A guide to Scientology: Beyond sects and celebrities

Updated March 20, 2015

Scientology is what sociologists classify as a New Religious Movement, or NRM. But for many people it is a buzzword for “fringe religion,” or a “Hollywood” faith for celebrities whose propensity to make news guarantees that Scientology has a profile out of proportion to its membership numbers.

In fact, among NRMs, few make headlines as regularly — or generate as much controversy — as Scientology. When John Travolta and Kelly Preston’s son, Jett, died in January 2009, the church’s beliefs about mental disorders and about the afterlife became one of several story angles pursued as the tragedy unfolded. When Tom Cruise questioned Brooke Shields’ use of medication to treat postpartum depression in 2005, Scientology’s long-standing opposition to psychiatry and its treatment methods became a topic of hot debate. And when communities and schools around the country have turned to Scientology-based education and rehabilitation programs, public opposition has sometimes followed.

And yet for many Americans, the Church of Scientology remains something of a mystery, better known for its celebrity adherents than for its tenets and practices. In some respects this is unsurprising, given the zeal with which Scientologists protect the faith’s texts, imagery and “religious technologies.” In addition, the church’s reputation for litigiousness has tended to limit open debate and stifle some critics, though the relative anonymity afforded by the Internet has changed that somewhat in recent years.

Over time, reporters both on the religion beat and elsewhere are likely to encounter stories involving Scientology. ReligionLink offers background and resources to assist in coverage.

Background

General Scientology websites

Books

History

Science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard founded Scientology in the early 1950s as a religious philosophy built upon the framework of his book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Followers set up the first local Church of Scientology in 1954 in California. More on this can be found on the Religious Movements Homepage at the University of Virginia and at ReligiousTolerance.org.

Hubbard died in 1986.

Through the years, various national governments have come into conflict with Scientology, primarily over whether it merits religious recognition and privileges. In the U.S., federal tax-exempt status was granted in the 1950s but then withdrawn in 1967; the church didn’t regain full religious recognition and tax exemption here until 1993.

Basic tenets

Scientology acknowledges “a spiritual debt to the Eastern faiths” while also charting its own path.

A fundamental truth for believers is that people are spiritual beings, called thetans, whose existence spans multiple lifetimes.

In Scientology, salvation is the responsibility of each individual and is achieved through the religious practices known as auditing and training. The goal of auditing is to reach a state of spiritual awareness called “clear.” Individuals may then progress beyond “clear” to higher spiritual levels.

The faith has eight “dynamics,” the last of which is defined as “the urge toward existence and survival as INFINITY. The eighth dynamic also is commonly called God, the Supreme Being or Creator, but it is correctly defined as infinity.” Scientology does not assign anthropomorphic qualities to the Supreme Being but instead encourages adherents to reach their own conclusions about the nature and character of God.

Texts and services

A prolific writer, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard detailed his philosophies and principles in numerous books, articles and recorded lectures that Scientologists today view as scripture. The primary sacred text is Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, a best-seller published in 1950.

Churches of Scientology hold communal services for such things as holidays and rites of passage, but the two main spiritual practices are auditing and training, both of which are geared more to the individual’s spiritual journey.

In auditing, a church counselor meets with an adherent and asks questions aimed at helping the person achieve “clear” status. Typically, this process requires a series of sessions. A device called an E-Meter is used in auditing to help identify subject areas needing further exploration.

Beyond “clear,” advanced levels of auditing are conducted on a solo basis; the person acts as his or her own auditor.

Training consists of intensive study of the faith’s tenets and scriptures.

Governance and affiliates

Each Church of Scientology has its own board of directors and executives. (See details about churches’ structure and organization). The faith’s parent organization is the Church of Scientology International, which is based in Los Angeles.

