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What Is Scientology?

Aired 6/7/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

We will be providing a forum to discuss one of the most controversial religious traditions of modern American times- Scientology.

What does the American public know about Scientology? Beyond the famous actors who happen to be members of the Scientology church, many Americans are not aware of this American-born tradition or its central tenets. The American public simply does not know about Scientology. We will be providing a spotlight for this more recently developed religion; its origins, practices, current focus points in the local community and abroad, and the church's response to its public image, as displayed by South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and former church member and film director, Paul Haggis.

Guests

Dr. Gordon Melton, Director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion

Rev. David Meyers, President of the Church of Scientology of San Diego

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: You're listening to Midday Edition on KPBS. I'm Alison St. John. Lately, we've been focusing on developments within various religious traditions in San Diego. We've talked about a big change for Tibetan Buddhism as the Dalai Lama relinquishes his temporary government duties, and we profiled the surprising new course of SDSU's new theology curriculum focusing on atheism. Today, we'll talk about one of the more controversial religions in modern times, Scientology. Earlier this year, a very long article appeared in the New Yorker magazine, highlighting the concerns of former church member, film director, Paul Haggis. I brought into question everything from the origins of Scientology to the treatment of its members. So today, we'll be speaking with a local San Diego official of the church of Scientology about what he thinks the critics get wrong. I'd like to introduce him. Reverend David Myers is the president of the church of Scientology here in San Diego. Thanks so much for being with us.

MYERS: My pleasure. I'm glad to be here today.

ST. JOHN: And we also have with us, doctor Gordon Melton, who is director of the institute for the study of religion. And Dr. Melton, thank you for joining us.

MELTON: My pleasure.

ST. JOHN: And doctor Melton, I just want to establish up front business are you a Scientologist?

MELTON: No, I'm a Methodist.

ST. JOHN: Okay. But you have done quite a bit of research on the subject.

MELTON: I'm monitored the church now for about, oh, 40 years I guess.

ST. JOHN: Great. Okay, let me start with you, reverend Myers. Tell us about the origins of Scientology, how it began and what were the key influences?

MYERS: Well, let's step back to the 30s and 40s and talk about Mr. L. Ron Hubbard. He was a very curious fellow, and like most of us kind of wondered, where we are, where are we coming from, where do we go, and what does make man tick. So in his investigation he actually researched about twenty different cultures around the world and had actually travelled to China a couple different times by the time he was 21. Researching different cultures and different religions and different backgrounds. And his goal was really to discover, what was life, how do we define what life is and what that really means and how to relate to it. So his fundamental discoveries were really concepts about the mind and the idea that life is basically trying to survive. And that was kind of the fundamental precept of what life was doing. But the question was what was keeping man from surviving. And what he discovered was something called the reactive mind. And the reactive mind could be thought of as a portion of the mind that stores thoughts that -- and actions that are unconscious. So when we're in pain and unconsciousness, we store ideas, pictures, concepts and things, and they're there. And we carry them around with us. So the question was, why aren't we surviving? Well, we're not surviving effectively because there are things that we're carrying around with us, like a backpack of bad ideas and bad situations from our past. And so that actually was the germ of the idea of Dianetics was what is the mind, what is it doing, and how does that affect us as individuals?

ST. JOHN: So tell us just a little bit more about these fundamental tenets. You've got Dianetics, there's something called thetans, tell us what that is and what a clear is.

MYERS: Sure, sure. Let me paint the picture here. We talk about Dianetics as it relates to the mind, and we all have a mind, and we all have these pictures, and they're affecting us in certain ways. And to the extent they cause us to do things we don't want to do or react inappropriately, then survival is not as effective. Now, the question is who's looking at the picture? So if you have a mind and you've got pictures in there, we have a body, we know what our body is doing. Well, the question is, who's looking at the picture?

ST. JOHN: That's the big question.

MYERS: Yeah. And who's looking at the picture in Scientology is called the thetan, and that's you, the spirit. So what we're really looking at there, is the fact that you, the being is the one who is looking at the pictures. You're having considerations and it's your ideas. So think about mind, body, spirit, and so the thetan is just another word for spirit. And we use the word thetan, it comes from theta, which means thought. And so it's the one who's doing the thinking. The one who is considering. So it just helps differentiate those three aspects of mind, body, and spirit. And so although the whole study started around the idea of the mind, what happened was we kind of inadvertently, or Hubbard inadvertently tripped over you, the spirit. So all of a sudden we got into the field of theology and spirituality, which moves from Dianetics to Scientology. So Scientology, scio, is a group word meaning to know. So Scientology is really the study of knowing how to know. So that was some of the basics. That was some of the questions you asked, you asked a couple more.

