A Brief History of Scientology

The strange story of Scientology — Hollywood's favorite cult.

Times are hard for the Church of Scientology, the cult founded by sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1950. The organization — once shrouded in Hollywood glamor, feared by reporters, and powerful enough to face down the Internal Revenue Service and win — suddenly looks vulnerable.

Documentaries from journalists like Alex Gibney (Going Clear) and Louis Theroux (My Scientology Movie), featuring accounts from Scientology defectors, have uncovered the group’s secretive and repressive structure to a broad audience. Today, Scientology has been reduced to the punchline of jokes. This denouement has been decades in the making, and may just form an ending to a strange and often unbelievable story.


The United States has a long history of exotic sectarian movements led by somewhat dodgy spiritual entrepreneurs such as Carlos Castañeda or Elijah Muhammad. Scientology, though, is particularly fascinating — after all, not every spiritual movement is launched by an article in Astounding Science Fiction magazine.

Hubbard was a flamboyant con artist whose tall stories – such as having been a blood brother of the Blackfoot Indians (they had no such ceremony), a nuclear physicist (he dropped out of a civil engineering degree) and a decorated war hero (he wasn’t) – were renowned on the science fiction scene long before he became a cult leader, and have been exhaustively documented in Russell Miller’s definitive biography Bare Faced Messiah.

Appalling as he was in many ways, it’s impossible not to wonder at his story. A struggling fiction writer from Nebraska became the leader of a billion-dollar cult, convinced thousands that he’s the Buddha, commanded his own private navy, and died while on the run from the US government.

Scientology’s origin usefully illustrates the fact that cults don’t necessarily have to be religious. While the group does claim religious status, Hubbard was fairly explicit that the “religion angle” was to be pursued for two reasons. First, it stopped the Food and Drug Administration from going after him for promoting quack cures (not a small matter, when psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich had been imprisoned on those grounds); second, it allowed the group to dodge taxes.

But, of course, cults often have nothing to do with spirituality: there are political ones on both the Left and the Right, and the Reichian movement emerged from psychoanalysis.

A striking — though not entirely unique — feature of Scientology is that it emerged from the self-help movement. Books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich topped the bestsellers’ list during the Depression, when L. Ron Hubbard was a young adult. In the early 1950s, Hubbard’s Dianetics — the text that launched Scientology — competed with Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking.

It’s no surprise that the book’s success coincided with the postwar psychoanalytic boom. Dianetics borrowed freely from Freud’s early abreaction therapy, with a large dash of Alfred Korzybski’s “general semantics” and a side helping of hypnosis, and transformed a hack writer into a therapy guru who made psychoanalysis available to the masses.

Dianetic auditing — Hubbard’s patented form of counseling — appealed to readers because, rather than pay a therapist big money for years of possibly inconclusive analysis, all a Dianetics practitioner needed was a copy of the book and a friend to co-audit with. What’s more, quick breakthroughs were promised — even if evidence of them was hard to come by.

But Dianetics didn’t last. Having a surprise bestseller in 1950 and going from sci-fi writer to self-help magnate overnight, Hubbard couldn’t initially make his success pay. Within a couple of years, the fad had passed and only a handful of adherents remained.

The Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation filed for bankruptcy after it was taken to court for practicing medicine without a license. Hubbard left the foundation shortly before the court case, avoiding jail time, but losing control of the rights to Dianetics.

By 1952, he was broke, going through a messy public divorce from his second wife — whom he’d married bigamously — and desperately in need of a new project. And that’s how the Church of Scientology got started.

Operating Thetans

Hubbard’s business smarts combined with his occult interests — in the late 1940s he had associated with Jack Parsons, a pioneering rocket scientist who moonlighted as a black magician and disciple of Aleister Crowley — led him to the structure of a mystery religion, where greater truths are revealed as you ascend spiritual steps. In Scientology, however, you would have to pay serious money to climb.

