CESNUR 2004 INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE
This paper began, as I suspect so many do, in a bar. Nearly five years ago, at the annual AAR meeting, three colleagues and I were sitting over drinks with a representative of the Church of Scientology, and at one point she asked, Why dont academics write more about Scientology? Without hesitation and without consultation, we all answered virtually in the same breath: Because you threaten to sue us if we say things you dont like! While that answer may have overstated the case a wee bit, the point was clear: among academics there is the perception, at least, that research into the Church of Scientology does not come without costs, and that for many scholars those costs appear simply prohibitive.
I would like to examine what I regard as the research problem of the Church of Scientology from three interrelated angles: (1) some of the premises on which such research ought to be conducted; (2) some of the promises that are implicit in it for the field of NRM studies; and (3) some of the problems encountered because of the paucity of data, and either the unwillingness of Scientology to cooperate in research or interference from the Church as research proceeds.1
In a wide variety of publications, the Church of Scientology claims to be the fastest growing religious movement on Earth (www.scientology.org; Church of Scientology 2004b: 3),2 and the only major religious movement to emerge in the twentieth century (Church of Scientology International 2004b: 3; Jentzsch 2002: 141). From the opening pages of Dianetics (Hubbard  1990) to the nearly one hundred sermons contained in The Background, Ministry, Ceremonies and Sermons of the Scientology Religion (Church of Scientology International 2002), Scientological literature is filled with similar claims-both falsifiable and nonfalsifiable.3 While scholars might challenge the empirical accuracy of many of these statements, and I will have more to say about the nature of those challenges below, few of us would contest Scientologys importance as a new religious movement-as much for the growth it has achieved in the past half-century as for the numerous controversies it has generated.4
Unfortunately, while Scientology has been the subject of some scholarly attention (cf. Bainbridge 1980, 1987; Beckford 1980; Bednarowski 1995; Beit-Hallahmi 2003; Berglie 1996; Black 1996; Bromley and Bracie 1998; Bryant 1994; Chidester n.d.; Cowan 2004; Dericquebourg 1995; Flinn 1983; Frigerio 1996; Heino 1995; Kelley  1996; Kent 1999a, 1999b, 1999c; Melton 2000, 2001; Pentikainen and Pentikainen 1996; Ross 1988; Sabbatucci 1983; F. Sawada 1996; H. M. a. S. Sawada 1996; Sivertsev 1995; Urban 2004; Wallis 1973, 1976; Whitehead 1973, 1987), I do not believe that such attention has been nearly as sustained or as comprehensive as its prominence as an NRM warrants. The last major studies, for example, were Roy Wallis The Road to Total Freedom, published in 1976-ten years before L. Ron Hubbards death-and Harriet Whiteheads Renunciation and Reformulation, which came out nearly a decade before such high-profile controversies as the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson.5
A number of other significant NRMs, on the other hand, have been closely studied by social scientists, and important, often ground-breaking results obtained. One need only mention Eileen Barkers research on the Unification Church (1984), Burke Rochfords study of the Hare Krishnas (1985), and the work of Bill Bainbridge (2002) or Jim Chancellor (2000) on The Family. While they may not have been universally thrilled with the end product, each of these groups has opened themselves up to scholarly observation in ways that the Church of Scientology by and large has not.
Obviously, then, this paper is not a report on research that has been completed. Rather, while some of what I say here might turn out to be superfluous in light of this new Danish work, I regard this paper as a set of preliminary statements about research that I believe ought to be conducted. While some of these statements could certainly be turned into testable hypotheses, most of them are designed simply to raise the issues for further discussion. Within each section, however, I hope to make a few concrete suggestions for a useful research agenda. In many ways, this paper is about perceptions. A fundamental principle of a sociology of knowledge is that social action is not based on reality as it is, but on reality as it is perceived to be. And perceptions are often much more powerful and much more compelling than the reality they allege to represent.
One need only look a few miles up the road here in Waco to realize the truth of this.
RESEARCHING SCIENTOLOGY: PREMISES
Research into any new religious movement, but especially one that makes the kind of exclusive religious claims made by the Church of Scientology, must, among other things, be guided by a creative tension between at least one of Durkheims rules of sociological method, a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion towards both emic and etic voices, and a keen awareness that ours is not necessarily the task of authentication.
Professor Durkheim Visits the Org
When one undertakes to explain a social phenomenon, Durkheim wrote in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895] 1982: 123), the efficient cause which produces it and the function it fulfills must be investigated separately (emphasis in the original). While The Rules may not be regarded as Durkheims most theoretically sophisticated work (Lukes 1982: 23), the importance of this particular rPgle in terms of many religious movements is clear. Explaining (or explaining away) the origins of a religious tradition-even if such origins are found to be entirely fabricated or drawn from distinctly questionable sources-does nothing to diminish the cultural force those facts carry for participants today. In fact, I suggest that this is one of the most fundamental mistakes made by many in the Christian countercult and secular anticult movements-trying to invalidate a target religious tradition by exposing the alleged flaws in its social origin or foundational mythistory. How much ink, for example, has been spilled exposing the problematic origins of the LDS Church or pointing out Charles Taze Russells exaggerated claims to proficiency in Greek and Hebrew-all with an eye to discrediting Mormonism or Jehovahs Witnesses as viable religious traditions?
The situation is little different with Scientology.
The Church of Scientology is a commercial enterprise that masquerades as a religion, writes Anton Hein (2001), a rather notorious Dutch countercultist, and he is hardly alone in his evaluation. Both Stephen Kent (1999a, 1999c) and Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi (2003) have published lengthy articles in the Marburg Journal of Religion arguing that the Scientology is a multinational business that purports to be a religion only for the purpose of securing the social benefits that are available to religious organizations-most notably, tax relief, but in some countries state recognition and access to educational systems. While Kent chooses to take his research in a very different direction than I am proposing here, he at least recognizes the implications of Professor Durkheim visiting the Org, and concedes that the historical reasons behind Scientologys religious claims, as well as the organizations selectivity in making the claims, do not diminish the probability that many Scientologists view their commitment as a religious one (Kent 1999c).
