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Scientific American

The Real Science behind Scientology

published November 2011 | comments (14)
It’s not what you think
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IN THE 1990S I had the opportunity to dine with the late musician Isaac Hayes, whose career fortunes had just made a stunning turnabout upward, which he attributed to Scientology. It was a glowing testimonial by a sincere follower of the Church, but is it evidence that Scientology works? Two recently published books argue that there is no science in Scientology, only quasireligious doctrines wrapped in New Age flapdoodle masquerading as science. The Church of Scientology, by Hugh B. Urban, professor of religious studies at Ohio State University, is the most scholarly treatment of the organization to date, and investigative journalist Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology is an electrifying read that includes eye-popping and well-documented tales of billion-year con tracts, aggressive recruitment programs, and verbal and physical abuse of staffers.

The problem with testimonials is that they do not constitute evidence in science. As social psychologist Carol Tavris told me, “Every therapy produces enthusiastic testimonials because of the justification-of-effort effect. Anyone who invests time and money and effort in a therapy will say it helped. Scientology might have helped Isaac Hayes, just as psychoanalysis and bungee jumping might have helped others, but that doesn’t mean the intervention was the reason. To know if there is anything special about Scientology, you need to do controlled studies—randomly assigning people to Scientology or a control group (or a different therapy) for the same problem.” To my knowledge, no such study has been conducted. The real science behind Scientology seems to be an understanding of the very human need, as social animals, to be part of a supportive group—and the willingness of people to pay handsomely for it.

If Scientology is not a science, is it even a religion? Well, it does have its own creation myth. Around 75 million years ago Xenu, the ruler of a Galactic Confederation of 76 planets, transported billions of his charges in spaceships similar to DC-8 jets to a planet called Teegeeack (Earth). There they were placed in volcanoes and killed by exploding hydrogen bombs, after which their “thetans” (souls) remained to inhabit the bodies of future earthlings, causing humans today great spiritual harm and unhappiness that can be remedied through special techniques involving an Electropsychometer (E-meter) in a process called auditing.

Thanks to the Internet, this story—previously revealed only to those who paid tens of thousands of dollars in courses to reach Operating Thetan Level III (OT III) of Scientology—is now so widely known that it was even featured in a 2005 episode of the animated TV series South Park. In fact, according to numerous Web postings by ex-Scientologists, documents from court cases involving followers who reached OT III and abundant books and articles by ex-members who heard the story firsthand and corroborate the details, this is Scientology’s Genesis. So did its founder, writer L. Ron Hubbard, just make it all up—as legend has it—to create a religion that was more lucrative than producing science fiction?

Instead of printing the legend as fact, I recently interviewed the acclaimed science-fiction author Harlan Ellison, who told me he was at the birth of Scientology. At a meeting in New York City of a sci-fi writers’ group called the Hydra Club, Hubbard was complaining to L. Sprague de Camp and the others about writing for a penny a word. “Lester del Rey then said half-jokingly, ‘What you really ought to do is create a religion because it will be tax-free,’ and at that point everyone in the room started chiming in with ideas for this new religion. So the idea was a Gestalt that Ron caught on to and assimilated the details. He then wrote it up as ‘Dianetics: A New Science of the Mind’ and sold it to John W. Campbell, Jr., who published it in Astounding Science Fiction in 1950.” To be fair, Scientology’s Xenu story is no more scientifically untenable than other faith’s origin myths. If there is no testable means of determining which creation cosmogony is correct, perhaps they are all astounding science fictions.

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14 Comments to “The Real Science behind Scientology”

  1. Barry Johnstone Says:

    Another CULT with loads and loads of complete rubbish. The truly amazing thing is that some people actually accept this!

  2. Terje Says:

    Scientology is the most obvious scam in religious history. It`s unfathomable how many people believe in it. I guess it`s the power of mind control and delusion.

  3. Supernova Says:

    I don’t think that scientific proof that Scientology is unhelpful will cause any of its adherents to reject their beliefs – after all, we can disprove the claims made by Mormons about the Native Americans’ ancestry AND we have a similarly shady founding. This hasn’t even slowed down the rise of Mormonism.

    Keep preaching the good reasoning behind Skepticism, and we may eventually get the religious to look for evidence. After all, we don’t have to disprove a religion; the burden of proof is on them.

  4. Dick Schott Says:

    Most humans cannot function without a belief system of some kind. These systems assuage the anxiety produced by not having answers to the existential questions of life–how are we created, why is life random and chaotic, and what happens after death? The need to find explanations (it is god’s will) is at the root of nearly all religious belief systems. And the cohort of like-minded believers produces a sense of community. Scientology seems little different from the myriad of other magical beliefs, which function as defense mechanisms against anxiety.

  5. BillG Says:

    Speculating – do belief systems such as Scientology have paralells that resemble say, a rabid sports fan? Imagine a Pittsburg Steeler affectionado who’s life has become an obssession: season tickets, team clothing, autograph collector, fan clubs, etc.

    Adulthood has santa claus and the tooth fairy replaced with religion or fanaticism – or whacked out sci-fi tales that give you meaning. Regardless, it’s just shots of dopamine to the brain and becomes too painful to exist in less delusion.

