Handbook of Scientology

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James R. Lewis, Kjersti Hellesøy
Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion
  • Boston, MA: 
    , January
     550 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Co-editor James R. Lewis has been particularly industrious in focusing scholarly attention on the Church of Scientology. In 2009, Lewis edited a different collection of twenty-two essays under the title Scientology (Oxford University Press, 2009) and in 2016 he edited a special issue of Numen on Scientology as well.

The Handbook of Scientology groups the collection of twenty-four essays into seven parts, focusing on introductory essays, Scientology and “marketplace religion,” controversy, media treatments, sex and gender, disaffiliation and schisms, and the legacy of Scientology’s founder and “Source”—L. Ron Hubbard. Both scholars familiar with Scientology and other new religious movements, and those seeking an introduction to one of the most persistently controversial new religions of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries will find valuable, provocative, and up-to-date material in this extensive volume. The introductory essay by Donald A. Westbrook, based on field work originally done for his dissertation, easily serves students or other interested parties as an illuminating introduction to the Church of Scientology through the eyes of some of its members. Dorthe Refslund Christensen’s substantial essay, which carefully examines the more than 12,000 pages of technical bulletins produced by Hubbard in light of other publications from the Church, brings clarity to Hubbard’s understanding of both therapy and religion. Christensen argues that Hubbard’s ongoing presentations of therapeutic, religious, and soteriological ideas are all founded on the fundamental idea that “man is miserable and something can be done about it” (48).

Among the issues that receive attention from several of the contributors are whether Scientology considers itself, and is considered by others, as a genuine religion; the development of schismatic groups and freelance practitioners of Scientology and the Church’s reactions to them; and the representations of Scientology, both by the Church and by its critics, in various media. Marco Frenschkowski carefully traces the developing understanding of religion in general and specific religions in Hubbard’s thought, proposing that Hubbard was thinking seriously about religion even before his system of Dianetics, originally presented as “The Modern Science of Mental Health,” mutated into the Church of Scientology in the early 1950s. David Robertson shows how the construction of conspiracy theories, both about Scientology and by the Church of Scientology itself, gives observers the opportunity to define the edges of an implicit contemporary Western understanding of “real religion” (301).

Even though the contemporary Church of Scientology insists that Scientology can only be properly practiced within the administrative structures of the Church, schisms developed virtually from the beginning. Shannon Trosper Schorey analyzes what she identifies as the “open source Scientology movement,” which advocates direct access to the writings of Hubbard, and contends that individuals can practice Scientology without having the Church as an intermediary. Each of the editors chronicles the development of schismatic groups such as the Dror Center in Israel and Ron’s Orgs in Europe, as well as the number of independent practitioners in what some identify as the “Free Zone” of Scientology. The Church of Scientology, however, vigorously disputes claims of both the schismatic groups and independents that they can implement Hubbard’s “tech,” or spiritual technology, outside of the control of the Church. Carole Cusack takes the story further by charting Hubbard’s influence on Werner Erhard, the founder of Erhard Seminars Training—now Landmark Education—Ken Dyers, the co-founder of Kenja, and Harvey Jackins, the founder of Re-evaluation Counseling. The development of schismatic and related groups only underlines the difficulties that the Church faces in striving to contain the practice of Scientology within its own structures.

The Church’s desire to exercise sole control over Hubbard’s teachings has also been undermined by the release of proprietary documents online. Critics of Scientology—including some former members and the loosely affiliated group of hackers known as Anonymous—have been quick to capitalize on the ability to disseminate information widely and virtually instantaneously through the internet. The disclosure of materials used in instruction at the advanced levels of Scientology’s “Bridge to Total Freedom” has exposed the Church to criticism from many quarters, and ridicule—perhaps most notably on the “Trapped in the Closet” episode of the cartoon, “South Park.” Nicole S. Ruskell and Lewis provide a solid overview of the interactions between the Church of Scientology and print and electronic media. More specifically, Johanna J. M. Petsche offers an inventory of the similarities between the teacher and group portrayed in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, “The Master,” and Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. Similarly, Benjamin E. Zeller advances a compelling analysis of Alex Gibney’s documentary film, “Going Clear,” based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name. Zeller shows how Gibney abandoned the now-traditional stereotypical portrait of a “cult” to paint Scientology instead as an example of radical religious belief, similar to that involved in groups such as al-Qaeda.

Along with other recent scholarship—including Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion (Princeton University Press, 2012), the Handbook of Scientology goes far towards remedying the lack of scholarly material on this fascinating new religious movement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eugene V. Gallagher is professor emeritus of religious studies at Connecticut College.

Date of Review: 
July 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James R. Lewis is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tromsø. He is also the author of over a hundred articles and book chapters, and the author, editor or co-editor of two dozen monographs and anthologies.

Kjersti Hellesøy holds a MA in religious studies from the University of Tromsø. She has published articles about radical Islam in Chechnya; religion and violence; and Scientology, most notably about Independent Scientology.



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