In terms of Durkheims rule, I would like to put Kents comment even more bluntly, recognizing that the research principle that emerges obtains regardless of the religious tradition to which it is applied. To illustrate this, let me suggest a couple of hypotheticals, both of which are predicated on the question, OK, so how much more do we know?
On the one hand, let us assume that Kent and Beit-Hallahmi are correct, that Scientology is not a religion, or at least was not in the beginning. Let us assume for the sake of argument that Hubbard was a complete, conscious, and utter fraud who, whether through megalomaniacal hubris or simply an interest in avoiding his fair share of the tax burden, created the Scientology religion as a thoroughgoing hoax. How much more do we know? How have we substantially increased our understanding of those adherents-especially the religious rank-and-file-who call themselves Scientologists?
On the other hand, and again for the sake of argument, let us assume the polar opposite, that Scientology is a religion. Let us assume-say, by dint of Stark and Bainbridges psychopathological or entrepreneurial model of new religious formation (1979)-that from the very beginning Hubbard was entirely sincere about what he was doing, that he believed everything he wrote and taught completely and without reservation. Once again, how much more do we know? How much further does that go toward explaining the growth and activities of the Church of Scientology both before and after Hubbards death?
Indeed, how does either of these versions of the efficient cause of Scientology explain its function in the lives of hundreds of thousands of adherents who now believe that it is a religion and conduct their lives accordingly? How does either explain the Sea Org-dedicated religionists who base their behaviour in the world on their belief in the religion of Scientology and their billion-year contract with it? How do they explain the young woman in that bar in Boston, who has raised her children as Scientologists? Or one of the staff members at the org in Kansas City who has been a member since the late 1970s and has homeschooled his daughter as a religious Scientologist?
Its simple. They dont.
And they dont because, in many respects, they are asking the wrong question, one that is based on a fundamentally flawed premise; that is, if the efficient cause can be demonstrated false (or true) then the social organization that has proceeded from the cause is defective (or not) almost by definition.6
From my perspective, I would much rather learn how those who are happy, healthy Scientologists account for themselves as religious actors, how those who are no longer in the organization account for their departure, and what internal and external factors contribute to the difference. As a research problem, obviously, while this particular aspect could be approached through in-depth ethnographies and participant-observation, it also raises the thorny issue of competing voices, specifically emic advocacy versus etic antagonism.
Emic and Etic Voices in Contention
In a number of cases of either perceived or actual interference by the Church in academic discussions, the claim is often made that Scientologists only want what they regard as the truth about their religion to be on the agenda. Please note, however, that this is a double entendre: at the least, they merely want their perspectives included, at the most, they want only their perspectives included.
At a basic level, of course, they want mistakes corrected, misstatements modified, and the real story of Scientology foregrounded. And I think thats perfectly commendable, if not always realistic. That is, if believers are not willing to stand up in defence of what they believe, one has to wonder just how strong their commitment is or how compelling the belief system to which they are committed. What this position ignores, however, is the social reality that emic voices are invested voices, and for that reason may not always be the most reliable or the most accurate. And this principle, as well, holds whether we are dealing with Scientologists, fundamentalist Christians, Ibo diviners, or members of the local Ordo Templi Orientis.7
On the one hand, if we are discussing the dynamics of ones personal religious faith and spiritual journey, then I would suggest that the a priori research position ought to be that the emic voice is paramount. As a social scientist, I certainly dont have the right to tell someone, Youre faith isnt real; it isnt authentic-which is often one of the hardest concepts for many of my graduate students to grasp, and, I suspect, the logical extension of positions such as those held by scholars like Kent and Beit-Hallahmi. On the other hand, etic voices-whether they are obviously disgruntled or merely disinterested-are not any more or less reliable necessarily. This is, of course, the member-versus-ex-member debate which has been raging for a few decades now. Recognizing that, stated thus, emic and etic are imperfect categories, my contention here is two-fold: first, there must be a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion displayed towards each side in the debate; but, second, and this is the important point, as many of these different and disparate voices as possible must be included in a comprehensive research program.
But are they really religious?
Finally, another of the difficult concepts for many of the graduate students in our program to grasp initially is that theirs is not the task of authentication. Especially when we consider new religious movements, many of them seem to get hung up on questions like: Are online Druids really Druids? Are American converts who chant the sutras in English really Buddhists? Are Scientologists really people of faith and is theirs really a religion? What I tell them is that this is not a call they get to make-except under rather specific circumstances.8 More important to the sociology of new religious movements is why religious adherents believe what they believe and how that belief informs their social action.
Because this particular point informs so much of what follows in my paper, I want to be very clear about this next statement, so that there is no misunderstanding. As a subject of intellectual inquiry, in terms of the kinds of research questions I am interested in, I do not care what Scientologists believe, any more than I care what Christians, or Druids, or Buddhists believe. That is, I am not invested in proving or disproving the content of their belief insofar as they believe it. A religious group could suddenly proclaim that the moon is made of foam rubber and inhabited by one-eyed Episcopalian kangaroos, and I could not care less. What I do care about, what I am intensely interested in, and what I take very seriously, is that they believe what they believe it. Im interested in how those beliefs have evolved and developed, what social function they serve in terms of the religious group, and how religious groups maintain belief in the face of challenge, opprobrium, and the occasional conclusive disconfirmation of their particular religious claims.
All of which leads to some of the promises that I think are implicit in more detailed and comprehensive research into the Church of Scientology.
RESEARCHING SCIENTOLOGY: PROMISES
Basic Institutional Issues
There are, of course, the basic institutional issues, the foundational data on which more sophisticated analyses would inevitably depend. Using Stark and Bainbridges audience-client-cult movement model, for example, how often do inquirers move into the auditing process? How many of those who take the Oxford Capacity Analysis Test online make personal contact with a local org? How many of those actually take courses? How many complete them? How far do those who begin auditing tend to go on the Bridge, and what are the various rates of attrition and further commitment? How have these rates changed over time? What factors facilitate the transition from an auditing client to a full-fledged member of the Church of Scientology, especially in a high investment branch like the Sea Org? How often do in-group ties form, and what role do they play in commitment, continuation, and attrition? Generationally, in what ways do Scientologists who have been raised in the Church differ from converts (cf. Lattin 2001)? In terms of Scientologys numerous outreach programs-literacy campaigns, drug treatment programs, and criminal rehabilitation projects-how do the empirical data on the success of these programs square with Scientologys own claims? And, if there are significant differences, what accounts for them? Finally, there is the question that my students always seem to raise whenever Scientology enters the classroom conversation: Why are so many cultural celebrities attracted to it?
In terms of my own particular research perspective-and, as I said, I am interested in how religious groups construct and maintain meaningful identity in the face of social challenge, cognitive dissonance, and cultural opprobrium-a comprehensive research program would yield data in a number of areas: (1) the nature of religion; (2) the process of religious evolution; and (3) the dynamics of religious boundary maintenance.
Scientology as Closed Source Religion
In Cyberhenge, which is book about modern Pagans on the Internet that is due out in late October, I introduce a modest theoretical approach to help understand certain aspects of religious organization and behaviour. Based on the open source model of computer programming, I make a distinction between what I am calling open source and closed source religious traditions. While these are endpoints on a heuristic continuum and not meant to represent any kind of ontological duality, put simply, open source traditions are those in which the source codes, the fundamental building blocks of the religion, are open to adaptation and modification by religious participants; closed source traditions, on the other hand, restrict deviation from the source codes either partially or entirely.
In this theoretical model, the Church of Scientology is the quintessential closed source tradition. In closed source terms, for example, the foundational practice of Scientology- auditing-is believed to be 100 percent effective only so long as it proceeds in strict accordance with the instructions laid down by Hubbard himself, principally in Dianetics.9 Invoking the non-falsifiability common to religious beliefs and practices worldwide, lack of success in the auditing process or stunted progress in ones spiritual development is often attributed to deviance from the protocols established by Hubbard and guarded by the Church through an aggressive program of copyright enclosure and infraction surveillance.10 To ensure uniformity and avoid what the Religious Technology Center regards as the nemesis of alteration and reinterpretation (2003b), during auditing sessions participants pause frequently to word clear, that is, to look up the exact meaning of a word in its Scientological context. This precludes the kind of multiple interpretations that are anathema to the closed source tradition. Similarly, during church worship services, sermons are read verbatim from a master text, and neither innovation nor deviation is permitted.11
Institutionally, on the other hand, Scientology as a closed source religion-one in which the source codes for the religion provided by Hubbard are not open to challenge or modification in any way-is best demonstrated through the Religious Technology Center (www.rtc.org), the organization charged with safeguarding Scientological orthodoxy. Scientologists across the globe, reads part of the RTCs online mission statement (2003a), view the maintenance and incorruptibility of their religious technology-in precise accordance with the founders source writings-to be essential to their very salvation. While this is no doubt due in part to the host of Scientological imitators that have appeared since the 1950s (see Stark and Bainbridge 1979; Wallis 1976) and the problem of unauthorized reproduction of Church esoterica that is only exacerbated by the Internet (Cowan 2004; Peckham 1998), it would be hard to imagine a clearer statement of a closed source religious tradition.
More comprehensive research into the Church of Scientology could yield important socio-historical data on how this situation arose, how closed source traditions form and endure through generational transmission, and how they respond to cultural change, institutional evolution, and an almost inevitable degree of cognitive dissonance.
Mythistory in the Making
It could also tell us a tremendous amount about how some traditions construct their religious mythistory.12 And, here, I am not talking about such things as Scientologys esoteric cosmogony, but rather the larger patterns of their emerging Heilsgeschichte into which particular religious identity becomes embedded, and on which it later draws for maintenance and reinforcement.13 Let me suggest just three examples of this emerging mythistory: (1) the emerging hagiology of L. Ron Hubbard; (2) the cognitive dissonance occasioned by the disconfirmation of religious and mythistorical claims; and (3) the manner in which a conspiracist understanding of culture has become embedded in Scientological mythistory.
Hagiologizing L. Ron HubbardWhen I visited the LA center a couple of years ago, our first stop was the American Saint Hill Organization on L. Ron Hubbard Way, a couple of blocks off Santa Monica Boulevard. At one point as we were being shown around, our guide pointed to one of the Hubbard busts that are prominent in the orgs, and cautioned us, Now, we dont worship Mr. Hubbard as a god. And my immediate thought was, Not yet you dont, sweetheart, but give it a hundred years. After all, look what they did to Jesus.
Anyone who has spent any time visiting various Scientology orgs, reading their literature, or listening to tapes will recognize the ubiquitous presence of L. Ron Hubbard. Auditing practices are designed to follow Hubbards instructions without deviation. The chapel arrangement for Sunday worship services calls for the same large bust of Hubbard to be placed at stage right, between the lectern and the Scientology cross. Over half of the ninety-six official Scientology sermons reference Hubbard directly, and every one concludes by referring congregants either to Hubbards own works or to Scientology books based on those works. In the manner of setting a place for Elijah at the Passover seder, every Scientology org, large or small, maintains an office for Hubbard in perpetuity. The Author Services Center is a virtual shrine to Hubbards writings in all their manifold versions, editions, and translations. And, if you ever find yourself in Hollywood, do not miss the opportunity to visit the Hubbard Life Exhibition. It is well worth the trip-though, as a sociologist, I would argue less for the insight it provides into the life of Scientologys founder, than for the ways in which it demonstrates how the Church he founded is constructing his hagiography.
Indeed, try to imagine for a moment a Church of Scientology without L. Ron Hubbard. Its unthinkable. It makes no more sense than trying to imagine Christianity without Jesus. In Scientology, Hubbard is the founder of the practice, the author of the scriptures, the touchstone of belief, and the guarantor of salvation. And what I believe a more comprehensive research program would reveal is the manner in which, in Weberian terms, for example, Hubbards charisma is being routinized, institutionalized, and indeed sacralized. Hubbards is an emerging hagiography unlike any other than I can think of in a new religious movement, and one that has the multi-billion dollar resources of the Scientological institution thrown completely behind it. I think thats absolutely fascinating. As well, in terms of emic advocacy and etic antagonism, we have once again the issue of competing propagandas: as a religious movement that is integrally linked to its founder, how does the Church create and maintain its vision of Hubbard in the face of ongoing countermovement challenge to his honesty and legitimacy?
