Is Scientology the world's fastest-growing religion?S

Scientology has never been more high-profile than in the past several years, thanks to celebrity adherents like Tom Cruise. But the brainchild of science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard remains mysterious and controversial.

A new book, out today, aims to peel back the mystery of Scientology and reveal the truth. Author Janet Reitman, who went behind the myths of Scientology in an investigative report for Rolling Stone magazine, has expanded that work into a full-length book, Inside Scientology. In our excerpt, Reitman explains the mystique of the world's most science fictional religion.

Top image via Truth Alliance Network.

Introduction: The World's Fastest-Growing Religion

The limestone and granite Church of Scientology in midtown Manhattan is located just northwest of Times Square, at 227 West 46th Street. Blending in seamlessly amid Broadway theaters, restaurants, and hotels, the place is very easy to miss, though it is seven stories tall and marked with a large metal awning proclaiming scientology in gold letters. At various times during the year, clusters of attractive young men and women are posted on nearby street corners, where they offer free "stress tests" or hand out fliers. Ranging in age from the late teens to the early twenties, they are dressed as conservatively as young bank executives.

On a hot July morning several years ago, I was approached by one of these clear-eyed young men. "Hi!" he said, with a smile. "Do you have a minute?" He introduced himself as Emmett. "We're showing a film down the street," he said, casually pulling a glossy, postcard-sized flier from the stack he held in his hand. "It's about Dianetics - ever heard of it?"

I looked at the handout, which featured a large, exploding volcano, instantly familiar from the Dianetics commercials that played on local television stations when I was a teenager. The flier, which invited me to come and see the free introductory film ("Showing Now! Bring Your Friends!"), proclaimed that Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health was "the most popular book on the mind ever written" and a bestseller for over fifty years, with "over 25 million copies in circulation in 50 languages on Earth."

"Okay," I said.

"Great!" A huge grin spread across Emmett's face. He escorted me across the street.

Inside the church, two young women in long skirts stood by the reception desk. Like Emmett, they seemed to be about twenty, had blond hair, and looked freshly scrubbed, reminding me of Mormon missionaries. They led me down a set of marble steps, and we entered the main lobby, a large glossy space with lighting that bathed everything in a pinkish-golden glow. Aside from my guides and me, it was completely empty.

The room appeared to be set up as a Scientology museum. Books by Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard - more than fifty of them - lined the walls, as did black-and-white photos of the man, all presenting him as a robust patriarch with graying sideburns and a benevolent smile, dressed in a sports jacket and ascot.

But far more prominent than Hubbard was Tom Cruise. Projected on a large video panel, his image dominated the space: earnest, handsome, dressed in a black turtleneck, looking directly into a camera and apparently giving a testimonial to the faith. What Cruise was actually saying, however, I couldn't tell. His words were almost completely drowned out by the sound of myriad other videos playing simultaneously nearby. The Church of Scientology, unlike other houses of worship, did not invite somber reflection on its beliefs but rather offered a technological wonderland: music videos promoting the group's Youth for Human Rights campaign played alongside infomercials extolling the wonders of Dianetics, which appeared alongside videos and documentary-style reports on the great work of Scientology's "volunteer ministers" at Ground Zero, which played next to a video of Tom Cruise receiving an award for outstanding service.

Is Scientology the world's fastest-growing religion?

I was escorted into a small screening room to watch the free introductory film. This turned out to be a high-quality, rather long infomercial featuring a cast of ostensibly real people who explained how Dianetics had changed their lives and improved their health dramatically, curing them of ailments ranging from brain cancer to depression. It was fifteen minutes of fantastic and totally outlandish claims, and yet each testimonial was presented in such a reasonable way that in spite of myself, I felt kind of hopeful.

After the film, a woman came into the screening room and told me that she'd like me to fill out a questionnaire. Laurie, as she introduced herself, was a matronly woman of about fifty. She began her pitch gently. "Tell me about yourself," she said. "What made you interested in Scientology?"

Over the next hour or so, Laurie asked me a series of questions: Was I married? Was I happy? What were my goals? Did I feel like I was living up to my potential? She exuded warmth and was resolutely nonaggressive. And to my amazement, I began to open up to her, telling her about my relationship with my boyfriend and my desire to quit smoking.

In response, Laurie delivered a soft sell for Scientology's "introductory package": a four-hour seminar and twelve hours of Dianetics auditing, a form of counseling that cost $50. "You don't have to do it," Laurie said. "It's just something I get the feeling might help you." She patted my arm.

Laurie also had me take the two-hundred-question Oxford Capacity Analysis, Scientology's well-known personality test, which poses such questions as "Do you often sing or whistle just for the fun of it?" and "Do you sometimes feel that your age is against you (too young or too old)?" After looking at my test, Laurie told me that I had "blocks" in communication but was basically confident, though I did seem to suffer from nonspecific anxiety. "These are all things we can help you with," she said, and smiled. "It's really such a good thing you came in," she added, as she took my credit card. "You'll see."

On Monday, I returned to the church to begin my $50 package. My partner in auditing was named David. Sitting down across from me, he asked me to "relive" a moment of physical pain. "Don't choose something that's too stressful," he suggested.

I closed my eyes and concentrated, but try as I might, I could not relive much of anything. After fifteen minutes, I gave up.

Waiting just outside the room was Jane, a Scientology registrar who told me she was now handling my "case." A redhead dressed in jeans and a lightweight blouse, she asked me how it went. "I'm not sure this is for me," I told her.