ST. JOHN: Well, from what you're saying so far this doesn't sound so different from several other approaches to the study of what it is to be a human. And I want to ask doctor Melton, what were the initial reactions to Scientology in America? They weren't -- there was quite a bit of opposition, right?

MELTON: Originally there was quite positive reaction.

ST. JOHN: Ah, ha.

MELTON: After Hubbard published Dianetics, it became a best selling book, it spawned a very popular self help movement around the presentation in there. And the church of Scientology then evolved out of the Dianetics movement over a people of several years. And it was after -- some years after the church evolved and came into being in the '50s before the real controversy rose. So the church's first few years were one of growth and pretty normal process. But then it began to run into trouble in the 60s, basically.

ST. JOHN: And can you highlight what it was that led to the trouble?

MELTON: Well, the self help movement that was Dianetics was accused of practicing medicine without a license. And the food and drugs administration got on its case, and there was an early raid, and the IRS got on its case, and began pulling tax exemptions, and then there was trouble over seas that reverted back in Australia, in particular. So ever since then, the church has been involved in a set of controversies. The IRS case took several decades before it was settled. It became actually the longest running investigation the IRS ever did before they finally returned the church's tax exempt status in the 90s.

ST. JOHN: You say there are 18 thousand members approximately in San Diego County; is that right?

MYERS: San Diego County. That's correct. There are a hundred and 67 churches around the world. And they're expanding dramatically at this time. The demand for Dianetics and Scientology and the activities that we're involved with our community activities are going through the roof right now.

ST. JOHN: So doctor Melton, rev Rand Myers didn't really address any changes as a result of the controversy. But I think one of the problems is that it's classed as a cult by many people. And you have claimed that the tradition is actually not a cult, it's a religion. Can you tell us the difference between a cult and a religion and why you believe Scientology is a religion and not a cult?

MELTON: The term cult is basically a label that some people put on different groups that they don't like. And it's very hard to define a cult because it's a very subjective as to what it is that the person using the term means by it. People who have used that term even in recent years have very different definitions.

ST. JOHN: There's no good definition for a religion versus a cult?

MELTON: Well, cults are simply religions you don't like. The term doesn't have any content. It's kind of like if I said there's a cult operating down the street. Tell me about it. There's nothing you can say about that group just from calling it a cult, other than it's a religion and you don't like it because all the different groups that have been called cults look very, very different from each other.

MYERS: Maybe you could define what a religion is or what are the elements that make it a religion and then we could talk about how that applies to signing to, doctor Melton.

MELTON: Well, religious groups are groups that deal in what we call ultimate values. That is, those ideas that have to do with God and human destiny, and where humans ultimately come from. They gather together in a group, they have an ethic, they have rituals, they have ways of behaving and emphasize different kinds of ideas. That's kind of a working definition.

ST. JOHN: All of which I'm sure rev Rand Myers you would say applies to Scientology.

MYERS: Exactly. From the point of view if you recognize that the fundamental tenet is that you are a spiritual being, then by definition, you've got the spiritual element that you're dealing with. To the extent that you apply that to life and improving continues for yourself or your family or the community, those are other examples. We have fire thousand pages of philosophy that Mr. Hubbard wrote. There's three thousand lectures about an hour long that represent the philosophy and theology of Scientology. So there's a lot to study and a lot to learn and you can apply it in many different ways. And what's true for you is what's true, is one of the tenets of Scientology. So we're not defining truth for you, we're putting things out for people to look at. And see how they can apply it to their life.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So let's get into some specific things that have kind of cropped up recently about scientology and see if we can find out more. Reverend Myers, there's an FBI investigation into the church on reports that members of Scientology so called Sea Organization were held against their will. Is the church cooperating with that investigation and what's the background?

MYERS: Actually, that's totally a false statement. Although you may have read it in the New York Times or the New Yorker. There is no FBI investigation in Scientology. There may have been at one time in the past. Just like there is an IRS investigation. But just like the IRS investigation which was put to bed back in 1994, there's no FBI investigation. Our sources have checked into that, and obviously anybody can be investigated by anybody, but there's nothing going on, so there's no aspect to that at this time.

ST. JOHN: Doctor Melton, do you have anything to reflect on that particular --

MELTON: I've not been able to verify that there's any kind of investigation going on of the church at the moment. Or by any other law enforcement agency.

