Is Scientology a Cult?

Church of Scientology Building in Los Angeles

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Scientology was created in 1952 by the charismatic leader and science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. It has been designated a religion by the United States and the UK governments for tax purposes. But it has also been called an "anti-constitutional sect" in Germany and a "dangerous cult" in France and in many parts of the United States. However, it is actually a New Religious Movement (NRM), defined as a religious, ethical, or spiritual group or community with relatively modern origins.

Scientology Key Takeaways

  • Scientology is best described as a New Religious Movement.
  • It does not have the extreme violence associated with "dangerous cults."
  • Former members have made a number of disturbing references to conditions within the church; the church agrees with some of those situations but denies others.

What Is a Cult?

To a sociologist, a cult is a small group of people who lack a distinctive authority structure, often possessing a charismatic leader or group of leaders, and who derive their inspiration and ideology outside of and counter to the predominant religious and social culture. However, in popular usage, a cult is a manipulative and authoritarian group that allegedly employs mind control and poses a threat to mental health. In that usage, a cult is branded as an authoritarian, communal and totalistic entity which is aggressive in proselytizing, systematic in indoctrination, relatively new and unfamiliar, and directed at disrupting the middle class. 

The term "cult" has been assigned by different people to Scientologists, Satanists, Mormons, The Peoples Church, the Manson Family, Pagans, the Marines, Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, Trekkies, and Pokemon Go players. Obviously, these different groups do not hold the same level of danger to its adherents or the rest of us.

New Religious Movements v. Cults

Because the term "cult" carries with it an extremely negative connotation, sociologists have discarded the term and call non-traditional religious sects such as these New Religious Movements (NRMs). Sociologists study NRMs for several reasons, including to examine the behavioral forces that create negative circumstances for their members.

Scientology lacks several of the most common hallmarks of a truly dangerous cult, such as the presence of an adored, living founder; a small, easily controlled number of members; and a history of murders or suicides at the order of the leadership.

On the other hand, there is significant concern about the amount of control wielded by the church, and its history of legal trouble can be highly problematic. Here are ten characteristics which are commonly associated with dangerous cults, and how Scientology stacks up.

Central Authority in a Single, Charismatic Leader

Scientology was founded by a single, charismatic man, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. His original intent was to set it up as a science, but when that failed he transformed into a religious movement.

Hubbard died in 1986, and the current head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, is too removed from many members to be compared with the charismatic leaders of dangerous cults such as Jim Jones or David Koresh, who ruled their members in large part through a cult of personality. Miscavige is neither a prophet nor a god.

However, outspoken critic Jeffrey Augustine says Miscavige keeps all the power and control over the money. And Miscavige's activities in association with the Sea Org community (an ecclesiastical priesthood of Scientology that conducts missionary work aboard a sea-going ship) have been criticized by several former members. Former Sea Org employees Amy Scobee and Mark Rinder have described Miscavige as abusive and tyrannical.

Control Over Life and Death

Scientologists are generally not willing to kill for their religion, nor is the Church known for dictating who lives and who dies.

The church and its former members report that people do sign "billion-year contracts" to join Scientology because the church believes in reincarnation, and both the church and its former members say it is very difficult to break those contracts and leave.

Commission of Felonies

Numerous legal accusations have been leveled at the Church over the years, and some have led to convictions, most notably in connection with Operation Snow White, which included theft of government documents. The most common accusations are fraud, extortion, and harassment, although other accusations such as kidnapping and negligent homicide have also been leveled.

According to former members, crimes by members are handled in-house; adherents are told that the criminal justice system does not work and even felonious crimes such as rape and assault committed by members are to be handled by the church, not outside of it.

Strict Control Over Lives of Members

Scientology recommends a variety of practices considered strange to outsiders, and there are many rumors of members being forced to subject themselves to things such as silent birth techniques, although evidence is often lacking. The Church insists all of their practices are entirely voluntary. The reality may be too varied to be accurately generalized.

Former 35-year member Leah Remini has accused the group of attempting to "control people and how they think." She claims in her 2016 film "Going Clear" that when she asked questions about the whereabouts of David Miscavige's wife, Remini was punished, subjected to interrogations and then billed for them.

