Scientology, disability, and the illusion of transcendence
Scientology is for an able guy like you or like me … The insane and so forth, somebody else can have them. They’ve already failed.
- L. Ron Hubbard, 1966.¹
The Church of Scientology is obsessed with the concept of 'ability'. In his only public interview to date, David Miscavige, the current leader of the movement, said that the singular goal of Scientology is to ‘help the able become more able,’² and the Church claims to do just that by proselytising the psycho-therapeutic 'technology' invented by its founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
Casual observers of Scientology might notice the near-total absence of disabled parishioners or disability-inclusive messages in its promotional material. Most religions take pride in exhibiting the mental and physical diversity of their members, but not Scientology. The ideal parishioner is physically mobile, extroverted, and neurotypical. Hubbard wanted to create ‘a civilization without insanity,’³ which in his mind included mental disabilities, so traits like autism, dyslexia, and Down’s Syndrome are highly undesirable to a Scientology public relations officer.
Scientologists believe that most disabilities are caused by subconscious traumas hidden deep within our psyches, and that by addressing those traumas one can unlock superhuman intelligence and immunity to most diseases. Hubbard insisted that his methods could expunge any disability that does not derive from physical damage to the body, so Scientology publications routinely carry titles like 'How We Help—Making Learning Disabilities Vanish'.⁴ Tom Cruise, the world's most famous Scientologist, claims to have been completely cured of dyslexia.⁵
In addition to its therapeutic teachings, the Church has an elaborate spiritual cosmology that gives even greater significance to its understanding of 'ability'. Hubbard wrote that immortal human souls called 'thetans' have existed in this universe for quadrillions of years but have become ignorant of their true godlike powers. In the secretive upper-level scriptures of Scientology, Hubbard revealed that this fall from grace is partly due to the actions of an intergalactic warlord 75 million years ago.
Because devotees of this new religion are supposed to be engaged in a do-or-die battle for the future of humanity, Hubbard had little patience for disability within Scientology. As he wrote in the 1965 document 'Keeping Scientology Working':
We'd rather have you dead than incapable. ... The whole agonized future of this planet, every Man, Woman, and Child on it, and your own destiny for the next endless trillions of years depend on what you do here and now with and in Scientology.⁶
Behind the grandiosity of Scientology's claims, however, there is no verifiable evidence that any of its believers have entered the ‘new realm of ability’ that Hubbard promised.⁷ Why, then, does anyone remain loyal?
The transcendence that Scientology offers is a cleverly-constructed edifice, made entirely from the cultural material available when the religion was founded in the 1950s. Hubbard was an incessant kleptomaniac and a savvy entrepreneur.⁸ He knew how to repackage existing psycho-therapeutic and spiritual ideas and make them fit the particular needs, fears, and desires of the time, in this case mid-twentieth-century America. But his revelation of transcendent truth was ironically anchored to that period. Scientology is looking more like an antiquated artefact of the fifties with every passing year, especially in its phobic views on things like homosexuality and disability. The whole religion is trapped in a time-warp of moralities and bigotries from seventy years ago.
Despite this, the story of Scientology's crusade against disability is still relevant. We are continuously besieged by preachers of spiritual or political transcendence—people who promise us a fresh start, untethered from the limitations of the present. But as the story presented here demonstrates, applying transcendental fantasies to real-life issues like disability is not only misguided, but often dangerous.
I will argue here that Hubbard offered three types of freedom which all in some way influenced Scientology’s attitude towards disability: freedom from imperfection, freedom from the here and now, and freedom from facts. Each one of these freedoms is entirely illusory.
I. Freedom from imperfection
Before Scientology, there was Dianetics. Having spent decades writing pulp and science fiction stories for a living, in 1950 Hubbard branched out into popular psycho-therapy. Psychological self-help books promised to equip ordinary people with the tools to address their own mental health issues, often by simplifying existing medical theories for popular consumption. Hubbard, however, forged ahead with his own (scientifically unfounded) ideas.
