Is the Church of Scientology a religion?
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
Five Supreme Court Justices have redefined what a religion is legally, following a five-year legal battle by scientologists seeking the right to get married at the Church of Scientology chapel in central London.
Scientology is therefore now recognised officially as a “religion” because Lord Toulson, delivering the lead judgment, concluded that religion could be defined as a “spiritual or non-secular belief system” which “claims to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite” and give people guidance on life.
But a recent research paper published by Terra Manca, an academic specialising in new religious movements at the University of Alberta, argues that Scientology began as less of a religion, and more of a ‘pseudo-science’. Terra Manca refers to pseudo as meaning “false” – a pseudo-science is spurious or pretend science.
Manca points out that L. Ron Hubbard, establishing Scientology in the 1950’s, recognized the opportunity to capitalize on Americans’ ardent fears of radiation fall-out from atom bomb testing. So in response, Hubbard gave lectures about radiation between 1956–1957, and published a book, ‘All About Radiation’ in 1957.
Manca’s paper entitled ‘L. Ron Hubbard’s Alternative to the Bomb Shelter: Scientology’s Emergence as a Pseudo-science During the 1950s’, argues it was Scientology’s proposals for treatment of radiation sickness, in response to the public’s paranoia over nuclear weapons, which were part of the reason Scientology became popular and developed so fast.
Terra Manca’s study published in the ‘Journal of Religion and Popular Culture’, contends pseudo-scientific radiation and puriﬁcation treatments were an initial way that Scientology recruited and maintained membership.
What makes the recent UK Supreme Court ruling particularly intriguing, given that Scientology should be considered a religion, is Terra Manca’s finding that in fact L. Ron Hubbard initially positioned himself as a scientist, in order to promulgate the idea he had the solution to radiation fall-out, which so preoccupied the USA at the time. This raises the question – when does a religion become a way to resurrect a failed science?
Manca points out that Hubbard claimed he had an extensive scientiﬁc education, claimed he conducted scientifically legitimate experiments, and claimed he scientiﬁcally proved that communist propaganda caused hysteria and, thereby, radiation sickness. By these strategies, Hubbard alleged he was the only credible source that could enable individuals to survive nuclear war, and this in fact was part of the initial success of Scientology.
Hubbard claimed that hysteria or ‘being out of control’ was the main health issue that stemmed from radiation; Scientology could cure hysteria and thereby all the health effects of radiation exposure.
Terra Manca reveals that in his book ‘All About Radiation’, Hubbard stated, “I was a member of the ﬁrst class in nuclear physics—we called it Atomic and Molecular Phenomena, of which nuclear physics is just a small part—which was taught at the George Washington University”, yet despite claims to the contrary, Hubbard was not a nuclear physicist, and he had no other scientiﬁc training.
Manca points out that from 1931 to 1932, Hubbard was a student in a class called “Modern Physical Phenomena; Molecular and Atomic Physics” at George Washington University, but he received an “F” in the course. Hubbard is on record as admitting that he did not wish to attend and that he got the lowest grade in the class, but maintained that he passed.
Manca further points out that Hubbard wrote a Russian brainwashing manual, which he attributed to Soviet chief of the secret police Lavrentii Beria (1899–1953), and then submitted it to the FBI’s Department of Communist Activities. Another of Hubbard’s strategies was not just to exploit the populations’ paranoia in the 1950’s over radiation fall-out, but also communism.
L. Ron Hubbard asserted that Soviet activities against America were psychological, so radiation was how the Soviets used brainwashing tactics. Moreover, orthodox mental health sciences were aiding and abetting the Soviets: “every chair of psychology in the United States is occupied by persons in our [Soviet] connection, or who can be inﬂuenced by persons in our connection”.
Scientology was therefore the ‘American’ science of the mind, the only hope to mental health, whereas psychiatry and psychology were respectively Russian and German sciences.
Manca explains that Hubbard’s treatment of radiation sickness included both expensive Scientology training and high dose vitamin regimens, which are not only scientifically dubious but could also be medically dangerous.
In 1969, the US Food and Drugs Administration ordered the seizure of Hubbard’s books and documents that contained “false scientiﬁc and nonreligious claims,” including ‘All About Radiation’ and electrometers. Electrometers (E-meters) are machines that supposedly register changes in the skin’s conductivity to a small electrical current.
In 1971, however, the United States District Court, District of Columbia, ordered the return of Scientology’s books, documents, and E-meters, so long as Scientology labelled the E-meters as spiritual devices that did not cure disease. This could be interpreted as an important transition in Scientology’s journey from ‘science’ to religion.
It is particularly apposite given the recent UK Supreme Court ruling of Scientology can now be viewed as a religion, that in compliance with the FDA’s demands of the time, Manca reports that the Church of Scientology stated that an E-meter is a “religious artifact used in the Church confessional. It, in itself, does nothing, and is used by ministers only, to assist parishioners in located areas of spiritual travail”.
Another example that Terra Manca reports of where Scientology appears as a ‘pseudo-science’ is, ironically, one year before Hubbard recommended parents simply feed children more milk to combat the effects of strontium-90 (one of the most feared radioactive isotopes), a study demonstrated that American milk contained high levels of strontium-90.
Stephen Kent and Terra Manca point out in a recently published study entitled ‘A war over mental health professionalism: Scientology versus psychiatry’ that for decades, Scientology has waged a worldwide war against psychiatry, aiming to replace it with Scientology’s own techniques.
Their research published in the journal ‘Mental Health, Religion & Culture’ points out that after 9/11 attacks in New York, Scientology set up nationally available telephone hotlines disguised as ‘National Mental Health Assistance’, directing the distressed and upset to Scientology centres for assistance, yet, which many may have confused with the long established and respected ‘National Mental Health Association’. Kent and Manca point out that at the disaster site itself, Scientologists pitched in the clean-up effort, yet with their own agenda.
Stephen Kent and Terra Manca report that, as revealed in e-mails that Scientologist Simon Hare sent to Scientologists at the time, obtained by critics of the organisation, their goals there included: ‘…we are trying to move in and knock the psychs out of counselling to the grieving families…. Due to some brilliant manoeuvring by some simply genius Sea Org Members [i.e., full-time Scientologists] we tied up the majority of the psychs who were attempting to get to families yesterday in Q&A [questions and answers], bullbait [techniques of confrontational insults on which Scientologists train] and wrangling.
Stephen Kent, from the University of Alberta and a world expert on Scientology, points out that some countries have a clause in their tax/charitable laws that a group receiving charitable status on the basis of religious claims, must contribute to the public good.
So does the UK Supreme Court ruling mean if you obstruct people in distress getting legitimate mental health treatment, it’s ok under the guise of religion?