The Church of Scientology has been recognized as a cult by critics. William Sims Bainbridge of The University of Washington states that “Scientology is one of the largest and most influential cults.” Jon Atack and Joe Larabell, former Scientologists, agree that the Church is involved in “disgraceful, immoral, and criminal activities.” However, my objective for this ethnographic research is not to disprove the teachings of The Church of Scientology.
I am interested in how their beliefs and attitudes have evolved and developed when faced with criticism. My main research was conducted in The Church of Scientology in Austin and the Mission of San Antonio. Although I only had a chance to sit down and talk with three Scientologists, I obtained valuable information about their former lifestyle, why they converted, and their reactions to some questions they probably weren’t expecting.
To begin to explore and understand the realm of Scientology, one has to know the basic philosophy and principles of the organization. How much do we really know? How have we substantially increased our understanding of those adherents who call themselves “Scientologists?” The word Scientology comes from the Latin word scio, meaning “know” and the Greek word logos, meaning “the word or outward form by which the inward thought is expressed and made known.”
Thus, Scientology means knowing about knowing. According to www.scientology.org, “Scientology is the study and handling of the spirit in relationship to itself, others and all of life… an individual discovers for himself that Scientology works by personally applying its principles and observing or experiencing results.” Scientology follows three main principles. The first principle states that Man is an immortal spiritual being. The second principle states that Man’s experience extends well beyond a single lifetime. The third principle states that Man’s capabilities are unlimited, even if not presently realized.
Who created Scientology? Scientology was initially created by American speculative fiction author Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (March 13, 1911 – January 24, 1986), better known as L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard developed Scientology’s teachings in 1952 as a successor to his earlier self-help system, Dianetics. Dianetics is a set of ideas and practices regarding the relationship between the spirit, mind and body. According to Hubbard, mental and psychosomatic physical problems are caused by traumatic recordings called engrams that are stored in the reactive mind.
The goal of Dianetics is to erase the engrams in the reactive mind to achieve the state of Clear. Once “Clear” is achieved an individual is able to function at his or her full potential. Hubbard later began to characterize Scientology’s beliefs and practices as a religion in 1953. According to the Church, the ultimate goal is to achieve "a civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where man is free to rise to greater heights" (Hubbard).
Today, the teachings of Scientology are composed of 18 basic books and 3,000 recorded lectures. There is no single Scientology book that is equivalent to the Bible or the Qur’an, but the study of Scientology is achieved through the chronological study of its basic books and lectures. The Church has an official membership system, the International Association of Scientologists, but IAS membership is not what the Church means by “member.”
Scientology adherents worldwide vary considerably. In 2005, Scientology stated its worldwide membership at eight million people, and that number included people who only took the introductory course and didn’t continue. In 2007, the Church claimed 3.5 million members in the United States (Collison). Religious scholar J. Gordon Melton has said that the church’s estimates of its membership numbers are exaggerated (Jarvik).
Since its inception, the Church of Scientology has been engulfed in controversy. Criminal allegations have been made by journalists, courts, and governmental bodies of several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany. They all claim that the Church of Scientology is “an unscrupulous commercial enterprise that harasses its critics and brutally exploits its members” (Leiby). Germany categorizes Scientology as a business, rather than a religious organization, and has even gone so far as to consider a ban on Scientology. Belgium, France, Ireland, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom have not recognized Scientology as a religion. Scientology has also not been recognized as a religion in Israel or Mexico. A recent judicial investigation in Belgium is now in the process of prosecuting Scientology.
The Church of Scientology is alleged to have been involved in criminal “operations” and enforced “policies” to protect the church (Behar). In 1976, the Church of Scientology allegedly enforced “Operation Freakout.” This operation was intended to attack Paulette Cooper, author of her book The Scandal of Scientology.
The plan was to have Cooper “incarcerated in a mental institution or jail or at least to hit her so hard that she drops her attacks” (Hubbard). In 1978, another operation called “Operation Snow White” was allegedly enforced by Hubbard. Hubbard ordered a group of his followers to infiltrate government agencies, including the IRS, in order to find out personal information about Scientology’s critics, remove “false” incriminating information about the Church from the records, and get tax exception status for the Church. However, eleven high ranking Scientologists, including Hubbard’s wife, Mary Sue, were charged, indicted, and jailed. They were convicted of breaking into the IRS, stealing documents, and tapping phones (Atack).
Another controversy revolves around the death of former Scientologist Lisa McPherson. According to a website devoted to McPherson, she joined the Church of Scientology in 1977. During the 1980s she spent thousands of dollars per year on “audits” and self improvement courses. In November 18, 1995, McPherson had a minor traffic accident in Clearwater, Florida. She was uninjured, but she was mentally unstable as she got out of her car, shouting and ripping her clothes off. As a precaution, the medics took her to a nearby hospital for any injuries that might have occurred, and was seen by a psychiatrist.