The book that started Hubbard's journey as a new age messiah was titled Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. It opened with a blistering attack on contemporary psychiatry. ‘In terms of brutality in treatment of the insane,’ he wrote:
the methods of the shaman or Bedlam have been far exceeded by the “civilized” techniques of destroying nerve tissues with the violence of shock and surgery — treatments which were not warranted by the results obtained and which would not have been tolerated in the meanest primitive society, since they reduce the victim to mere zombyism, destroying most of his personality and ambition and leaving him nothing more than a manageable animal.⁹
After dismissing professional approaches to mental health, Hubbard made truly remarkable claims about the potential of his new ‘science’. He contended that there was a ‘single source of all insanities, psychoses, neuroses, compulsions, repressions and social derangements,’ and that Dianetics contains ‘a therapeutic technique with which can be treated all inorganic mental ills and all organic psychosomatic ills, with assurance of complete cure.’ Since he believed that around 70% of all illnesses are ‘psychosomatic’ — meaning they originate in the mind — Hubbard argued that even lifelong disabilities could be completely eradicated through Dianetic therapy.¹⁰
The basis for Hubbard's theory was a novel analysis of the mind, which he split into two main parts: the ‘analytical mind,’ which is the rational and computational part; and the ‘reactive mind,’ in which is stored all the traumas, or ‘engrams,’ which hold back the potential of human ability, even those from ‘unconscious’ moments. They therefore include experiences inside the womb and during child birth.¹¹
By 'running' these traumas through ‘auditing,’ a type of one-to-one counselling peculiar to Dianetics, the patient can alleviate the ability-inhibiting effects of engrams and achieve incredible results: ‘the arthritis vanishes, myopia gets better, heart illness decreases, asthma disappears, stomachs function properly, and the whole catalog of ills goes away and stays away.’ Furthermore, once an individual reaches the state of ‘Clear’ by dealing with all of their engrams, they can expect to possess drastically increased intelligence and perfect memory recall.¹² In a word: perfection.
Disability does not fit into this schema. Scientologists see the Church as a MENSA-like group comprising the most normatively able individuals on the planet. As Hubbard put it: ‘Scientologists are the best people on each of the five continents and that’s all there is to it.’¹³
The problem is that, while professing to hold the key to ‘curing’ disabilities, almost nothing in Dianetics was truly new. For instance, Hubbard claimed to have been tutored in Freudian psycho-analysis by one of Freud’s own students; and, fittingly, one fellow author called his work ‘a lunatic revision of Freudian psychology.’¹⁴ Jon Atack, a former Scientologist, has written that Dianetic techniques ‘can be derived almost entirely from three short Freud lectures,’¹⁵ and also argues that the ‘hypnotic’ elements of auditing can be attributed to Hubbard’s experience with occult Magick in the late-1940s.¹⁶ Dianetics auditors would later start using devices called psycho-galvanometers, relabeled as electro-psychometers, to measure the patient’s mental reaction to certain subjects—something Carl Gustav Jung wrote about decades earlier.¹⁷
Culturally, too, everything about Dianetics screams ‘mid-twentieth-century America’. There is a strong implication throughout Hubbard’s work (especially his propensity to talk about 'primitive' races) that the most 'able' people are white. This type of thinking is emblematic of a colonial worldview, popular in America during Hubbard’s upbringing, in which people of colour are structurally unable to meet the standards of the idyllic white norm.¹⁸ And while anti-psychiatry was fairly common in postwar America,¹⁹ the fact that Hubbard conceptualised disabilities as something to be ‘cured’ in the first place also betrays his uncritical acceptance of contemporary medico-cultural axioms.²⁰ Dianetics simply promised to fulfill, in one swoop, the idealisms of a generation.
And this was only the beginning.
