Is Scientology a Religion?

James D. Standish January/February 1998 There are a number of methods to test if an organization is a religion, and the method used may decide the answer to the inquiry. Four possible methods are as follows:

1. Examine the beliefs/structures/doctrines of the organization to see if they are analogous to more traditional religions.
2. Examine the intent of the organization's founders and administrators.
3. Examine the intent of the organization's rank-and-file membership.
4. Give deference to the definition provided by a third party, such as state or nongovernmental associations specializing in evaluating organizations that avail themselves of the rights and protections associated with the status of a religion.

Based on a doctrinal/structural study, it would be difficult to conclude that Scientology is anything but a religion. The Scientology belief structure extends well beyond that of a typical secular business organization or philosophical society. Scientology provide not only a code by which to live life, but also an explanation for the proverbial who are we, why are we here, and where are we going questions. This belief system includes the doctrine of reincarnation and teachings on the origin of humanity and the earth's role in the greater universe. While Scientology does not have a traditional view of God, it does teach the existence of a sort of pantheistic higher power, which its adherents refer to as God. In addition, Scientology is involved in a number of charitable activities typical of religious organizations, including a drug-free society program for which they have received much recognition and public praise.

The central mission of Scientology is to apply the technology developed by L. Ron Hubbard, its founder. Hubbard developed a system by which he claimed a person could become "clear," a free state that is "unencumbered by inhibitions." This system involves a series of highly structured one-on-one counseling sessions, which Scientologists call "auditing." Those being audited hold in their hands metal cylinders attached to an electronic device called an "Emeter," which has been described as a simple lie detector by those outside the church. Through this process of auditing a person can eventually reach a clear state.

Scientologists believe that the technology to achieve clearness was developed by Hubbard through his insights into humankind, through experimentation, and study of a greater reality. As such, their faith in his methods parallels other religions' faith in the teachings of their founders. Hubbard's descriptions of reality would occupy a similar place in the life of a Scientologist as the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Christ, or Muhammad would occupy in their followers.

Scientology's critics view the religious beliefs of the organization as mere trappings on an ingenious business scheme from which its founder and organization accumulated immense wealth. Forbes magazine stated that Hubbard resorted to making his organization a religion only after the FDA found that his scientific claims were "bogus." By turning a scientific movement into a religion, Forbes states, Hubbard escaped the reach of the FDA. During this process, the magazine claims, "franchises" became "missions," "fees" for services became "fixed donations," and "theories" became "sacred scriptures."

The church is, indeed, organized more like a franchise business rather than a religious group. An organization of the church holds trademarks for the church. To start a church in a new location, a license must be granted, which includes stringent operating criteria and a system by which a portion of the proceeds are returned to the central church body. If a local church fails to abide by the operating guidelines, its license is terminated.

And the church does raise funds in an unorthodox fashion. Rather than passing an offering plate, recommending a tithe or expecting adherents to perform services for the church, it has a pay-as-you-go system. Each auditing session has a price, to be paid at the time services are rendered. The church does, however, extend auditing to the disadvantaged at a lower price on an ad hoc basis. Church officials draw a parallel between their pay-as-you-go system and the fees charged by ministers performing special ceremonies like marriage. This parallel, however, appears somewhat tenuous in light of the numerous services to promote spiritual enlightenment that the majority of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples provide free. In addition, auditing can cost a considerable amount of money when measured in comparison with an average person's expendable income. Forbes reported in 1986 that auditing courses cost anywhere from $200 to $1,000 an hour, with special training courses costing $12,000 and up. A church official countered criticism of auditing fees by noting that a study by the church found that the cost of Scientology courses compared favorably with the tuition charged by colleges and universities.

The church appears to do well financially. It has impressive buildings around the world, including a custom-built castle in England. The church has a large and beautiful building in Los Angeles, which houses the "celebrity center." They also have a large ship called the Freewinds, which cruises the Caribbean, upon which Scientologists can attain the highest levels of spiritual advancement. Forbes noted that if it had known Hubbard's net worth during his lifetime, it would have included him "high on the Forbes Four Hundred [the 400 wealthiest individuals]."

Further, there are charges that L. Ron Hubbard made incriminating comments that belie his true intent to found a money-making machine in the guise of religion. Time magazine reports that Hubbard told his officials to "make sure that lots of bodies move through the shop. Make money. Make more money. Make others produce so as to make money . . . however you get them in or why, just do it." In addition, a former church official was quoted by Forbes as saying, "Hubbard told me at one time the biggest mistake we made was going religious and that we should have kept it straight as a business." Although these comments are incriminating, the people reporting them wouldn't allow their names to be printed. Every religious leader in history has had detractors, often the most vehement of them being former believers.