That same day, Scientologists appeared at the hospital and took McPherson away into their own care. She was transferred to Scientology’s Fort Harrison Hotel where she was held in solitary confinement. She was billed $240 for a cassette tape series she was ordered to listen to while confined. After seventeen days, on December 5, 1995, McPherson was finally transported to a hospital. It would have made sense if the Scientologists had driven 1.1 miles to Morton Plant Hospital, but instead they took her to a hospital that was 24 miles away to Columbia New Port Rickey Hospital since it had a Scientologist doctor on staff.
When McPherson finally arrived to the hospital, she was immediately pronounced dead. McPherson was underweight, severely dehydrated, and had several cockroach bites all over her body. It’s a sad ending since she spent between $50,000 to $100,000 on self improvement courses and “auditing” in the two years prior to her death. At the time of her death she had a total of $151 in all of her bank accounts. (Jacobsen).
“Church of Scientology in San Antonio”
After obtaining sufficient background information for my questionnaire, I was ready to start my field research. My first visit was the Church of Scientology in San Antonio.
Before I decided to go to San Antonio, I had strange instances regarding the authenticity of the Church in San Antonio. When I went to the main Scientology website, I discovered that there was a Church of Scientology in San Antonio. I used the address they had listed there and pasted it on Google search engine to make sure the address was authentic. I was surprised to see that the results didn’t say “Church of Scientology” but instead it read “Dentistry Offices of San Antonio.”
Confused about the contradictory information, I decided to call the number posted on the website. An answering machine immediately came up and said that I have reached the Church of Scientology of San Antonio. This seemed strange to me because the Google listing and their website posting should have matched. Then, I started thinking that the Google posting was outdated since my call did confirm that I have reached the church. After moments of doubting the information, I decided to make a quick trip to San Antonio and find out for myself if this Church really existed or not.
Upon reaching San Antonio, I had a real tough time locating the address. I decided to call the number again and this time a lady did pick up the phone and told me that they are located inside the dentistry office! I thought I had heard wrong when she told me that. When I finally found the place I realized that this wasn’t a church.
Inside, I was greeted by the Scientology receptionist. Unaware if this place was a church or a mission, I asked her for confirmation. She told me that they have this office for themselves every Tuesday, Thursdays, and Sundays. That being said, I took a quick glance around the waiting area while she was answering the phone behind the counter. There wasn’t anybody around except for a few people talking on the other side of the waiting area.
“Are there any Scientologists here right now?” I asked after she finished answering the phone.
She stared at me a little funny and said, “Yes, but they are in the back room studying,”
As I started wondering why she was staring at me like that, I finally realized that I didn’t introduced myself. I don’t blame her. After all, I am a stranger asking strange questions without stating my purpose.
“I’m sorry, my name is Mike. I’m from Texas A&M University, and I’m here because I’m working on an ethnographic paper that involves studying a particular group. The group I chose was Scientologists.”
I decided to lie about my name because I didn’t feel comfortable giving out information since I’ve read several articles stating that they shouldn’t be trusted. I decided not to take any chances. I was unsure about the morality of Scientologists.
“Sure. No problem. What would you like to know? My name is Mary Joe, by the way.” she said.
Her response caught me by surprise, as I assumed that she wouldn’t agree to talk to me since I’ve read many articles stating that Scientologists follow a “Fair Game” policy when people from external affairs try to question them. Fair Game policy is a policy constructed by Hubbard in 1965 declaring:
The homes, property, places and adobes of persons who have been active in attempting to: suppress Scientology or Scientologists are all beyond any protection of Scientology Ethics, unless absolved by later Ethics or an amnesty…this Policy Letter extends to suppressive non-Scientology wives and husbands and parents, or other family members or hostile groups or even close friends. (Hubbard)
I wasn’t being suppressive, but since I started questioning her about Scientologists before I introduced myself, I might have sounded like I was intending to become suppressive.
“O.K., I’m new to Scientology. What can you tell me about Scientology?” I asked.
I was nervous because I didn’t want to offend her by asking questions about controversies or anything relating to the oppressors of Scientology.
“Well, I can show you some videos that will answer all your questions about Scientology,” she replied.
I really didn’t want to see the videos since I already had a basic concept of the religion, but I didn’t want to seem rude by saying no. After watching the videos, I decided to focus my attention to Mary Joe.
“Well, those were very educational and interesting videos. Now I know the objective behind Scientology. So, how long have you been a Scientologist?” I asked.
“I’ve been a Scientologist for twelve years now,” she said with a proud glaze in her eyes.