II. Freedom from the here and now
Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health was a runaway success, topping multiple best-seller lists and spawning a wave of do-it-yourself psycho-therapy groups.²¹ However, the long-term sustainability of the movement was hobbled by Hubbard’s poor business sense and rampant profligacy, which resulted in him bankrupting his new business empire and briefly losing the rights to Dianetics.
It was in response to these setbacks that Hubbard adopted a new name for his movement: Scientology (meaning, as he put it, 'knowing how to know’). He now set his sights even higher, claiming to have ‘come across incontrovertible, scientifically-validated evidence of the existence of the human soul.’²² In keeping with the spirituality of the new movement, and under pressure from government agencies cracking down on Dianetics for ‘practising medicine without a license,' Hubbard pursued what he called the ‘religion angle’. In 1953, he founded the Church of Scientology.²³ The Church would add disabilities of the soul to the list of ailments it purported to cure.
In Hubbard’s new cosmology, each human possesses (or rather, is) an immortal soul called a ‘thetan’. Thetans, he argued, have existed in this universe for quadrillions of years and have occupied countless bodies, meaning the limitations of modern humanity are a result of traumatic memories — ‘engrams’ — from their past as well as current lives. This view was expressed in Hubbard’s book What to Audit (1952), later renamed A History of Man, which chronicled some of the common traumas that thetans have accumulated over the last sixty trillion years. With knowledge of this history, Hubbard wrote, ‘the blind see again, the lame walk, the ill recover, the insane become sane [and] the thousand abilities Man has sought to recover become his once more.’²⁴
In the following decades Hubbard elaborated upon these ideas and formulated a new philosophy that incorporated both the ‘science’ of Dianetics and the spiritual cosmology of Scientology. The state of ‘Clear,’ which had once been the optimum state of being, was now merely a mid-point on one’s journey along the ‘Bridge to Total Freedom’. The higher states, in which individuals unlock the true potential of their spiritual selves (including psychic and telekinetic abilities, as well as exteriorisation from the body at will), are called ‘Operating Thetan’ (OT).²⁵ Hubbard warned that the uninitiated reader of the eight OT levels would die of pneumonia,²⁶ but the confidential documents are now shared widely on the Internet.
OT III is by far the most notorious level. It recounts two incidents that are principally responsible for the present state of thetans, trapped in the world of Matter, Energy, Space, and Time (MEST) and unaware as to their real powers. The first of these incidents occurred four quadrillion years ago, when we thetans were suddenly transported (for unknown reasons) into this physical universe, where we became trapped.
The second incident occurred 75 million years ago, when Xemu,²⁷ the leader of the Galactic Confederation, attempted to solve a chronic overpopulation problem on the Confederation’s 76 planets by transporting trillions of thetans to Earth (then called Teegeeack), bundling them into volcanoes, and dropping hydrogen bombs on said volcanoes. Thetans cannot be killed, but the trauma induced by this atrocity was supposed to eliminate the impulse to recreate, thereby solving the overpopulation issue. Afterwards, Xemu gave the thetans of Earth debilitating thought implants that locked us into a parochial, apathetic reality. This is the source of our religious symbology, our primitive technologies, and even the propensity for our physical bodies to get sick and die.
The story is illustrated in this video from a BBC Panorama documentary in 1987:
Having thus been rendered harmless to the Confederation, the bombed and traumatised thetans began clustering together and became semi-conscious ‘body thetans’ (BTs) who stick to those thetans still possessing a degree of sanity — that is, you and me. Each person is hampered both by the engrams and implants stored in their own memory bank, and by the collective engrams of their BTs as well. Among other things, BTs are blamed for disabilities like deafness and blindness.²⁸
Scientology offers to help individuals clear themselves of these problems and become ‘Cause over Life’. Each Operating Thetan is essentially a god, with the ability to create new universes and with powers far exceeding the gods of Earth’s traditional religions. As Hubbard put it: ‘[W]hat passed for God for the MEST universe is not the goddest God there is by an awful long ways.’²⁹
In this sense, Scientology views all outsiders as spiritually disabled, since they are ignorant of their ‘natural’ powers. But it is, so they believe, a curable disability. This is why we do not typically see disabled Scientologists in official publications. To remain disabled after traversing the Bridge to Total Freedom would represent a fundamental failure of Scientology doctrine, or, as Hubbard would have it, a failure on the part of the individual. Anyone who accepts the limitations of their bodies in the here and now is not fit to be a Scientologist.
