Mr. Hubbard’s Legacy

churchofscientology As a child just discovering the joys of reading in the early 1970s, I found science fiction captivating. We were poor, and our town had no library, so I’d buy my books on Saturday trips to Goodwill. In other words, you take what you can get. I recall buying a book by a guy named L. Ron Hubbard. I don’t remember the title or the story, but I recall my surprise when, as a religion major some years later, I learned that this same sci-fi author had started a new religion. Scientology was not something you’d likely encounter in a poverty-stricken, sub-Appalachian town in rural Pennsylvania, and with no Internet it wasn’t so easy to learn about such things even if you had. We did have TV, though, and we watched Welcome Back Kotter (Risky Business was a little too risky). When I discovered that John Travolta (“Vinnie” as we thought of him) was a Scientologist, I was curious. But only to a degree. When I first taught World Religions and spent a few years researching the Scopes Trial for a book I never had the chance to write, I became very interested in American religions. They don’t come much more American than Scientology (and Latter-Day Saints).

As soon as Hugh B. Urban’s book The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion appeared, it immediately went onto my reading list. Like most interested laity, I’d found it difficult to trust much of what I’d read on the Church of Scientology from media sources. Now I had a reliable guide! Even better, Urban frames his study around a question that pervades this blog: who gets to decide what is a religion? As Urban deftly points out, it is odd that government agencies are often those tasked with a job more fitting for those of us who’ve studied religion with the rigor that a physicist devotes to quarks and neutrinos. Some of us have parsed religious texts to bare bones and then dug up the skeletons beneath and examined their ossified remains as well. The world doesn’t take religion studies too seriously, however.

Urban’s book, well written and solidly researched, maintains that rarest of academic feats: objectivity. When approaching a religion, particularly a controversial one, emotions are easily engaged and objectivity is challenged. While confessing that he isn’t a Scientologist, Urban lets the historical facts speak for themselves. He doesn’t try to belittle those he studies, but he doesn’t coddle either. Reading his fascinating account, many questions are raised about the rights of religions and the role that secrecy plays. And we know that Urban is only skating across the surface of a deep and mysterious pond here. Sitting in my room with a yellowed, used copy of some L. Ron Hubbard pulp fiction story in my hands, I would’ve never guessed, as a child, what I was really holding.

5 thoughts on “Mr. Hubbard’s Legacy

  1. People like to knock the Scientologists. I don’t know why. The ones I’ve known have been quite decent human beings, and I’ve never heard of one strapping on a bomb and killing people in God’s name or pointing to a Scientology scripture to justify pedophilia and misogyny. Let’s face it. There are many religions that are far more deserving of ridicule and disdain if someone feels compelled to dish it out. I’m glad to hear someone’s written an objective book about a religion. I look forward to checking it out.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      I agree, Piper. Many religions have an unseemly side now and again. And the origins of many religions are quite unlikely. They seem to say a lot more about the human will to believe than they do about the particular expression. Or so it seems to me. This is really a great book.

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  2. Jon H

    I would also suggest considering the implications of a religion based around a “tone scale” of emotions where “sympathy” and “making amends” are at the low end of the scale, but you should strive to be at the upper end. Also: sympathy and making amends are lower than hostility and hate and “no sympathy”. The values of the religion are laid out right there.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tone_scale

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks for your comments, Jon. Please be aware, though, that I’m not condoning the activities of Scientology (or any other religion for that matter). Those of us who study religions professionally attempt to be as neutral as possible, something that I think Urban’s book does admirably. (I have personal opinions about many of the religions I discuss on this blog, but I try to be consistent in noting that believers have the right to believe, even if I don’t understand.)

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