  • Religious Technology Center

    The nonprofit Religious Technology Center was established in 1982 to “preserve, maintain and protect the Scientology religion.” The center guards against improper use of Scientology’s religious symbols and technologies and has final ecclesiastical authority regarding their application, but it is not involved in routine church matters. Its international headquarters are located in Los Angeles, Ca. David Miscavige has been the RTC’s chairman of the board since 1987.

  • Citizens Commission on Human Rights

    The Citizens Commission on Human Rights was established as an independent body by the Church of Scientology in 1969 “to investigate and expose psychiatric violations of human rights and to clean up the field of mental healing.” The commission maintains a museum in Los Angeles and has chapters in 16 states and 34 countries. Contact through the website.

  • Flag Service Organization

    The Flag Service Organization in Clearwater, Fla., is referred to as the worldwide spiritual headquarters of the Church of Scientology. Contact through the website.

Holidays

Scientologists observe all major national holidays. The Church of Scientology holds international festivals for other major annual holidays, such as L. Ron Hubbard’s birthday (March 13) and the anniversary of the founding of the International Association of Scientologists. Scientology.org posts a list of major holidays in Scientology with dates.

Find a Scientology center or practitioner

By the numbers

  • “American Religious Identification Survey 2008”

    The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that about 12 percent of Americans say there is no God or it’s unknowable whether there is. The percentage of respondents who self-identified as atheists or agnostics, however, was much lower. The survey, conducted by researchers at Trinity College’s Program on Public Values, followed previous large-scale religious identification surveys in 1990 and 2001 and provided important comparative information about trends in the U.S.

    In the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, 55,000 U.S. adults self-identified as Scientologists. The just-released 2008 ARIS doesn’t give a separate figure for Scientologists but includes them, along with 11 other groups, in “New Religious Movements and other religions”; the total number of U.S. adults in that category is reported to be 2.8 million, up from 1.77 million in 2001.

  • ReligiousTolerance.org: About the Church of Scientology

    ReligiousTolerance.org posts information about the Church of Scientology.

    According to ReligiousTolerance.org, estimates of the number of Scientologists worldwide range from 100,000 to 10 million. The site explains why it is particularly difficult to pin down such numbers.

  • WhatIsScientology.org

    The “What is Scientology?” website explains the religion’s origins, principles, services and more. It also features a glossary of terms.

    It reports some church statistics, though many appear to be at least a decade old. Among them: As of 1997, the faith was practiced in 129 countries and on every continent, and 43 percent of the church and mission staff members were based in the U.S.

Press contacts

  • Karin Pouw

    Karin Pouw is international spokesperson for the Church of Scientology International. Contact through the website.

Opposition websites

A number of websites have sprung up in opposition to the Church of Scientology. They include:

Issues to explore

Here are just a few issues that crop up periodically regarding Scientology:

Free speech: Through the years, the church and its critics have accused each other of free-speech abuses. Scientology opponents say those who speak out publicly have faced intimidation, harassment and ostracism; the relative anonymity afforded by the Internet, though, has encouraged some of them to push back. This, in turn, has led to accusations by the church that it is the victim of cyberterrorism by one group, which calls itself Anonymous.

  • “Wikipedia Bans Scientology Church’s Edits”

    Read a June 1, 2009, Wall Street Journal story about a decision by Wikipedia, the open-source, user-edited Internet encyclopedia, to ban the Church of Scientology from editing entries about Scientology. The decision came after months of debate by Wikipedia’s arbitration committee and resulted from the high degree of conflict over entries on Scientology. A few Scientology critics were also banned from editing Wikipedia entries on the topic.

  • “‘Anonymous’ hacker pleads guilty to 2008 attack on Scientology sites”

    Read a May 11, 2009, Los Angeles Times article about the hacker behind the 2008 cyber-attack on Church of Scientology websites.

  • “Tom Cruise sues South Park”

    Read a discussion posted on FreeSpeechDebate.com about whether or not it was acceptable for Tom Cruise to threaten to sue South Park over an episode making fun of Scientology.