The spiritual elements of Scientology, however, are largely drawn from two sources with a very ‘here and now’ flavour—imported versions of Eastern religions, of which Hubbard had a cursory knowledge, and science fiction, on which he was something of an expert.
In the ‘thriving spiritual marketplace’³⁰ of postwar America, many people looked Eastwards for new forms of spiritual awakening.³¹ Responding to this demand, Hubbard described the Scientologist as the ‘first cousin to the Buddhist,’ and directly equated the goals of the two religions. As religious studies professor Frank Flinn explained, Scientology ‘can be seen as a refinement and resignification of the Buddhist Eightfold Path in a space-age context.’³²
The ‘space opera’ side of Hubbard’s cosmology was equally timely. The Xemu story, in particular, reflects fears of immigration and ‘overpopulation,’³³ as well as the intense anxiety of the atomic age.³⁴ Scientology’s focus on eliminating ‘insanity’ was a direct response to the fear that a single insane individual could set off an apocalyptic chain reaction of nuclear war. As Hubbard said: ‘There is no problem in the control of these weapons. … The problem is in the control of man.’ The world needed a method of ‘handling man,’ and ‘Scientology is such a science. It was born in the same crucible as the atomic bomb.’³⁵
Hubbard’s own voluminous body of science fiction also provided the matériel of Scientology. One story, Typewriter in the Sky (1940), is based on the notion of creating one’s own realities at will; of the author as a kind of god. Later, in his lectures, he argued that science fiction writers were actually remembering parts of past lives, and that these events really did happen in some form; although on another occasion he implied that his teachings should all be taken as metaphorical, a kind of thought experiment to ‘see if we can’t disagree with this universe, just a little bit.’³⁶
Either way, Hubbard left little room for doubt that his interpretation of illnesses and disabilities should be taken literally. His followers duly obliged, sometimes to catastrophic effect.
III. Freedom from facts
L. Ron Hubbard was disabled. This is arguably the single most important fact in the history of Scientology. For most of his adult life he suffered from poor health, including terrible eyesight, stomach ulcers, pneumonia, and depression. Much of Scientology came about as a direct response to whatever happened to be ailing Hubbard most at any given time; if it was his ulcers, he would invent a new ‘rundown’ designed to clear an individual of ulcers; if it was pneumonia, the rundown would address respiratory problems.³⁷
Not satisfied with his inglorious list of ailments, Hubbard invented a different narrative in which he picked up severe injuries during the Second World War that left him ‘crippled and blinded’.³⁸ This set the stage for a heroic recovery: ‘I worked my way back to fitness and strength in less than two years, using only what I knew about Man and his relationship to the universe. … I came to see again and walk again.’³⁹ Behind the scenes, he continued to collect a disability pension from his time in the Navy.⁴⁰
Hubbard’s followers, not unreasonably, believed that the great wiseman of their religion was sufficiently adept in Scientology methods to heal himself without medicine. Not so. When Hubbard was very ill in 1972 and his medical officer, Jim Dincalci, decided not to bother collecting the pain-killers he was prescribed, Dincalci recalls that Hubbard ‘flew off the handle and started screaming at me’.⁴¹ As the unquestioned dictator of the Church, Hubbard could break his own rules and seek genuine help when he needed it. His flock was not so lucky — as demonstrated by the tragic death of Lisa McPherson in 1995.