On the other hand, the institutional Church of Scientology claims that there are millions of people around the world who consider they have no greater friend than L. Ron Hubbard (Church of Scientology International 2004a). In this regard, there is significant ethnographic work to be done to see how (and even whether) this approbation is reflected in the lived practice and faith experience of rank-and-file Scientologists. Certainly the material culture of Scientology-from references in the sermons and busts in the chapels, to the myriad of literature on Hubbard produced by Author Services and his ubiquitous influence on Scientological belief and practice-foregrounds Hubbard at every turn, but that still leaves open the question of how he is regarded by the Scientological laity, by those Scientologists who function outside the domains of institutional power.
And, there is yet another issue. Since his death in 1986, books, pamphlets, magazines, courses, and other components of Scientologys expanding entrepreneuria-including the massive Scientology Handbook (Church of Scientology International 2001 )-have been issued with the caveat that they are based on the works of L. Ron Hubbard. However, as thinkers such as Michel Foucault (e.g., 1970, 1978, 1982) and Pierre Bourdieu (e.g., 1984a, 1984b, 1997, 1998) have so trenchantly demonstrated, any claims that access to correct or accurate information can cure a variety of social ills ignore the crucial reality that all educational philosophies, all heuristic frameworks according to which information is chosen, and all technologies by which those philosophies are enacted are ineluctably embedded in a web of contested power relations. Given this, the question for the Church of Scientology becomes Whos doing the choosing? Who is selecting which of Hubbards works are included in various products? What are the criteria on which such selections are based? And, more to the point, since absolute fidelity to the Founders work is paramount-indeed, according to the Religious Technology Center (2003a), essential to their very salvation-how can rank-and-file Scientologists be assured that they are getting the original material? The copyright page of The Scientology Handbook says that it was compiled by the LRH Book Compilation Staff of the Church of Scientology International. But who are they? Who appointed them to those positions, and who oversees their work? It is not insignificant, I think, that a Google search (June 7, 2004) for the phrases LRH Book Compilation Staff and LRH Book Compilation returns not one, single result. More comprehensive research into the Church could potentially tell scholars-and Scientologists-quite a bit about the dynamic relationship between the emerging hagiography of L. Ron Hubbard on the one hand and an increasingly closed source religious tradition on the other.
On Finding the Bones of Jesus
As Peter Berger pointed out in The Sacred Canopy (1967: 29), all socially constructed worlds are inherently precarious. That is, they are constantly open to the threat of challenge and disconfirmation. And, indeed, as I indicated earlier, this is one of the principle means by which members of the Christian countercult seek to discredit target traditions, to disenchant religious adherents, and to encourage conversion to evangelical Protestantism. Creatively misreading Durkheim for a moment, their argument runs that if the efficient cause can be demonstrated flawed, then the social function must be similarly flawed. A reasonable premise, perhaps-there just doesnt seem to be a lot of empirical evidence for it so far.
Consider the Mormons. If an authentic Salamander letter were to be uncovered, if an undisputed document in Joseph Smiths own hand declared the whole thing an elaborate hoax, does that mean that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as it exists today would collapse? Unlikely. Or, consider modern Pagans. If, as scholars such as Ronald Hutton contend, the origins of modern Wicca extend no further back than Gerald Gardner, and do not represent anything like a Pagan revitalization movement, does that mean that modern Paganism-which also claims to be the fastest growing religious movement in the U.S. and in Australia, by the way-will simply disappear? Similarly unlikely. Or, finally, to take perhaps the most trenchant example, if in the dusty hills outside Jerusalem an ossuary were to be found and its contents indisputably verified as the bones of Jesus Christ, does that mean that one-third of the worlds population would simply fold up its religious tents and go searching for the nearest dharma center?
I rather suspect not.
Because, in the latter case, at least, I would like to suggest that, metaphorically, the bones of Jesus have already been found, and have been available for viewing roughly since the middle of the nineteenth century. As soon as thinkers like Darwin and Lamarck appeared on the scene and suggested a view of creation other than that delineated in the Bible; as soon as the German higher critics pointed out that Moses did not, in fact, write the Pentateuch; as soon as Schweitzer began the search for the historical Jesus and Bultmann divorced him from the Christ of faith; and as soon as liberal theologians began to consider the social and theological value of religious pluralism, the bones of Jesus were placed on public display. That is, the theological grounding on which the notion of extra ecclesiam nulla salus was based for more than a thousand years was suddenly called into question, and much of the Christian Church was forced to reconsider its positions, to deal with the cognitive dissonance these discoveries and theories and challenges presented.
As Karl Mannheim wrote in his classic essay on The Problem of a Sociology of Knowledge ( 1952: 147): after one class has discovered some sociological or historical fact . . . all other groups, no matter what theirinterests are, can equally take such fact into account-nay, must somehow incorporate such fact into their system of world interpretation. Some streams of Christianity chose to reinvent themselves, to rethink theology and to re-examine the Churchs position in the world. Others chose to retrench, to dig in and hold the high ground of salvation through Christ alone. They did not, however, disappear.
For my part, however it plays itself out, it is precisely this process of incorporation, of interpretation, explanation, and integration that interests me intellectually. For example, how do religious groups deal with claims that are open to immediate and conclusive disconfirmation? How do they handle the cognitive dissonance generated by disparate data and competing interpretations of their religious legitimacy and identity? Though there are numerous others we could choose in terms of the Church of Scientology, let me give you just one small, yet rather revealing example.
In Heber Jentzschs contribution to New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America (Davis and Hankins 2002: 154), he claims that both L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology were on the Nixon White House enemies list, and that Congressional hearings following the Watergate scandal revealed previously secret and illegal IRS programs against individuals and organizations, including the Church of Scientology. Of the 213 names on the Nixon list, 211 were left bankrupt, collapsed, disbanded, or dead. Indeed, of the individuals and organizations on that infamous enemies list, only two survived intact: Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. This claim is repeated in numerous places throughout Scientological literature.14
In terms of claims that are open to immediate and conclusive disconfirmation and how religious groups incorporate them into their worldview, three things are important to note about this particular statement.
