Scientology: Church now claims more than 8 million members

Published: Monday, Sept. 20 2004 9:53 a.m. MDT

Scientology is an "applied religious philosophy" so it's possible to be both a Scientologist and any other religion, he says. Hubbard's credo on integrity reminds that "nothing in Dianetics and Scientology is true for you unless you have observed it and it is true according to your observation." Members can decide for themselves whether they believe in God — what Scientologists typically refer to as a Supreme Being. The Rev. Parke guesses that more do believe than don't.

Where most Western religions are about faith, church member Magiera says, Scientology is about "bringing change through doing and applying." Some have argued that this makes Scientology not quite a religion, but several courts have disagreed, and in 1993 the IRS recognized the tax-exempt status of the church.

A religion, says local church member Lora Mengucci, director of Special Affairs, is an entity that has "a belief in some Ultimate Reality" that transcends the here and now of the secular world; religious practices directed toward "understanding, attaining or communing with" this Ultimate Reality; and a community of believers who join together in pursuing this Ultimate Reality.

Fifty years after its founding, the Church of Scientology continues to inspire controversy. In California earlier this summer, the head of the state's public schools hired a research group to evaluate the Narcanon anti-drug program, in use in some of the state's schools. School officials worry that the program is scientifically unsound and that it is tied too closely to Scientology teachings. Church officials say that Narcanon is a non-sectarian program but do acknowledge that Narcanon employees tend to be Scientologists and that the curriculum was developed by Hubbard. That curriculum includes Hubbard's beliefs that drugs accumulate indefinitely in body fat and thus must be detoxified by saunas and doses of niacin.

"The drug program is quite successful," argues Dr. J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion and considered an expert on new and non-conventional religions. "It has a very high non-recidivism rate. And their literacy program changes the life of the people who go through it," says Melton, the author of "The Church of Scientology," published in 2000 by Signature Books of Salt Lake City.

Melton says Scientology's early critics, in the 1960s, accused it of practicing medicine without a license because of the auditing sessions and the e-meter. So the church set up an entity known as the Guardians Office, Melton recounts. "The Guardians Office tried to get government files, and when they couldn't, they started a project to infiltrate government offices: the CIA, the FBI, the post office, the IRS." In the end, he says, "the people who did this were convicted only of stealing Xerox paper; it was a technical charge." After that, in the early 1980s, the church "cleaned house," he says, and some of those who were fired from the Guardians Office became some of the church's harshest critics.

"One of the questions we continually talk about," says Melton, "is the intensity of the opposition to Scientology." The reason for it, he guesses, is the church's success — and the fact that, as he says, "the church fights back. I tend to think they make a mountain out of a molehill. It's like a pitbull: if you attack, it will come back at you."

Sandra Lucas, the director of the Utah chapter of the church's Citizens Commission on Human Rights, thinks the opposition to Scientology had its roots in the group's views on mental health, which galvanized the mental health community against the church.

"Like all new ideas, Scientology has come under attack by the uninformed and those who feel their vested interests are threatened," is the way the church's 737-page "What Is Scientology" explains criticisms of the church and its ideas.

Melton, who has been criticized by some for being too easy on Scientology, and has been criticized by the church for being too harsh, says that the church's estimates of its membership numbers — 4 million in the United States, 8 to 9 million worldwide — are exaggerated. "You're talking about anyone who ever bought a Scientology book or took a basic course. Ninety-nine percent of them don't ever darken the door of the church again." If the church indeed had 4 million members in the United States, he says, "they would be like the Lutherans and would show up on a national survey" such as the Harris poll.

In an effort to spread the word about its religion, the church is expanding its outreach program. In Salt Lake City that means not just a church in Sugar House and a mission downtown but a new, bright yellow van and a bright yellow tent. The tent is currently pitched at the Utah State Fair, where the church's "volunteer ministers" are spreading the gospel according to L. Ron Hubbard.


E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com

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