To keep practitioners hooked, Hubbard kept revealing new heights. Dianetics had theoretically ended with the state of “Clear,” — where one allegedly becomes free of all neuroses. Scientology bolted on the concept of “Operating Thetan” (OT).

Hubbard periodically unveiled a new OT level for long-term members to aspire to, each new step promising ever more fabulous superpowers. Lower-level Scientologists really do believe that those on higher levels have superpowers — that Tom Cruise can read minds, for instance.

This is how it really works: almost every ex-Scientologist reports they got their best results from the early courses, which combine some fairly common sense therapeutic ideas with routines designed to induce a light hypnotic trance. As members progress up the levels, they get less and less in return.

But by that time, they are already heavily invested, financially and emotionally, and will probably blame themselves for their failure to benefit from sessions — a failure that might be remedied in the next course.

As the saying goes, the more you’ve paid for a forgery, the more inclined you are to believe it’s genuine. Anyone who has reached OT3 — where you get to read the space opera lampooned on South Park — will have paid a couple of hundred thousand dollars for the privilege.

It’s unclear whether Hubbard believed in his own con, but there can be little arguing that the man was a marketing genius. Having tapped into the self-help boom, he sought out other markets. Businessmen were told that Scientology techniques would help them get rich — a sort of Californian prosperity gospel.

Hubbard was also keen, at an early stage, to gain cultural credibility by recruiting celebrities to act as ambassadors. Scientology’s focus on therapy, instead of religion — it doesn’t worship an external deity, but has an ego-driven focus on self-improvement — might have appealed to some entertainers. Once a strong Hollywood base developed, the promise of networking made it easy to draw in new adherents in the industry.

By the 1970s and early 1980s, Scientology seemed to have captured the zeitgeist. While its membership was never that large — maybe one hundred thousand active practitioners at its height, and probably well under thirty thousand today — it was certainly talked about, and became a feature of California’s post-hippie countercultural landscape.

Enter Miscavige

The late 1980s brought plenty of internal turmoil — Hubbard died in 1986, and it took several years for the young David Miscavige wrestle control — but this barely registered with Scientologists outside the Sea Organization, the group’s elite paramilitary group. (Hubbard’s World War II military career was not glorious — its highlight was when he shelled Mexico by mistake — but he was a Navy man at heart and liked to cast his followers in that mold.) It seemed like Scientology could go on thriving indefinitely.

But in fact the group has been in serious decline for around a quarter of a century. Jefferson Hawkins — the advertising whiz who designed the famous “volcano” ads in the 1980s which propelled Dianetics back onto the bestseller charts — had access to the numbers. By his reckoning, active membership peaked in the early 1990s, some five years after Hubbard’s death, and has been decreasing ever since.

Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a surprise. The personality cult surrounding Hubbard was of North Korean extremity; his more fanatical followers believed he was a divine being, and he did little to discourage their adulation. As a result, everything Hubbard wrote about Scientology is considered infallible scripture.

This is not trivial. Hubbard was an amazingly prolific writer who had an opinion on virtually every subject, from cosmology to flower arranging. A Sea Org recruit assigned to washing cars will not be given a bucket of water and told to get on with it; before even getting near the bucket of water, she must read, memorize, and be examined on Hubbard’s policy letter outlining the correct way to wash a car.

This gives Scientology a rigidity that has impaired its modernization. Until relatively recently, management still used Telex machines to communicate. In fact, it may have been the last organization on the planet still to use this outdated technology.

They stuck with it, though, because when Hubbard wrote his admin policies in the 1960s, he told his followers to use Telex. The same logic explains why the group’s recording arm continued to churn out audiotapes when everyone else was playing CDs. It didn’t go over to CDs until the outside world started switching to digital.

Hubbard’s infallible doctrines aren’t always so humorous. In Science of Survival (1951), he set out his Tone Scale of human emotions. There, Hubbard associated homosexuality with “covert hostility,” implying that Dianetic processing could successfully treat the condition.

