For a religion that some experts estimate includes only 30,000 members worldwide, Scientology attracts an extraordinary amount of media attention.

Its celebrity members and unusual theology make it extremely intriguing to outsiders: Tom Cruise is a high-ranking member, Will Smith has studied it, and John Travolta spent $5 million of his own money making a movie about its mythology, which includes a race of evil aliens. Founded in the 1950s, the religion has been the subject of countless magazine articles and blog posts, as well as two best-selling books by journalists within just the last three years. It can seem almost impossible not to be interested in this home-grown American religion.

There’s one group of people, however, who seem resistant to Scientology’s charms: academics.

A decade ago in Waco, Texas, at a conference on “new religions,” Douglas Cowan, a professor of religious studies at the University of Waterloo, presented a paper on the curious scarcity of academic research into Scientology. Today, he says that Scientology is still under-examined by academics. “For all that you hear about it in the news, in pop-culture media, I’ve been waiting for somebody to be able to do what friends of mine have called for years ‘the big book on Scientology,’” he said recently. “We have yet to see it.”

Hugh Urban, a professor of religious studies at Ohio State University, has probably come closest. Urban had been publishing research on Scientology and other new religions since the 1990s. His book, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion, published by Princeton University Press in 2011, explores the history of the church and asks how scholars should approach controversial religious groups.

Urban says there are two big reasons for the dearth of academic interest in Scientology. First, it has been an unusually secretive movement from its inception, with the highest levels of information accessible only to those who have progressed through (and paid for) the proper training. And second, “it has been probably the most litigious religious movement in American history.”

Scientology is known not just for its litigiousness, but for (alleged) harassment of perceived enemies. When sociologist Roy Wallis was working on research for a book on the church in the 1970s, the church had a representative pose as a student at the University of Stirling, where he taught, in order to gather gossip. Later, his employer and his colleagues received forged letters accusing him of a gay love affair, among other things. In the ensuing decades, the church was often associated with similar incidents. Investigative journalist Richard Behar wrote a critical cover story on the church for Time magazine in 1991, which included some of these allegations. He reported, for example, that a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley had to travel under an assumed name to avoid harassment because of her criticism of the church. The church sued both Behar and Time, in a case that dragged on for years.

Today, the church seems less eager to sue. But scholars and their institutions are still wary.

When Princeton University Press approached Urban about writing a book, he was hesitant at first. He says the press eventually had a lawyer go over his manuscript “with a fine-tooth comb,” returning 30 pages of notes which were mostly small suggestions for word changes. “I have never had an experience like that before,” he said. “I almost didn’t go forward because they were so uptight about so many things.” In the end, however, he believes it was wise to have taken that precautionary measure.

Between the fear of harassment and the legal hassles, it’s not surprising that few academics decide to study Scientology.

“If you are going to research something and you have the perception that it’s going to cause you problems or cause your institutions problems, then people will go find other interesting things to research,” said Cowan. “I’ve gotten calls late at night when I was writing about Scientology, getting calls at 10:30 or 11 at night from a very highly placed Scientology official having heard that I was going to be presenting the paper… and wanting a copy of that paper ahead of time.” When he finally did present his 2004 paper, he said, three or four Scientologists sat in the front row and took copious notes, occasionally excusing themselves to make phone calls.

Other academics have similar stories: Steve Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta who has written frequently about Scientology, said he once gave a small talk about the church, and when he was walking back to his car, he was served with a cease-and-desist order accusing him of helping a former Scientologist break a court agreement. The claim was that he had appeared with the former member at talks in Germany. It took him a moment to realize it had never happened. “They made it up,” he said. He suspects the church was just rolling the dice: if it had happened, they would scare him off; if not, they had lost very little. “It was an effort to silence a person.”