  6. YouSirName Says:

    Depressing to think that such obvious lies and delusions hold sway over millions. Only reason mainstream Christianity doesn’t strike us as eqaully absurd is that it has been around long enough to smooth over the absurdities with a patina of legend – all the animals in the world on a boat, feeding thousands with a couple of fish, parting the ocean, resurrection, etc. Childish stories all.

  7. Don Says:

    And Christians are the vast majority in this country. There is high social pressure to believe in Christianity since you are considered a bit odd if you don’t believe. If you are an ambitious person, like a politician, you simply can’t afford to be out of the mainstream.

  8. Don Carpenter Says:

    A basic difficulty that plagues humans is distinguishing between reality and imagination. To discover one kind of reality, kick a big stone with your bare foot. To discover imagination think about the theology of your religion or your basic beliefs about life. What happens when you kick the rock is in the “real world.” What happens when you think about theology or basic life beliefs takes place only in your mind/brain i.e. imagination and is not in the “real world” of bare feet and stones. All religious theology is imagination. This doesn’t mean it’s useless, but it does mean it’s been made up my humans in their almost limitless powers of imagination.

  9. Edward Litherland Says:

    Doesn’t it seem redundant to drop hydrogen bombs after dropping the frozen bodies into volcanos?

  10. Serge Ouimet Says:

    My wife of 39 years died this year and since then, I keep meeting “believers” of all kinds. They talk to me about angels, her watching over me, a semi-precious stone that will help with my grieving, protective auras, meeting in the afterlife, etc., etc. I certainly wish I could justify accepting a supernatural notion that my sweet, lovely spouse still lived on some other plane of existence. All these individuals seem to be well-meaning but I find no solace in their delusions. She herself put no stock in any of it and would have been dismayed to see me in my grief making some improbable leap of faith. I’ll honour her memory by retaining my capacity to think rationally.

  11. Ron Constable Says:

    An engineering associate of mine got into Scientology pretty heavily back in the late ’70’s. He took a number of courses on how to treat various behavioral afflictions, like drug addiction. Having had some upper level courses in Psychology (and, better yet, Psychobiology) it rapidly became clear to me that the methods they were using were Skinnerian stimulus-response behavior shaping techniques, with very fanciful explanations as to why they worked. Hubbard knew what he was doing — scientifically.

  12. j Says:

    Any human behavior can be recruited in the service of analgesia. Like any temporary pain reliever (read analgesic), a belief system or habit or hobby or addiction or complex must repeatedly be tapped for the endorphins generated by the behavior. The underlying pain temporarily blocked remains. It is clear that the establishment medical community routinely confuses mere behavior modification with true therapy where healing change, to the extent it is possible, comes from within. People must demonstrate the willingness and capacity to heal.

  13. Paula Says:

    I just wanted to point out that several posters have remarked on how soooooo many people could be fooled about scientology, even mentioning millions of members.

    There is no proof that scientology has millions of members.
    The largest amount of members reside in the U.S., and one can only estimate the real amount (as the census no longer asks a religious affiliation question).

    If there are 100,000 members, I would be surprised. There are likely under 50,000 in the U.S. It has existed long enough for several generations now, but this is not enough to counter the dwindling numbers of new recruits and the rising number of disaffected members.

    Hubbard unfortunately did not predict the internet, which will end the cult eventually (although the IRS removing its tax exempt status would finish the job more quickly)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientology#Membership_statistics

  14. Dirk Says:

    If Scientology has little or nothing to do with science, then its basis is probably best revealed in how it works today, in this series of articles by the Tampa Bay Times (near their “mecca” in Clearwater, FL), entitled:

    Inside Scientology: The Money Machine

    http://www.tampabay.com/specials/2009/reports/project/

    Course packages for an individual can cost up to $80,000 and the article interviewed one man who spent over $200,000 in one year.

    The first and last time Hubbard tried to present proof to the public that his ideas worked was in 1950, when he presented the first “clear,” a student with a perfect memory. Thousands gathered in the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and the event was a total flop. It was so embarrassing to Hubbard he never repeated it or anything like it again. You were simply supposed to trust that Dianetics cured 80% of all diseases, gave you a perfect memory, and enhanced your IQ one point for every hour of auditing, because Hubbard said so. Later, all that morphed into “helping the able, become more able.” However, whatever you need help with, Scientology has the answers.

    Scientology works by exploiting people’s vulnerabilities by offering them tantalizing solutions and making them part of a group of elite super beings. They use mind control and coercion to trap members.

    Celebrities, however, are treated as a special class. They get extra pampering and they are also allowed to question things (like Xenu) with fewer consequences. However, if they question too much, like writer/director Paul Haggis, they end up being “disconnected” and vilified as “lying apostates.”

    Skepticism or questioning anything about their results or methods is considered “low toned” on Hubbard’s tone scale. According to Hubbard, such people would be disposed of “quietly without sorrow,” once Scientology had most of the planet “clear” and governments were run according to Scientology principles.

    Here is the Pulitzer prize winning author Lawrence Wright’s article on Haggis in The New Yorker:

    The Apostate
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_wright

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