Book Review – Scientology
James R. Lewis (Editor)
Reviewed by Terra Manca
New York: Oxford University Press. 2009. ISBN-10: 019533149; ISBN13: 9780195331493 (hardcover), $35 ($29.92, Barnes&Noble.com, Amazon.com). 464 pages.
Editor James R. Lewis claims that his volume, Scientology, is unlikely to please anyone who “engages in the Scientology/anti-Scientology conflict, which is perhaps as it should be” (p. 5). In reality, it is most likely to please persons who take an uncritical view of Scientology. Contributors to this book make diverse comments about the Church of Scientology, but most of them are favorably disposed to the group’s religious claims. Consequently, many of these authors criticize “anti-Scientology” media and literature, and downplay controversies that they claim to analyze. Moreover, far too many contributors in this volume fail to critically assess the data that they gather, thereby falling short of providing evidence that has undergone rigorous academic inquiry. Without rigor or critical assessment, a book such as this one (about a supposed new religious movement [NRM]) risks becoming pro-NRM propaganda.
Lewis begins Scientology with a short critique of some of Scientology’s critics, an outline of Scientology as a religious organization, and a description of each contributor and her/his strengths as a researcher. Part I of Scientology outlines the group’s history, discusses Hubbard’s life, locates Scientology as an NRM that receives unfair media attention, and implies that thorough research into Scientology is rare. The book then ventures through theoretical and statistical analyses of Scientology in Part II. Authors in Part III highlight the community and practices of Scientology and its adherents. These authors focus on how Scientologists share certain common beliefs and how, despite the individualistic nature of Scientology, they may share certain communal components (such as holding other Scientologists in high esteem). Part IV provides an analysis of Scientology’s religious claims, and one chapter even acknowledges that not all of Scientology’s practices are necessarily harmless. Next, in Part V, contributors to the book illustrate a selective history of the controversies that the Church of Scientology has experienced. In Part VI, “International Missions,” only one chapter actually focuses on Scientology’s global dissemination, with the remaining two chapters providing information concerning Scientology in Sweden and Australia. Lastly, Part VII, “Dimensions of Scientology,” provides information that did not fit in the other sections, as well as further references for anyone studying the group.
Although the specifics of each chapter differ, the theme that connects most of them is the allegation that Scientology suffers illegitimate discrimination from the media and “counter-cult” academics. Although the authors are correct that Scientologists should never suffer discrimination based on their beliefs, these authors have overlooked, misrepresented, uncritically interpreted, or only superficially researched many issues involving Scientology’s actions and policies. To demonstrate how these misrepresentations and superficial interpretations appear, I briefly outline James Lewis’s background. Then, I explain some of Scientology’s shortfalls. Finally, I conclude that although this book brings needed academic attention to Scientology, its shortfalls are substantial enough to render it as an unreliable source of information about the organization.
Background of James R. Lewis
James R. Lewis has compiled and/or written an impressive number of books. In the early 1990s he was the Executive Director of the Association of World Academics for Religious Education (AWARE). AWARE actively worked to help produce positive public images for groups such as The Family/Children of God (Kent and Krebs, 1998, p. 37; Lattin, 2007, p. 112), Church Universal and Triumphant (Balch and Langdon, 1998), and Aum Shinri Kyo (Reader, 2000). He has a history, therefore, favoring positive interpretations of controversial groups over objective interpretations of their (often harmful) practices (Kent and Krebs, 1998, p. 37). Alas, the current volume under review continues Lewis’s pattern of downplaying if not ignoring important controversial practices of highly contentious groups, and of spinning opposition to them to appear as harassment or persecution.
His habit of portraying opposition to controversial groups as harassment or persecution appears in the first paragraph of his introduction. On page 3 Lewis states that many Germans did not want Scientologist Tom Cruise to play the role of the World War II German colonel, Claus von Stauffenberg, in the film Valkyrie. (Von Stauffenberg is a German war hero for attempting to assassinate Hitler, and many Germans see Scientology as a totalitarian, anti-democratic organization, with Cruise as a public-relations agent for the group.)
