1. The Church of Scientology as a new religion.
The Church of Scientology is one of a number of new religious movements which embrace in certain respects some of the trends evident in contemporary western society. It employs language which is contemporary, colloquial, and unmystical; and it presents its dogmas as matters of objective fact. Its conception of salvation has both a proximate and an ultimate dimension. The wide appeal that it has commanded among the public of advanced countries of the western world has made it a focus of attention among sociologists who specialize in the study of contemporary minority religions, of whom I am one.
2. My knowledge of Scientology.
I began to read the literature of the Church of Scientology in 1968, and at one time even projected a study of the movement. Although I did not finally undertake that work, I continued to maintain an interest in Scientology and its literature. Since that time, I have maintained contact with the movement in Britain, visiting the Church’s headquarters at Saint Hill Manor, East Grinstead, U.K., on several occasions, and becoming acquainted with Scientologists. I have continued to take a close interest in the development of the religion as one among a number of contemporary religions that are objects of interest to me as a sociologist. I have read, among other material of a more ephemeral nature, more than twenty of the Church’s official publications, most of them the writings of the founder, L. Ron Hubbard. In works that I have written on new religions, I have referred to Scientology on various occasions, and included a short account of this religion in my book Religious Sects, (London Weidenfeld, and New York, McGraw Hill, 1970), and a longer discussion in my more recent work, The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism, (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1990). I have maintained my academic interest in the movement for the last twenty-six years.
3. Esoteric elements in Scientology.
Whilst most of the teachings and rituals of most religions are exoteric, some religions, Christian and non-Christian, embrace both exoteric and esoteric aspects. The teachings of Scientology may be divided into those set forth in a widely circulated exoteric literature, which is concerned principally with offering practical assistance to people to cope with their problems of communication, relationships, and the maintenance of intelligent, rational, and positive orientations to life, and teachings which are expounded in a restricted corpus of what may be called esoteric literature. This esoteric literature is made available only to advanced students of Scientology. It presents the metaphysics of the religion. It sets out the theory of the theta (primal thought or spirit); its deterioration by becoming involved in the material universe of matter, energy, space and time in the process of past lives; and indicates the way in which man can acquire — strictly said, re-gain — supernatural abilities. It is in thi literature that the elements of the belief-system of Scientology are presented, and these ideas are couched in terms closer to theories current in other religious movements than are those aspects presented in the exoteric literature of the movement.
4. Esoteric aspects of Christianity.
Within the Christian gospel there are intimations of secret or undisclosed teachings which are suitable only for those well-advanced in the faith. Jesus told his disciples, “I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now” (John 16:12), and Paul distinguished between strong meat for seasoned believers and milk for babes (I Corinthians 3: 1 -3), and this theme was reiterated by the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 5: 12-14).
The Gnostic tradition in Christianity, which appears in the 1st and 2nd centuries, and which has been described by one authority as a “world-wide movement” (in the then known world), arose in the belief in the validity of esoteric teachings and an esoteric literature. Various sects arose, some claiming a secret tradition of special knowledge derived from the apostles and the secret sayings of Jesus. Typically, “spiritual men“, who were held to have received a divine spark of spiritual substance, might, by the application of the gnosis (knowledge) and appropriate rites, be rescued from the evil material environment. Thus, knowledge was held to have redemptive power, liberating the soul from cosmic forces. The secret teachings of the Gnostics maintained that this material world was not the creation of God, but of an inferior demiurge; a man in his true nature was akin to the divine, a spark of heavenly light entrapped in a material body. Whilst Gnosticism was subsequently anathematized by the Christian fathers, it is conceded that 1st Century Christianity was a least partly gnostic in spirit and belief.
6. Contemporary “gnostic” sects.
The gnostic tradition has persisted in Christendom, and a number of quasi-religious bodies, such as the Rosicrucians of the 17th Century and their various off-shoots, such as Freemasonry, have, within a broadly religious and spiritual context, maintained a body of esoteric teachings and practices. A more recent and more explicitly religious example, one of various so-called New Thought movements, is Christian Science, which alongside exoteric literature also maintains a tradition of esoteric instruction. The general teachings are augmented for those who seek to become advanced students, or who wish to undertake the profession of Christian Science practitioner, by a system of class-instruction from a teacher recognized by The Mother Church in Boston, Massachusetts. The material used in these classes is strictly confidential. Teachers normally forbid students to take notes or to burn any notes that are used. Whilst Christian Scientists are taught to regard the textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by the founder of the Church, Mary Baker Eddy, as containing a full statement of truth, none the less, the tradition of special additional instruction itself goes back to Mrs. Eddy’s own practice. There are also in circulation and use among Christian Scientists, certain prayers and protective utterances (protective, that is, from the baleful influences of “malicious animal magnetism“) which are highly regarded but which are not part of the exoteric literature.
