Although the subtitle refers to it as a "new religion", a central concern of this book is whether the Church of Scientology is indeed a religion - or rather, given that the author says he considers that this could be the wrong question, it is suggested that we should ask: "Who gets to define something as being or not being a religion?" and "What is at stake as a result of the definition?" Is it the movement itself, scholars, the media, the general public, the Internal Revenue Service in the US or the courts that should and/or do decide on the religious (or non-religious) standing of an organisation? And we might note not only that Scientology benefited to the tune of millions of dollars when the IRS, after years of legal wrangling, finally agreed to classify it as a religion, but also that in other countries around the world, the church was able to flaunt its hard-won status as evidence of its acceptability in the US.
Progressing from "a penny- a-word pulp fiction writer to the leader of the world's most controversial new religion", L. Ron Hubbard's life provides an unusual variation of the rags-to-riches story. While he and his ideas have inspired hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of those who have followed his courses "on the road to total freedom", countless others, especially some who have left the Scientology organisation, see him as a scheming, duplicitous, manipulative and dangerous moneymaker. Hugh Urban, a professor of religious studies at Ohio State University, acknowledges both these assessments and cautiously walks a tightrope that, he hopes, will allow him to employ what he calls "the dual perspective of a hermeneutics of respect and a hermeneutics of suspicion". On the one hand he makes quite sure that the reader is aware that Scientology has engaged in a wide variety of criminal activities, and on the other he wants to make quite sure that he will not end up as the defendant in one of the thousands of litigations in which the church has been involved.
The book devotes a chapter to a brief introduction to Hubbard's biography, pointing out many of the inconsistencies to be found in the various accounts, and then devotes another chapter to the emergence of the Church of Scientology from its beginnings as "the science of Dianetics". It is unlikely that Scientology watchers will be startled by much in the way of new revelations, although the author continually reminds us with adjectives such as "remarkable" and "amazing" that the story is indeed just that - remarkable and amazing.
Perhaps the most original offering in this volume (there are scores of others on Scientology) is the contextualisation of the development of the movement within the social milieu of Cold War America in the 1950s and 1960s, where suspicion, surveillance and subterfuge were rife. Scientology's penchant for preserving its own inner secrets while exposing those of others by nefarious means could be seen as little more than a reflection of the McCarthy-era activities of the FBI and the CIA. Another interesting discussion involves some of the ways in which the expansion of the internet has shifted the goalposts in "the cult wars", providing all the participants with weapons undreamed of only a few decades ago.
Apart from a few asides, there is little reference to Scientology in countries other than the US. Judiciously balanced, with a myriad of footnotes covering the author's back, the book tends to be somewhat repetitive, but is mercifully free of the jargon to be found within both Scientology and all too many academic volumes. It is, however, pretty clear that Urban has been more convinced by Scientology's opponents than by its supporters - although he does remind us more than once that the fact that Catholic bishops have covered up child abuse does not prevent millions of ordinary believers worldwide from continuing to find Catholicism meaningful in their daily lives.
The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion
By Hugh B. Urban. Princeton University Press 296pp, £19.95. ISBN 9780691146089. Published 14 September 2011