As a consequence, the German government refused to allow the production company to shoot parts of the movie in certain historic buildings…. All too predictably, a number of cable news programs used this incident as yet another opportunity to heap scorn on the Church of Scientology. (p. 3)
One cannot learn from Lewis’s comments that the German government sees Scientology as an anti-democratic institution that violates human rights, or that the German government reversed its decision and allowed the production company to film in the historic Bendlerblock building, where some of the key events involving the assassination plot and its aftermath took place. Nor is Germany—or for that matter, France—even in the book’s index (despite an entire article on the latter country). With just a little effort, Lewis could have summarized a more balanced account of what happened around the film, but he omits information in a manner that makes Scientology’s situation in Germany appear to be far more dire than it actually is.
The failure of this anthology to address in depth the debates about Scientology in countries such as Belgium and Germany is part of a larger pattern of missed opportunities to discuss vital issues about the organization. For example, David G. Bromley highlights how Scientology has combined the private world (religion) with the public world (corporate): “Rather than maintaining the separation of the public and private spheres, Scientology has merged and unified the economic [contractual] and religious [prophetic]” (p. 98). This observation could have led to critical inquiry into what individuals can experience when the ideological system that they relate to as a religion is highly concerned about the bottom line and corporate profit (see p. 86). The discussion, however, remains heavily theoretical, and the application to Scientology is too general for there to be any information about people’s real lives.
Similar issues resonate within Bernadette Rigal-Cellard’s chapter on Scientology Missions International (SMI). Although Rigal-Cellard’s chapter contains interesting data regarding the organization of SMI, she fails to move beyond a descriptive explanation of SMI’s structure. For example, she finds that SMI workers must provide for their own needs when on a mission, but she does not inquire as to what financial and/or emotional impact this requirement for workers to provide for themselves could have on individual Scientologists or their families (p. 328).
Other important topics regarding Scientology that deserved discussion within the book, but were surprisingly absent, include issues surrounding Scientology’s outreach programs. Several authors (Andersen and Wellendorf, Bogdan, Bromley, Cusack, Lewis, and Richardson) mention Scientology’s social outreach programs such as Narconon, Criminon, the World Literacy Crusade, and Applied Scholastics (pp. 9, 97–98, 155, 291, 338, 401). None of the authors, however, provide information regarding controversies around these programs. They say nothing, for example, about the opposition that Narconon faces globally, but they either support the program or do not comment on its effectiveness (e.g., “L. Ron Hubbard established Narconon, a program that has considerable success in curing addiction” [Cusack, p. 401]). These authors neglect an entire array of criticisms against the program, concerning ineffectiveness (if not medical danger), cost, blurred secular versus religious boundaries, and licensing problems.
Surprisingly, the authors of this book focus on the external regulation of Scientology and pay little attention to some of Scientology’s most contested social-control practices that the organization often turns against its own members. For instance, Lewis (pp. 9–10) mentions the term Suppressive Person (“a negative, dysfunctional individual”), but he provides only one sentence describing the term. This term is tightly connected to the practice of disconnection (“severing a connection line” between a Scientologist and a suppressive person or organization [Hubbard 1983, p. 1042]), but Lewis does not talk about the negative effects of disconnection when it involves (as it often does) members of a Scientologist’s family. Gerald Willms links suppressive persons to disconnection, but he pays these issues little critical attention while arguing that Scientology’s claims to religious status deserve recognition (pp. 245, 256). Religion or not, however, some of these practices can be damaging to adherents and others when the organization applies the labels or practices to people with whom it comes into contact (see Kent, 1999; Straus, 1986; Urban, 2006).
Rather than examining whether any harmful practices or policies were systemic to Scientology itself, some authors avoid this kind of examination by blaming them on the Guardian’s Office, which was a body within Scientology designed to prevent or respond to actions against the organization, and which Scientology formally abolished in the early 1980s. “It is significant that the majority of accusations against the church refer (sic) to actions taken by the Guardian’s Office in the 1970s” (Melton, p. 25; see also Lewis, p. 7). Some highly contested issues that Scientology conducted during the Guardian’s Office period include: fair game, security checking, disconnection from “suppressive” family members, internal punishments and rehabilitations called “ethics” (Straus, 1986), and recording people’s (nonconfidential) confessions. All of these practices, however, have continued long after the Guardian Office’s dissolution, with many observers concluding that the Office of Special Affairs continues some of the Guardian Office’s clandestine and aggressive activities against perceived opponents (see Raine, 2009, p. 47; Urban, 2006, p. 374).
