Hardback: 268 pages
Publisher: Princeton University Press (2011 AD)
L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology has a long history for such a young church. It has been the topic of fascination, intrigue, disputation and controversy from its very inception to this very day.
Just within the past month (this being written in February of 2013 AD) there have been two reports on Scientology in non-cable, non-satellite good ol' fashion broadcast TV and the fascination, intrigue, disputation and controversy is not going away.
Enter Hugh B. Urban, who is the professor of religious studies at Ohio State University, brings a unique perspective to this topic as in an academic manner he seeks to report, leave conclusions to the student (the reader) and elucidate some issues that are generally not considered by the casual reader.
Of course, would the casual reader read a book about Scientology? Well, the issue is that there are likely three main categories of personage who will read this book: Scientologists who seek to see what is being said about them, anti-Scientologists who seek more ammunition and researchers by any other name who seek further info in any regard.
As Hugh Urban notes, it is likely that Scientologists will consider anything written about them by a non-Scientologist to bee too critical and unfair and anti-Scientologists will consider his book to not be condemnatory enough.
Well, context is king and the books full title is, The Church of Scientology – A History of New Religion and this is that upon which Urban focuses. This does not mean that the book if in any way boring of the stuff of stuffy academe. Indeed, within you will find considerations of everything from L. Ron Hubbard’s background as a cohort of Aleister Crowley adherent Jack Parsons, whether Crowley’s system of magick formed the base of Scientology, how Dianetics became, as it were, Scientology, how Scientology became a church, the church’s seemingly never ending disputes with the IRS, the FBI, et al., claims of abuse and misuse, and much, much (much) more; just consider the chapter titles:
Introduction: The World's Most Controversial New Religion and Why No One Writes About It
Chapter One: L. Ron Hubbard: American Entrepreneur, Spiritual Bricoleur
Chapter To: Scientology, Inc.: Becoming a "Religion" in the 1950s
Chapter Tree: Cold War Religion: Scientology, Secrecy, and Security n the 1950s and 60s
Chapter Four: Thee "Cult of All Cults"? Scientology and the Cult Wars of the 1970s and 80s
Chapter Five: "The War" and the Triumph of Scientology: Becoming a Tax-Exempt Religion in the 1990s
Chapter Six: Secrets, Security, and Cyberspace: Scientology's New Wars of Information on the Internet
Conclusion: New Religions, Freedom, and Privacy in the Post-9/11 World
Appendix: A Timeline of Major Events in Scientology's Complex Journey to Becoming a "Religion"
All of this, by the way, in a mere 268 pages. This shows that the Prof. took great pains to boil down tremendous amounts of info into a manageable text. In preparing this book he read scholarly journals, popular level books, articles, he interviewed ex-Scientologists and much, much more.
One oddity, or so it seems to be to this reviewer, about the text is that it is somewhat repetitive. This was surprising considering the balance between the amount of info which it claims to cover versus the few pages in which the info is provided. In the end, it seems to be a result of Hugh Urban’s professorial modus operandi. He seems to be writing as he would teach and thus, may be repetitive in order to ensure that the students/readers digest certain key points.
Beyond the issues of what Crowley’s black magick or the Xenu space opera have to do with Dianetics/Scientology, one fascinating question with which the book deals is what is “religion” and who has the right to define it. Along with this comes the scholarly question of ethics relating to whether it is appropriate or not to expose a religion’s deepest secrets.
Youngsters are growing up in a culture wherein a “private life” is a thing of the past maaaaaan! They communicate their every thought—from the most fleeting to their deepest core—on the world wide web. Thus, there are no secrets. Take, for example, Scientology’s (in)famous Operative Thetan III (OTIII) level. This is a very high level teaching and practice to which one could not (or should have not) access without beginning at ground level and working one’s way up until they are deemed to be ready to receive and deal with its revelations. This was privileged information and yet, you can take it upon yourself via a mere mouse click to learn what is OTIII. You can do so from reading scholarly journal articles, from reading dime a dozen anonymous blog posts or from watching an episode of the animated TV show South Park.
Interestingly, that episode led to the resigning of Scientologist Isaac Hays who was a voice talent on the show. How ironic, in episode after episode he partook in besmirching every conceivable religious, political and moral view. But once the mockery hit home…now, that was too much, too far!
Some of us have never even thought of what is a religion. Some say that L. Ron Hubbard was just out to make a buck and so concocted some wild ideas—mixing psychology with science fiction—and demanded to have created a religion to which tax exempt status ought be granted. Of course, some people believe that all religions began just about that same way. So, why is a new craziness different from and old one?
Of course, some of use have pondered what is religion. Some demand that religion is that which a dictionary defines the word to mean. Yet, is a grammatical definition of a word the best guide for the truly complex question of what is a religion?
Consider that, for example, the New Testament states, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). In this way, many would be glad to be labeled as “religious.” However, if religion is defined as an authoritative manmade hierarchical pyramid power structure then just as many would recoil from being referred to as such.
Hugh Urban notes that, outside and beyond the definitions proposed by scholars, in the USA is it the IRS, yes the Internal Revenue Service (the tax guys), who ultimately defined what is a religion. The reason is quite simple really: it is the IRS who decides who is granted tax except status and so they must be able to define what is religion. It is a fascinating and very disturbing reality.
These are just examples of how in a very succinct book, Hugh Urban manages to give us a big bird’s eye view picture, delves into some of the nitty-gritty dirty laundry and makes us aware of various aspects of the issues relating to religion.
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