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Religion Library: Scientology

Historical Perspectives

Written by: J. Gordon Melton

In the wake of the reorganization, only one further attempt at a book-length treatment of Scientology was made, this time by anthropologist Harriet Whitehead, whose Renunciation and Reformulation: A Study of Conversion in an American Sect (1987) compared the conversion and subsequent behavior of Scientologists to observations made in various parts of the world by anthropologists.

By the end of the 1980s, the major issue surrounding the church was its legitimacy.Critics of the church stirred a public debate over whether Scientology could properly be considered a religion.A few scholars, most notably Canadian sociologist Stephen Kent, an avowed critic of the church, attempted to make the case against it.He argued that its scandals, the illegal actions of some of its leaders, its atypical organization, and the manner in which it handled money suggested that it should more properly be considered a business.In the midst of this debate, the church assembled an international group of scholars to contribute essays to Theology & Practice of a Contemporary Religion -- Scientology: A Reference Work Presented by the Church of Scientology International (1998).Contributors presented Scientology's religious credentials and were asked particularly to speak about its relationship to Buddhism.In the 1990s, church leaders suggested that Scientology most resembled Buddhism, an idea now largely discarded.

As the debate continued, a Danish graduate student, Dorothe Refslund Christensen, engaged in extended field work and study of Scientology's publications and produced what remains the most thorough presentation of Scientology to date, her still unpublished doctoral dissertation "Rethinking Sociology: Cognition and Representation in Religion, Therapy and Soteriology" (1999).Simultaneously, religious historian J. Gordon Melton summarized his thirty years of observation of the church in what became the fifth book-length scholarly treatment of the church, The Church of Scientology (2000).Like Christensen, he tried to describe the church, its history, and its beliefs, placing it in its larger religious context, western esotericism.

By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, a scholarly consensus had been reached that Scientology was a religion, a view reflected in the first sociological book on Scientology from Germany, Scientology: Kulturbeobachtungen jenseits der Devianz, written by Gerald Wilms (2005) and most recently the book Scientology (2009), edited by religious studies scholar James R. Lewis.The contributing scholars have largely assumed Scientology's religious status and have initiated a discussion of how it fits on the larger social and cultural scene.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why was there medical and federal resistance to the religion of Scientology?
     2.    Describe the relationship between counterculture and cults. Where did Scientology fit in?
     3.    Why were Scientology's top church officials placed on trial?
     4.    How did Scientology respond to questions of its legitimacy?
     5.    How do scholars interpret Scientology's stance as a religion today?


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