CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2005 International Conference
June 2-5, 2005 – Palermo, Sicily
Religious Movements, Globalization and Conflict: Transnational Perspectives

Are the Ceremonies of the Church of Scientology really important ?

Régis Dericquebourg, Group of sociology of religion and laïcité. (IRESCO-CNRS, France)

A paper presented at the 2005 CESNUR Conference in Palermo, Sicily. Preliminary version – do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

 To Bryan Wilson[1]


In this article, we will examine the role of the ceremonies of the Church of Scientology. Indeed, this movement of gnostic character which aims at personal spiritual self-development does not need a priori a religious service with a religious minister pronouncing a blessing because Scientology ignores such a concept. On the other hand, this movement does not need a symbolical ritual which contributes to its very existence as in some esoteric and masonic groups. Ron Hubbard may have invented these ceremonies to imitate the major confessions and the denominations of the Western world and grant his movement a religious appearance. This explanation is however not sufficient and is even astonishing as Scientology claims to be close to Buddhism and not to some form of Christianity. However, this ceremonial has absolutely nothing in common with the Buddhist rituals. It was therefore advisable to raise the issue of the presence and the form of these ceremonies from a sociological point of view. For us, they have some internal usefulness: to create a community feeling in what could only be an aggregate of persons individually involved in a process of self-development.

The fact that they are not well attended is unimportant. The Scientologist collective identity may follow other ways. On the other hand, we think that the founder invented them because a community cannot fail to mark important moments of the lives of its members. One can wonder whether the meaning of the ceremonies of the Church of Scientology is not more sociological than religious.

1) The problem

The Church of Scientology is mainly known through Dianetics, a method of investigation into present-day and past traumatic incidents. It is also known that Scientology proposes sessions of personal development of which the link to religion often remains unnoticed by the public. What is less known is the exploration of past lives which according to Scientologists leads to a high level of spirituality. Its religious ceremonies are almost totally ignored. In a sociological study about the Church of Scientology, Roy Wallis (Wallis, 1976) mentions them but considers them as marginal practices of the organization. He does not analyze them. According to him, they would have simply been added to Dianetics when, for alleged reasons, Ron Hubbard (the founder of Scientology) decided to found a religion. Roland Chagnon (Chagnon, 1979) grants them more importance but a purely psychological aim. These reasons are not convincing because Scientology considers itself to be a form of wisdom, as a way of understanding and liberation based on personal experience. A priori, this type of gnostic religion does not need any religious ceremonies (with collective practices or intercessions with an ethical and transcendent God). It does not need sacralisation of important moments in life in order to resemble a church. Even if they are not well attended and if they have been created to give the Scientology organization the appearance of a Church, the ceremonies deserve a closer look because Ron Hubbard gave them a specific form and not another, a specific ritual and not another. Some specific words, which express a basic ideology, are used and not others. Whether they are artificial or not, the ceremonies of the Church of Scientology have a meaning and a function that the sociologist must decode. They contain a particular ritual and specific words, expressing a basic ideology. The sense and the purpose of this can be easily explained.

There are two types of ceremony: the religious Sunday service and scansions of passage of life (naming after birth, marriage, ministers' ordination and funerals). An introduction of these barely-known ceremonies follows hereafter and is followed by an examination of their functions as compared to their theophilanthropic  equivalent.

2) Description of the ceremonies.

The Sunday service

At the Sunday service, the chaplain gives a short welcome speech then reads the principles of Scientology. After, the chaplain says the Church’s creed (Church of Scientology, 1993 a), read a text by Ron Hubbard then gives a sermon which may also be a recording of one of the lectures given by Ron Hubbard. As this time, members of the congregation are free to ask questions concerning what they have just heard. More Prayers are then said: for justice, for an understanding of the supreme being, for greater understanding, for religious freedom, for spiritual advancement and for religious enlightening.

   At the Sunday service of the Los Angeles mission, we noticed that the chaplain was asking the assembly to do exercises that each scientologist does during his/her individual training sessions. For example, the participants were asked “to look up at the ceiling, to look at the wall on the right, to look at the wall on the left, to look at the floor…” This sequence of the ceremony, called group processing, is part of some training of phenomenological nature that the scientologist carries out to learn how to explore and occupy some space. It is also meant to re-connect him/her to reality.

