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.