Janet Reitman, Inside Scientology: The Story of
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
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!