First, it is worth considering some of the people who were on the Nixon list and where they are now. Number nineteen of the original twenty collected in 1969 by Charles Colson was actor, race car driver, and salad dressing entrepreneur Paul Newman. Number seventeen was Daniel Schorr, currently the senior news analyst for NPR and a 2002 inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Political figures on the expanded list included Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Edmund Muskie, Shirley Chisholm, and Bella Abzug. The Southern Christian Leadership Convention was on the list, as were performers such as Bill Cosby, Jane Fonda, Gregory Peck, and Barbara Streisand. While we might question Streisand for inflicting Yentl on the movie-going public, few would consider her life unsuccessful. Ramsey Clark, former Attorney General; Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense; Sargent Shriver, former US ambassador to France-all were on the list. And there were academics, Noam Chomsky, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Arthur Schlesinger notable among them, and hardly bankrupt, collapsed, disbanded, or dead.15
Second, though, and equally important, neither L. Ron Hubbard nor the Church of Scientology appear on the Nixon enemy list.16
Third, and most important in terms of a sociology of knowledge approach to the Church of Scientology, neither of these other facts matters.
Conspiracism as Religious Culture
One of the theoretical and methodological dicta that I urge my students to take to heart when considering any religious tradition is Berger and Luckmanns observation that we are dealing with whatever passes for knowledge in that tradition, regardless of the ultimate validity or invalidity (by whatever criteria) of such knowledge (1966: 15). And Scientologys place as the sole survivor from Nixons enemies list is part of what passes for knowledge in their religious culture. In fact, I believe that it is a good example of how conspiracism has come to play an important role in the emerging salvation history of the Church, and another aspect of Scientologys development that is well worth further exploration-not to disprove it, but to understand it.
&What is Scientology? contains a chapter on Those Who Oppose Scientology (Church of Scientology International 1998: 503-15), which details what the Church regards as a coordinated program of harassment by an assorted cast of villains, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the secular anticult movement (which the Church regards as a variety of antireligious front groups deployed by the psychiatric community worldwide to assault Scientology and other churches [Church of Scientology International 1998: 513]), ex-members of the Church, the media, and, occasionally, scholars. Much of this history is, not surprisingly, reprised in Jentzschs contribution to New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America.
References to this legacy of persecution, harassment, and triumph are also found in Scientology sermons. In Scientologys Future, for example, parishioners are told: do not blink when you ask your doctor, your psychiatrist, your savant in the humanities, and he says we are vile. Who has ever admired his own executioner? Do not blink when you read how terrible we are in the papers... (Church of Scientology International 2002: 448-49); rather, congregants are exhorted to laugh at frantic efforts to block our way (Church of Scientology International 2002: 449).17 In Why Feel Guilty? they are reminded that ridicule, wild rumors, bad press, lies and even attacks by governments have failed to suppress the technology (Church of Scientology International 2002: 485), and in The Value of Scientology: Not all the screaming apes of press or the cold sadists who run the learned societies are likely to be able to stop mans first chance for immortality and the sun (Church of Scientology International 2002: 503).
It is worth remembering that these particular examples are drawn from sermons; they are performative acts meant to inform listeners of the content of religious belief, and exhort them to action based on that belief.
Almost from its very inception, Scientologys claims to systematic persecution and harassment have become a part of its religious culture and mythistory-something that, when considered in the context of an increasingly closed source religious tradition, goes a long way toward explaining the overt suspicion with which the Church regards any attempts at investigation, and their own ongoing attempts to influence or to prevent the publication of anything even remotely critical of the Church. While, obviously, there is considerable work to be done in this area, I would like to suggest that this conspiracism is one of the ways in which the Church of Scientology has explained and integrated precisely the kinds of cognitive dissonance referred to by Mannheim.
RESEARCHING SCIENTOLOGY: PROBLEMATICS
At least as important as these premises and promises, however, are problems that are associated with research into Scientology. And these cluster around three principle dynamics: (1) lack of access to relevant Scientological data and materials; (2) lack of understanding on the part of the Church about the social function of scholarship; and (3) lack of trust on the part of academics that research into the Church will not put them or their institutions in jeopardy.
Lack of Access: The Problem of Data Collection and the Resulting Chorus of Voices
Unfortunately, there are no scholarly studies of the Church that even approach those accomplished by Bainbridge, Barker, Chancellor, and Rochford. At the very least, such a study would require reasonably unimpeded access to Church archives and records (including finances), recruits and recruiting practices, and leadership in the various orgs (especially Author Services, the Guardian Office, the Office of Special Affairs, the Sea Org, the Religious Technology Center, and the Rehabilitation Project Force). Further, in some fashion, it would require access to the auditing process itself. Many of these, I suspect, the Church would be very unlikely to permit except under the most restricted circumstances, especially since it refers to the auditing session as a confessional.18
Continuing from one of the points I made earlier, a comprehensive research program would require investigation not only of happy, healthy emic voices, but also disgruntled, even vitriolic etic ones. That is, one thing that the Church of Scientology would have to recognize is that no picture of a religious organization is complete without some consideration of those who were less-than-satisfied with the religious product and how the organization responded to that dissatisfaction. This brings us to the second issue: co-optation and the Churchs lack of understanding about the social function of scholarship.
Lack of Understanding: The Problem of Co-optation and the Social Function of Scholarship
That is, how do we communicate to new religious movements that the social function and responsibility of scholarship is considerably broader than simply due diligence to their organization? While I am delighted to speak in defence of religious movements when I believe they have been inaccurately portrayed or wrongly accused-and I have done so on behalf of a number of groups, including Scientology-that willingness does not translate into serving as a court stenographer or facilitating particular movement agendas. That is, among other things, scholarly responsibility requires that I satisfy myself that X group has been inaccurately portrayed in these situations, and simply taking the word of the group in question is often not enough. Occasionally, academics are asked to validate groups in ways that, to me, at least, fall clearly outside the boundaries of responsible scholarship.
