In 1950, a pulp science-ﬁction writer named L. Ron Hubbard created the most successful psychotherapy-themed cult of all when he published a book called Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. In it, he claims to have done extensive research into the human mind, resulting in the discovery of therapeutic techniques that can cure all psychological ills. The use of the word “science” in the title is a curious choice, since what he describes within it is not science at all but rather an emphatic claim to have discovered the single source of insanity and psychosomatic ills, as well as a completely effective way to cure them. He claims to have made these discoveries on his own, but no evidence is provided regarding when or where his claimed 11 years of research may have been done. He also claims, rather unscientiﬁcally, to have already worked out all the details—missing are any testable hypotheses to guide further research, as apparently none is needed.
The mind has three parts, according to Hubbard: the analytical mind, the reactive mind, and the somatic mind. The analytical mind appears to be the thinking part of the mind, which processes perceptions, processes experience, and handles judgment and problem solving. The reactive mind, the really important part in Dianetics, ﬁles away and retains physical pain and painful emotion, and it responds unthinkingly to stimuli. The somatic mind is the portion of the mind that acts on the directions of the analytical or reactive mind to take physical action. (The astute reader may note some powerful similarities, despite the jargon, to Freud’s 3-part model of the self.)
According to Hubbard, the source of all insanity is the engram (a legitimate term among cognitive psychologists who study memory—it isn’t used correctly here, however). An engram appears to be a unit of memory of some sort, found in a part of the reactive mind called the engram bank. As to the engram, Hubbard deﬁnes it as “a deﬁnite and permanent trace left by a stimulus on the protoplasm of a tissue. It is considered as a unit group of stimuli impinged solely on the cellular being.” These engrams are recorded only at times of physical or emotional suffering, and they are recorded directly on the cells of the body. Hubbard argues that the individual cells of the body actually have a rudimentary consciousness— their thoughts inﬂuence the body’s thoughts, and the reactive mind is simply made up of all the impressions stored by the cells. Meanwhile, the analytical mind, possessed of a memory that is perfect and error-free, records everything that is seen or heard while the engram is laid down on the tissues.
Hubbard presents all this as scientiﬁc fact, based on careful research, but he provides no actual evidence of this, just anecdotes about how engrams might work. It is disturbing to note that many of his examples seem to involve violence against women, which he treats as though it is an ordinary part of a relationship. In the following frequently reprinted example: “A woman is knocked down by a blow. She is rendered ‘unconscious.’ She is kicked and told she is a faker, that she is no good, that she is always changing her mind” (Hubbard, 1950). While she lies on the ﬂoor, a car goes by, and water is running in the sink. All this is recorded in the engram. In the future, any element that recurs (she hears running water, a car goes by, someone else hits her) will trigger the engram, causing her to feel like a no-good ﬁckle faker.
Hubbard viewed the womb as a very frightening, dangerous place in which the worst engrams were recorded (as many as 200 before birth). The prenatal experiences he focuses on especially are the mother’s constipation (which apparently makes the fetus feel cramped and uncomfortable), sexual activity by the parents (same problem), the mother being hit or kicked in the belly while abusive things are said to her, and attempted abortions (which he seems to have seen as a very common experience). Some of these engrams may be recorded at an early stage of fetal development, even by the single-celled zygote.
A modern science of mental health would be nothing without a treatment technique, and Hubbard proposed a radical new idea: talking about problems with another person! He calls it auditing, which eventually came to require an electronic device called an e-meter, essentially a galvanic skin response monitor with two wired cans for a person to hold, as a way of monitoring the extent to which the truth is being confronted sufﬁciently. The book sold well from the beginning, and people began auditing each other all over the country. Confronted with such a fad, Hubbard took what seemed to him a logical next step. In 1952, claiming he had discovered incontrovertible scientiﬁc proof of the existence of the human soul, he established the Church of Scientology, with himself at its head.
