How Scientology Works

Church of Scientology building on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

It's the late 1940s and a young science fiction writer is walking through Manhattan on his way to a meeting. As he walks, he ponders a story he's been playing around with — it takes place a long time ago, tens of millions of years ago at least. The Earth is still full of active volcanoes. In the sky, a great fleet of spaceships appear, sent by Xenu, the lord of a distant Galactic Confederation. The spaceships are crammed full of billions of Xenu's subjects who are deposited near spewing volcanoes and annihilated by hydrogen bombs. Their souls, or thetans, survive to become incarnated by the humans who will one day dominate this planet. Good stuff, but then what?

Before he can figure out the next plot element, the writer, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, arrives at his destination, a tony apartment on 57th street. Here, at the home of Fletcher Pratt and his wife Inga, a group of pioneering sci-fi writers are meeting as a group called the Hydra Club [source: Harrison]. In attendance are some names that will later become eminent in their field, including Harlan Ellison.

Hubbard sits down and begins complaining to another Hydra Club member named L. Sprague de Camp that it's hard to make a living when you're getting paid a penny a word. Lester Del Rey, soon to become famous as the editor of Del Rey Books, chimes in saying the real secret to making money is to start a new religion because the great thing about religions is that they're tax-exempt. At that point, the Hydra Club erupts with ideas for DIY spiritual doctrines [source: Shermer].

L. Ron Hubbard goes home and ponders this. He's been playing around with a bunch of different ideas for a couple of years — ideas about reincarnation, the spirit, psychology, mind control, the occult. Could he weave all of these threads together into something cohesive? Something that could become the foundation for a new belief system? A new way of being? A new science of the mind? A new... religion?