J. Gordon Melton, a distinguished professor at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, wrote a 2000 book about the church for a series called Studies in Contemporary Religions. In retrospect, he says, it wasn’t worth the trouble. “I wrote it because other people asked to contribute to the series it’s in turned it down,” he recalled recently. “There were scholars who were openly saying, ‘I don’t want to deal with Scientology; I don’t have time to deal with the legal issues,’ and the like. And it was a pain. You waste a lot of time. My little book was a very small little book, but the amount of time it took just to do that little book, and the amount of time it took after the book came out responding to different people… In the end, if I had the choice to do it again, I wouldn’t do it.”

***

The field of research into new religious movements encompasses a wide range of young groups, including Scientology, the Family, “Moonies,” and the Hare Krishna movement. These are controversial groups that are in some sense little understood, but are also the focus of intense public fascination. That can make for an unusually contentious scholarly landscape too.

Many of these young religions have been the subject of media narratives over the last several decades that have branded them as dangerous cults.

The mainstream alarm is understandable in some sense: new religions are often secretive, their practices can seem strange to outsiders, and many families worry when their children join them, which sometimes entails cutting off contact with outsiders. But the hysteria of the 1980s and 1990s was in many cases overblown, with “deprogrammers” kidnapping believers and pressuring them into delivering public statements against their former faith. These alarmist stories typically made little distinction between group practices that were merely unusual and those that were truly threatening.

Most academics shy away from the word “cult” because it is loaded with negative connotations. In some cases, the instinct toward moderation curdled into what some say verges on spokesmanship. “There was so much a desire to counteract the journalistic cult narrative, that most scholars for about 20 years went in my opinion way to the other extreme,” Urban said.

Melton is one scholar who has been accused of swallowing Scientology’s claims too easily: he has delivered depositions on behalf of the church, and his 2000 book reports on the church’s self-mythology in a more straight-faced way than many other accounts. (Still, he says he received a “nasty letter” from the church about the book after it was published.) Melton argues that Scientology is absolutely a religion, as opposed to a business or a cult: “My opinion has not changed since I wrote the book,” he said. “Basically, I felt it was a religion. It had its good points and its bad points, but it was a religion and its members were gaining religious value for being a part of it.” The pendulum has swung back toward the center these days, but academic approaches to new religions vary strikingly. Kent, for example, has taken positions that are strongly critical of Scientology, including asserting in print that it is not a bona fide religion.

One of the big questions for scholars all along the spectrum is the question of how much to rely on so-called “apostates,” people who have not only left the group but renounced it.

Journalists—who are rewarded more often than academics for digging up dirt—have always been eager to tell the sensational stories of unhappy ex-members. But this has long been a thorny question for religion researchers, particularly those interested in new religions. Bryan Wilson, an influential British sociologist, once argued that apostate testimonies are so suspect that they should be disregarded as unreliable.

That has slowly been changing since the 1990s. Hugh Urban puts it this way: “Most scholars today would say every account is biased in some way and we have to look at them with equal respect and skepticism You have to use them carefully and put them in the right context.” He points out that few would automatically dismiss a person who claimed to have been abused by a priest just because the victim was no longer Catholic. (Urban’s book is neither an exposé nor a credulous defense of Scientology, but rather a straightforward account of the religion’s approximately 60-year history that is broadly respectful of both its practitioners and its secrets. Still, he says he left out his most interesting new material, which he uncovered by talking to ex-Scientologists, for legal reasons.)

One challenge of researching small new religions is that often, apostate accounts are the only ones available. As Cowan points out, people who leave new religions and don’t have negative feelings often don’t want to talk about their experiences. And people within the church are even harder to access: if the church allows scholars to conduct interviews, it is often only with leaders, or under tightly controlled circumstances that produce “party line” accounts and not much more. And even if an interviewer could get a current member to veer from that party line, they could put the church member at risk within their community, violating research standards that prohibit doing harm to subjects. Under these conditions, scholars are almost forced to rely on disgruntled ex-members. As more and more apostate stories have been made public—and present startlingly similar accounts of Scientology’s culture and practices—even the most cautious scholars have become more comfortable taking them seriously.