As head of a religious movement, Hubbard of course needed an impressive personal history, and his organization has over the years claimed, among many other things, the following:
- He was trained as a nuclear physicist. [He attended George Washington University for two years, made poor grades, and left without earning a degree.]
- He was the youngest Eagle Scout in the history of the Boy Scouts. [The Boy Scouts of America do not agree.]
- His family owned a ranch one-third the size of Montana. [No, they did not.]
- During World War II, he served in all ﬁve theaters of the war, winning many medals, and in 1944 he was severely wounded and was taken crippled and blinded to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital. [The U.S. Navy says that he saw no combat.]
Hubbard built Scientology into a successful moneymaking machine, in part by making it into what is surely the world’s costliest religion. Where other religions make their scriptures and teachings freely available to all, Hubbard’s followers are required to purchase training, which becomes more expensive as one advances through the various levels (at times costing more than $1,000 per hour of additional auditing). Under both the old Dianetics name as well as under Scientology, the ultimate goal is rid oneself of all engrams, thus becoming a person with no stress, anxiety, or psychological difﬁculties at all (a “clear”). In Scientology, there are higher levels than that, known as OT (operating thetan) levels. The highest levels of Scientology teaching appear to have been written only as people achieved the levels right below them, necessitating some additional writing by Hubbard. The theology of the upper levels sounds very much like Hubbard’s early pulp science ﬁction, including a bizarre alternate history of Earth involving the exile of trapped spirits here by an evil space tyrant. As people approach the highest levels of training, these spirits (the-tans) are freed.
Scientology has been quite successful at luring high-proﬁle celebrities into its ranks, in part by treating them like, well, celebrities. In Hollywood, Scientology runs a luxurious, expensive gathering place for the famous (and the gawkers who hope to spot them) called the Celebrity Center. High-proﬁle Scientologists include movie stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta, actress Kirstie Alley, musicians Edgar Winter and Chick Corea, and cartoon voices Nancy Cartwright and Isaac Hayes, all of who have provided the Church of Scientology with invaluable publicity.
Scientology has found many other ways to recruit new adherents, including a number of front groups: organizations that are run by Scientology but which do not publicize this fact. Narconon, for example, runs drug-rehabilitation programs internationally, without explicitly presenting itself as a Scientology organization. As Narconon’s methods are based on non-physician Hubbard’s ideas about drug addiction, it has unsurprisingly come under ﬁre from a variety of medical organizations, including direct criticism by the Surgeon General of the United States. Applied Scholastics, another front, is an organization that runs schools and distributes teaching materials, again all based on Scientology.
The front group that should be of greatest concern to the psychological community is the Citizens’ Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), which claims to help people who have been abused or mistreated by psychology, psychiatry, and/or mental institutions. A major goal of Scientology from the beginning, perhaps as revenge for the failure of psychology and psychiatry to embrace Dianetics, has been to discredit and destroy the ﬁelds of clinical psychology and psychiatry. Scientology has long fought the use of drugs in psychiatric treatment, claiming that psychiatrists frequently kill patients, among other things. The CCHR was responsible for the wave of lawsuits attempting to discredit Prozac in the early 1990s, for example. The claim was that Prozac actually made people behave in a violent, psychotic manner, rather than curing their depression. In fact, virtually no empirical evidence supports this claim. Most press coverage, however, failed to mention the Scientology connection.
Scientology’s most egregious offense using a front group, however, concerns a group called the Cult Awareness Network (CAN). This organization was, for twenty years, devoted to helping parents whose children had joined religious cults by providing information and advice about those groups (including Scientology). Unfortunately, legal action by several groups, most notably the Church of Scientology, eventually forced the CAN into bankruptcy court, where their name, logo, and toll-free number were sold. The organization, previously a resource for parents concerned about their children’s involvement with Scientology, is now run by the Foundation for Religious Freedom, yet another Scientology organization.
- Gardner, M. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. New York: Dover, 1957;
- Miller, R. Bare-faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard. New York: M. Joseph, 1987.