Historical Perspectives

Scientology rapidly expanded through the last decades of the 20th century into an international movement with a visible presence in more than seventy countries. It emerged at a time of rapid religious changes that saw a spectacular rise in religious pluralism in the West.

Many in the medical world did not share the popular enthusiasm for Scientology. The word "health" in the title of the movement's primary text and the use of the E-meter led some medical observers to consider Scientology as simple quackery. That view underlay the 1963 raid by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of the Washington, D.C., church. Before the church could win the resulting litigation (1969), the IRS revoked the church's tax-exempt status and the controversy spread to other countries. In 1966, as the United Kingdom and Australia moved against the church, Hubbard established the Guardian's Office, to which he assigned the task of dealing with all the controversy in order to prevent it as much as possible from affecting the church members.

Simultaneous with the growth of controversy around Scientology, a handful of new religions (the Unification Church, The Hare Krishna movement [ISKCON], The Way International, etc.) became the focus of controversy around their recruitment of young adults, many of whom dropped their career plans for full-time religious lives. In the 1970s, a new cult awareness movement developed to monitor and warn people about the rash of new religions, and Scientology was quickly added to the list of prominent "cults."

The medical, tax, and cult issues made Scientology a ready subject for journalists, and in the early 1970s, several popular books on Scientology began to appear. Scientologists felt that the writers had misrepresented them and defamed their founder. The church initiated libel suits against the authors one by one, forcing their books off the market and the admission of numerous errors in their texts. At the same time, the church was pursuing a number of suits in the tax courts, each local church being a separate corporation. The end result was that by the mid-1970s, the church had acquired a reputation for litigiousness. Those who wrote about the church did so with the understanding that they might have to defend their work in court.

The reputation of litigiousness has greatly affected scholarly writing about Scientology. Only a few scholars have attempted to study and write about Scientology, and during the 1970s, only one book-length scholarly text appeared, The Road to Total Freedom, by Irish sociologist Roy Wallis (1977). It was well received in its application of some standard sociological theories on new religions. Then in 1977 the government again moved against the church, with raids in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. In the wake of the raids, a number of top church officials were placed on trial when it was revealed that, when the government had blocked attempts to get copies of its files on Scientology, the Guardian's Office had successfully gained access to a variety of government offices and copied the relevant files. This operation was also revealed to be part of a massive church effort to spy upon its critics, and in many cases to carry out counter efforts aimed at subverting their credibility. The raid, the trial, and the subsequent massive reorganization of the church proved a watershed in the church's development.

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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