May 7, 2012

Book(s) of the Month:

Janet Reitman, Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion 

Hugh B. Urban, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion 

Review by Jim Bennett

Of late, I have been pondering twentieth century California and the fertile ground it offered for incubating and nurturing a wide variety of religious movements in the twentieth century. Already, two of the books reviewed in our still young Book of the Month describe various dimensions of this religious fertility, especially in Southern California: Matthew Sutton's Aimee Semple McPherson and Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sun Belt. Conservative Protestant growth and innovation is an important part the story of religion in California over the last century, spanning from Holiness denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene and the emergence of Pentecostalism to groups such as Calvary Chapel and Vineyard Christian Fellowship that emerged in the second half of the century.

But religious creativity in California also extended well beyond these Christian denominations, suggesting a spiritual hothouse akin to that a hundred years earlier along the Western edge of the Second Great Awakening. Many twentieth century new religious movements, even if they did not start in California, experienced significant growth by (re)locating in California, from the Theosophist community in Point Loma, to David Berg's The Family, to Jim Jones' People's Temple. As early as 1935, according to Philip Jenkins, commentators were flagging southern California as the epicenter of the "cult racket" (Jenkins, Mystics and Messiahs, p. 11).

I was reminded of all this with the publication last summer of two new books on Scientology, a tradition whose secrecy and defensiveness has made it difficult for scholars to research and write about. Taken together, Janet Reitman's Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) and Hugh Urban's, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), provide much useful information for those who teach—or would like to teach—about Scientology and its contributions to the complexity of both the region's and the nation's religious landscape.

Reitman is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and her book is an expansion of a March 2006 article that appeared in that magazine. Her book is an engrossing and easy to read journey through the history of Scientology, touching on enough of the popular controversies—from questions about L. Ron Hubbard's background to Tom Cruise's involvement and the motives and methods of current president David Miscavige—to appeal to a popular audience. But Reitman goes well beneath the sensationalist headlines, myths, and rumors that shape most people's impressions of Scientology. This is also a deeply researched volume. Reitman has examined vast amounts of Scientology materials, taken time to review what scholarly materials exist, as well as conducting extensive interviews to paint a much broader picture of Scientology than previously available. The details prove helpful for those seeking a deeper understanding of how Scientology operates in its various organizations and orders. She also illumines changes in the organization, especially as leadership shifted from Hubbard to Miscavige, that have created a movement more isolated and secretive than the organization's formative decades. The strength of the book rests in the stories she tells and the narratives she reveals, many of them quite wrenching, rather than offering radically new interpretive frameworks. Even as Reitman's tone is more nuanced and her treatment and profile more even-handed than most accounts, this book will not do much to counter popular skepticism about Scientology.

Hugh Urban's TheChurch of Scientology takes a somewhat different approach, dealing with larger theoretical questions that Scientology raises about the study of religion in general and the definition of religion in the United States more specifically. Aware of the challenges and repercussions of writing about Scientology, Urban is less interested in the juicy controversies that Reitman tackles than the scholarly questions ethat frame his study. While Reitman calls Scientology "America's Most Secretive Religion" in her subtitle, it is Urban who is the expert on secrecy in religion and brings his knowledge of esotericism as a category of comparative religious studies to bear on his analysis of Scientology. Like Reitman, Urban moves in a chronological fashion, tracing the emergence of Scientology as a religion under Hubbard's guidance, with a strong emphasis on how Hubbard guided Scientology into the category of religion even as that classification has remained highly contested by many outsiders, both within and beyond the United States (The IRS did not recognize Scientology as a religion entitled to tax-exempt status until 1993).

Neither text argues that Scientology is specifically a religion of the American West (clearly neither author shares our angst about such questions!). Indeed, Scientology is not nor has it ever been a practice exclusive to the American West. Nonetheless, in both accounts, the West is very much present. Hubbard himself frames his own narrative largely around experiences in the West, from an early childhood on the western plains and claiming friendships with Native Americans, to naval service in the Pacific that oriented his religious thinking towards religious traditions of the East. Urban's account emphasizes the Cold War context out of which Scientology emerged, a mindset and material reality which profoundly shaped the ethos of Southern California where defense contractors were among the region's largest employers. For Hubbard, several of these interests fused during the time he spent in the home of a Cal Tech Rocket Scientist who also had a deep interest in the occult. Reitman likewise shows how heavily Hubbard built his religion around the culture of celebrity that was Hollywood, a conflicted relationship that remains at the center of popular conceptions of Scientology.