The attention to critical scholarship about Scientology is erratic at best and neglectful at most. For example, Lewis includes Frank K. Flinn’s article in the volume without responding to Stephen Kent’s (1996) published criticism of it, even though others cite Kent (1996) in their own chapters (Cowan, p. 77; Grünschloss, p. 241; Willms, 253, 264). Carole M. Cusack’s chapter on celebrity Scientologists omits reference to another Kent publication, this one on Scientology’s celebrity lobbyists during the Clinton administration (Kent, 2002). More importantly, it does not cite Andrew Morton’s biography (2008) of Tom Cruise. James R. Richardson’s brief discussion of Scientology court cases in Germany neglects to cite Greg Taylor’s definitive analysis of “Scientology in the German Courts,” which covers cases up to 2003 (Taylor, 2003–2004), and no one cites J.P. Kumar’s study of Scientology’s use of “fair game” in the American legal system (Kumar, 1997). Not mentioned anywhere is the debate involving Stephen Kent, Lorne Dawson, Gordon Melton, and Scientologist Leisa Goodman about Scientology’s alleged forced labour and reindoctrination program, the Rehabilitation Project Force or RPF (Dawson, 2001; Goodman, 2001; Kent, 2001a; 2001b; 2003). Neither Melton (writing on “The Birth of a Religion”) nor William Sims Bainbridge (writing on “The Cultural Context of Scientology”) cites Hugh Urban’s 2006 study of “Fair Game: Secrecy, Security, and the Church of Scientology in Cold War America.”
Beyond the issue of omitted sources, many of Scientology’s contributors do not critically evaluate the information that they gathered from Scientology and current Scientologists. This lack of critical inquiry leads to some conclusions that appear biased, involves the use of polarized language, and significantly diminishes the quality of information that might have challenged Scientology’s claims regarding itself and its founder.
Perhaps most telling of these omissions is James Richardson’s lack of inquiry into Scientology’s claim to religious status in numerous countries. Richardson states that “according to its [Scientology’s] claims,” the organization has gained religious recognition in a variety of countries, most often through litigation (p. 285). The countries that he lists include Canada (among others). In Canada, however, “the advancement of religion” is one of four criteria that an organization can use to obtain federal charitable status (the other three being “the relief of poverty,” “the advancement of education,” and “certain other purposes that benefit the community”). My search on Revenue Canada’s Website for any registered federal charity containing the name “Scientology” drew a blank. Federally, it appears that Scientology has been unable to convince Revenue Canada that it operates for the advancement of religion (Canada Revenue Agency, 2010). Richardson’s acceptance of Scientology’s claims can lead the reader to believe that, federally, Canada accepts Scientology as a religion, which it does not, although some provinces may recognize it in various capacities.
Other problems regarding evidence include Gordon Melton’s avoidance of any data that contradicts a hagiographic construction of Hubbard’s life. Melton does not detail the roles that Hubbard’s wives or his children played either in his life or in Scientology, which would have revealed rocky relationships with various wives and children. Melton also states some contested information as fact. For example, about Hubbard’s childhood, he pronounces: “Befriended by the local Blackfoot Indians, he was made a blood brother at the age of six” (p. 18). Twenty years ago, however, historian Hugh Dempsey concluded that it is unlikely that Hubbard was a “blood brother” because Blackfeet did not practice that custom at the time Hubbard claimed (Suppell and Welkos, 1990, p. A38; Peters, 2008, para. 19). Suffice it to say, therefore, that Melton’s claim that his overview of Hubbard is “anchored by generally agreed upon facts” (p. 17) is misleading.
Some contributors to Scientology use biased language when they describe controversies involving Scientology. For instance, Susan Palmer calls a Scientology spokesperson one of the “heroes of the Sect Wars” (p. 296). Similarly, Anson Shupe calls NRMs “the protagonists” in the “culture wars” (p. 269). Shupe’s piece on the controversy between Scientology and the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) claims both sides used “illegalities” and legal actions prior to CAN’s bankruptcy and subsequent takeover by Scientology. He does not, however, produce evidence of CAN’s alleged “illegalities,” and he glorifies Scientology’s actions by interpreting that it was striving for “freedom of unrestricted religious (and related business) practice, especially from government interference and scrutiny” (p. 272). Furthermore, Shupe’s chapter gives little indication of the controversy surrounding his own role in the Scott v. Ross case that financially bankrupted CAN, and which led to its demise (Kent and Krebs, 1998, pp. 41–42). For instance, Shupe read only the depositions that the prosecuting lawyer and Scientologist Kendrick Moxon had selected for him—possibly taking them out of context in the process (Kent and Krebs, 1998, p. 41). For these and other reasons, this chapter cannot serve as the definitive interpretation of the case that bankrupted the anti-cult organization.