“How has Scientology changed your life?” I asked.
“Well, I used to be a proud Catholic all my life. I would go to Church every Sunday, and I would donate to the church regularly,” she said in a calm voice. “But I was going through rough times personally, and I didn’t seem to find any comfort in Catholicism no matter how hard I tried.”
Her voice was now changing as she looked down and explained everything. “I was in need of help, so I discovered Scientology after hearing an ad over the radio. The ad was convincing so I decided to visit a Church [of Scientology] to see for myself. I never looked back.”
“So, has Scientology helped you with all your problems?” I asked
“Oh definitely!” she responded in a loud voice. “Converting to Scientology has been the best move I’ve made in my life.”
I noticed that she sounded a lot like the propaganda videos Scientology posts in their website about how people’s lives have been dramatically changed for the better. After she told me how her life has changed for the better, I began the transition to the controversies I’ve read about Scientology.
“You know, when I was researching about Scientology online, I found a lot of websites attacking this religion. After the video you just showed me, it’s hard to believe anyone would even try to attack Scientology. Why do you think Scientology is being attacked like that?” I asked.
“Well I don’t know of any controversies. I’ve only been part of the Church for eleven years,” she said.
Her response struck me as kind of odd because I haven’t asked her about any controversies yet.
“Well, talking about controversies, the biggest one that continues to pop up is the death of former Scientologist Lisa McPherson back in 1995. Do you know anything about that?” I asked.
“No. I don’t know anything about that,” she said in a somewhat annoyed tone of voice. “Ever since I’ve joined, I haven’t heard about any controversies going on with the Church, but there’s a Church of Scientology in Austin. Maybe they can help you with your questions,” she said.
“Okay. Could you give me the address and number?” I asked.
“Sure!” she said in a happy tone as if she was glad to be off the hot seat.
After moments of conversation I dismissed myself and thanked her for all her help. I was now on my way to Austin. Talking to Mary Joe might not be what I was looking for, but her reactions to my questions gave me some insight of what to expect in Austin.
My Visit to the Church of Scientology in Austin, Texas
Upon arriving to Austin, I discovered that the church was right across The University of Texas on the intersection of Guadalupe Street and W 22nd St. The church itself is not a big cathedral with amazing architecture as one would assume, but it’s more like a small office building.
Once inside, I was greeted by a recruiter named Dean. There were several people walking around acting busy. Everyone was in casual business attire. Dean greeted me and asked me if I needed any help. I stuck with the same strategy as I did with Mary Joe back at San Antonio.
I asked him what he could tell me about Scientology in a nutshell. Strangely enough, he referred me to the same videos Mary Joe introduced me to. I dodged my way out of watching the videos again and asked Dean some questions.
“Sir, do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?” I asked. “So, what influenced you to become a Scientologist, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Well, when I was young, I was going through some personal problems. I was hanging around with a bad group of people and I got into a lot trouble. I needed help and I turned to Scientology because they promised me they could change my life.”
This was interesting since Mary Joe was also influenced by Scientology when she was going through personal problems. After he explained his story, I started asking him questions about the controversial issues regarding Scientology.
“I don’t know anything about that. I’ve only been a Scientologist for 17 years,” said Dean.
For some reason, both Mary Joe and Dean referred to how many years they have been part of the Church. They wouldn’t comment on anything beyond that, but Dean gave me a little insight after bringing up the death of Lisa McPherson occasionally during our conversation.
“Look, let’s be straight,” said Dean. “Every religion has there own controversies. Just look at the Catholic Church for example. They have all that controversy with the ministers molesting their altar boys and stuff like that. The death of Lisa McPherson is just a small thing that people keep bringing up.”
I thought that he didn’t know anything about the death of Lisa McPherson, but he did. Why did he lie to me in the first place? I then started introducing other controversial topics such as Scientologist Jeremy Perkins. Perkins was born into a Scientologist family, but he was experiencing early signs of schizophrenia as a child.
Perkins should’ve gone to a psychiatrist to get help, but Scientologists do not believe in psychiatry. As Perkins grew older, his symptoms worsened. Eventually, the schizophrenia got the better of him and he ended up stabbing his mother 71 times, killing her.
Dean said that he had heard something about that, but doesn’t know too much about it. I then asked him about who “Lord Xenu” was. Lord Xenu is believed to be the central god or spiritual being Hubbard constructed as the basis for Scientology. He told me he didn’t know much about that either, but he told me to speak to Cathy Norman who is the person in charge of giving out information to students who visit this Church. After he gave me her number, he excused himself and left to a back room. I decided to leave, and come back later.