All of which is not try to force either of these immensely useful volumes into categories where they do not fit. Still, especially as we consider the last century of history of religion in the American West, these volumes on the particular tradition of Scientology contribute to broader conversations about critical issues that emerge in other stories of religion in the American West. To offer just one example, the questions Urban raises intersect in intriguing ways with those raised by Tisa Wenger's We Have a Religion about who gets to define religion with what consequences. When attentiveness to religion in the American West brings together such diverse experiences and books, surely we know that we are in a space that is creating conversations worth having!


chuckbeatty77 said...

I was a 27 year religious order staffer (training officer, scribe, computer operations) of Scientology, and assisted Janet Reitman with networking and encouraging ex members to speak with her for her great article and book.

I've been much more less in touch with Urban, but am happy he covered so much ground in his book.

There is so much missing in both their books, that students and scholars looking for a good single volume on the basic spiritual tenets and practices, we just still don't have a good neutral primer on the two core spiritual practices of Scientology, even to this date.

Dr. Gordon Melton told me to read Harriet Whitehead's "Renunciation and Reformulation" 1987, Cornel Univ Press, and her book does a pretty good job of Scientology's "lower levels" tenets.

To date, and even with these two books on Scientology, we still haven't (neither Scientology itself, nor academics who've spent even years gazing at Scientology), and despite Roy Wallis' "The Road to Total Freedom" and Whitehead's "Renunciation and Reformulation" and now Hugh Urban's book, still we don't have a really accurate book that "tells it like it is" when it comes to Scientology's basic tenets. (Meaning Scientology's therapy lower levels, and Scientology's exorcism upper levels, neither of these zones are properly analyzed to date.)

In a nutshell Scientology is a therapy religion and exorcism religion (high volume exorcism to an unprecedented number of surplus souls being exorcised).

I'll gladly walk any young student scholar wanting to do the hard work to focus on the actual spiritual practices of Scientology, and lay them out, without all the irrelevant padding in most academic writings about Scientology's core spiritual practices.

The two latest books skipped really a knowledgeable description, level by level, of the Hubbard "Bridge to Total Freedom" which is currently most important in answering the question: What Is Scientology?

Chuck Beatty
ex Sea Org (1975-2003)
412-260-1170 call weekends please.

chuckbeatty77 said...

There are also 4 ex member books in recent years, from knowledgeable ex Sea Org staffers, and more coming out:

1) John Duignan "The Complex"
see Amazon

2) Marc Headley "Blown For Good"
see Amazon

3) Nancy Many "My Billion Year Contract"
see Amazon

4) Jefferson Hawkins "Counterfeit Dreams"

5) Amy Scobee "Scientology: Abuse at the Top"

Scholars and researchers have unfortunately not even been given any papers nor chapters in any books, laying out the religious order structures of Scientology, sufficient to even appreciate the positions of these ex member writers.

Nancy Many was Commodore's Staff Aide for Division 6. (No scholar nor researcher has yet bothered to even discuss the hierarchies history of the Scientology religious order, it's all virgin territory, thus no one even grasps Nancy's access to Hubbard's "traffic" and her responsibilities, the world is clueless about the behind the scenes details.)

Jeff was Marketing Exec Int, part of the "think tank" team, the "think tank" team of Scientology's religious order, scholars are oblivious to the Scientology movement's think tank history, except what I've tried to verbally tell the handful of new religion scholars I've been in touch with.

John Duignan was two echelons down from the "top" ranks, and worked at the "Complex" in LA, at a brief period with the "Complex" housed what is known as "middle management". John's book in any case is a must read for Scientology scholar true experts.

Amy Scobee was a Watchdog Committee Member for about a decade. The Watchdog Committee is one of the two top management councils of the movement, the second being the think tank. Amy's book is a must read.

I should have done a book, or chapter, of the history and layout in simple terms, of the management upper structures of Scientology, and if any young scholar wants to do that, I'll tell them where to get the info and introduce them to plenty of ex WDC (Watchdog Committee) and Exec Strata (think tank) ex members who'll be able to detail the history of these all important top two ocuncils of the movement.

Janet Reitman's book makes the point that Miscavige is sort of the Brigham Young of Scientology.

What I see is possibly her editors and fact checkers just weren't sufficiently interested in the full scene that Hubbard left the movement with, and at least in Hugh's book, he admits a lot more is there to cover.

Well, I'll open any doors I can to ex members, and guide any willing students wishing to take on the nitty gritty details of the voluminous existing info on Scientology.

And I'll introduce people to people, so we get all the people who knew Hubbard interviewed, before those people die and the firsthand Hubbard history is lost!

Chuck Beatty
ex Sea Org (1975-2003)
Pittsburgh, 412-260-1170 call weekends.