7. Reserved teachings and practices.
Apart from the exoteric elements in gnostic sects, some other Christian groups engage in rituals and cultivate teachings which are not immediately made available to non-members. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints admits to its special ritual ceremonies only those Mormons who are in good standing and who receive a permit from their bishop, which indicates, inter alia, that they have been fulfilling their commitment to tithe ten per cent of their earnings to the church; no others are allowed to attend these ritual occasions. Closer to the Protestant mainstream, some Pentecostalist sects disclose the full significance of their teaching and practice of “the gifts of the Spirit” only at designated services and not at those evangelistic meetings designed to attack a non-Pentecostal public. Whilst the teachings relative to the gifts, which are the raison d’etre of separate Pentecostal sects, are by no means secret, many pastors consider it inappropriate to confront outsiders and potential converts with these distinctive doctrines and practices at the outset of their acquaintance with the movement. The Pauline principle prevails of reserving “strong meat” for those more advanced in faith.
8. Esotericism in non-Christian Religions: Judaism.
Religious mysticism is a natural location for esoteric teaching, and the Jewish mystic tradition, the Kabbala (Cabala), exemplifies this. Jewish mysticism can be traced back to at least the 1st Century, when eschatological, messianic, and apocalyptic influences were strong. Closed circles formed among the pupils of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, and mystical studies, Pardes, covered the literal, allegorical, and mystical methods of biblical interpretation. The study of the Kabbala („tradition“) was open only to adepts who underwent rigorous mystical discipline, seeking to behold the divine presences and to learn the secrets of creation and the time of the coming of the messiah. Kabbalistic teachings of En Soph, the hidden god, spread among Jews in Europe from the 9th to the 13th century, reaching a climax in the appearance of a book of mysteries, the Zohar. Although the Zohar was published in 1558-60, with subsequent translations, its mystical content remains fully accessible only to adepts and this, despite the popularization of mystical teachings and rituals in the doctrines of Hasidism in eighteenth century Europe.
9. Esotericism in non-Christian Religions: Buddhism.
Although the Gautama Buddha is depicted in Pali Buddhism as taking pride in the fact that he kept nothing hidden in so far as knowledge conducive to salvation was concerned, some schools of Buddhism, conspicuously Tantric Buddhism and, in Japan, Shingon, evolved esoteric teachings. A central idea of the Tantric school is the distinction between the initiated and the uninitiated, and correspondingly between esoteric and exoteric teachings. In Tantricism, the really efficacious methods of salvation are not available from books, but they are taught by a spiritual instructor — a guru. The guru stands in the place of the Buddha and translates the secrets and mysteries of doctrine. He gathers around him initiates, and outsiders are regarded as lacking the special knowledge for salvation. Without ritual initiation one cannot begin spiritual training, or learn the use of sacred mantras, dance gestures, and occult rituals for the control of the mind and the body that is necessary to attain salvation. The system of me ditation is a graduated sequence of learning through which the practitioner eventually acquires the facility of becoming one with a deity.
Tantric ideas informed the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, which teaches exclusively esoteric doctrines, using mantras and for that reason being known as the Vehicle of True Words. Enlightenment is attainable only by esoteric rituals and by chanting secret mantras, the meanings of which are transmitted by masters to disciples and not revealed to ordinary followers. Exoteric teachings are regarded as inferior, since only secret teachings reveal the heart of the cosmos and enable the believer to draw on higher power. The founder of this school, Kobo Daishi, (774-835) developed a philosophy which ranked all the then known religions on a ten-point scale, with esoteric Buddhism as the pinnacle.
