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?


A Brief History of L. Ron Hubbard

Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, seen here in the 1960s, founded the Church of Scientology based on his book "Dianetics." Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Lafayette Ronald Hubbard was born in Nebraska in 1911. His father was a navy man who was posted to numerous locations around the world and the young Hubbard traveled widely with his family. After graduating high school, he enrolled at George Washington University where he studied engineering. But he dropped out before completing a degree. Instead he took up science fiction writing and began establishing a name for himself in that field.

In 1941, he followed in his father's footsteps and joined the Navy. He would later claim a storied military career during World War II, alleging that he earned numerous medals including a Purple Heart, which is given to servicemen wounded in combat. Hubbard also liked to say he was an elite commander who captained a fleet of ships.


During a test run of the ship in the Pacific, Hubbard reported sighting two Japanese subs and over the next two-and-a-half days ordered his men to drop 37 depth charges on them. He also called in air and sea support. He credited his boat and its crew with having so thoroughly destroyed the subs that no trace of them could be found.

U.S. Naval records tell a somewhat different story. Hubbard did command two boats, including the PC 815, a submarine hunter. But in its report on the matter, the Navy could find no evidence either of these Japanese submarines existed in the area. The investigators concluded that Hubbard fabricated them.

Still in command of his ship, Hubbard took the PC 815 down the California coast and illegally entered Mexican waters where, again illegally, he ordered his men to test the ship's guns by firing on an uninhabited Mexican island. Mexico complained and Hubbard was reprimanded. Navy records show that the future religious leader was relieved of his command of two different boats over the course of his military career. He was assigned to onshore duties in the late 1940s [source: Sappell and Welkos].

After attending that fateful meeting of the Hydra Club and resigning his military post in 1950, Hubbard published an article in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, called "Dianetics: A New Science of the Mind." It was the founding moment in the movement that would become known as Scientology.


Scientology According to Scientology

A member of the 'Sea Org' walks by a sign outside the Church of Scientology Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard. Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

According the official Scientology website, Hubbard derived the word, "dianetics" from the ancient Greek word for "through" (dia) and "nous" meaning "mind or soul." To boil the concept down to its basics, dianetics refers to how the mind — or soul — affects the body. Scientologists believe the mind to be an interface between a person's thetan — or true, spiritual self — and their environment. This interface has two elements, the "analytical mind" and the "reactive mind." The analytical mind, as the term suggests, is rational and aware, whereas the reactive mind is unconscious and involuntary, yet simultaneously in charge of the analytical mind.

The reactive mind is where all the trouble is. It stores experiences in perfect recordings, called engrams, which feature every element of an event, even, or perhaps especially, traumatic events. If left to fester, these engrams are the source of nearly all that ails us. To mitigate the power of these engrams, it's necessary to recount them aloud to a trained auditor who can elicit the correct result with a set of prescribed questions. Once through this process, the engrams are purged of their force and a person becomes free of the pain they caused.


Auditing is said to be a process of objective, scientific precision, with each question calibrated to produce the necessary results. The Church of Scientology holds that, thanks to Hubbard's careful design of the auditing process and its questions, the procedure is free of any errors that might arise from the auditor's subjective biases.

Scientologists also insist that auditing not be confused with psychiatry, which uses methods they believe to be ineffective — mainly that psychiatrists interpret what someone says rather than simply accept what they say, as auditors do. Auditors use a series of tests administered before and after an auditing session to determine the results and establish what kind of auditing program will be necessary to bring a "pre-clear" person to a "clear" state, or "free" of their reactive mind. The results of these tests can be recorded on a graph to illustrate the progress made.

Scientology auditors use e-meters to register members' thoughts during auditing sessions.
Andy Cross/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Hubbard expanded "Dianetics: A Science of the Mind," to book-length form and when it was published, also in 1950, it was a hit. Hubbard traveled the country giving lectures and demonstrating his ideas in the book. But by 1952, interest in dianetics was waning and Hubbard decided on a different course. He began incorporating the principles of dianetics into a new belief system, which he dubbed Scientology.