Despite contributor Régis Deriquebour’s recognition of the impression management tactics that religious groups use—“Every church reconstructs its history and tries to build a good image of itself” (p. 166), even more authors in this anthology accept Scientology’s claims as facts. Susan Palmer supports her discussion of one French organization completely on Scientologists’ claims: “Scientologists assured me that CAP [Coordination des Associations et Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience] is in fact composed of many different interest groups and individuals” (p. 308). Similarly, Henrik Bogdan also relies only on Scientology’s own statistics, as posted online, to estimate the number of current Scientologists (p. 338).
Lewis himself does something similar, using census data from 2001 in combination with the statements of Scientologists to claim that the church is continuing to grow:
Scientologists I have spoken with tell me that more, rather than fewer, people have contacted and expressed interest in the Church of Scientology as a consequence of the free publicity generated by the relevant South Park [television cartoon] episodes [that mocked Scientology and Scientologists] and by high-profile remarks of Scientology celebrities like Tom Cruise. (p. 132)
Because his statistics were eight years old when Oxford University Press published Scientology, and he fails to verify the statements by unnamed Scientologists, his conclusions about the reputed growth of the organization are unreliable.
Authors Adam Possamai and Alphia Possamai-Inesedy make claims beyond the scope of their statistical data. Possamai and Possamai-Inesedy use 2001 Australian census data to conclude that a higher percentage of Scientologists (7%) than of the general population (4%) comprises managers, professionals, and associate professionals (p. 348). From these figures and another finding that the rate of unemployed Scientologists was 20% below that of the general population, these authors claim, “Although data are not available, it is fair to expect Scientologists to be more educated than the average population” (p. 348). Hastening to such conclusions risks error, especially when, as the authors admit, no data exist to support their claims.
Finally, more major methodological issues reside within Scientology. I cannot acknowledge all of these issues—they range from simply using the word “I” in a coauthored piece without identifying to which author “I” refers (Harley and Kieffer, p. 186) to citing questionable sources of information. Because citing questionable sources can produce questionable results, which in turn can discredit the value of academic research, I identify two authors from Scientology who do so.
First, James Richardson relies upon Wikipedia to describe former member Larry Wollersheim’s civil case with Scientology (p. 283). As a Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies, it is surprising that Richardson chooses not to seek the Wollersheim case from a legal database, which cannot be altered by its readers, unlike Wikipedia (“Welcome to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” [Wikipedia, 2009]).
Similarly, Mikael Rothstein trusts the anonymous writer of “Xenu” on Wikipedia to have constructed an analysis of the Xenu myth based upon a good knowledge of Hubbard’s writings in general: “To my awareness the discussion on Wikipedia is the only example in which such an analysis is attempted” (p. 374). Even though Rothstein states that Wikipedia is not a traditional academic source, he does not treat it differently than he does other sources. Rothstein, furthermore, encourages those seeking more information to rely on the honesty of the anonymous contributors to Wikipedia: “The reader, however, is directed to Wikipedia, in which many important details, not least historical and theological data that I will ignore, are available” (p. 374). It is surprising that editors at Oxford University Press allow Wikipedia to stand as an appropriate scholarly source in this or any volume.
Despite Lewis’s claims, he and many of his contributors fail to remain neutral—if such a task is even possible for researchers of Scientology. Most chapters claim that Scientologists have suffered undue criticism (often in the form of members having survived critics mocking their deeply held religious beliefs), and that such discrimination is derogatory and unacceptable. Nevertheless, free speech throughout the Western world allows comment and criticism about one’s own and others’ beliefs, and sometimes those beliefs may transfer into questionable or harmful actions.
Because of its numerous and varied shortcomings, this new book on Scientology is a poor sourcebook on the organization. Far too many errors and lapses in judgment appear throughout its pages to mention in one book review. Oddly enough, because of its numerous shortfalls and biases, Scientology may be useful to anyone who is studying the pro-cult/counter-cult debate and who wants to see numerous examples of biased scholarship by apparently polarized researchers. As a reference for inquiry into Scientology, however, this book fails on many fronts.
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International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 1, No. 1, 2010