Affiliated programs: Scientology has several affiliated but legally distinct programs targeting social ills, such as drug dependency and illiteracy. Sometimes when these programs are proposed in communities, suspicion and opposition arise, particularly if officials or residents believe that the connections to Scientology haven’t been sufficiently disclosed. Some critics also question the programs’ accuracy or effectiveness.

  • “Scientology link rouses worries at star’s school”

    Read a June 29, 2008, Los Angeles Times article about a new private school founded by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. The school has generated some controversy because it uses teaching methods developed by Scientology’s founder and some of its teachers are Scientologists. Its top administrator says the school is secular, not religious.

  • “Scientology school gets close study”

    Read an April 16, 2008, Boston Herald article (posted by studytech.org) about concerns regarding Scientology’s ties to a proposed curriculum for a taxpayer-funded pilot school in that city.

  • “Schools urged to drop antidrug program”

    Read a Feb. 25, 2005, San Francisco Chronicle item about the state superintendent in California urging schools to drop the Narconon anti-drug education program.

Mental health: Scientology has long been known for its opposition to psychiatry. Whether that opposition extends to treatment of autism and similar disorders became a subject of some news stories after the January 2009 death of Jett Travolta. Jett’s parents, John Travolta and Kelly Preston, are Scientologists. They have attributed his health problems to a childhood bout with Kawasaki disease, not autism as some observers have speculated.

Articles and transcripts

International sources

  • Douglas Cowan

    Douglas Cowan is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He is an expert on the neo-pagan community and has written about the community’s use of the Internet to communicate and share ideas about faith and rituals. He has also published about Mormonism and evangelical practice in North America and on religion and film.

    He is co-author of Cults and New Religions: A Brief History, which includes a chapter on the Church of Scientology, and has chapters on Scientology in a number of edited collections, including Scientology, edited by James R. Lewis. At the 2004 international conference of the Center for Studies on New Religions, Cowan presented a paper on the difficulties of researching Scientology.

  • John Duignan

    John Duignan is co-author of The Complex: An Insider Exposes the Covert World of the Church of Scientology (2008). He says he is a former high-ranking member of the church. Amazon’s United Kingdom branch stopped selling Duignan’s book after receiving a claim that it libeled a church member; the publisher, Merlin Publishing, has denied that.

  • Stephen A. Kent

    Stephen A. Kent is a sociology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and an expert on religions and their views on crime and responses to violence.

    He studies new and alternative religions and has written a number of articles about Scientology.

National sources

  • David Bromley

    David Bromley is a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia. An expert in New Religious Movements, he co-authored “Moonies” in America: Cult, Church and Crusade, a history of the Unification Church in the United States.

    He has written extensively about Scientology and is co-author of Cults and New Religions: A Brief History, which includes a chapter on the church.

  • Dell deChant

    Dell deChant is an instructor and associate chairman of the religious studies department at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He has written numerous entries on New Thought and New Age movements for various encyclopedias of religion.

    He co-authored a chapter on Scientology in World Religions in America: An Introduction.

  • Frank Flinn

    Frank Flinn is an adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He has served as a forensic expert on the legal definition of religion, religious organizations, religious finances and various religious controversies, and he has testified concerning Scientology and many other New Religious Movements. Flinn wrote “Scientology: The Marks of Religion,” which examines the beliefs and practices of the church. He is edited a five-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Society.

  • James Lewis

    James R. Lewis is a lecturer in religious studies in the philosophy department at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He is the editor of Scientology (March 2009), described as a comprehensive examination of the church’s theology, growth and controversies.

  • J. Gordon Melton

    J. Gordon Melton is a distinguished professor of American religious history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Formerly, he directed the Institute for the Study of American Religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has written about New Religious Movements and about Christian Science and is an expert on American-born religions. He co-wrote Perspectives on the New Age and has written on New Thought Movements.

