The question as to whether Scientology is a cult or not is the subject of intense debate. Basically, Scientology adamantly insists that it isn’t, and many others declare that it is, or that it certainly seems to be.
And, for probably a majority of people, they just don’t know and may not even care.
Scientology insists that it is not a cult, primarily because of the negative connotations of the word. The Church of Scientology is very, very careful with its image. It works very hard to present itself as a not-at-all-wacky-very-normal religion.
Critics insist that the Church of Scientology is a cult, because they feel it is an important part of understanding the church, and because it is a key factor in helping people recover from membership in the church.
But why is this open to debate? Isn’t there a definition of cult that is authoritative and conclusive?
Yes and no. The definitions for cult range from the benign:
The formal means of expressing religious reverence; religious ceremony and ritual.
through the common:
Obsessive, especially faddish, devotion to or veneration for a person, principle, or thing.
to the extreme:
A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.
(All definitions from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.)
It is this last definition that is intended when talking about the Church of Scientology. But it isn’t very helpful. What is meant by “sect”, “extremist”, “unconventional”, “charismatic”? The debate gets bogged down in minutiae.
A better description, specific to that last definition of cult, can be found in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by well-respected author Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., who studied the psychology of extremism for decades.
In his book, Lifton outlines the “Eight Criteria for Thought Reform“:
- Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.
- Mystical Manipulation. There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes.
- Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
- Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.
- Sacred Science. The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.
- Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.
- Doctrine over person. Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
- Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.
Anyone can see how these criteria constitute a good yardstick for evaluating a group or organization. The more criteria a group meets, the more that group is operating as a cult.
So how does the Church of Scientology fare against these criteria?
This is information control. The Church of Scientology is very strict in attempting to control all information that Scientologists have access to. Internet access is controlled with a Scientology-developed “net-nanny”, Scientologists are forbidden from reading, watching, listening to any negative information about the church. They are required to “disconnect” from anyone, including family, even their own children and spouses, if those people express any negative attitudes about the church.
Everything that happens to you is predicted by Hubbard’s discoveries. Whatever happens to you, Hubbard has already determined exactly why it happened and has the exact solution for all your problems.
Demand for Purity
Yup! Got that! Scientologists are homo novis, the superior group. They are “more ethical”, “more responsible”. More is demanded of them because the “fate of every man, woman and child in this universe” rests on their shoulders.
Everyone must confess in Scientology. Every auditing session begins with questions designed to uncover “overts and witholds” (crimes and secrets). Many sessions are devoted exclusively to such things. If the church determines you’ve strayed from their narrow path, you can spend a lot of time confessing, for which you will pay big bucks. All crimes and secrets are written down, some are even video-taped. These records are never destroyed.
At the Int. Base of Scientology (top management), staff member’s confessions are often read aloud at staff musters.
Those who leave the church and speak out against the church’s abuses often have their “confidential” confessional material exposed to the public.
Hubbard’s words and his technologies are considered, by the Church of Scientology and by all Scientologists, as perfect, the ultimate answer to every mystery in the universe.
Whatever Hubbard said is considered complete and unquestionable. The greatest crime you can commit in Scientology is to doubt Hubbard’s technology.
If the technology fails, it is the fault of the person applying it or the recipient, never the fault of the technology.
Loading the Language
Hubbard created brand new terms for everything. Scientologists have a very difficult time translating Scientology ideas into real words. The concepts are not that different from ideas expressed many other ways by many other people, but, because of the unique terms used to define these ideas, they seem new and unique.
Scientologists have Hubbard’s canned, strongly enforced, verbatim reasons and solutions to all difficulties. For any problem there is a specific remedy from Hubbard. This certainly terminates any thought outside of Hubbard’s dogma.
Doctrine over person
Scientologists are never supposed to see any cause and effect outside of what is set out by Hubbard. If a person sees something that disproves Hubbard’s assertions, it must be forgotten or reinterpreted so as to agree with Hubbard. Life’s difficulties can have no other solution. If, by accident, something else solves a Scientologist’s problems, it must be carefully framed in a context of Hubbard’s doctrine. No solutions outside of Scientology are valid.
Dispensing of existence
This is so very true of Scientology. Those inside of Scientology are in a special world, with special requirements, special justice. Those outside of Scientology are the focus of much activity. All non-Scientologists must be brought into the church to create a “Scientology World”. All non-Scientologists are called “wogs” or “raw meat” by Scientologists, until they are “enlightened”.
Those who have left Scientology and, of course, all who criticize Scientology are “fair game”. While the actual term “fair game” is now avoided, the attitude and actions are still embraced fully. These “enemies” of Scientology may be literally “deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.”
The Church of Scientology and all Scientologists believe that they have the right to unilaterally destroy anyone they determine is an enemy.
So, those are the criteria that measure if a group is a cult. And that is the analysis of how the Church of Scientology measures up to those criteria.
What do you think? Is Scientology a cult?