Scientology is best understood as a mid-20th-century development within what some scholars have called the larger western esoteric tradition, with which it shares a set of basic approaches to the religious life. Western esotericism is best understood as a continuing religious tradition (from Gnosticism to New Platonism, the Bogomils, and the Cathars) that since the 2nd century C.E. has provided an alternative to Christianity and Judaism and that in some ways resembles the approach of eastern religions, especially Hinduism.
Western esotericism has been a broken tradition, its followers frequently persecuted by the dominant religious community. Esotericism's existence was a threat until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century broke the medieval religious consensus and thus provided space in which esoteric expressions could survive and, since the 19th century, actually thrive. An unbroken lineage of esoteric groups emerged with Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Swedenborgianism, Mesmerism, modern ceremonial magic, Spiritualism, Theosophy, Christian Science, and New Thought. Theosophy would, through the 20th century, give birth to a variety of movements, from the Arcane School of Alice Bailey and Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy to the I AM Religious Movement and the Liberal Catholic Church, each of which produced their own variations and led to the development of an alternative religious milieu throughout the urban communities of the western world.
The esoteric community expanded significantly in the 1970s and 1980s with the growing popularity of the New Age movement. In the 1980s, for the first time, those following the various forms of esotericism could be counted in the millions, not just the tens of thousands. Among the more notable developments of the tradition in recent decades have been the modern Wicca and contemporary Pagan movements.
Unlike Christianity, esotericism does not have a central sacred text that serves as its basic statement. Its main teachings have been put forth in numerous texts, with each author expounding on his or her own version of the teachings. Amid the diversity, the tradition, of which Scientology is but one example, offers a striking consensus on the basic issues. For example, God is pictured as utterly transcendent and impersonal, rather than as the personal fatherly figure of Christian faith. For Christians, God created the world, life, and human beings as a distinct act of creation. God (the Creator) and humans (the creatures) are very different. Esotericists generally see the world has having evolved in stages as God, the original Unity, differentiated into the many and spread out into various spiritual realms. Humans, spiritual beings from the highest realms, now exist in the lowest realm where spiritual "beingness" confronts the material (non-spiritual non-beingness). In this world, humans have forgotten who they really are and must seek the wisdom of their true spiritual nature. Esoteric teachings provide the necessary knowledge for awakening and escape.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are religions of revelation. That is, they claim to present divine messages that entered the world historically and openly, making their teachings of truth and its blessings available to everyone. Esotericism, and thus Scientology, operates on a quite different model. Truth, the result of spiritual striving, is ultimately available only to the worthy, those who have made the effort to understand the nature of the world and the divine and who have confronted the cosmos directly. For some esoteric groups, such activity is relatively simple and quick, but for many it involves years of work and a gradual growth in the access of truth. These stages are often described as levels of initiation, and the inner and complete teachings of such an esoteric group are given only to the elite members who have mastered each level step by step. Esoteric groups thus form one type of secret community and have often been in tension with the larger society for their unwillingness to divulge their secrets to their uninitiated neighbors.
While Christianity suggests that salvation is the ultimate goal, esotericism generally focuses on enlightenment, which Scientologists speak of as ultimate freedom, as the true aim of the religious life. Christians see salvation as a free gift by God that confers upon them a new status. Esotericism suggests that enlightenment (the understanding of the nature of the world and of the human role in it) is gained by pursuing one or more different spiritual exercises through which one has a direct experience of the cosmos and Ultimate Truth. As Christians respond to God through prayer and devotion and attendance of worship services in a church setting, esotericists seek God as they engage, in instructive settings, in various spiritual practices designed to lead them into an ever-greater apprehension of the spiritual world. In the early stages of their work, esotericists will often engage in activities designed to remove personal obstacles to spiritual development.