movement, to give the movement itself a higher visibility.

But then I think the reason that celebrities would be interested is because it's a religion that fits pretty well with a celebrity kind of personality. It's very individualistic. It celebrates your individual identity as ultimately divine. It claims to give you ultimate power over your own mind, self, destiny, so I think it fits well with an actor personality. And then the wealth question: These aren't people who need more wealth, but what they do need, or often want at least, is some kind of spiritual validation for their wealth and lifestyle, and Scientology is a religion that says it's OK to be wealthy, it's ok to famous, in fact, that's a sign of your spiritual development. So it kind of is a spiritual validation for that kind of lifestyle.

Is there any evidence this cultivation of celebrities has succeeded in attracting other ordinary followers?

Yes, definitely. But my sense is that it's on the wane. I think probably its peak was in the 1980s and it's been kind of overshadowed by the new religious movements that are out there. It's kind of surprising to me that people like [John] Travolta have stayed with it for so long. You know, he started way back in the "Welcome Back Kotter" days.

How common is that sustained involvement? Is it the exception, rather than the rule of people who get involved in Scientology?

My sense of it is that the deeper you go, especially if you start to move into the more esoteric levels of the operating Thetan, the more invested you are and I think the more difficult in a sense it would be to leave it.

Is there an obligation for Scientologists to sever ties to people who are not Scientologists?

There are definitely individual cases. I think the church would say those are isolated aberrations, but especially when Hubbard was still alive, certain aspects of the organization did seem to be more systematically like that. Especially among his elite group, the Sea Org. [Because he was under investigation by the IRS] he was forced to leave the country and spend the rest of his life in international waters, on his yacht, and he had an elite group, the Sea Org, whose members were required to sign either a million- or billion-year contract. In other words, they dedicated many, many lifetimes of service to him. Those are the sorts of things that many people would point to as the more cult-like aspects of the movement.

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