Dr Rodney Blackhirst on Scientology

RodthumbDr R. Blackhirst
Email: r.blackhirst@latrobe.edu.au

While Scientology has some famous friends in Hollywood there is a gathering tide of powerful foes, including senators and other law-makers who want to curtail this self-proclaimed ‘Church’. Controversies about Scientology raise complex questions not only about freedom of worship, religion and the law but also about consumer protection and aspects of the mental health industry.

After nearly twenty years of studying religions and cults I have mixed views on Scientology. Accounts of abuses that suggest it can be dangerous and exploitative are not hard to find. On the other hand there are people who will tell you that their lives have been enriched by their experience of L. Ron Hubbard’s eccentric teachings. There are sane, successful, well-adjusted people who testify that Scientology has helped them. Often these people have had bad experiences with mainstream religion and/or conventional medicine and Scientology has offered them a useful alternative.

This mixed evidence is similar to what you find in other groups such as, say, the Mormons, Hare Krishna, Pentecostals, and even the establishment churches. Some people have good experiences, others bad. In the case of Scientology there is no shortage of negative evidence - especially by people who feel they were exploited financially. The number of disgruntled ex-members is worrying. So too is the vigorous way in which the “Church” has tried to silence complaints.

These are obvious causes for concern. And with the outlandish science-fiction belief system that goes with Scientological practices we can easily dismiss it as a “cult” of the most nefarious kind and clamor for legal intervention.

But weird belief systems are not – and should not be – illegal. In Australia one is free to believe whatever one likes - as long as people are not harmed. In "cults" people are harmed. Cults typically cut members off from their families and then exploit them in their isolation. There are well documented instances of this in Scientology. There is no question that aspects of Scientology can be cultish. But are the abuses systematic or exceptions and do they warrant special intervention by the state? Is Scientology a system of exploitation cynically posing as a religion?

Even allowing that Scientology may help some people I do have serious doubts about its claim to be a "Church" and a "religion" in any normative (and tax exempt) sense. Rather it seems more like a system of (dubious) psychology. And an expensive one. What is a religion? There is no simple definition, and Scientology exploits this fact. In some ways Scientology resembles aspects of Buddhism. It seems to take structural ideas from Buddhism and coats them in pseudo-science. Using guided grades of “science” one “clears” one's "thetan" of past “karma”.

Many religious movements can be dangerous. But so too can systems of psychotherapy. And the history of psychiatry is not pretty either. There have been plenty of lives ruined by electro-convulsive therapy, lithium and lobotomies, as Scientologists will quickly point out. The sanction of official science, no less than the sanction of theological orthodoxy, is no guarantee that things won’t go wrong.

Human beings search for meaning and answers to their existential dilemmas. Often sincere seekers who find themselves in a baffling world end up depressed or anxious and all that doctors offer them is medication. Many people find modern life empty. The consumerist lifestyle seems pointless. Yet mainstream religions appear corrupt and antiquated. People search for alternatives. This is all understandable. But such people are then vulnerable and are ripe to be ripped off.

In the end, people and their problems are diverse. Some things will work for some but not for others. This suggests that we should err on the side of diversity and freedom in the pursuit of happiness. No one should trust any group that claims to be able to solve everybody's problems, and especially where it involves parting with large sums of money. Neither priests nor scientists, nor indeed priest-scientists, have all the answers.

Finally, it is the cost of scientology that is of most concern. The vulnerable end up spending tens of thousands of dollars, and more. Arguably, they could find just as much help doing yoga or relaxation classes for a fraction of the cost. This is my conclusion after years of research. Of this, at least, I am certain. Scientology – whether we count it as a religion or not, and whether we think it dangerous or just wacky - is definitely over-priced for what it is. 

Dr Blackhirst teaches a unit in Religious Studies called 'Sects, Cults & Denominations'