McPherson was a committed Scientologist who in 1994 moved from Dallas to Clearwater, Florida, where the headquarters of Scientology is based. She spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on auditing and reached the state of ‘Clear,’ but all was not well. In November 1995, after a traffic accident, she stripped off her clothes and told a paramedic: ‘I need help. I need to talk to someone.’⁴² Church members prevented her from getting psychiatric help and instead put her through Hubbard’s ‘introspection rundown,’ which involves locking mentally unwell individuals in a room for days on end and only communicating with them through letters.⁴³
While in isolation, McPherson manically claimed to be the reincarnated Hubbard (who died in 1986), and eventually descended into ‘blabbering’. After seventeen days of this ‘treatment,’ McPherson was not eating or drinking and was covered in bruises. On 5 December 1995 Scientologists finally took her to hospital (driving past four closer hospitals in order to get her to a Scientologist doctor), at which point she was pronounced dead. In 1998 State Attorney Bernie McCabe charged the Church of Scientology with practising medicine without a license and abuse of a disabled adult, but the charges were later dropped when the medical examiner, under extreme pressure from Scientology, changed McPherson’s cause of death from ‘undetermined’ to ‘accident’.⁴⁴ One way or another, she suffered the consequences of a transcendental fantasy that began forty-five years earlier, in blatant contradiction to observable reality.
L. Ron Hubbard compared the spiritual life of thetans to a game.⁴⁵ Bored with their omniscience and omnipotence, thetans decided to entertain themselves in ever more restrictive realities, with the objective being to conquer the MEST universe within a set of rules, or ‘self-created barriers’.⁴⁶ If we follow this thought to its logical conclusion it would seem that disabled people are just unskilled players, while the most normatively ‘able’ people are prodigies. But as the Lisa McPherson case shows, this is no game.
The anti-disability treatments offered by the Church of Scientology have the potential, if taken seriously and to the exclusion of genuine professional assistance, to cause great harm. Illusions of transcendence are no substitute for research. There is always a point of reckoning.
Scientology has experienced innumerable ‘reckonings’. For a start, none of Hubbard’s predictions about future events (like his claim that humanity could not reach the moon unless astronauts were trained in Dianetics) have come true — which should come as no surprise, given his myopic frame of reference. Despite claiming to have knowledge of 60 trillion years of past lives, all of Hubbard’s demonstrable influences come from a lifetime spanning just 0.0000000001% of that period. As the years pass, and as evidence of Hubbard’s very mortal fallibility mounts, the power of his spell grows ever weaker.
Some ex-Scientologists believe the historical specificity and inflexibility of the Church’s message will eventually doom it to extinction.⁴⁷ If it does die, Scientology will take with it the zombified relic that is its teachings on disability. One can only hope.
- World Religion News, ‘L. Ron Hubbard Gives an Introduction to Scientology in 1966 Interview,’ 15 May 2015. [https://www.worldreligionnews.com/religion-news/scientology/l-ron-hubbard-gives-an-introduction-to-scientology-in-1966-interview].
- ABC News, ‘Scientology Leader Gave ABC First-Ever Interview,’ 31 March 2007. [https://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/story?id=2664713&page=1].
- Quoted in Jon Atack, A piece of blue sky: Scientology, Dianetics and L. Ron Hubbard Exposed, (New York: Carol, 1990) p. 412.
- Scientology Newsroom, ‘Scientology: How We Help — Making Learning Disabilities Vanish,’ 20 March 2013. [https://www.scientologynews.org/press-releases/making-learning-disabilities-vanish.html].
- People, ‘Tom Cruise: My Struggle to Read,’ 21 July 2003. [https://people.com/archive/tom-cruise-my-struggle-to-read-vol-60-no-3/].
- Quoted in Chris Shelton, Scientology A to Xenu: an insider’s guide to what Scientology is really all about, (Denver [CO]: Graphics Werks, 2015), p. 149.