Scientology took dianetics to a new level, identifying the thetan or soul with past lives. Hubbard reasoned that if the thetan transcended time and the body, then it should be able to separate itself from the body at will. He alleged that this could be done and the process is called exteriorization. Identifying a spirit naturally leads a system of thought into the realm of religion. In 1954, Hubbard established the Church of Scientology of California, which is considered the organization's mother church. In 1957, the IRS granted tax-exempt status, making Scientology an official religion in the eyes of the U.S. government [source: Frantz].

By 1967, Hubbard had established the Sea Organization, which the church says is "a religious order for the Scientology religion and is composed of the singularly most dedicated Scientologists" [source:]. Members of the Sea Organization sign a billion-year contract making themselves wholly responsible to the Church of Scientology. Today the church claims to have more than 5,000 members of the Sea Organization.

So do Scientologists believe in a god? Absolutely, says the website, but unlike other religions, Scientology has no set teachings about god that it dictates to members. Instead Scientologists are expected to increase their spiritual awareness based on faith, auditing and training. The combination of these practices allows Scientologists to become free (via auditing) and stay that way (via training).

The ultimate goal of a Scientologist is to move up the Bridge to Total Freedom. Hubbard created a precise chart, known as the Classification, Gradation and Awareness Chart, which shows the exact path a Scientologist must take to become clear and move up the Bridge.


Scientology Controversies

David Miscavige followed L. Ron Hubbard to become chairman of the Board Religious Technology Center and ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion. Church of Scientology/Getty Images

Scientology has grown exponentially since its founding, counting among its members such celebrities as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. But with success comes exposure. Ten years after granting it tax-exempt status in 1957, the IRS revoked it, saying that in its view, Scientology was really a commercial organization created to garner profit for Hubbard. The Church of Scientology challenged this ruling many times, but for the next 25 years, the decision was upheld. Finally, in 1993, the IRS once again granted Scientology its tax-free status [source: Frantz]. It was a triumph that Hubbard did not live to see. He died in 1986 and the church was taken over by a man named David Miscavige.

But before his death, Hubbard's wife Mary Sue Hubbard was among 11 high-ranking members indicted by the U.S. attorney on 28 charges of conspiracy in 1978. The charges were based on a five-year investigation dubbed Operation Snow White, which turned up internal church documents outlining campaigns to harass its numerous critics, government officials and agents [source: Robinson]. A year later, nine of the 11 church members pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to obstruct justice.


After its own deep investigation, in 1997 The New York Times alleged that the Church of Scientology, under Miscavige's leadership, conducted a kind of cold war against the IRS and deployed underhanded tactics to obtain its status. There's evidence to suggest, for instance, that the church hired private investigators to look into the lives of individual IRS employees to find vulnerabilities that could be exploited. One way or another, many tax experts were stunned by the IRS's unexpected decision.

More controversy has pursued Scientology since then, including multiple indictments and convictions for church leaders around the globe. Some ex-members, including its former executive director of special affairs and chief spokesperson, Mike Rinder, also claim to have been psychologically abused and exploited by the church's leadership. In 2013, Leah Remini, one of the stars of the TV comedy, "The King of Queens," publicly quit the church. Remini had been raised as a Scientologist but felt that she could no longer remain loyal to the institution.

In 2015, she published a book called, "Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology," which, in part, chronicled her experiences with the religion. Then, in 2016, she joined teams with Rinder for the docuseries on A&E, in which they traveled the country interviewing ex-Scientologists, some of whom allege experiencing a range of traumas from physical and emotional forms of abuse to statutory rape [source: Gilbert].

Also in 2015, HBO presented a documentary called "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief," based on a book by Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. The documentary goes into extensive detail about Hubbard, Miscavige and an alleged church culture of power-mongering, greed and authoritarianism [source: Gilbert].

Controversy also surrounds the financial price of being a Scientologist. Auditing, which is required for all members — is not free, and can cost up to $800 an hour [source: Nededog]. Training — another requirement of being a Scientologist — also comes at a steep price. In her A&E docuseries, Remini explained that that there are 12 basic books in Scientology, which costs about $4,000. But members must buy the books again and again whenever they've been updated. Remini said in her 35 years as a Scientologist, she spent"millions" [source: Nededog].

And then there's that Bridge to Total Freedom. Remini said on her series that courses cost about $650 each, and there are hundreds of courses to reach the top.


