While Scientology has consistently been a (frequently controversial) player in the field of “new religious movements” in the Western world since the 1960s, there has been comparatively little academic research conducted on the movement.
That may be due in part to the Church of Scientology’s inclination to keep control on knowledge produced about it, but also to its sometimes harsh reactions facing people considered as potential enemies. However, fresh research is starting to emerge by both veteran and young researchers, and a sign of this new scholarly interest has been the first academic conference devoted entirely to Scientology, which RW attended.
Organized by the European Observatory of Religion and Secularism, the gathering took place Jan. 24-25 at the Faculty for Comparative Studies of Religions (FVG) in Wilrijk (a suburb of Antwerpen, Belgium), with some 20 papers presented by European and North American academics. Papers covered a variety of topics, but several dealt with the issue of Scientology and religion.
An instance of “rational religion,” Scientology is testing the boundaries of what religion is — something that emerged once again in the December 2013 decision of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom to recognize chapels of Scientology as “places of religious worship,” said Eileen Barker (London School of Economics / INFORM). However, such court decisions are unlikely to dispel the frequent perception that Scientology is a movement masquerading as religion for various reasons. German researcher Marco Frenschkowski managed to offer new insights by choosing another approach: what was Dianetics’ and Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard’s (1911-1986) religious intentions?
Hubbard had no personal religious background or a clear definition of religion, although he also held no positive view on atheism. His potential client base had little interest in joining a religious group. Still at the beginning of Scientology in 1954, Hubbard was fluctuating and reluctant to call it a religion. According to Frenschkowski’s astute observations, based on a reading of references to religion in Hubbard’s work, the founder of the movement did not intend to launch a religion, but rather discovered that what he was doing was one; in other words, Scientology didn’t become a religion overnight.
Donald Westbrook (Claremont Graduate University) has paid attention to the religious experience of Scientologists through conducting interviews. He argues that Scientology is not a religion of belief or faith, and is often presented in non-religious terms—thus raising once more the issue of boundaries between religious and secular. Westbrook’s paper also has made clear how much research needs to be done on various unstudied aspects of Scientology. One is the spread of Dianetics among members of the Nation of Islam (NOI).
With Louis Farrakhan’s official blessing, some 600 NOI members have already been trained as auditors.
Scientology loses members too, either because they leave or due to internal purges. Some attempt to continue on the same path in different organizational settings. There seems to have been a recent increase in attempts to set up independent Scientology groups. The Dror Center, in Israel, which seceded from the main organization in 2012, is one of the most recent instances. However, until now, few seemed to survive for long, with some exceptions, such as Ron’s Org, a group founded in Germany during the 1980s.
In most cases, observed Kjersti Hellesøy (Tromsø University), the organization and the technology are so interlinked that it often proves difficult to remain a Scientologist while leaving the Church of Scientology. Legal controversies too often have tended to dictate the research agenda on Scientology, according to J. Gordon Melton (Baylor University). To some extent, this small conference may be part of a turning point: scholars are attempting to fulfill their role in taking Scientology as a serious research object, if only due to the significance attributed to it by thousands of active and former Scientologists.
(For more information on the European Observatory of Religion and Secularism, visit: http://www.observatoire-religion.com).