10. Esotericism as an educational principle.
The concept of the esoteric in religion may, in a democratic age, evoke unwarranted assumptions concerning the content of undisclosed teachings. In practice, religious systems which maintain a distinction between freely published and reserved doctrines conform to a broad educational principle of not exposing to advanced ideas those who have not yet demonstrated their mastery of elementary principles. The distinction seeks to avoid the circumstance in which those new in faith acquire ill-digested ideas before they have mastered the necessary ground-work to perceive them properly and to accord them appropiate respect. Scientology operates according to an analogous principle. The practice of auditing is designed to help the person being audited (the pre-clear) to cope with past traumatic experiences. Initially, a pre-clear is concerned with his current day-to-day problems, but beyond such issues he is gradually led to search for and confront causes of distress and inadequacy which go back to his early life. Once the problems arising in this lifetime are confronted, the amnesia which has shrouded recollection of untoward events in previous lifetimes is lifted. Scientologists believe that the lifetimes of the thetan go back millions of years, and that, in the course of that time, various incidents inducing totally baleful effects may have occurred as the thetan became injured by becoming entrapped by the material universe. Before the individual has learned to confront his own more recent traumatic experiences, he is unable to cope with items such as these. Even to allude to them might be profoundly disturbing. While to the outsider, reference to episodes occurring so far back in time might appear wholly arcane, to introduce them prematurely to the Scientology student, before he is ready to review them, would be profoundly upsetting and disruptive of his progress in attaining the enlightened consciousness towards which all his endeavors are directed. In consequence of the graduated nature of this system of learning and therapy, Scientologists feel it to be not only justified but imperative that they reserve their advanced materials to the use only of those who can benefit from them.
Given this day, 26th of November, 1994, in Oxford, England.
Bryan Ronald Wilson
About Bryan Wilson
Bryan Ronald Wilson is the Reader Emeritus in Sociology in the University of Oxford. From 1963 to 1993, he was also a Fellow of All Souls College, and in 1993 was elected an Emeritus Fellow.
For more than forty years, he has conducted research into minority religious movements in Britain and overseas (in the United States, Ghana, Kenya, Belgium and Japan, among other places). His work has involved reading the publications of these movements and, wherever possible, associating with their members in their meetings, services, and homes. It has also entailed sustained attention to, and critical appraisal of, the works of other scholars.
He holds the Degrees of B.Sc. (Econ) and Ph.D. of the University of London and the M.A. of the University of Oxford. In 1984, the University of Oxford recognized the value of his published work by conferring upon him the Degree of D.Litt. In 1992, the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, awarded him the Degree of Doctor Honoris Causa. In 1994, he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy.
At various times he has held the following additional appointments:
Commonwealth Fund Fellow (Harkness Foundation) at the University of California, Berkeley, United States, 1957-8;
Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, 1964;
Fellow of the American Counsel of Learned Societies, at the University of California, Berkeley, United States, 1966-7;
Research Consultant for the Society of Religion to the University of Padua, Italy, 1968-72;
Visiting Fellow of The Japan Society, 1975;
Visiting Professor, The Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium 1976; 1982; 1986; 1993;
Snider Visiting Professor, University of Toronto, Canada, 1978;
Visiting Professor in the Sociology of Religion, and Consultant for Religious Studies to the Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand, 1980-1;
Scott Visiting Fellow, Ormond College, University of Melbourne, Australia, 1981;
Visiting Professor, University of Queensland, Australia, 1986;
Distinguished Visiting Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara, California, U.S.A. 1987;
For the years 1971-5, he was President of the Conference Internationale de Sociologie Religieuse (the world-wide organization for the discipline); in 1991 he was elected Honorary President of this organization now re-named as Societe Internationale de Sociologie des Religions.
Council Member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (U.S.A.) 1977-9;
For several years, European Associate Editor, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion;
For six years, Joint Editor of The Annual Review of the Social Science of Religion.
He has lectured on minority religious movements extensively in Britain, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Japan and the United States, and occasionally in Germany, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.
He has been called as an expert witness on sects in courts in Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand and South Africa and has provided evidence on affidavit for courts in Australia and France. He had also been called upon to give expert written evidence on religious movements for the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons.
Among other works, he has published nine books devoted in whole or in part to minority religious movements:
Sects and Society: The Sociology of Three Religious Groups in Britain, London : Heinemann and Berkeley : University of California Press, 1961: reprinted, Westport, Conn., U.S.A., Greenwood Press, 1978)
Patterns of Sectarianism (edited) London: Heinemann, 1967
Religious Sects, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson; New York: McGraw Hill, 1970 (also published in translation in French, German, Spanish, Swedish and Japanese).
Magic and the Millennium, London: Heinemann, and New York: Harper and Row, 1973
Contemporary Transformations of Religion, London: Oxford University Press, 1976 (also published in translation in Italian and Japanese)
The Social Impact of the New Religious Movements (edited) New York: Rose of Sharon Press, 1981
Religion in Sociological Perspective, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982 (also published in translation in Italian: Japanese translation in preparation)
The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990
A Time to Chant: the Soka Gakkai Buddhists in Britain, [with K. Dobberlaere] Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994 (Japanese translation in preparation)
He has also contributed more than twenty-five articles on minority religious movements to edited works and learned journals in Britain, the United States, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Japan.