By recalling the principles and the values of Scientology and by reproducing the sequences of the individual training in a collective setting, the ceremonies also seem to be a digest of the training of the scientologist (except the listening dimension which can only remain a strictly individual experience and therefore be staged publicly).

Wedding ceremony

The scientology wedding ceremony is no different from a civil marriage ceremony. The spouse is requested to remain faithful to each other’s happiness and misfortune alike and to help each other. From a scientological point of view, marriage is the mutual presentation of two thetans (primordial spirits which have incarnated as physical persons).


The scientological funeral rite is similar to that of the Belgian Antoinists (Dericquebourg,1993). Having reminded the congregation of the mortal nature of the body and having affirmed that man progresses via successive reincarnations, the chaplain bids farewell to the deceased and invites him or her to take up another body.

Naming ceremony

This a form of baptism. It based on the scientologist conception of reincarnation. Its main purpose is to help orientate the spirit (the thetan) who has recently taken over a new body. According to Ron Hubbard, the thetan is aware that the carnal envelope (body) is his own and that he is “operating” it.

Ministers’ ordination ceremony

        A Church of Scientology Minister candidate is ordained upon an examination of his religious knowledge of the organisation’s codes and creed and his ability to give advice and celebrate the cult. The ordination consists of introducing the new minister to a member congregation. The new minister reads the Auditor’ s code (deontological rules for auditing) (Church of Scientology , 1993 b)and the code of the scientologist and promises to follow them.

3) Celebrations in keeping with reincarnationist beliefs

The passages ceremonies practised in scientology (birth, marriage, and death) are strongly influenced by the reincarnationist doctrine. As we have already seen, they deal with helping an incarnated spirit (called a “thetan”) to localised himself in a new body or to present him to another incarnated spirit with whom he has chose to live.  The funeral rite is similar to that of the Antoinist one in that its purpose is to help a spirit leave the body during the final farewell. Scientology revives the doctrine of primordial beings.

The other ceremonies are also similar in principle – even if they differ in form- to the initiation ceremonies of certain traditional societies in that they affirm man’s sacred nature. They also contain reflections concerning communication and ethics. Reincarnation is just one element of Hubbard’s teachings. He offers the individual the chance to develop and transform himself into a being freed of his carnal envelope and to regain his power as a thetan thanks to auditing, communication exercises and the purification procedure. Man’s regeneration by the adoption of Ron Hubbard’s “humanist” values, is expected to bring about improved civilisation and the survival of humanity. These values are affirmed on the course of scientology religious ceremonies. For this reason, such ceremonies are closer to a ceremony in which lay morals for the benefit of mankind are recognised as a sacred-man than a cult before a transcendental God or of the reincarnationist rite.

4) Modern Theohilanthropy?

            Theophilanthropy emerged during the French revolution of 1789. It was put forward by certain revolutionaries in an attempt to replace Christianity and to make the Republic as a sacred entity. Mathiez (Mathiez,1903) who studied it at the beginning of the 20 th century, sees it as a kind of open freemasonry. It appears that the principles and rites of the church of scientology have a lot in common with Theophilanthropy.

In the principles.

The two principles upon which Theophilanthropy is based give it a religious nature. These are the existence of God and immortality.

In the evocation of wisdom

The theophilantropical ritual contains ethics of sages, in other words "high truths present in religions, philosophers and poets. The scientological rite proclaims "the freedom of the soul through wisdom" (mentioned 5 times in the ceremony text). As to the scientologists, their religion is the science "formed from ten thousand years of various philosophy. It considers itself as the result of research undertaken in Veda, Taoism, Buddhism and other religions."

In the assertion of the same values

The comparison can be taken further. Moral values: human rights, justice, freedom and tolerance as proclaimed by the revolutionaries are present in the scientological service as the prayers for "total freedom" and Human Rights demonstrates  (Freedom is mentioned 29 times, either with the reference to freedom or to the contrary :”trapped”.

In the concern of survival of mankind and society.

The highest argument, in the revolutionary cult as in scientology, is the “interest of the society”.

At the Sunday service the chaplain  evokes the dynamics which are man’s impulse for survival. Among these dynamics are the groups and humanity, which “heroes and noble people serve best when they are on the spiritual route". This will is asserted in the prayer for peace:

“That all men may live in harmony and build a civilisation without insanity, without criminals and without war, where man is free to rise to greater heights”. (Scientology undated).

