The first pre-publication excerpt, entitled "Dianetics, A New Science of The Mind," from a new speculative non-fiction work by L. Ron Hubbard appeared in the May 1950 issue of the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. It was prefaced by a note from the magazine's editor stating "I want to assure every reader, most positively and unequivocally, that this article is not a hoax, joke, or anything but a direct, clear statement of a totally new scientific thesis." (Miller 153). The book version of Dianetics appeared not long after, and sold well, especially after being given a promotional mention in Walter Winchell's newspaper column (Miller 145). Sixty years afterward, Hubbard's speculations are enshrined as a religion, the Church of Scientology -- although there are many persons who consider it to be less a religion and more, as its debut might indicate, like truly astounding science fiction, involving metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, all the way back to the evil machinations of Galactic Overlord Xenu 70 million years ago (Hubbard's rough equivalent of the Fall of Adam in Christian theology).
The Church of Scientology is what sociologists of religion would refer to as a "New Religious Movement" and what most non-Scientologists (and non-sociologists) would refer to as a mind-control cult. It was first promoted as a sort of self-help book called Dianetics in the 1950s, but when the former sci-fi and pulp fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard discovered a tremendous market for the quasi-Freudian self-help system with a sci-fi cosmology and jargon like "Theta-Clear," "Operating Thetan," "auditing" and "engrams" -- not to mention the dual name of the belief system, "Dianetics" and "Scientology," both of them meaningful-sounding doubletalk that carry the veneer of scientific truth while advertising itself as -- and obtaining the privileged tax-exempt status of -- an American religion of relatively recent provenance, not unlike Mormonism (Joseph Smith's famous nineteenth-century prophet-making scheme) or Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy's "Christian Science" (still headquartered at Boston's own First Church of Christ, Scientist). Scientology's most sizable presence remains Clearwater, Florida -- which is really its primary headquarters for worldwide operations -- while its most visible presence still is (inevitably) Los Angeles, where it not only maintains the famous "Celebrity Center" but also sponsors an ongoing public exhibition in a former cinema space in Hollywood detailing the worst excesses of medical psychiatry in the twentieth century (including pre-frontal lobotomies, eugenics schemes, and electro-shock therapy).
2. Name, location review of the site: the Church of Scientology of Boston
The Church of Scientology of Boston is located in a charming Victorian brownstone manse on the corner at 448 Beacon Street. The Church is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. To 10 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 to 6 -- making them, unusually, a church whose operating hours on weekdays are greater than those on week-ends.
The Church frequently distributes flyers to undergraduates at the beginning of the school-year, or to attendees at job fairs for college students and recent graduates, advertising a "free personality test" to be administered at the Boston Church of Scientology's Beacon Street location. This personality test is, of course, structured to highlight elements of the human personality which the Church of Scientology considers changeable -- if not indeed perfectible -- through their "religion" of Dianetics, first devised in the 1950s by the science fiction writer Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, or "L. Ron" Hubbard.
3. Interview summary: "John," at Church of Scientology Boston
My interview with "John" (he asked that his real name not be used when I revealed that I was writing a paper about this) at the Boston Church of Scientology was limited to the "free personality test" and then a conversation afterward which began with his explanation that Scientology offered the cure to certain flaws that they perceived in my personality, based on the test.
I asked what the religion offered me and the answer is that one may take "personal development" courses which introduce you gradually to the tenets of Scientology, but which purport to have an actual benefit on your life. However, one has to pay money to take these courses, and they are not cheap.
When I asked if the price of the courses was not a significant barrier to entry for most people looking for a religious faith, "John" explained to me that the Church of Scientology is happy to let you take the courses for free in exchange for your personal volunteer labor (sometimes including residence!) at the Church of Scientology, or taking part in any of its educational, outreach, or health-related programs. As some people may remember from Tom Cruise's notorious morning-television scuffle with Matt Lauer -- or from the tragic early death of John Travolta's autistic son, leading to questions about whether the boy had received proper medical attention -- Scientology has a prounounced contempt for medical psychiatry. To some degree, Scientology's attitude towards Prozac and Ritalin and medical psychiatry in general is not unlike Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Scientists, and their attitude towards medical science tout court.
I asked about what sort of educational activities the Church performed, and "John" was quick to mention the Rev. Robert Castagna (a Boston-based full-time Scientology minister) who runs the Dorchester Scientology Volunteer Ministry, which is the Church of Scientology's free one-on-one literacy tutoring for adults and children in inner-city Boston. I asked if literacy was in any way related to the religion of Scientology and was told that it did, but I would have to take the courses to learn more.
Since I declined to pay for the courses (and lack the time to perform volunteer charitable work on the Church of Scientology's behalf to qualify for a fee waiver) this was the extent of my interaction with a member of the religion: it is clear that any religion which requires members to pay for advancement towards a level of enlightenment or indeed incarnate godhead -- or as the Scientologists call it "attaining Theta-Clear" -- I had to rely on the written accounts of former members of the Church of Scientology -- no easy thing to find, as the Church frequently threatens former members with defamation lawsuits, and so accounts of the upper echelons of Scientology are difficult to come by. Fortunately there are the two particularly well-informed (and legally-vetted) accounts -- one by a former member and one by a journalist -- which expose the secrets of Scientology's inner sanctum, as it were. A Piece of Blue Sky: Scientology, Dianetics and L.Ron Hubbard Exposed by John Atack is a personal memoir by a disgruntled former member of the Church of Scientology. It is certainly useful as an account of what Scientologists were asked to believe -- especially during Hubbard's lifetime, when he was still issuing new pronouncements and revelations about Galactic Overlord Xenu and the Planet Teegeeack, actual names from Hubbard's own cosmological revelation "OT 3" issued in 1967 (Atack 28). In addition, Russell Miller's unauthorized biography of Hubbard, Bare-Faced Messiah, presents a more journalistic account of Hubbard's own bizarre life story -- with frequent inventions for his resume, such as claims that he had studied with Indian gurus or was a trained nuclear physicist, or was the childhood friend of President Calvin Coolidge's son -- and focuses mainly on Scientology as it involved Hubbard's own scheming or troubles with the law, not as a belief system which adherents consider to be a valid and viable religion. Miller, like Atack, emphasizes the evidence suggesting that Hubbard had expressed on several occasions before writing Dianetics the notion that founding a religion would be a very easy way to make money, perhaps the first theodicy to be predicated upon P.T. Barnum's famous profession of faith that, in America, there's a sucker born every minute.
4. Comparing and contrasting with another religion: Roman Catholicism
In the collective imagination of the general public, Scientology is most often linked to its celebrity practitioners, like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, which leads to the belief that it is merely some sort of modish Hollywood cult. In reality, Scientology itself has changed focus and aggressively pursued an image-management strategy from its founding to the present day -- but despite its reputation as a bizarre cult-like organization with an affiliated ocean-borne paramilitary wing, the "Sea Org" (Atack 134), I think it's worth taking Scientology seriously as a religion -- which Atack (as a former believer) certainly did -- but I would like to use my own religion -- Roman Catholicism -- as a point of comparison. Not only are those two high-profile Hollywood spokesmen I have already mentioned, Travolta and Cruise, converts to Scientology from Roman Catholicism, Tom Cruise himself was enrolled in a seminary-track education, in training for the Catholic priesthood, just before he started auditioning for films in his late teens, and his current bride Katie Holmes is herself a Roman Catholic. I suggest that on some level this is not mere coincidence, and that there may be something which draws…