Separation From Contacts Outside the Group

Scientologists may freely interact with non-Scientologists, with the exception of "suppressive persons" or SPs, which are people who have been deemed by the Church to impede the progress of Scientologists. Scientologists are highly encouraged to "disconnect" from SPs and may be banned from church activities if they continue contact. SPs may include friends and family.

There are some reports that family members lose all contact with new Scientology recruits. People who leave Scientology do become SPs, and any family members or friends still in the church are forbidden from contacting them. Former Sea Org employee Chris Collbrans said when she and her husband wanted to leave, the church separated the couple, took their passports, and intercepted their letters.

Polarized Worldview

The church is highly aware of groups that are working against them, and they also tend to label groups with which they highly disagree (including the entire psychiatry profession) as working actively against the church, Scientology, and even humanity in general. As such, they certainly do not consider all non-Scientologists to be hostile to them, but they consider themselves part of an epic battle against specific dark forces.

Living in Communal Isolation

Scientologists live in a variety of living arrangements. Many live normal lives in homes or apartments with their families. However, there are groups within Scientology (notably Sea Org) that tend to have at least semi-communal arrangements in which families may be separated. There are many accusations from former members that such arrangements could be very isolating.

According to both the church and its former members, the Sea Org community travels the World aboard Free Wind, its employees dedicated to spreading the doctrine of Scientology. The church says it is a religious order with a demanding lifestyle: Former employees report they work long hours, are paid very little, and are discouraged from having families.

Large Required Donations

The church offers a wide variety of services to its membership that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Members are encouraged to make use of such services since they are a primary way of achieving the goals of Scientology. There is a wide degree of debate as to how much actual pressure is applied to members to purchase these services, although there are multiple documented cases of Scientologists citing financial pressures as reasons for wanting to leave or for thoughts of suicide.

Former Sea Org member Marc Headley says he was paid an average of 39 cents an hour over 15 years, and others have said the same in that they work very hard and are paid very little. The money gathered from donations has allowed the church to build or renovate opulent churches called Ideal Orgs, in Rome, Malmo (Sweden), Milan, Dallas, Nashville, and Washington. There are over 50 hotels and office buildings on the gulf coast of Florida and a 380,000 square foot facility that looks like a convention center.

Holdings for Scientology are estimated at $11 billion.

Conformity: Subjection of Individual Desires and Thoughts

The main goal of Scientology is to better your own individual soul, so the needs of individuals is very much a focus in Scientology practices. However, critics are quickly labeled as suppressive persons, which enforces conformity.

Former Scientology official Mark Rinder reports that in his role he often coerced adherents into staying silent or with the church using blackmail. Members are "audited," a confession of all their secret fears and sins that is videotaped and used for this purpose.

Punishment for Defection or Criticism

Defection and criticism can lead to one being labeled a suppressive person from whom other members should disconnect. SPs can become targets of harassment through the church's "fair game" doctrine. Established by L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, the "fair game" doctrine states that anyone identified as an opponent may be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist.

Scientology has sued several of its former members; defectors are shunned or "disconnected." According to the church and former members, leaving is a lengthy process that can take months. The church requires that the leaving members pay "freeloader" bills—former members report bills of tens of thousands of dollars—and sign affidavits which are drawn up by the officials. 

Mark Rinder reports that one of his main jobs was to discredit and destroy critics, including journalists and former members. Methods include labeling the enemy as a "suppressive person," cutting all contact and "disconnected," and filing lawsuits.

In the 1990s, Scientology filed very large lawsuits against Time and The Washington Post. The Time lawsuit was for a 1991 article they wrote called "Scientology: The Cult of Greed," and although the case was dismissed, Time-Warner paid an estimated $3.7 million in legal fees.

Group Is Small and Contained

Independent estimates put current membership of the church at roughly 55,000 people, which is far larger than the traditional cult, typically limited to dozens or hundreds of members.

Reports of the size of the church within and without the organization are varied. Church spokesman Derek Davis says it has anywhere from 8 to 12 million people in 11,000 churches, missions, and affiliated groups in 167 countries. The American Religious Identification Survey found only 25,000 in the U.S. in 2008.

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Your Citation
Beyer, Catherine. "Is Scientology a Cult?" Learn Religions, Oct. 7, 2021, Beyer, Catherine. (2021, October 7). Is Scientology a Cult? Retrieved from Beyer, Catherine. "Is Scientology a Cult?" Learn Religions. (accessed March 27, 2023).