- Quoted in Hugh B. Urban, The Church of Scientology: a history of a new religion, (Princeton [NJ]: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 80.
- Ibid, p. 55.
- L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics: the modern science of mental health, (Glostrup: New Era Publications, 2007 ), p. 8.
- Ibid, pp. 9–10.
- Ibid, pp. 55–84.
- Ibid, pp. 13–24, 65.
- Quoted in Shelton, Scientology A to Xenu, p. 67.
- Quoted in Urban, Church of Scientology, p. 46.
- Atack, A piece of blue sky, p. 416.
- Jon Atack, ‘Hubbard and the Occult,’ 1995. [https://www.spaink.net/cos/essays/atack_occult.html].
- Urban, Church of Scientology, pp. 49–52.
- Douglas C. Baynton, ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,’ in Longmore and Umansky [eds.], The new disability history: American perspectives, (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
- Norman Dain, ‘Psychiatry and Anti-Psychiatry in the United States,’ in Micale and Porter [eds.], Discovering the history of psychiatry, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
- Bradley Lewis, ‘A Mad Fight: Psychiatry and Disability Activism,’ in Lennard J. Davis [ed.], The disability studies reader, (London: Psychology Press, 2006).
- Russell Miller, Bare-faced messiah: the true story of L. Ron Hubbard, (London: Silvlertail Books, 2015 ), p. 161.
- Quoted in Ibid, p. 204.
- Urban, Church of Scientology, pp. 64–8.
- L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology: a history of man, (Glostrup: New Era Publications, 2007 ), p. 5.
- Urban, Church of Scientology, p. 69.
- Stephen Koff in St. Petersburg Times, ‘Xemu’s Cruel Response to Overpopulated World,’ 23 December 1988.
- Often misspelled as ‘Xenu’.
- Shelton, Scientology A to Xenu, pp. 177–90.
- Urban, Church of Scientology, p. 82.
- Robert S. Ellwood, The fifties spiritual marketplace: American religion in a decade of conflict, (New Brunswick [NJ]: Rutgers University Press, 1997), p. 7.
- Richard Hughes Seager, Buddhism in America, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), chapter 4.
- Frank Flinn, ‘Scientology as Technological Buddhism,’ in James Lewis [ed.], Scientology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 212.
- John R. Wilmoth, ‘Arguments and Action in the Life of a Social Problem: A Case Study of “Overpopulation” 1946–1990,’ in Social Problems, Vol. 42, (1995), pp. 318–43.
- Allan M. Winkler, Life under a cloud: American anxiety about the atom, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993).
- Quoted in Urban, Church of Scientology, p. 95.
- Quoted in Ibid, p. 87.
- Atack, A piece of blue sky, p. 415.
- Quoted in Miller, Bare-faced messiah, p. 98.
- Quoted in Atack, A piece of blue sky, p. 88.
- Ibid, p. 91.
- Quoted in Miller, Bare-faced messiah, p. 307.
- Tampa Bay Times, ‘Events leading to the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson,’ 17 October 2019. [https://www.tampabay.com/special-reports/2019/10/17/events-leading-to-the-death-of-scientologist-lisa-mcpherson/].
- Sunny Pereira and Chris Shelton, ‘Introduction to Scientology’s Introspection Rundown,’ Youtube, 19 April 2018. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VomNed9H740].
- Tampa Bay Times, ‘Events leading to the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson’.
- Greg Karber, ‘6 Game Design Lessons from L. Ron Hubbard,’ 3 August 2015. [https://medium.com/@gregkarber/5-game-design-lessons-from-l-ron-hubbard-4343cbd50577].
- L. Ron Hubbard, The Creation of Human Ability, (New Era Publications, 2007 ).
- Geoff McMaster, ‘Once thriving Church of Scientology faces extinction, says cult tracker,’ 11 January 2018. [https://www.folio.ca/once-thriving-church-of-scientology-faces-extinction-says-cult-tracker/].