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A History of a New Religion

by Hugh B. Urban

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-691-14608-9
Publisher: Princeton Univ.

A fascinating and oftentimes mind-bending account of how penny-a-word sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard doggedly pursued the “religion angle” in his quest to create the worldwide Church of Scientology.

Urban (Religious Studies/Ohio State Univ.) makes it clear from the outset that he could have written a lot more about Scientology than he has here—perhaps even a few volumes more. Settling on a narrower scope, however, hasn’t precluded the author from presenting a thoroughly absorbing chronicle of Scientology’s 60-year history in America. Beginning in the 1950s with the creation of the self-help system Hubbard dubbed Dianetics, the narrative quickly moves on to the founder’s audacious attempts to turn Scientology into a bona-fide tax-exempt religion, the incredible covert operations Scientologists launched against snooping federal authorities and the relentless war Scientologists still wage against unflinching critics today. Despite its conservative reputation, Urban believes that ’50s America offered Hubbard a “spiritual marketplace” teeming with new possibilities. It was a time of UFO sightings, the Red Menace and the growing influence of Eastern thought on American culture. Suddenly, there was also room for a man with a trunk full of intergalactic space operas, an abiding fascination in the occult and a talent for synthesizing already popular religious beliefs. All of which compels the author to pose the question: Just what, exactly, is religion and who gets to make the determination? Readers are ultimately left to ponder that question on their own, just as they’re left to wonder what Urban has left out. Esoteric knowledge, meanwhile, has always been Scientology’s stock and trade, but the Internet has largely taken that veil of secrecy and shredded it. That leaves another question to be answered: Does Scientology have a future?

An intriguing introduction into the labyrinthine world of Scientology and its meaning in American society. For a more entertaining, behind-the-scenes look, check out Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology (2011).