An academic history of the Church of Scientology might not seem relevant to Canadian Lawyer magazine, unless you’re familiar with the controversial movement’s use of the justice system against its many detractors. Founder L. Ron Hubbard explained his legal philosophy in 1955: “The purpose of the [lawsuit] is to harass and discourage rather than to win. The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway . . . will generally be sufficient to cause his professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly.”
(I wish I could say I’ve never dealt with lawyers who subscribe to this line of thinking, but that’s another column.)
The reclusive Hubbard died in 1986, but Scientology critics should still brace themselves for long, difficult, and expensive defamation actions brought by the organization. Time magazine and its parent company spent millions of dollars in legal fees defending its 1991 cover story “The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power.” Church lawyers have demanded that Google remove anti-Scientology web sites from its search results. Most notoriously, the venerable Cult Awareness Network was forced into bankruptcy after years of litigation against Scientology — and then its name was purchased by a Scientologist who started up a Hubbard-friendly “New Cult Awareness Network.”
The organization really devoted its energies to a long, brutal legal battle with the Internal Revenue Service, trying to restore its designation as a tax-exempt religious organization. In The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion, Ohio State University religious studies professor Hugh Urban notes that Hubbard initially made no effort to claim he had founded a religion, and in fact made several comments disparaging religious belief. Dianetics, the founding text of Scientology (which initially appeared, fittingly enough, as an article in Astounding Science Fiction magazine), was subtitled “The Modern Science of Mental Health,” and the “religion angle” (Hubbard’s words, not mine) was only approached when the IRS started sniffing around.
Suddenly, Scientology buildings were adorned with an eight-pointed cross, Scientologists were sporting clerical collars, and a book of Scientology rites was hastily produced. The U.S. government remained suspicious, however, and things only got worse after “Operation Snow White,” an elaborate intelligence-gathering operation in which Scientologists infiltrated the IRS, was uncovered in 1977.
In 1993, however, Scientology and the American government reached a settlement, in which the church dropped several legal actions in exchange for official recognition as a tax-exempt religion. Now the organization is fighting the same battle in other countries, including Canada.
Urban’s book raises many thought-provoking questions about the distinction (if any) between a religion and a cult, and why some faiths are officially exempted from the tax system while others are not. Paradoxically, the United States Constitution forbids promotion of religion by the state, yet the state’s revenue agency has the power to determine what is “really” a religion and what is not.
He also illustrates how in recent years, the tables have been turned on Scientology, which now finds itself under attack from decentralized “anonymous” members who organize through the Internet. The church itself has launched many copyright-infringement lawsuits against web sites on which confidential “scriptures” — including the ones about evil intergalactic ruler “Xenu,” famously satirized on South Park — have been posted, but it is practically impossible to stop the viral spread of anti-Scientology material on the web.
The author shies away from taking a clear position on whether, in his opinion, Scientology truly deserves its official recognition. Indeed, Urban tries to remain neutral as to the benefits and/or harm caused by the organization and its practices, and whether its followers and leaders are sincere as to whether Scientology is really a system of religious belief. (The question of whether religious organizations deserve tax-exempt status at all is largely ignored.)
Urban’s history of this controversial movement is a good starting point for authors and academics who wish to review the legal, moral, and theological issues surrounding Scientology. But it might have been an even better book had he not decided to pull so many punches.
Unfortunately, when the subject is Scientology, it’s hard to say whether the author was trying to be fair or whether he wanted to avoid being sued.