As in the revolutionary. cult, this deals with putting morals to use for social wellbeing. The Theophilanthropy Manual affirmed that “goodness was all that contributes to saving and perfecting mankind». These notions of constructive goodness and destructive evil are present in Ron Hubbard’ s works. They are translated in the scientology ceremony by the will to preserve life and humanity’s striving towards civilisation (Life-related word (life/lives, survival, living) appears 21 times in the ceremony text and 4 times in the creed).

In the emergence from the chaos thanks to reason and awareness of God.

In the scientological ritual, the world which has no knowledge or understanding chaos, an ideological confusion, an unethical planet obsessed with materialism, given to hatred, slavery and destruction. Man is lost in “ideological confusion”. The following is an extract from the preamble of the cult’s purpose.

The rationality of a godless world is as follows: the negation of God causes a disintegration of morals, which in turn pushes, divinity into oblivion. The way to cure this is to recognise the creator, and to know and understand the divine plan. This is the result of reason:  “Scientology is more an appeal to reason than the first science of understanding”.

According to Matthiez (Matthiez,1903,a), the Theophilanthropists’ prayer is “really intuition by awareness of this eternal and divine order”, the judge of goodness and evil, who is the basis of morals, and “a large group of agnostic men who believe their crimes to be forever buried in their tombs would be a herd of ferocious beasts” (Mathiez, 1903, b p.93). The Supreme Being as the scientological God enables ethics to be based on divine intuition. Ron Hubbard asks men to have knowledge of the divine order before actions. Everything can be explained and understood. This is a rational system, which removes all mystery. Ron Hubbard use of reason in legitimising religion is not so different from the approach of the philosophies of light.

In the Faith in man and his works

The text pronounced in Scientology’ Sunday service expresses faith in man. The word “man” is spoken more often than “God” (The words Men and Man occurs in all 57 times in the ceremony text and 11 times in the creed. In the former, individual appears 9 times and person twice). There is no need to develop the fact that Theophilanthropy was a human religion, a religion of beings who had been “renewed” by a revolution seeking to establish new sociability.

In the Formal resemblances

The scientology and Theophilanthropical religious services (to which might be added the “Religion of humanity” founded by Auguste Comte in 1851) are similar in form. They both share the invocation to God (Father of nature in Theophilanthropy), the necessity to examine one’s conscience, the lectures, the moral sermon and the hymns. They adopt the model of Christian religious services. Their ideologies have similarities. They share the purpose of focusing men on a common, spirituality legitimate, secular objective. For them, religion should be based on reason and therefore controlled by intelligence. Besides affirming God’s existence and immortality, the contents of these religious services are civil. They express the desire to go beyond all the existing religions and systems of thought by containing the best of all these in the form of wisdom. They place emphasis on man, on values of sociability and on progress. Their values (freedom, human rights, survival of humanity, peace and social harmony) are not those of a traditional religion. They are more akin to a declaration of human rights, to humanism as descended from the philosophy.

The similarities between Theophilanthropy devised by freemasons and scientology are self-evident. Could this arise from the fact that Ron Hubbard frequented a paramasonic lodge (Introvigne,  1993)?

5) The functions of the scientology ceremonies. 

Awakening of the community dimension

One might think that a “client-cult”, such as scientology would need to provide its members with a community spirit by the way of ceremonies. The church of scientology is organised bureaucratically. Followers are well aware of this as they study the organisation chart and the way in which services operate. However, the Church can not simply be an efficient organisation in which each individual follows his own path, which simply crosses that of others. Such an approach would lead to social atomisation.

When they do not ask for it themselves, the members must be reminded that the Church is a community. For example, one Sunday afternoon When I went to the Paris Church of scientology to interview followers, most of them I had appointments with had left. A woman scientologist had just phoned to say that her baby had just died and that she wanted to be surrounded by co-followers.The services may fulfil this role by introducing a group dimension based on an emotion .[1]

 The “us” would help prevent the follower from feeling isolated.

