Religion, Grrrr

K9515Rachel Aviv reviews Hugh Urban's The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion in the LRB (you can read the introduction to the book here):

Hubbard insisted that the principles of Dianetics had nothing to do with ‘any mumbo-jumbo of mysticism or spiritualism or religion’. He assured readers that ‘Dianetics is a science; as such, it has no opinion about religion, for sciences are based on natural laws.’ Throughout the United States, people formed Dianetics clubs and helped each other to become ‘clear’: in this state, they would be free of all compulsions, neuroses and delusions, see colours vividly for the first time, appreciate melody, perform complex mathematical calculations and recall every moment of their lives. Hubbard was so confident of the merits of his electro-psychometer, a device used to detect hidden trauma by measuring galvanic skin response, that he asked the American Medical Association to investigate his new tool. The medical establishment showed no interest. In a review in the Nation, the kindest thing the psychiatrist Milton Sapirstein could say about Dianetics was that ‘the author seems honestly to believe what he has written.’

Hubbard took the rejection badly. When his followers were arrested for practising medicine without a licence, he complained that the United States made it ‘illegal to heal or cure anything’. He began to reconsider the distinction he’d made between psychology and spiritual practice. In a 1953 newsletter he wrote that the process of uncovering repressed memories through auditing is ‘perhaps allied with religion, perhaps a mystic practice and possibly just another form of Christian Science or plain Hubbardian nonsense’. The following year, embracing what he called the ‘religious angle’, he opened the first church of Scientology in Los Angeles. The electro-psychometer was no longer used as a diagnostic tool but became instead a ‘valid religious instrument, used in Confessionals’.

In The Church of Scientology, one of only a handful of academic treatments of the subject, Hugh Urban is less interested in the experiences of Scientologists than in the legal processes and semantic twists through which a set of beliefs becomes a religion.