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Is Scientology a Religion?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Getty Images / Stringer
*Updated 2021
Founded by American science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, the Church of Scientology has been embroiled in controversy for most of its brief existence, whether battling the IRS for tax-exempt status, deflecting accusations of abuse or former members snagging headlines about the questionable behavior of its celebrity members. With only a small number of countries extending Scientology official recognition as a religion, the world is decidedly skeptical about Scientology’s legitimacy. But is all the skepticism warranted?
Below, we’ll explore three reasons why Scientology is a religion like any other, and three ways Scientology falls short of the mark.


Scientology is a religion.


Scientology is a religion like any other.

Simply defined, a religion is “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” On strength of conviction alone, Scientology’s followers render the applied philosophy a religion. More than this, Scientology shares characteristics with other religions. Like Buddhism, Hinduism, the Abrahamic religions and countless others, Scientology attempts to help man reconcile his lesser demons and cultivate positive behavior. It provides an origin story for the ills of man, and it is arguably no more (or less) far-fetched than those espoused by other religions. (Who’s to say that an intergalactic explosion of alien spirits is a less plausible beginning of human evil than a snake talking a woman into eating a piece of fruit?) In form and function, Scientology is a religion like any other.


No religion is free.

Many argue that Scientology is not a religion because the church requires payment for its services. While it’s tempting to deem any exchange of spiritual advice for money a sure sign of false prophecy, trading capital for religious guidance is as old as religion itself (and is, interestingly, a central part of Scientology’s belief system). Moses established tithings before any temple ever existed, and today’s Jewish diaspora communities pay dues to their synagogues. Similar to Scientology, the Vatican possesses billions of dollars in assets and derives income from spiritual and secular activities alike. All religions require funding to support their activities, and that funding necessarily comes from the religion’s followers.


No religion holds the monopoly on salvation.

Salvation is central concept in most religions, and Scientologists genuinely believe the religion promotes their spiritual progress. Former Scientologist, Steve Hall, explains that the religion is built upon a system of self-inquiry that encourages its constituents to employ rational decision making, to free oneself of insecurity and embrace a truer version of self. Celebrities like John Travolta and Tom Cruise credit their success to the church’s teachings. Even the church’s most vocal dissidents, like former Scientology leader Mike Rinder, concede that the religion provides useful techniques for self-improvement.  If Scientology helps people to believe they are redeemed and arms them with tools to avoid further missteps, it achieves the same ends as other religions.


Scientology’s claims to religion are suspect.  


Walks like a cult, talks like a cult.

In Scientology, the path to spiritual freedom is paved with corporal bondage, some detractors allege. Ex-scientologists have made shocking allegations about celebrity followers as well as their treatment at the hands of the church, from detainment to physical violence, penal servitude, and forced abortions. Ex-Scientologists are encouraged to sever ties with those critical of the church, and are forbidden to consume any information written by sources outside of Scientology. Scientology’s seeming desire for control over its followers’ lives feels more cultish than religious.


Secular beginnings.

The history of Scientology’s establishment suggests that its founder had other aims than spreading spiritual enlightenment. University of Alberta researcher, Terra Manca, points out that L. Ron Hubbard initially marketed his teachings as science, touted himself as a scientist (though he had no science training) with a cure for radiation fallout. Even the name Scientology favors the empirical over the spiritual; this is also echoed in the book Dianetics, the religion’s foundational text, whose subtitle is “the Modern Science of Mental Health.” Manca contends that Hubbard’s motivations were financial, and that he would realize them by any means necessary, whether that meant selling his work as the fruit of science or of a supreme being.


The high price of clarity.

Spiritual clarity doesn’t come cheap. Scientologists pay for courses, literature, and spiritual counseling sessions known as auditing. The church refers to fees for these services as donations, and while they call the spiritual freedom that accompanies Scientology “priceless,” they are careful not to specify how much one might donate to achieve a heightened state of spiritual awareness. One Carnegie Mellon University professor estimated the cost of Scientology coursework alone at $300,000; ex-church members including Leah Remini and Paul Haggis have given even bigger estimates. For a small religion (its membership is thought to be less than 50,000 worldwide), that is ostensibly a non-profit organization focused on spiritual work, the Church of Scientology has amassed staggering amount of wealth.


The Bottom Line: To be sure, Scientology has an unconventional history and unusual management. But do these irregularities negate the impact of spiritual experiences on offer for its followers?

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