ST. JOHN: Or whether anybody was held against their will.

MELTON: There's within no substantiation of that either. The -- there have been some -- there are a number of charges that are floating around about the Sea Org. Sea Org is a internal fraternity that's somewhat like the Jesuits, it's an ordered community that functions within the church and has X thousand members, five, six thousand at any given moment. And these members live a very ordered and disciplined life. And that's where the charges have come that some people are staying against their will. But there has been absolutely no substantiation on that.

MYERS: I can jump in on that. In fact we actually are working with the federal government in many different ways. We work with the White House drug policy office here in San Diego. And we have our project down in Baja where we're going to be training students in drug education to help mitigate that social problem. And so those are our friends there in the White House and in the drug policy alliance areas and so we work actively in the community in that regard. So I'm sure they would tell us if we were being investigated.

ST. JOHN: Well, I gotta say, you know, the Catholic church, there's no shortage of investigations that have occurred there. And that doesn't make them any les of a religion.

MYERS: Exactly. Very much so.

ST. JOHN: Here's another issue here, in this article, the New Yorker article, former Scientologist Paul Haggis says he left Scientology largely because of its stand on gay rights. What is your stand on gay rights?

MYERS: We don't have a stand on gay rights. So that's just a false conclusion on his behalf. We respect the rights of everyone in that regard. That's a key principle. And if you respect others, you have to respect all the aspects. In fact, we stand up for the declaration of human rights. And that involves that aspect.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Now, a famous episode of the cartoon series south park really ripped into Scientology, both its beliefs and the way it's practiced am according to the church, was there anything accurate about that episode?

MYERS: Well, I can't speak to it exactly 'cause I never actually saw that episode. But I understand that south park is entertainment, not education. And so I doubt very much whether anything really is substantive in that regard. But I can't speak to it because I didn't see it. But I know from representing others it just doesn't represent the common beliefs of Scientologists, but it probably was an excellent form of entertainment. And mockery against other groups sometimes is in fact entertainment.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So doctor Melton, Scientology seems to have quite an attraction for high profile actors and film makers. What do you think is behind that?

MELTON: Well, when they established themselves in Hollywood, they filled a gap that had formerly been filled by a Christian group, the Hollywood Christian club. This had been the kind of high profile club serving the entertainment community back in the '40s and '50s. Jane Russell, for example, was a member of that group. And -- but that group had kind of dissolved away. And Hubbard saw a need for dealing with people who had high profile positions, and hence could not attend regular churches because they were always the celebrity in the pew kind of situation. So he indicated the celebrity centers where they could go and just be people and do their thing.

ST. JOHN: Why is it do you think that this particular approach to trying to get to the meaning of life is so attractive to --

MYERS: Well, let me jump in on that one if I may.

ST. JOHN: Go ahead, reverend Myers.

MYERS: Whether you're an actor and high profile celebrity or whether you're a housewife or a fireman, you're interested in proving your life. Everybody wants to get better. And so everybody's looking for things that can help them. And so if you can actually get rid of your reactive mind and actually make saner decisions and do better in life, then that's attractive to everyone. So whether it's a high profile celebrity, or whether it's just everybody that you know in your day to day life, they all want to get better. And so if someone picks Scientologist versus Islam or Christianity as a way to handle the spiritual elements of their life, then that's their choice. The fact that we have a celebrity center in Los Angeles and also Las Vegas and Nashville and New York are just an approach that we have to help people in a way that doctor Melton said. So they can have their privacy and do the spiritual evolution that they want to do on their own without being in a pew, being gawked at by thousands of people.

ST. JOHN: And one last question for you, doctor Melton. Could you think there's a chance that the church of Scientology might enter the mainstream of American religions?

MELTON: Not really. At least not in our lifetime. It's too very, very different from the mainstream. It would have to become something that it is not. It may I think continue to grow and take in new members. And it's certainly in terms of the community, the larger community out of which it comes, it's been the most successful of the various -- of the groups that are most like it.

ST. JOHN: Interesting. Okay.

MYERS: Yeah, it's actually the fastest growing religion in the world today.

ST. JOHN: Well, on that note, I'm afraid we've run out of time, but I'd like to thank you both very much for giving us a glimpse into the church of Scientology. That's the reverend David Myers, thank you for being with us.

MYERS: Thank you.

ST. JOHN: And doctor David Melton who is the direct offer of proof of the study for the study of American Religion. Thank you for your perspective also.

MYERS: Thank you doctor Melton.

MELTON: You're welcome.

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