The legitimizing role

By continuing the comparison with Theophilanthropy, it is possible to identify a second role Of the religious services. The French revolutionists wanted to establish values, morals and new social order different from those of the old system which were then to be applied by new political practices and new sociability.  Using Berger’s and Luckman’s terms, we could say that the revolutionaries were proposing a symbolic universe “devised like a model of all the socially objectivized and subjectively real “meaning in which historical society and the lives of individuals have their place (Berger and Luckman, 1992, a). The founders of the revolutionary cults such as August Comte later on and on his religion of humanity, which was an extension of such cults, sought to legitimize norms, reflecting values in people’s conscience and making them sacred. In other words, they included them in the symbolic universe of which the Supreme Being was the keystone. It was also necessary to insure that the new symbol universe was passed on to future generations. Worship is certainly not the only method of achieving this aim, but it is more inclined to create more of an impact with a view to embedding it in followers memories. Scientology is also a symbolic universe integrating personal experience of spiritual regeneration, morals and values which become instrumental, in other words, which must lead a mission of social transformation (Wilson, 1994). The first function of the scientological service seems to be the legitimization of Hubbard’s values and project. It puts this before incarnation, wherein the Supreme Being is surrounded by omnipotent and potent thetans which will establish him on earth. This is a characteristic of a retrogressive utopia.

The assertive function

The Scientology ceremonies also serve an assertive purpose. As has already been said, the spiritual route is an individual one. The ceremonies provide a space and time for the social project and faith system –which make up the symbolic universe to be asserted in the group. Asserted as discoveries of what the “great men” of the past predicted, the ceremonies give meaning to the history of ideas and provide a common basis for reference for the projection of individual action into the future (Berger and Luckman, 1992,b). The scientology ceremonies basically put forward a “permanent solution” to a “permanent” collective problem in such a way that “the potential players in institutional actions” be “systematically informed of these significance” (Berger and  Luckman, 1992, c). For these reason, it is not surprising that the services are often held when the Church is faced with difficulties. The Scientology cult seems to be “social apparatus” designed to imprint the institutional significance of Scientology “in the individual’s conscience in a powerful and lasting way” (Berger and Luckman, 1992d). In the reincarnationist  perspective, which is Hubbard’s, the scientology ceremonies affirm the true identities  of the followers and of the spiritual being enclosed in their bodies. They also provide spiritual meaning in the biographical passages. The assertion of values obviously plays a transmissive role. Audition, now called “pastoral advice”, does not transmit the values of scientology or Hubbard’s social project, nor does most of the personal development courses. The services may well be a vehicle for resuming Hubbard’s social philosophy  for the benefit of followers.

The services are poorly attended, probably because the followers feel they have understood most of what is to be learnt after having attended just a few of these events. Many scientologists told us they had been to two or tree of the services or attended them whenever they could. However, the most committed  member wish to and must become a cult minister in order to be competent in transmitting the organisation’s purposes.


Although the scientology service addresses followers of a religious elite in a relatively non-emotional way and Theophilanthropy was a mass religion aimed at winning people’s consciences in a ceremonial and emotive manner, these two religions have definite similarities. To copy Karel Dobbelaere (Dobbelaere,1996), we affirm that they are based on an expressive set of morals with an instrumental vocation aimed at allowing man to surpass himself by striving to improve civilisation. Far from being an epiphenomenon, the scientology religious services may be the focal point of Hubbbard’s objective, just as Theophilanthropy was the centre of the spirit of lights for the revolutionaries. In both cases, what is asserted and legitimized is not revealed values of an extra-world salvation but thinkers’ morals aimed at providing greater sociability and a better civilization. We could consider them as a result of an “inter-world” religiosity. Nevertheless, the lack of enthusiasm about these ceremonies manifested by certain Scientologist reveals tensions between the individual aspect of the spiritual route and the collective and organizational aspects in scientology which the founder tried more to impose in an effort to establish the Church.


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Berger Peter and Luckman Thomas  (1992,a) : La construction sociale de la réalité, (The social construction of reality), Paris, Meridiens, p.133.

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Introvigne Massimo (1993) : La magie,  les nouveaux mouvements magiques, Paris, Droguet et Ardant, pp.232-233)

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Mathiez, Albert : Manuel de theophilanthropie (A Guide To Theophilanthropy) , p. 94

Scientology (undated) : Observance et doctrines de l’Eglise de Scientologie de France, polytyped .

Wallis, Roy (1973) : A comparative analysis of problems and processes of change in two manipulationist movements : Christian Science and Scientology, Acts of the CISR : The contemporary metamorphosis of religion, The Hague, The Netherlands, august 1973 published by CNRS (France)

Wallis, Roy  (1976) : The Road To Total Freedom, London, Heinemann,. p.122.

Wilson, Bryan (1994) : Scientology, a reference carried by Bryan Wilson on the Church of Scientology’s request. Duplicated.

[1] Who read this article, gave some advice and encouraged me to publish it.