    He is the author or editor of numerous books, including the Encyclopedia of American Religions and one on Scientology that is part of the Studies in Contemporary Religion series.

  • Timothy Miller

    Timothy Miller is a historian of American religion in the religious studies department at the University of Kansas. His expertise is in new and alternative religions, and he has written about the impact of the influx of Eastern spirituality after the 1965 immigration reform act.

  • Sarah M. Pike

    Sarah M. Pike is an associate professor of religious studies at California State University in Chico. She has written about New Age and neopagan religions and is working on a project about teens on the margins of American culture. She addresses Scientology in her writings.

  • Janet Reitman

    Janet Reitman is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, where she wrote an article on Scientology that was a finalist for a 2007 National Magazine Award. Reitman is also the author of Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion.

  • Hugh B. Urban

    Hugh B. Urban is a professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University in Columbus. He contributed a chapter about Osho to Gurus in America.

    He is particularly interested in the study of secrecy in religion and wrote an article, “Fair Game: Secrecy, Security and the Church of Scientology in Cold War America,” published in 2006 by the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. His book The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion takes a scholarly look at the religion.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Courtney Bender

    Courtney Bender is a professor of religious studies at Columbia University and sociologist. She studies new religious movements, religious pluralism and is currently writing about the religion of the future.

  • Eugene Gallagher

    Eugene Gallagher is a professor of religious studies at Connecticut College in New London. He has written about belief in sorcery and new religious movements. He is the co-author of Why Waco.

    He is the author of The New Religious Movements Experience in America, which includes a discussion of the Church of Scientology.

  • Mathew N. Schmalz

    Mathew N. Schmalz is an associate professor of religious studies at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He specializes in global Catholicism, the papacy and Catholicism/culture issues in the U.S. His article “Scientology and Catholicism Do Mix: A Note on Teaching New Religions in a Catholic Classroom” appeared in the January 2006 edition of the journal Teaching Theology & Religion.

  • David S. Touretzky

    David S. Touretzky is a research professor in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a longtime Scientology critic. He maintains an extensive collection of Scientology-related websites on his home page. He has given many radio interviews and appeared on Countdown with Keith Olbermann (twice) and CNN Headline News with Glenn Beck to discuss Scientology.

In the South

  • Derek H. Davis

    Derek H. Davis is dean of the College of Humanities and the Graduate School at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas. He is the author of publications on church and state issues and on religious freedom.

    He has written about the Church of Scientology’s pursuit of legal recognition.

  • Barry G. Hankins

    Barry G. Hankins is a professor of history and church-state studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is an expert on Christian conservatives and their interaction with American culture. He wrote the book Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture.

    He is co-editor of New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America.

  • Danny Jorgensen

    Danny Jorgensen is a professor in the department of religious studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He co-authored a chapter on Scientology in World Religions in America: An Introduction.

  • Sean McCloud

    Sean McCloud is an associate professor of religious studies and director of graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who specializes in New Religious Movements.

  • Catherine Wessinger

    Catherine Wessinger, professor of religious studies at Loyola University in New Orleans, has written widely on theosophy, millennialism, New Religious Movements and New Age religions. She is co-editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions.

In the Midwest

  • William Michael Ashcraft

    William Michael Ashcraft is an associate professor of philosophy and religion at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo. He has written about New Religious Movements.

  • John A. Saliba

    John A. Saliba teaches world religions and other liberal arts topics at the University of Detroit-Mercy and is an authority on the relationship between Christianity and New Age religions. He participated in a lengthy Vatican study of New Religious Movements, and he wrote the scholarly book Understanding New Religious Movements and Christian Responses to the New Age Movement: A Critical Assessment.

In the West

  • James T. Richardson

    James T. Richardson is director of the Judicial Studies Program at the University of Nevada, Reno. He wrote the essay “Public Policy Toward Minority Religions in the United States: A Model for Europe?” for the book Religion and Public Policy.

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