In the 1990s I had the opportunity to dine with the late musician Isaac Hayes, whose career fortunes had just made a stunning turnabout upward, which he attributed to Scientology. It was a glowing testimonial by a sincere follower of the Church, but is it evidence that Scientology works? Two recently published books argue that there is no science in Scientology, only quasireligious doctrines wrapped in New Age flapdoodle masquerading as science. The Church of Scientology, by Hugh B. Urban, professor of religious studies at Ohio State University, is the most scholarly treatment of the organization to date, and investigative journalist Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology is an electrifying read that includes eye-popping and well-documented tales of billion-year contracts, aggressive recruitment programs and abuse of staffers.
The problem with testimonials is that they do not constitute evidence in science. As social psychologist Carol Tavris told me, “Every therapy produces enthusiastic testimonials because of the justification-of-effort effect. Anyone who invests time and money and effort in a therapy will say it helped. Scientology might have helped Isaac Hayes, just as psychoanalysis and bungee jumping might have helped others, but that doesn’t mean the intervention was the reason. To know if there is anything special about Scientology, you need to do controlled studies—randomly assigning people to Scientology or a control group (or a different therapy) for the same problem.” To my knowledge, no such study has been conducted. The real science behind Scientology seems to be an understanding of the very human need, as social animals, to be part of a supportive group—and the willingness of people to pay handsomely for it.
If Scientology is not a science, is it even a religion? Well, it does have its own creation myth. Around 75 million years ago Xenu, the ruler of a Galactic Confederation of 76 planets, transported billions of his charges in spaceships similar to DC-8 jets to a planet called Teegeeack (Earth). There they were placed near volcanoes and killed by exploding hydrogen bombs, after which their “thetans” (souls) remained to inhabit the bodies of future earthlings, causing humans today great spiritual harm and unhappiness that can be remedied through special techniques involving an Electropsychometer (E-meter) in a process called auditing.
Thanks to the Internet, this story—previously revealed only to those who paid many thousands of dollars in courses to reach Operating Thetan Level III (OT III) of Scientology—is now so widely known that it was even featured in a 2005 episode of the animated TV series South Park. In fact, according to numerous Web postings by ex-Scientologists, documents from court cases involving followers who reached OT III and abundant books and articles by ex-members who heard the story firsthand and corroborate the details, this is Scientology’s Genesis. So did its founder, writer L. Ron Hubbard, just make it all up—as legend has it—to create a religion that was more lucrative than producing science fiction?
Instead of printing the legend as fact, I recently interviewed the acclaimed science-fiction author Harlan Ellison, who told me he was at the birth of Scientology. At a meeting in New York City of a sci-fi writers’ group called the Hydra Club, Hubbard was complaining to L. Sprague de Camp and the others about writing for a penny a word. “Lester del Rey then said half-jokingly, ‘What you really ought to do is create a religion because it will be tax-free,’ and at that point everyone in the room started chiming in with ideas for this new religion. So the idea was a Gestalt that Ron caught on to and assimilated the details. He then wrote it up as ‘Dianetics: A New Science of the Mind’ and sold it to John W. Campbell, Jr., who published it in Astounding Science Fiction in 1950.”
To be fair, Scientology’s Xenu story is no more scientifically untenable than other faiths’ origin myths. If there is no testable means of determining which creation cosmogony is correct, perhaps they are all astounding science fictions.