If access to believers is fraught with difficulties for scholars, access to documents and publications is much easier.

“One of the nice things about Scientology is that they printed an unbelievable amount of material,” Urban said. “Just in terms of textual material, I have more than I could possibly use.” Church founder L. Ron Hubbard was an incredibly prolific writer, particularly known for sci-fi thrillers and self-help books, including Dianetics, which laid the groundwork for the principles of Scientology. He holds the Guinness World Record for most published works by one author: 1,084. Although the church became more restrictive about access to its internal publications over the years, Scientology-related material lives online and in the archives of institutions including the University of California, Santa Barbara, Ohio State University, and the University of Alberta, among others.

Still, much of that printed material is considered sacred and secret, which presents another challenge for scholars interested in it. Urban says he generally argues for remaining respectful of traditions that want to keep some material private, like Native American communities with esoteric initiation rites. For his book, he relied on material that had already been made public by its inclusion in court transcripts or had otherwise entered the public domain. He points out that simply seeing a document isn’t the same thing as going through a full sacred ritual; the secrets of freemasonry have been widely disseminated, for example, but simply reading one of its formerly hard-to-attain handbooks is not the same thing as becoming a mason. As for Scientology’s higher-level secrets, which involve a complex cosmology, he said, “These days the cat is out of the bag.”

***

There are existing models for how to conduct scholarly research on new religious movements. British sociologist Eileen Baker’s 1984 book The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing?, based on seven years of research, dispelled many of the most overwrought rumors about the Unification church’s recruitment tactics. Sociologist E. Burke Rochford joined the Hare Krishna movement to write Hare Krishna in America, published around the same time. However, as Cowan points out, “The thing that sets those studies apart from everything able to be done with Scientology is that by and large those scholars were granted access to the kind of material we need to understand and to tell the entire story. That’s simply never been granted by Scientology.”

Cowan and others argue that it would benefit the church to crack open its doors to scholars.

When Barker did her work on the Moonies, rumors about “brainwashing” were swirling in the press. Her work demonstrated that very few people who attended lectures at Unification churches went on to become seriously involved in the movement. If scholarship could tamp down hysteria for the Moonies, why not for Scientologists?

The church has a reputation for being unwilling to cooperate with most scholarly endeavors. And some researchers are skeptical of the limited access they have been allowed: “I spent three or four days at the Celebrity Center a long time ago, but it’s pretty much a Potemkin Village tour,” Cowan said.

That may be changing. Donald Westbrook, a PhD student in religious studies at Claremont Graduate University, has interviewed dozens of current Scientologists for his dissertation, which he is currently writing. “My experience is that there is a trend toward openness toward academics,” he said recently by email. “But the researcher should approach the subject respectfully, seeking to understand Scientology and Scientologists on their own terms—seeking to understand, rather than denigrate.”

Westbrook attended an academic conference earlier this year in Belgium on Scientology, at which Melton was a keynote speaker. Melton is less certain than Westbrook that the church is warming toward academics, but he sees the small but robust conference as evidence that scholars, at least, are warming toward research on Scientology.

But Scientology’s reputation seems destined to linger for years to come. “The legal language and the bullying language that many many many of us have received—for people who aren’t lawyers, it’s pretty difficult to say, ‘Oh, that’s not a legal threat, that’s just them being bullies,’” Cowan said. “Life is short, eh? There are lots of things I’m interested in.” These days, he has moved away from writing about Scientology—although he hasn’t quite abandoned its themes. His most recent book was about science fiction and the search for transcendence.

 

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Resources

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The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion,
Princeton University Press
Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 74, No. 2, Religion and Secrecy (Jun., 2006), pp. 356-389

Oxford University Press
Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Mar., 1986), pp. 295-297
American Sociological Association