This remains foundational scripture, and despite John Travolta’s efforts to find more nuanced quotes, it still shapes Scientology culture. The cult downplays its founder’s homophobia — which may have contributed to his son Quentin’s suicide in 1976 — when courting Hollywood followers.

Tied to this doctrinal rigidity is the belief that only Hubbard could create new “tech.” This of course wasn’t true, but early Scientology pioneers are often airbrushed from the record and their ideas ascribed to Ron. In fact, David Mayo designed much of Scientology’s tech, but published under Hubbard’s name. But Mayo is long gone — ousted in an early 1980s purge — and, in the absence of Hubbard, nobody has had the nerve to invent anything new.

This helps explain why the stats peaked in the early 1990s — by then, most veteran members had completed all the courses and had nothing else to do. Hubbard’s pyramid scheme, which constantly offered members new levels and promised even more extravagant powers, couldn’t sustain itself.

Mo Money Mo Problems

Adding to this, new leader David Miscavige never really demonstrated much knowledge of, or interest in, Scientology as a subject. He wanted control of the organization and its wealth, and he gained power not because he was a particularly rigorous adherent, but because he could maneuver through the organization.

Hubbard’s sales instinct drove him to constantly roll out new products and win new customers. Miscavige has been content to squeeze more and more money out of his dwindling flock. For example, he regularly releases old material in new packages. Thus the “Golden Age of Tech” — a slight revision to existing Scientology courses — forced high-level OTs to start again at the bottom because their previous accomplishments were “off source” or “squirrel tech.” By the way, we’re currently in the “Golden Age of Tech II.”

Alongside this came “The Basics.” Miscavige had the library of Hubbard Scientology texts re-edited, most notably eliminating thousands of superfluous semicolons. He then held a gala launch to unveil the grossly overpriced books — now with fewer semicolons — which were finally “the way Ron wanted them,” as opposed to the way Ron wrote them. Members were expected to spend a fortune on books they already owned, and browbeaten into buying multiple copies to donate to libraries.

Finally there’s the International Association of Scientologists (IAS) — the cult’s war chest funded by member donations. Formed in 1984, the IAS was intended to help Scientology win its decades-long quest for tax-exemption. Members don’t get services for their IAS donations; instead they earn bogus titles like “Humanitarian Meritorious.” If they give lots of money, Miscavige will present them with a gaudy trophy at the annual IAS gala. Nobody knows quite how much money the IAS has, but it is commonly assumed to run into the billions of dollars.

Interestingly, the IAS operates in direct contravention of Hubbard policy. The founder was, of course, intensely interested in money, but he preferred to make it by selling new products or services. Or, as a 1972 policy letter demanded: “MAKE MONEY. MAKE MORE MONEY. MAKE OTHER PEOPLE PRODUCE SO AS TO MAKE MORE MONEY.” But he absolutely forbade soliciting donations for nothing.

Still, Scientology is exceedingly rich, and can probably live off what it’s got for a long time to come. Its base is shrinking, however, and Miscavige is more and more dependent on a small number of big-money members to keep him living in a style comparable to his best friend Tom Cruise. And the group faces an even bigger problem — people aren’t scared of it any more.

Suppressive Persons

South Park’s notorious anti-Scientology episode “Trapped in the Closet” probably opened the floodgates, but unfavorable press had been mounting. Celebrities have quietly drifted away, forcing Scientology to rely on the trio of Cruise, Travolta, and Kirstie Alley.

Purges and defections have created a large ex-Scientologist community who may be fractious — some even continue to practice Hubbard’s tech independently — but are exceedingly well informed. They have released a stream of memoirs and interviews about the group’s oppressive internal regime. And journalists, no longer afraid of Scientology, are all too willing to cover their stories.

Defectors have painted a vivid picture of life inside the cult, particularly inside Sea Org, and revealed it to be much worse than outside observers had assumed. We now know more about the Rehabilitation Project Force, the system of slave labor used to discipline members who fall from favor.

