What Is Scientology?

What Is Scientology?

Scientology is famous for its celebrity following. But what do scientologists believe?

Founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in December 1953, Scientology is one of the youngest but most well known religions in the world. Often labeled a cult, Scientology could be considered the most controversial religious movement in twentieth-century America.

Hubbard’s works, including Dianetics and Scientology, form the scripture of the religion that developed during the last thirty-five years of his life.1 It was in an unpublished work titled “Excalibur” that Hubbard first used the word “scientology.” He defined it as “the study of knowing how to know.”2

The first Church of Scientology opened in Los Angeles in 1954. Since then, Scientology has become known for its unusual beliefs, secrecy, and high-profile adherents.

What Scientologists Believe

Scientologists work to reconnect with their past lives, heal traumatic events from their recent or distant personal pasts, and gain “levels” of personal clarity and inner strength.

Scientologists’ beliefs and the ways they worship are frequently controversial due to conflicting information published and controlled by the church’s California-based central authority. Though this secrecy keeps much of Scientology shrouded in mystery, some tenets of the religion are public knowledge.

Thetans and Engrams

According to the Church of Scientology, man is made up of three parts: body, mind, and thetan. The human body is a temporary shell for the thetan.

A thetan is “the spiritual being that is the person himself . . . composed of mental image pictures which are recordings of past experiences.”3 Within the Scientologists’ understanding, the thetan is the most important part of man, for “it is the creator of things. . . . Without the thetan, there would be no mind or animation in the body.”4

As part of living in these temporary, mortal bodies, thetans have forgotten their true natures. However, they continue to feel pain and conflict from past experiences. These memories are called engrams.

In short, an engram is “a complete recording, down to the last accurate detail, of every perception present in a moment of partial or full ‘unconsciousness.’”5 These recordings exist below a person’s awareness level; however, they can be activated and brought to the surface.

By confronting these painful memories—which may be from adolescence, childhood, or even previous lives—Scientologists work to reduce or erase these incidents. Through this process, a person can experience “enormous relief and a rise in emotional tone.”6

Scientologists endeavor to increase their personal understanding of their infinite past lives. The ultimate goal is to reach the highest level of personal understanding and become Operating Thetans.

An Operating Thetan “can handle things without having to use a body of physical means.”7 OT is “a state of spiritual awareness in which an individual is able to control themselves and their environment.”8 Once a member has reached the level of OT, they begin to study Hubbard’s advanced writings and move up the OT levels I–VIII.


To assist in the pursuit of spiritual awareness, Scientology uses a therapeutic counseling process known as “auditing,” which involves the use of an electropsychometer.9 Known as the E-meter, the device was invented by Volney Mathison, one of L. Ron Hubbard’s peers, in the 1950s.10

The E-meter measures the electrical response of a person’s skin by applying a low but constant voltage to it. This electrical energy circulates from the E-meter, through the body, and back into the E-meter.11

It is believed that trauma and internal conflict increase electrical resistance. By asking questions, the area of trauma can be found. Then, as a person is guided through their traumatic experiences, that resistance can be neutralized and the person’s mind will become clear.

Scientology is open to everyone, but auditing does require a donation to the church. At higher levels, these donations can cost over $9,000.12 As some information about the church’s teachings and beliefs are restricted to only members at the highest levels, this makes them effectively out-of-bounds for all but the wealthiest believers.


One such guarded teaching of Scientology is the role of Xenu in Scientology’s genesis story. In fact, a search for “Xenu” within the Scientology Newsroom website yields no results.13

The church has worked hard to keep the Xenu story a secret, as it is intended to be taught only to high-level Scientologists who have undergone extensive training.14 Church members refrain from mentioning Xenu in public announcements, but a 1993 lawsuit against the church resulted in parts of Hubbard’s book OT III being entered into the public record.15

According to OT III, Xenu was an evil alien dictator who ruled a civilization called the Galactic Federation 75 billion years ago. Xenu brought billions of his people to ancient Earth, imprisoned them in volcanoes—specifically the volcanoes in Hawaii—and then detonated hydrogen bombs, killing everyone. The immortal souls of these aliens—thetans—now inhabit human bodies.16

The secrecy regarding Xenu makes understanding Scientology harder than studying other religions. The Bible and the Qur’an, for example, are available in full for anyone to read and examine. It’s hard to say for certain how integral the Xenu story is to Scientology’s belief system.

Who Are Scientologists?

Beginning with L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, the Church of Scientology has grown into an international religious movement. Scientology claims 8,600 churches, missions in 165 nations, and millions of members worldwide.17

However, specific numbers of Scientologists are disputed. In fact, in 2008, the American Religious Identification Survey found only 25,000 members in the United States, which is known as the religion’s home country.18 In 2008, Trinity College’s American Religious Identification survey found that there were only 25,000 Scientologists in the United States.

Heber Jentzsch, once the president of the Church of Scientology, admitted that the numbers cited by Scientologists come from “the total number of people, since L. Ron Hubbard first came up with Dianetics in 1950, who have ever picked up a Hubbard book, or filled out a ‘personality test,’ or taken a course, or otherwise had any interaction with the organization in any way.”19

Whatever the real number, Scientology thrives on its high-profile adherents and an active community in the film and television industries. The most famous Scientologists include Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Elisabeth Moss. In addition to their raw star power, famous Scientologists frequently speak about how Scientology has been instrumental in launching their careers and helping them deal with personal pain.

John Travolta, for example, has had Scientologists with him almost constantly since the death of his son. As he said in an interview, “I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t had the support of Scientology. I don’t think I could have got through it. They were with me every day after Jett died. They even traveled with me when I needed to get away.”20

Close connections with superstar celebrities help raise Scientology’s profile in general, but there is evidence that Scientology’s total population is actually declining. The church frequently refers to newly acquired buildings as proof of growth. The church’s statistics page, for example, states “the combined size of Church premises increased from nearly 5.6 million square feet in 2004 to 12.1 million square feet in 2010.”21 However, some of these buildings stand vacant and are never filled with studying members. One building, which was intended to be a regional headquarters for Scientology in England, has been empty for seven years.22

Legal Status

The Church of Scientology is a recognized religious non-profit in the United States, but it has run into trouble in many other countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, a long-standing ruling that the church was not a religious organization was just overturned in 2013.23

Germany is the most ardent opponent of official recognition for Scientology, going as far as attempting to ban the church and its members from operating in Germany. That effort, which began in response to the church’s aggressive tactics in confronting government officials, former members, and critical members of the press, was dropped in 2011. One German official summed up Germany’s decision to close the inquiry by writing, “The appraisal of the government at the moment is that [Scientology] is a lousy organization, but it is not an organization that we have to take a hammer to.”24

Other countries that don’t recognize Scientology as a religious organization include Belgium,25 France,26 and Israel.27 The church still maintains missions and churches in these countries, but they do so under a variety of local restrictions and tax penalties.

Undeniably Unique

No matter how you feel about its specific beliefs or practices, Scientology is unique, at the least. And as Scientologists expand their message, beliefs, and churches, they will continue to fight for recognition around the globe.