Let me cite just a few personal examples in terms of Scientology. Last year, I was asked if I would be willing to participate in a commemorative video the Church was producing on the life of L. Ron Hubbard. That is, would I be willing to be interviewed about Hubbards achievements, his accomplishments, and the contributions he has made to the betterment of the world? I replied that I would be happy to talk about what Scientologists believe Hubbard has done, but that was as far as I would be comfortable going. Theres a subtle, but not insignificant, difference there, I am sure you will agree. Later that year, I was asked if I would contact the head of the Google corporation to protest the fact that their search engine protocols do not adequately discriminate between anti-Scientology Web sites and official Church sites, and that this situation was unacceptable. This, too, I refused to do. Finally, just a few months ago one of the senior staff at the local Scientology org asked if I could facilitate space on the UMKC campus for a travelling version of the Hubbard Life Exhibition. He said this would be a useful way the university could help expose our students to the truth of Scientology.19
What then is the social function of scholarship? I tell my graduate students that it is the asking and answering of significant questions. An easy thing to say, but a hard thing to do, because sometimes the significance of a question is measured precisely by the amount of resistance it generates.
Which brings me to the third issue in the problematics of researching the Church of Scientology: lack of trust on the part of academics that such research will not put them or their institutions at risk.
Lack of Trust: The Problem of Perception and the Perception of Intimidation
Put bluntly, Scientology has something of an image problem.
My best friend is not an academic; hes an extremely intelligent man who owns a doughnut shop in a small mountain town in Canada. He doesnt have a television set, barely has access to the Internet, knows next to nothing about new religious movements, and would rather be out in the bush with his dog than anywhere else. When I told him about this presentation, though, his immediate response was: Be careful, man, they walk softly, but they carry a big lawyer. And, in point of fact, I got variations on that response from virtually everybody I told about it-scholars (both specialists and not), lay people, even a practicing Scientologist in their Volunteer Minister program.
And, from my perspective, there are some concrete reasons for this perception. Setting aside such high-profile issues as ongoing litigation over copyright infringement on the Internet and the undisclosed settlement in the McPherson wrongful death suit, let me give you three quick examples that might hit just a wee bit closer to home.
First, Ben Zablocki has accused the Church of Scientology of attempting to stop one of the sessions at the 1997 ASR meeting, a session in which one of the panelists was a former CAN deprogrammer. According to Zablocki (1998), the executive officer of the ASR complained to me of receiving a rather frightening [early morning] visit from a courier carrying a request from Scientology to reconsider whether the session (that was scheduled for 8 AM that same day) should be allowed to take place. The executive officer agreed with me that such unprecedented
interference with freedom of academic expression was totally unacceptable.21
Second, John Morehead (1998), a staff member with Watchman Fellowship and the former executive director of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions, reported a similar situation in regards to a seminar he was scheduled to present at his own local church.21
Prior to the seminar, the CoS caught wind of the event, and the Office of Special Affairs pressured my church not to allow the seminar. At least two Scientologists appeared in the seminar, yet were polite during my presentation. Afterwards, my pastor and the church were again pressured for allowing a seminar which allegedly promoted religious intolerance. I was personally contacted by the OSA and warned of copyright violation and alleged misrepresentation of Scientology . . . Just last week, the day after my post in Nurel, a sister organization informed me that they had received a call from the Arlington, TX branch of the CoS looking for information on me!22
&And, finally, there is Contested Spaces, my contribution to a collection of essays called Religion Online, that Lorne Dawson and I edited, and which should be available for use in all your fall classes. In this essay, I used the Church of Scientology as an example of the ways in which the Internet has become a contested information space, an arena for competing propagandas, and why, in my opinion, such a space inevitably favours the dedicated countermovement. I dealt with well-known issues such as the unauthorized reposting of Scientological esoterica, Scientologys various battles over Internet remailers, and the large number of anti-Scientology sites on the Web. Overall, both Lorne and I thought it was a fairly sympathetic piece, certainly far more critical of the anticult and countercult movements than of Scientology.
In conversation with Heber Jentzsch one evening-he had called to ask if I would contact the head of Google and complain about their search protocols-I mentioned that I had just written this paper. Jentzsch asked that I send him a copy, and I did.23 He called back a couple of days later, telling me that he had some serious trouble with a lot of what I wrote, and wanted to send me more correct and up-to-date information. I said, sure, send it along, glad to have it, but get it to me quickly because the manuscript was due at the publisher the next week.
The next day, Lorne phoned to say that he had received a similar call from Jentzsch, this one framed more in the manner of a senior editor being expected to lean on the junior editor-indeed, I received no more communication from the Church. A few weeks later, though, Lorne received some material, including a heavily copyedited version of my chapter, with Scientologys suggested emendations, deletions, and additions. As Lorne put it, while there was no overt threat, the legalistic language in which the three-page cover letter was framed put us on our guard.
There were a number of complaints-some of which we really didnt understand, some of which I had already addressed in my final edit, and some of which we simply refused. For example, the Church wanted all references to Stephen Kent deleted from the paper, and a section on their early battles on alt.religion.scientology rewritten in a manner that clearly favoured Scientologys position. In the spirit of Paris being worth a Mass, though, the criticisms that we did regard as valid or which would in no way affect the scholarly integrity of the paper, I worked into the final draft.
This particular episode foregrounded for me a couple of important issues. First, while I have no trouble letting subject groups see copies of scholarly material prior to publication, I want to avoid giving the impression that these groups are somehow vetting that material, or that they will be allowed the final say on either content or presentation. Second, and this is more regrettable, Lorne and I had mused about writing more substantially on Scientology-something I have tried to suggest in this paper is desperately needed. We both arrived at the conclusion, however, that, problems of access to data and ethnographic field sites notwithstanding, neither of us were willing to endure what we suspected would be the inevitable interference from the Church in the final scholarly product. That is, we were right back to that conversation in the bar, five years ago.