Jenna Miscavige Hill — the Dear Leader’s niece — recounted her experience of child labor in the memoir Beyond Belief. The cult later solved this problem by banning Sea Org women from having children, creating a forced abortion regime finally coming to light thanks to Laura DeCrescenzo’s long court battle.

Then there’s “The Hole,” a makeshift prison set up at the group’s Riverside County, California “International Base” to imprison senior figures — eventually including much of the international management team — who had fallen foul of Miscavige for one reason or another. The main purpose of “The Hole” seems to have been for executives to beat and torture each other, garnering confessions to imaginary crimes.

The inmates have been a who’s who of top Scientologists, like the group’s much-loved titular president Heber Jentzsch, who has not been seen in public for a decade. Jentzsch is over eighty and said to be in frail health. Presumably he knows too many secrets to ever be allowed outside the organization’s reach.

For parishioners outside Sea Org, the most serious issue — apart from Miscavige’s constant demands for money — has been the “disconnection policy,” Scientology’s toxic core. It derives from Hubbard’s concept of the “Suppressive Person” — the idea being that Scientology is so obviously the answer to the world’s problems that any critic is not just misguided but in fact a sociopathic personality with whom members can have no contact.

Of course there are religious groups — like the Amish or Jehovah’s Witnesses — who shun sinners, but Scientology enforces the policy with a unique ferocity. Among ex-Scientologists, hardly anyone hasn’t been cut off from spouses, parents, children, or siblings. Loyalty to the group always trumps friendship or family ties. In the jargon, it’s the “greatest good for the greatest number of dynamics.”

These accounts have an impressive consistency, and come from a range of people, including former executives with firsthand knowledge of Scientology’s secrets. It used to be easy for Scientology representatives to claim that the “Fair Game” policy for handling critics — “If possible, ruin them utterly,” wrote Hubbard — had long been abolished. But not when Mike Rinder, who was personally involved in Fair Game operations, makes public claims otherwise.

The group’s Hollywood credibility has also been undermined. Long-term Scientologists like Leah Remini or Jason Beghe are now outspoken critics. Remini decided to defect after Shelly Miscavige — David’s wife — disappeared. Like Jentzsch, she has not been seen in public for a decade.

Most damaging of all has been Ruthless, a memoir by David’s father Ron, which paints a distinctly unflattering picture of the man his son has come to be.

End Times

Only one remaining piece of the puzzle has to fall into place to bring an end to Scientology, and that is the US government. Defectors describe lawbreaking on a grand scale, but the criminal justice system hasn’t taken action. While some of this is because Scientology has enough money to wear down any opponent in court — or to buy influence in its Clearwater, Florida stronghold —there’s also a political element.

This is curious, because Scientology was virtually an underground movement in the 1970s. To win its battle with the IRS, it started “Operation Snow White,” an enormous program of government infiltration and espionage — by some accounts the largest domestic espionage operation in American history — that sent eleven top Scientology executives to federal prison.

Chief among them was Mary Sue Hubbard, the leader’s wife and head of the cult’s private intelligence agency. Ron was named as an unindicted co-conspirator, and went into hiding not to be seen in public for the rest of his life.

But the government’s approach changed markedly in October 1993 when the IRS — worn down by endless litigation — finally granted Scientology tax-exempt status. Since then, the US State Department has taken Scientology’s corner in the group’s fights with foreign governments. For example, Germany bans Scientologists from government employment and keeps the organization under observation as a subversive group as a direct result of the Snow White saga.

There was some speculation that the Clinton administration was keen to develop a pro-Scientology profile to cement the Democratic Party’s alliance with Hollywood. Whether that’s true or not, neither the George W. Bush nor Obama administrations have seemed inclined to change the policy.

However, this might not last. Scientology’s bad publicity keeps accumulating. Even strong believers in religious freedom are beginning to see that defending the cult is as misguided as defending groups like Warren Jeffs’s Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. The First Amendment protects religious groups from government interference but, as Jeffs discovered, it does not protect their members or leaders from prosecution for illegal activities.

It won’t be long until its remaining allies recognize that Scientology is too great a liability to defend.