Scientology's Future

The headquarters for the Church of Scientology in Clearwater, Florida. Getty Images

When Xenu banished that horde of miscreants to a distant volcanic planet all those eons ago, he couldn't have foreseen (or could he?) that one day L. Ron Hubbard would discover the true origins of humanity and, in doing so unveil the means of righting all the wrongs we daily experience. The story of Xenu and the Galactic Confederation and those thetan souls that survived annihilation only to be incarnated as hapless pre-clear bipeds, is said to be the secret origin story of humanity transmitted only to Scientologists who reach the highest levels of spiritual insight in the church's hierarchy.

The fact that this story contains many of the tropes of 1950s science fiction doesn't automatically render it the most absurd religious origin story. As many people have pointed out, the mythic tales of most spiritual belief systems are equally, if not more, fantastical. And, as has also been argued, few institutional religions can claim a history unsullied by reports of abuse and corruption.


The real critique of Scientology asks whether or not the various negative actions ascribed to the Church of Scientology are the inevitable byproducts of any religious organization's growth or are they the outcome of the belief system's founding doctrines and practices.

Many of the investigations into Hubbard's past, his reported tendencies toward mendacity and self-aggrandizement, and his allegedly calculating efforts to create Scientology as a means of remuneration and gain, point to the latter proposition. Scientology, claim many of its detractors, is rotten at its core [source: Douthat].

Whether this is true, the religion is currently experiencing difficulties and its future does not look bright. While the church claims that Scientology boasts millions of adherents across the globe, "Going Clear" puts the number at fewer than 50,000. And although Tom Cruise and John Travolta remain faithful Scientologists, they have become less vocal about their religion, and the church has had difficulty recruiting new, younger celebrities to be its public face.

At the root of Scientology's apparent decline is the defining factor of our age — the internet. In the past, when controversies arose, the church would use aggressive legal action to control the narrative. But while it remains possible to sue a media outlet into silence, the internet with all its blogs and tweets, is much harder to rein in [source: Gilbert].

It's hard not to believe that L. Ron Hubbard in his heyday would have found a way to use the internet to his advantage and turn things around for his beleaguered church. Perhaps his reincarnated thetan is out there somewhere, already plotting a comeback.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Scientology Works

Most religions have a foundation story and I have no beef with Scientology looking to sci-fi for its background tale. In fact, I think we should be founding more religions on the backs of good storylines. A cult of Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse," for instance, which would require a yearly pilgrimage to the Shetland Islands, or a doctrine based on "The Lord of the Rings" in which adherents must cast a gold ring into an active volcano. The possibilities are endless...

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More Great Links

  • Douthat, Ross. "What's The Matter With Scientology? (II)." The Atlantic. Aug. 6, 2007. (July 1, 2017)
  • Frantz, Douglas. "Scientology's Puzzling Journey From Tax Rebel to Tax Exempt." New York Times. March 9, 1997. (June 30, 2017)
  • Gilbert, Sophie. "In 'Scientology and the Aftermath,' Leah Remini Strikes Back." The Atlantic. Nov. 29, 2016. (June 22, 2017)
  • Gilbert, Sophie. "It's Not Easy Being Scientology." The Atlantic. March 26, 2015. (June 22, 2017)
  • Guerrasio, Jason. "The chilling story of how Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard rose to power." Business Insider. March 31, 2015. (June 26, 2017)
  • Harry Harrison. "Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison!" Macmillan. 2014. (June 26, 2017) - v=onepage&q=hydra club sci-f
  • Rinder, Mike. "More Scientology Lies about Disconnection." Mike Rinder's Blog. Feb. 28, 2017. (July 14, 2017)
  • Sappell, Joel and Robert W. Welkos. "The Mind Behind the Religion: Chapter Two: Creating the Mystique: Hubbard's image was crafted of truth, distorted by myth." Los Angeles Times. June 24, 1990. (June 27, 2017)
  • "What Is Dianetics?" (June 29, 2017)
  • "What is the E-Meter and How Does It Work?" (July 13, 2017)
  • Shermer, Michael. "The Real Science behind Scientology." Scientific American. Nov. 1, 2011. (June 26, 2017)