After about a couple of hours, I decided to come back. Dean had left for the day, and there weren’t that many people. There was only a receptionist and a few women, about my age, helping out. I asked the receptionist if Cathy Norman was available, and she said she she’ll be here tomorrow. I asked her if there was anybody I can talk to besides Ms. Norman, and she told me that Ms. Norman is in charge of taking to students who visit.
It was weird to find out that only one person is in charge of talking to students. I thought to myself that Ms. Norman is already accustomed to giving out the “right” answers, and I wanted somebody who is unprepared to answer the questions I have. While I was talking to the receptionist, I was getting suspicious looks from the other women there. I didn’t feel like I did anything wrong, but my assumption would be that Dean told them something about me when I left.
While I was just looking around to see if I could find somebody to talk to, a woman around her thirties approached me. She told me that she might be able to help me with some of the questions I have. She seemed like a normal recruiter to me, but it turned out that she was a minister. Ministers basically give out lectures to Scientologists. I asked her similar questions I asked Dean, but I was more interrogative since I was starting to get accustomed to interviewing.
Although she was a minister, she only had 10 years of experience with Scientology. The minister, Elisabeth, wasn’t prepared for the questions I asked her. There were a lot of similarities to her answers compared to Dean’s and Mary Joe’s, but what interested me the most was that, at first, she denied knowing anything about Lord Xenu but later told me that Lord Xenu was a subject of a higher level course that she hasn’t taken.
I also noticed that she was a lot antsier when I asked her some personal questions about how her family thought of her after she joined Scientology, and other questions along those lines. I wasn’t intending to make her feel uncomfortable, but she sure seemed like it so I laid off from the personal questions. After a lengthy conversation, I thanked her for all the help she gave me and I left.
Although I interviewed three Scientologists, I obtained valuable information from them. Based on my interviews, there were three things I learned. First, all my interviewees had some sort of personal hardship that led them to join Scientology. Second, all three tried to deny any controversies regarding the Church. Third, all denied knowing anything about Lord Xenu for the exception of Elizabeth who eventually revealed a little information about it.
Their reactions were pretty constant with the articles I’ve read from former Scientologists. For example, John Atack spoke about the “Fair Game Policy” stating that Scientologists are allowed to misinform you if the questions regard to any criminal allegations about the church. When I asked them about how they feel when people deliberately attack the church, they told me they ignore them since the people stating those comments don’t know anything about Scientology.
They also said that it’s just a small group of people who attack the church. I find this hard to believe since the negativity about the church is all over the media. When people think about Scientology, they think about how bad it is by what they hear or see in the internet or television just as I did before I conducted my interviews.
However, I feel that Scientologists are not bad or as bad as they were when controversies stared arising in the 1970’s. Maybe Hubbard did start a religion for personal gain, but Scientology seems to teach positive information, such as how to overcome personal hardships. Dean, Elizabeth, and Mary Joe all seem to be normal, happy people and they were able to achieve that confidence through Scientology. Dean was right, all religions seem to encounter some form of controversy, but that doesn’t mean the people in that religion are all bad.
Atack, John. “Scientology: Religion or Intelligence Agency?” A paper delivered at the Dialog Centre International conference in Berlin. www.home.snafu.de. https://home.snafu.de/tilman/j/berlin/html. October 1995. 18 Mar. 2008
Bainbridge, William Sims. 1980. “Scientology: To Be Perfectly Clear.” Sociological Analysis 41. 2: 128-136
Behar, Richard. “The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power” Time Magazine. May 6, 1991. 18 Mar. 2008
Collision, Kevin. “Scientology center heads downtown” Kansas City Star. 17 Mar. 2008
Cowan, Douglas E. “Researching Scientology: Academic Premises, Promises, and Problematics” reprinted on-line at www.cesnur.org; 10 Mar. 2008 https://www.cesnur.org/2004/waco_cowan.htm
Hubbard, Ron L., The Aims of Scientology, quoted on-line at https://www.piratehaven.org/~atman/factnet/rpt.txt. 1 Mar. 2008.
Jacobsen, Jeff. Online information. www.lisamcpherson.org. Jan 13, 1997. 12 Mar. 2008
Jarvik, Elaine. “Scientology: Church now claims more than 8 million members” Deseret Morning News. Sept. 20, 2004; article reprinted at www.deseretnews.com; 11 Mar. 2008
Leiby, Richard. “Scientology Fiction: The Church’s War Against Its Critics – and Truth” The Washington Post, Dec 25,1994, p.C1. 11 Mar. 2008
Scientologists, Elizabeth and Dean. Church of Scientology at Austin. Personal interview. 21 Mar. 2008
Scientologist, Mary Joe. Mission of Scientology at San Antonio. Personal interview. 21 Mar. 2 008
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