And, to that young Scientologist, I say this:
Many scholars have either experienced or become familiar with the varying levels of interference of which the Church of Scientology is capable. And, however accurate or inaccurate their individual perceptions, there is a fear among some academics that producing research that is critical of the Church will result in some measure of legal opposition. In the face of this, rather than invest significant amounts of time and energy in a project that may be stalled by litigation or some other form of obstruction, scholars simply choose to research something else. Im working, for example, on a book about the religious underpinnings of modern horror movies. What the Church of Scientology does not appear to grasp in all this is how any attempt at intimidation or interference only exacerbates the problem, and can result in the creation of decidedly antipathetic scholars like Stephen Kent and Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi.24
If there is a thesis statement for this paper, it is this: Comprehensive socio-historical research into the Church of Scientology is desperately needed in our field and would be invaluable to the scholarship of new religious movements. But, such research cannot usefully proceed until the Church commits itself to refrain from intimidation of any kind, regardless of the scholarly product. Respond to the product, certainly, disagree with it, debate it, excoriate it if thats what you want to do-that kind of exchange lies at the heart of the scholarly dialectic. But do not interfere with its production.
As I said at the beginning, I consider this paper to be preliminary statements on the issues Ive raised. This is a rough and rambling draft, and the Church of Scientology is certainly not the only religious movement for which these comments obtain. Since Ive taken over the editorship of the Religious Movements Homepage Project, for example, at least half-a-dozen groups have threatened a variety of dire consequences should I not amend the relevant Web page forthwith. While some of the issues and problems Ive raised may seem fairly obvious, to my knowledge they have not been raised together in one place, and, hopefully, they will provide an opening for further discussion, and further research.
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1A version of this paper, which will likely be revised in light of a panel discussion that took place between representatives of the Church of Scientology and scholars who presented on Scientology during the CESNUR 2004 conference, and ongoing dialogue with both scholars of new religious movements and Church members, is scheduled for presentation at the 2004 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio, TX.
2Other religious groups make the same claim. On the basis of certain statistical data, many modern Pagans claim that their religion is the fastest growing in both the U.S. and Australia (cf. Cowan 2005), and Carolyn Wah (2001: 161) writes that the Jehovahs Witnesses are one of the worlds fastest growing religious groups. Even the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, which is clearly not a contender, maintains that it is one of the fastest growing organizations on the planet (www.geocities.com/Area51/Corridor/4978/unnm.html; June 26, 2004).
3Though both are valuable to social scientists, it is important to distinguish between falsifiable claims such as this, and non-falsifiable one which are based on claims to religious experience made either by or on behalf of Scientologists. Falsifiable claims such as membership statistics, growth rates, and historical statements help establish a picture of the religious group as it is organizationally, as opposed to how it perceives itself or is perceived by others. Non-falsifiable claims contribute to an understanding of the worldview through which group members perceive the world around them, and on which they base their actions in that world.
Among the many non-falsifiable hyperbolic claims contained in The Background, Ministry, Ceremonies and Sermons of the Scientology Religion-which, in my opinion, ought to be subtitled the big burgundy book that doesnt fit easily on a shelf-are: Scientology is the most vital movement on Earth today (Handling Life with Scientology, p.166); In Scientology, we possess a practical system of ethics and justice, based solely on reason. No such system has ever existed before (Morals and Ethics, p.389); We are the only group on Earth that does have a workable solution (Times Must Change, p.483); and Anything religious teachers said or Buddha promised, even the visions of Christianity, are all attained in Scientology as result (The Value of Scientology, p.503).
During his address to the 2003 International Association of Scientologists gala aboard the MV Freewinds, David Miscavige, the Chair of the Board of the Religious Technology Center, told the assembled glitterati about the new civilization that only we can bring, the likes of which has never been before (Miscavige 2003). That these claims may appear hyperbolic and hubristic to outsiders does not appear to have been lost on Scientologists. On the copyright page in the big burgundy book and in a note To the Reader in Dianetics, we find the disclaimers: ...this book is presented to the reader as part of [L. Ron Hubbards] personal research into life, and the application of same by others, and should be construed only as a written report of such research and not as a statement of claims made by the Church or the Founder; and the Hubbard® Electrometer is a religious artifact used in the Church confessional. It in itself does nothing, and is used by ministers only, to assist parishioners in locating areas of spiritual distress or travail.
None of this is to say, of course, that other religions do not make similarly hyperbolic and hubristic statements. Indeed, it is in the nature of religion to make hyperbolic claims based upon the belief in an exclusive access to the divine mind or will. For more than a thousand years, extra ecclesiam nulla salus was the Roman Catholic Churchs exclusive claim to universal sigificance and particularist efficacy. No one comes to the Father but through me, when interpreted through the lens of John 3:16, becomes the extra ecclesiam nulla salus of evangelical Protestantism. Similar examples could easily be multiplied across religious traditions.
5I learned last week that a young Danish scholar, Dorthe Christensen, has just completed her dissertation based on several years of fieldwork among the Sea Org, and we can only hope to see that in publication in the near future.
6Once again, it is important to point out that this dynamic is hardly limited to the Church of Scientology. One of the basic criticisms of the Christian Church since the advent of German higher criticism has been that the early Church crafted the religion to suit its own emerging needs, and that what developed as the Christian Church resembles very little anything envisioned by its putative founder. That is, the efficient cause of Christianity must be researched and interpreted separately from the social function the Christian social, cultural, and ecclesiastical organizations it evolved to embody. See, for example, Bauer 1971; Ehrman 1993, 2003; Lüdemann 1995.
7Consider, for example, the translators preface to Lévi-Strauss Structural Anthropology in which she refers to the authors oft-repeated point that, although informants accounts of institutions [and to this we might legitimately add beliefs, practices, and rituals] must be taken into consideration, they are rationalizations and reinterpretations, not to be confused with the actual social organization (Jacobson 1963: xiii).
8These circumstances include, but are not necessarily limited to, media interviews, testimony on behalf of religious organizations involved in litigation, and/or information regarding organizations seeking official state recognition.