The simplest way to find out if practitioners of Scientology believe it to be a religion is to ask them. The inevitable reply is that it is indeed a religion. It is difficult, however, to readily equate this focus of science and technology with such deity-centered religions as Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism. An 833 page book published by Scientology, entitled What Is Scientology? includes 38 pages of testimony of about 85 adherents. These testimonies focus on the success Scientology has brought to their lives, which includes professional success, success of the family, and success at kicking drug and alcohol habits. But few mention success in increasing personal morality and caring for others. While a number of these testimonies mention Scientology technology and praise L. Ron Hubbard, there are no references to a deity or spirituality in general. It could be argued that the testimonies are not far removed from those given by such people as Martin Sheen about Tony Robbins' empowerment seminars. The focus of Scientology, however, is not entirely different from Confucianism or Zen Buddhism, in which the central idea is living within a prescribed lifestyle through the acceptance and understanding of basic tenets rather than the worship of a supreme being.

Looking to the state for a definition of which organizations are true religions is dangerous. The history of government's ability to appreciate and tolerate disparate religious practices is abysmal. Nevertheless, in the United States, in which an extremely wide variety of faiths are presently accorded the status of bona fide religions and received taxexempt status as a result of this determination, the resistance of the government to accord such recognition to Scientology is worth reviewing.

State recognition of Scientology in the U.S. was slow in coming and remains controversial. The church fought a protracted battle with the Internal Revenue Service in order to obtain classification as a religion. This battle included a conspiracy by some church members to bug and burglarize IRS offices in the mid-1970s, for which 11 of them, including the wife of the church's founder, went to prison. There were numerous lawsuits by Scientology against the IRS, and Scientology retained private detectives to investigate IRS officials. The church also extended financial support to a whistle-blowing organization that exposed problems within the IRS. At one time Scientology had more than 50 lawsuits against the IRS pending. The IRS, however, largely prevailed in court. It was not until 1993 that the IRS finally granted Scientology the status of a religion, but the grant itself was not without controversy.

In a frontpage investigative article in its Sunday edition, the New York Times noted that the tax exception followed "a series of unusual internal IRS actions that came after an extraordinary campaign orchestrated by Scientology against the agency." Lawrence Gibbs, IRS commissioner from 1986 to 1989, stated that the decision to grant Scientology the status of a religion was "very surprising." He noted that "when you have as much litigation over as much time, with the general uniformity of results that the service had had with Scientology, it is surprising to have the ultimate decision to be favorable. It was even more surprising that the service made the decision without full disclosure, in light of the prior background." Despite the controversy, however, IRS officials maintain that the decision was based on law and was not the result of tactics employed by Scientology. Officials of Scientology maintain the recognition was long overdue, after a prolonged campaign of harassment and discrimination by rogue IRS agents.

Scientology has met with mixed success in its bid for international recognition as a religion. In England and Australia, for example, it has been recognized as a religion by the state, while in Germany it continues to struggle. In France its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was convicted of fraud in absentia. The present attitude of the French and German governments to religious minorities in general, however, serves to remind how dangerous it is to look to government for a definition of the veracity of religion.

Whether Scientology is a religion or not depends on a personal evaluation of the evidence. One may believe that L. Ron Hubbard was a greedy man who converted his self-help business into a religion to make a tax-free fortune and that his successors continue to do the same today. On the other hand, one may believe that Scientology clearly teaches religious tenets and meets the spiritual needs of its followers, and that it demeans the spirit of religious freedom to classify one person's faith as lacking the status of a bona fide religion merely because it is unorthodox and modern. One may even believe that L. Ron Hubbard was not an honest individual, but that his followers are honest and, therefore, deserve the status of a bona fide religious denomination. When one asks the question of whether Scientology is a religion or a business, it may best be answered, not by comparing Scientology to tenets and practices of one's particular faith, but rather in comparing the criticisms of Scientology to the criticisms of one's own faith during its infancy. When it comes to declaring another person's organization invalid as a religion, it pays to walk on the side of caution.

Is Scientology a religion?

Ask a Scientologist, and maybe you'll get to the most valid answer available.

James Standish who holds an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia is a second-year law student at Georgetown University Law Center.

Article Author: James D. Standish