What Scientology Tells Us About How Religions Begin

Lawrence Wright’s recent book on the history of Scientology is an immensely important document for studying how religions begin. While much of it fills the reader with the amusement or horror of a colossal fraud—and a fraud which consciously sought out the money and influence of celebrities—Wright is also honest enough to include sections like the following, where he summarizes a Franciscan friar who has testified in court on behalf of Scientology. The friar makes fair comparisons about the usually brutal and insular nature of many mainstream religions at their founding.


Frank K. Flinn, a former Franciscan friar and graduate of Harvard Divinity School, has testified repeatedly on behalf of Scientology—notably in 1984, when the Church of Scientology, along with Mary Sue Hubbard, sued Gerald Armstrong, the former archivist for the church. Flinn defined religion as a system of beliefs of a spiritual nature. There must be norms for behavior—positive commands and negative prohibitions or taboos—as well as rites and ceremonies, such as initiations, sacraments, prayers, and services for weddings and funerals. By these means, the believers are united into an identifiable community that seeks to live in harmony with what they perceive as the ultimate meaning of life. Flinn argued that Scientology amply fulfilled these requirements, even if it differed in its expression of them from traditional denominations.

      Like Catholicism, Flinn explained, Scientology is a hierarchical religion. He compared L. Ron Hubbard to the founders of Catholic religious orders, including his own, started by Saint Francis of Assisi, whose followers adopted a vow of poverty. Financial disparities within a church are not unusual. Within the hierarchy of Catholicism, for instance, bishops often enjoy a mansion, limousines, servants, and housekeepers; the papacy itself maintains thousands of people on its staff, including the Swiss Guards who protect the pope, and an entire order of nuns dedicated to being housekeepers for the papal apartments.

      The Catholic Church also maintains houses of rehabilitation (like the RPF) for errant priests hoping to reform themselves. Flinn saw the RPF as being entirely voluntary and even tame compared to what he experienced as a friar in the Franciscan Order. He willingly submitted to the religious practice of flagellation on Fridays, whipping his legs and back in emulation of the suffering of Jesus before his crucifixion. Flinn also spent several hours a day doing manual labor. As a member of a mendicant order, he owned no material possessions at all, not even the robe he wore. Low wages and humble work were essential to his spiritual commitment.

      There is a place for a Supreme Being in Scientology—in Hubbard’s Eight Dynamics, it’s at the top—but the God idea plays a diminished role compared to many religions. On the other hand, some religions worship objects—stones or icons or mandalas—rather than a deity. Scientologists don’t pray; but then, neither do Buddhists. The idea of salvation, so central to Christianity, is not so different from Hubbard’s assertion that the fundamental law of the universe is the urge to survive. Flinn compared the Scientology distinction between pre-clear and Clear to Buddhist notions of entanglement and enlightenment, or Christian doctrines of sin and grace. The Scientology creed that humans are “thetans” simply means we are beings with immortal souls, which no Christian would argue with.

      One of Flinn’s most interesting and contested points had to do with hagiography, by which he meant attributing extraordinary powers—such as clairvoyance, visions of God or angels, or the ability to perform miracles—to the charismatic founders of a religion. He pointed to the virgin birth of Jesus, the ability of the Buddha to “transmigrate” his soul into the heavens, or Moses bringing manna to the people of Israel. Such legends are useful in that they bolster the faith of a community, Flinn said. The glaring discrepancies in Hubbard’s biography should be seen in the light of the fact that any religion tends to make its founder into something more than human.

      Flinn was asked to testify about a policy Hubbard had written in 1965 titled “Fair Game Law,” in which he laid down the rules for dealing with Suppressive Persons. That category includes non-Scientologists who are hostile to the church, apostates and defectors, as well as their spouses, family members, and close friends. “A truly Suppressive Person or Group has no rights of any kind,” Hubbard wrote. Such enemies, he said, may be “tricked, lied to or destroyed.” In 1965, he wrote another policy letter ambiguously stating, “The practice of declaring people FAIR GAME will cease. FAIR GAME may not appear on any Ethics Order. It causes bad public relations. [The new ruling] does not cancel any policy on the treatment or handling of an SP.” The supposed revocation of Fair Game took place before Operation Snow White, the harassment of Paulette Cooper and other journalists, the persecution of defectors, and many other actions undertaken by church insiders that were done in the spirit, if not the name, of the original policy.

      “Almost all religious movements in their very early phase tend to be harsh,” Flinn reminded the court. He contended that they tend to evolve and become more lenient over time. As for disconnection [of Scientologists from those labelled as SPs, or from family or friends hostile to the church], he declared that it was “functionally equivalent to other types of religious exclusions,” such as shunning of nonbelievers among Mennonites and the Amish. In the Book of Leviticus, for instance, which is part of the Torah and the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, idolaters and those who have strayed from the faith were to be stoned to death. That practice has disappeared; instead, Orthodox Jews will sit Shiva for the nonbeliever, treating him as if he is already dead. “So this kind of phenomenon is not peculiar to Scientology,” Flinn concluded. The implication underlying Flinn’s testimony was that Scientology is a new religion that is reinventing old religious norms; whatever abuses it may be committing are errors of youthful exuberance, and in any case they are pale imitators of the practices once employed by the mainstream religions that judges and jurors were likely to be members of.

      In the 1990s, Flinn had interviewed several Scientologists who were doing RPF in Los Angeles. Their quarters didn’t look any worse than his cell in the monastery, where he slept on a straw bed on a board. He asked if they were free to go. They told him they were, but they wanted to stay and do penance.

      Flinn admits to having been a cutup when he was in the order, and he felt out of place. “I was an Irishman in a sea of Germans.” He would be sent out to dig in the potato field as punishment for his misbehavior. However, when he finally decided to leave his order, instead of being incarcerated or given a freeloader tab, he was given a dispensation releasing him from his vows. He never felt the need to escape. He took off his robe, put on civilian clothes, and walked away. His spiritual advisor gave him five hundred dollars to help him out. He was never punished or fined, or made to disconnect from anyone.

            – Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief