For Scientologists, the true self is the spirit, the thetan, the eternal essence of each individual. For millions and millions of years prior to this life, the thetan has existed and inhabited numerous bodies. This process of moving on and being reborn as a baby in a new body, called reincarnation or rebirth in some eastern religions, occurs as a natural and normal part of the universe. Scientology's understanding of the process of moving on to a next life is quite in accord with Hinduism in many respects. It would resonate with the image in the Bhagavadgita of dying as analogous to someone shedding clothing (the body) and putting on new clothing (a new body). At the same time, it also differs in important respects from eastern ideas. For example, there is no belief in karma nor is the thetan seen as experiencing any kind of moral judgment between lives that has any role in determining its next incarnation. Also, Scientologists reject any notion that a thetan would be reincarnated as an animal or in any state less than human.
This view is reflected in the liturgy used in Scientology funeral services, where it is noted:
We find we live
But on and on
From body's birth to
Body's grave and then
To birth again
And yea to grave again
So to dispose possession
Oft come undone
From century to century
From age to age and on
We go to march along
The path that leads
Forever up the countless
Tick of time.
Following a member's death, the body is thought to be relatively unimportant. Funerals may or may not be held, but where requested, a relatively brief and simple funeral service will be conducted by a Scientology minister. Such services may be requested by the family and are designed to speak to the needs of the attendees rather than to have any say about the deceased (an increasing popular idea about funerals generally). In the service, the minister will address the deceased, leading those gathered in bidding farewell while affirming the notion that the thetan will take up a new body and live a new life though there is no way of knowing when or where.
Scientology has left the matter of the disposition of the body to family and friends, and does not dictate the manner. Church founder L. Ron Hubbard was cremated, and that has become a popular option. The creation and location of any memorial marker are the family's prerogative.
The belief in the afterlife is nowhere more dramatically symbolized than in the billion-year covenant (formerly contract) that members of the Sea Organization (and other dedicated Scientologists) have signed. To those who do not believe in reincarnation, the contract is somewhat meaningless (and critics have pointed that fact out in attempts to ridicule the church). For Scientologists, however, it is a sign of both commitment to their faith in this life (not unlike that made by a person joining a religious order) and an affirmation of belief that they will be born on earth again. They promised that when that happens they will again work toward the goal of spreading Scientology and freeing, or clearing, the planet.
As Scientologists individually look to a future in a next embodied life, so Scientologists collectively look to the goal of "Clearing the Planet," a phrase that functions similarly as the Christian goal of building the kingdom of God. Scientology believes that it has found the true solution to human problems, that their analysis is true for all humans on the planet, and that having been given such knowledge, they are charged with the duty of bringing the Truth to all. Clearing the planet would not only mean that everyone had attained the state of Clear but that the world would have been rid of war, crime, addiction to mind-altering drugs, and illiteracy.
Their belief has given some Scientologists an evangelical zeal that is unusual among esoteric groups. Typically such groups have content to work in small associations whose members were satisfied that they were among the elite few that had learned the hidden wisdom. At the same time that this zealousness separates Scientology from other groups with similar beliefs and practices, it also accounts for the movement's rapid growth and contributes to the controversy that surrounds it. The singular goal of "Clearing the Planet" motivates members to levels of heightened commitment. Those who are unfamiliar with the church can find such enthusiasm difficult to understand, while critics dismiss it as mere misguided fanaticism. Most observers find is quite similar to the same zeal found among members of more familiar groups.
The universal goal that the church has projected explains the effort to penetrate all of the countries of the world with the message of Scientology and explains its attempts to open what amounts to pioneer church activity centers, even if only of a most informal kind, in all parts of the world. Scientologists see their mandate as similar to that operating in the world's older religious traditions.
1. How does Scientology's understanding of the afterlife coincide with Hinduism? How does it differ?
2. What do Scientologists believe about reincarnation?
3. Are there rituals associated with death? Why or why not?
4. What is the billion-year covenant?