Henry Brown '23
Scientology. You’ve probably heard the name. You’ve likely seen their extravagant buildings. And maybe you’ve even wondered if it’s the secret to why Tom Cruise, an ardent follower, doesn't age. Scientology is arguably the United States’ most secretive, most out-of-the-box, and most bizarre religion, and yet its philosophy closely mimics that of Enlightenment philosophers and Christian theologists. While many laugh at its absurdity and scam-like nature, few understand why Scientology is so appealing to the many thousands who have joined its ranks.
The story begins with a man named L. Ron Hubbard. Born in Nebraska in 1911, Hubbard developed a career as a writer during the Great Depression, authoring horror and science fiction pieces for local magazines. He briefly served as a naval intelligence officer during World War II, but ended up in the hospital after developing several ailments. His stay catalyzed within him deep, philosophical ruminations about human suffering, and Hubbard sought to ameliorate those issues by uncovering the “science of the mind.” He went on to write Dianetics in 1950, which outlined his philosophy and serves as the foundational text of Scientology.
Like many philosophers, Hubbard argued that “survival”—or the eternal perpetuation of life—is the foremost principle of human existence. There are eight “dynamics” of survival, as he dubs them: one's self, family, nations, humankind, life, the physical universe, the spiritual universe, and higher powers (there is no strict “God” figure in Scientology). Actions that support the survival/continued existence of these dynamics are “moral,” and actions that are “countersurvival” are “immoral” and “perpetuate negative states.” Hubbard believed that all humans have an internal consciousness—the “analytical mind”—that can make such survival-oriented judgments. A “free” human, he would argue, would always make moral decisions that prioritize survival over decline in condition (e.g., picking health over injury, sickness, or death for the first dynamic, or choosing loyalty over treason for the third). Hubbard seems like the anti-Immanuel Kant, if you will.
When humans do not make survival-oriented judgments, Hubbard blames “engrams.” Engrams are memories of traumatic events that, when humans are reminded of them, evoke emotions of guilt, shame, or embarrassment. The medical establishment would say that Hubbard goes off the rails here. These painful emotions trigger the unconscious “reactive mind,” which in turn takes hostage of the survival-oriented analytical mind and induces countersurvivalism, which may include mental and physical ailments. In Dianetics, he blames the reactive mind for health issues like asthma, high blood pressure, and allergies. In essence, engrams (i.e., bad memories) do not perpetuate the life of the first dynamic, one’s own life, because they cause illness. Thus, to be free and moral, humans must learn to suppress or eliminate the reactive mind/engrams and discover their true spiritual essence: the analytical mind.
This is the philosophy of Scientology. This account is vastly simplified, but explains their approach to religion. To practice Scientology, one must participate in auditing—expensive one-on-one sessions with church officials that help to eliminate engrams. The Church of Scientology uses machines called E-meters to accomplish this, which claim to measure emotion and identify engrams. By paying for hundreds of auditing sessions (this costs many thousands of dollars), one can finally achieve freedom from the countersurvival reactive mind. This is why Scientology is dubbed the religion of the rich.
Scientology has been at the center of many controversies over the years. The Church has engaged in criminal behavior, threatened “enemies” of the Church and encouraged members to shun family members who are antagonistic towards the Church, sued search engines that display secretive information relating to the Church, and even neglected its follower Lisa McPherson, an ill Scientologist under the Church’s care, so much so that she died. The organization has also been subject to investigation regarding allegations superiors physically beat their employees. Regardless, nearly 25,000 Americans are still part of the cult-like Church, and membership continues to rise.
Scientology is a chaotic religion. Its supporters believe that a galactic emperor named Xenu placed humans on the planet seventy-five million years ago (though you have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to access this information). Yet, why is the religion so appealing to its followers? Maybe the paid aspect gives confidence that the treatments are working. Maybe it’s a roundabout way to escape guilt and shame, which plague all humans. Or maybe it’s pure deception by a man who just wanted to make money. What it teaches us is that the human mind is incredibly susceptible to deceit, and even the most obvious truths can seem wrought with fraud to those who are misled.