9In the section Any Reasons for Difficulties and Their Correction, in What is Scientology? (Church of Scientology International 1998: 215), we read that when Scientology appears to go wrong, there is invariably a specific error that has been made in the application of technology which, when remedied, enables it to then work and achieve the expected results. The fact is: Scientology works 100 percent of the time when it is properly applied to a person who sincerely desires to improve his life (emphasis in the original). In the sermon, Why Feel Guilty? parishioners are told that Scientology beneficial results ran well above 95 percent effective (Church of Scientology International 2002: 487). Once again, other examples could be multiplied across the body of Scientological literature.
10Among other things, the Religious Technology Center Web site (www.rtc.org) includes a link to report infractions electronically, as well as a detailed listing of matters of RTC concern. These include: Any suppressive act against Scientology or Scientologists; Any misrepresentation of Dianetics or Scientology; Any person who is hypercritical of Scientology or the Church (www.rtc.org/matters/ethics.htm); Willful perversion or corruption of the tech (www.rtc.org/matters/tech.htm); Any calculated efforts to disrupt Church services or the flow of public up The Bridge through the Churches; and, Any actions or omissions undertaken to knowingly suppress, reduce or impede Scientology or Scientologists (www.rtc.org/matters/admin.htm). Acts against Scientology or Scientologists are accompanied by acronymic references to internal Scientology documents.
16It is also important to note here that, whether knowingly or unknowingly, Jentzsch is referring to two separate and distinct lists. The IRS did maintain a running list of organizations it believed were likely to try to evade taxation, and the Church of Scientology was on that list. The Nixon enemies list, however, which was originally produced by senior staff in the Nixon White House, detailed political enemies specifically opposed to the President and his administrative policies; neither the Church of Scientology nor L. Ron Hubbard appear on this list.
17Similar comments are integral to the sermons Dangerous Environment (Church of Scientology International 2002: 475-77), and The True Story of Scientology (Church of Scientology International 2002: 478-81).
18As noted, on the copyright page in the big burgundy book and in a note To the Reader in Dianetics, we find the disclaimers: ...this book is presented to the reader as part of [L. Ron Hubbards] personal research into life, and the application of same by others, and should be construed only as a written report of such research and not as a statement of claims made by the Church or the Founder; and the Hubbard® Electrometer is a religious artifact used in the Church confessional. It in itself does nothing, and is used by ministers only, to assist parishioners in locating areas of spiritual distress or travail.
In terms of the more controversial aspects of the Church of Scientology, especially the history of the Guardian Office and the Rehabilitation Project Force, we encounter what I call the Area 51 paradox, named for the secret U.S. military base in the Nevada desert that everyone knows exists, but which does not show up on any map (cf. Bryan 1995; Darlington 1997; Patton 1998). If, as Jentzsch (2004a) implies, all the controversy that surrounds the Church of Scientology comes from the other side, what he refers to as the Anti religious movement (2004b), and that in its fifty-year history the Church has done nothing for which it needs to atone, one would think that they would be delighted to open archives, orgs, and depositories to scholarly research in order to address the criticisms levelled at them by detractors. Such, however, does not appear to be the case.
19Further, a number of scholars report being contacted by the Church of Scientology and asked if they would participate in a variety of protests organized by (and not infrequently on behalf of) Scientology.
21Moreheads seminar contrasted Scientology beliefs with orthodox Christianity. His original post questioned the response of a Scientologist on the list to allegations that the Church of Scientology had used the offer of a sympathetic portrayal of the Bill Clinton character in the film, Primary Colors-a character played by prominent Scientologist, John Travolta-in return for White House pressure on foreign governments that were investigating or otherwise interfering with Scientology abroad.
22Used by permission of John Morehead. Interestingly, that very same week, in response to its five-part series on the Church of Scientology, the Boston Herald claimed that the Church had hired a private investigator to delve into the Herald reporters private life, a fact the article continued that had been confirmed by Heber Jentzsch. This investigation will have to look at whats driving this coverage, Jentzsch is quoted as saying (MacLaughlin and Gully 1998)-a position that suggests at least that any investigation of the Church that is likely to produce critical results is somehow motivated by malice.
Or, as another very trenchant example, consider the opening words of the Authors Note, in journalist Russell Millers Bare-Faced Messiah (1987)
I would like to be able to thank the officials of the Church of Scientology for their help in compiling this biography, but I am unable to do so because the price of their co-operation was effective control of the manuscript and it was a price I was unwilling to pay. Thereafter the Church did its best to dissuade people who knew Hubbard from speaking with me and constantly threatened litigation.
23In a brief email correspondence, Jentzsch also requested that I provide him with information-presumably an advance copy-of this presentation. He noted (2004a) that I had not communicated with him what I intended to present, and had had no opportunity to discuss what might be required in terms of documentation (presumably of the claims I intended to make). Without wanting to read too much into this, it is worth asking whether or not Jentzsch expects to be routinely kept in the loop on such matters; the wording of his note certainly could be read as though he expects the Church of Scientology to be notified of presentations such as this and to be actively involved in their preparation. I still hold out hope that he doesnt expect that scholars will seek the Churchs approval before presenting or publishing, but who knows? He notes also that the title of this presentation seemed controversial and that any controversy resides in those who would oppose Scientology. I sent back a very non-commital reply, to which he responded (Jentzsch 2004b) that he found it odd that scholars seem concerned about reprisals from what he calls the anti-Religious movement. That is, why do we seem so concerned what the anticult movement thinks about our scholarship, and why arent we investigating them?
Of course, there have been serious scholarly examinations of both the secular anticult and Christian countercult movements, investigations that have been highly critical of both. Among other things, though, this brief interchange indicates, yet and again, how poorly some Scientologists understand both the function and the social reality of NRM scholarship; it is worth pointing out as well that Jentzsch is hardly a rank-and-file Scientologist with only limited access to institutional resources and memory. He has been a Scientologist for nearly forty years, and is currently the President of the Church of Scientology International. That same day he emailed Derek Davis, asking for a short 500 word piece on Cowans speech (Jentzsch 2004c).
24As J. Gordon Melton has noted in an interview: Scientology had probably received the most persistent criticism of any church in America in recent years. But he said the Scientologists bear some of the responsibility. They dont get mad, they get even, Mr. Melton said. They turn critics into enemies and enemies into dedicated warriors for a lifetime (Frantz 1997).