The New York Times ran a fascinating article about the Church of Scientology this weekend, detailing accusations of abusive practices by church officials and, more interestingly, the “kafkaesque” difficulty of leaving the organization. The article focuses on Chris and Christie Collbran, a married couple who were both raised as Scientologists and subsequently joined Sea Org, the religious order responsible for administering the church. The Collbrans’ personal struggles are illuminating, as is the revelation that—despite a spokesman’s assurance that church membership numbers “millions” in the US and “millions” abroad—the American Religious Identification Survey estimates there are only 25,000 Scientologists in the country. What is perhaps most striking about the article, though, is the realization that the Collbrans were raised in the faith. Scientology markets itself as “the only major religion founded in the 20th century,” and we tend to think of it as a fad that people get into in Los Angeles, like Trader Joe’s or hard drugs. The Collbrans and others like them are a reminder that Scientology is now in its second generation, and a portion of its adherents were raised in the truth of L. Ron Hubbard since childhood. After being paid $17 a week, forced to sign confessions, ostracized by her family and presented with a “freeloader bill” for $90,000, Christie Collbran still believes in Scientology. It’s just the church that’s corrupt, she says. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a religion takes hold.
The Church of Scientology is notoriously litigious, and maintains a documented policy of aggressively attacking its critics. That’s weird, because from an outsider’s perspective, their belief system seems totally reasonable. While things like thetans, e-meters and the general progression of the “bridge to total freedom” are fairly well-known, the details of Scientology are vigorously protected, often by copyright lawsuits and other recourses to intellectual property law. Unlike most textually based religions, Scientology is not in the public domain. In order to learn more about it, you have to pay.
This peculiarity sets Scientology apart from other religions, and was at least partly for responsible for the church’s being investigated and ultimately denied religious standing in Australia, although that decision has subsequently been overturned. The question of whether Scientology is a religion—as in, does it offer a plausible explanation of the origin of the universe, of human life, and of the forces governing both?—is, for most of us, easily answered by three facts. A) It was founded by a science fiction writer, and involves a lot of aliens. B) You have to give the church an enormous amount of money in order to advance spiritually. C) Everyone involved in actually running the church and collecting this money is rich. Element (A) is just funny, but elements (B) and (C) suggest that Scientology is more like pilates than Protestantism.
The other question of whether Scientology is a religion—as in, do people genuinely believe in it?—is just as easily answered, though. Tom Cruise sure seems to, as do people like Christie Collbran. But there’s a fundamental difference between the way Cruise and Collbran believe, and it raises a troubling issue. Tom Cruise is an adult—a possibly crazy adult who is not necessarily equipped to approach the organizational expression of an ethical-cosmological system with a critical mind, but an adult nonetheless. He got into Scientology and he likes it, and if it’s a crazy scam religion designed to trick you into exchanging your money for the assurance that your immortal thetan is progressing toward omnipotence—well, we didn’t stop him from making Interview With the Vampire, either. Tom Cruise is an adult and he can believe in Scientology if it makes him happy.
Christie Collbran, on the other hand, was not an adult when she got into Scientology. Her parents told her that it was the truth about the entire world when they were her only contact with that world, and believing in Scientology has not made her happy. After spending years working for $17 a week, after witnessing beatings and getting billed for leaving and being shunned by friends and family, she still believes in the teachings of Mr. Hubbard—so much so that she is divorcing her husband over his apostasy. Christie Collbran was born a Scientologist, and she’ll live a Scientologist—broke, divorced and a single parent, with no contact with her family besides an email from her mother that calls her “a snake in the grass.”
All of which begs a question. Could we have done something for Christie Collbran? Obviously, we don’t want to live in a society in that protects children from their parents’ deeply held beliefs. That being said, Scientology is currently making the transition from Thing That You Get Into to Thing That You’re Born With. The question of whether it’s a bona fide religion will not rest on whether it makes sense or pressures its members to stay in or takes money from them. The differences between Scientology and the big three western religions in those regards are ones of degree, not kind. The real difference between Scientology and religion, for the time being, is that not too many people are born with Scientology, and therefore not too many people are exempted from the obligation to think about it. Christie and Chris Collbran are proof that that is changing, and in another couple of generations we will have to politely accept Scientology as a way of viewing the universe and your local school board that is above argument, like any religion. Maybe, like any religion, we should think about Scientology while we still can.