"A lot of people feel that way when they first start auditing; it's not unusual," Jane said soothingly, all the while steering me away from the exit. She walked me down a long hall and into her office, where, on her desk, lay the results of my personality test. Jane studied them a bit. "What you need is something more personal," she said. She suggested Life Repair, a $2,000 package of one-on-one private auditing sessions, which she said would help me handle my everyday problems. Then, after I finished Life Repair, which could take a month or so, I could get right to The Bridge to Total Freedom, which, Jane explained, was how people really made gains, or had "wins," as she called them.

"How much do you think people spend on psychotherapy?" Jane asked me. I replied that it varied: in New York, $150–$250 could be standard for a forty-five-minute session. Auditing, she said, was much cheaper. Auditing sessions were sold in 12.5-hour blocks, known as intensives; one intensive, she said, cost $750 - half the price of therapy, hour for hour. "It's worth it, I promise you," she said. "I'll think about it," I told her.

Jane seemed disappointed. "We should get you going as soon as possible," she said. "I really want you to have a win."

Is Scientology the world's fastest-growing religion?S

Scientology - the term means "the study of truth" - calls itself the "fastest-growing religion in the world." Born in 1954, the group now claims millions of members in 165 different countries and eighty-five hundred Scientology churches, missions, and outreach groups across the globe. Its holdings, which include real estate on several continents, are widely assumed to be worth billions of dollars. Its missionaries, known as "volunteer ministers," tour the developing world and are sent, en masse, to deliver aid in familiar disaster zones such as earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Wherever large groups of people are circulating - in city centers, on street corners, in subway stations, at shopping malls, and on college campuses - you can find Scientologists offering free "stress tests" and distributing leaflets. Like members of another homegrown American faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Scientologists live in virtually every major city in America and in numerous smaller cities and suburbs as well; they can be found in every age group and vocation. Each year, according to the church's estimates, fifty to sixty thousand people sign up for a Scientology course or buy a book about the faith for the first time.

Take a look at these statistics, and you might easily assume that Scientology is one of the most successful new religious movements in America. Certainly it is among the most recognizable, thanks to its most famous, not to mention outspoken, member, Tom Cruise. The creation of the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology is considered by some academics within the field of comparative religion to be one of the most significant faiths born in the past century. But type the word Scientology into Google, and it becomes immediately clear that it is also America's most controversial religion. It has been referred to as a "cult," a "dangerous cult," and an "evil cult." There are websites declaring that "Scientology kills" and "Scientology lies." Others are dedicated to exposing Scientology's "secret documents," its "secret teachings," and "what Scientology won't tell you." On message boards, former members post stories about their "escape" from the Church of Scientology, their "recovery" from the Church of Scientology, and their "life after" Scientology. It is a church that, over the past fifty years, has been the subject of more than half a dozen wide-scale government investigations around the world, and thousands of lawsuits, many of which center on its controversial doctrine and practices. Scientology, as its critics point out, is unlike any other Western religion in that it withholds key aspects of its central theology from all but its most exalted followers. This would be akin to the Catholic Church telling only a select number of the faithful that Jesus Christ died for their sins.

Whether or not Scientology is a religion is a matter of enduring debate. In Germany, where the church has been described as a "totalitarian" organization, Scientology has been roundly condemned as a cult, and its members have been barred from holding public office or even joining some political parties. In Great Britain, Scientology is also viewed as something other than a religion, but it is nonetheless protected by a statute that criminalizes hate speech and threatening actions directed against religious groups (in May 2008, for example, a fifteen-year-old boy was arrested in London for holding a picket sign denouncing Scientology). Australia banned the practice of Scientology in the 1960s but reversed this decision and recognized it as a religion in 1983; yet one outspoken member of the Australian government, Senator Nick Xenophon, has denounced Scientology as a "criminal organization." The French Church of Scientology has been under investigation for more than a decade. In October 2009, a French court found Scientology guilty of fraud and imposed a fine of nearly a million dollars. But the judge stopped short of banning Scientology from France, as the prosecution had requested. Scientology celebrated this decision as a victory. "I don't think that's going to have any lasting impact," the former inspector general of the Church of Scientology, Marty Rathbun, told a Canadian radio interviewer, in response to the verdict. The fine, he explained, was "like chump change" to the church.

Is Scientology the world's fastest-growing religion?S

The United States, where Scientology was born and where a majority of Scientologists live, has legitimized Scientology as a religion and granted it all of the legal protections that such a status confers, including tax exemption. But within the church itself, Scientology is usually defined as an "applied religious philosophy" - a "spiritual science" offering practical solutions to the problems of everyday life. Within every individual, it asserts, is a happier, purer, better self - a "perfect" self - waiting to be realized. Scientology claims that this idealized self can be realized today, in real time, and what's more, that this self can be godlike, immortal, and marked by supernatural powers. The traditional religious bedrock - worship, God, love and compassion, even the very concept of faith - is wholly absent from its precepts. And, unique among modern religions, Scientology charges members for every service, book, and course offered, promising greater and greater spiritual enlightenment with every dollar spent. People don't "believe" in Scientology; they buy into it.

This is a story about a global spiritual enterprise that trades in a product called "spiritual freedom." It is, on many levels, a story about the buying and selling of self-betterment: an elusive but essentially American concept that has never been more in demand than it is today. As far back as the mid-nineteenth century, when a New England hypnotist named Phineas Quimby popularized a form of healing he called "mind cure," Americans have yearned for a quick fix for their physical, psychological, and spiritual imperfections. The Church of Scientology is a shape-shifting and powerful organization that promises that fix.

The Scientologists you will read about in these pages are members, or former members, of a wealthy and mysterious organization whose goal, like that of most religions, is to improve human society. The church also aspires to greatly increase its global footprint and, finally, to make money, though members will never say this specifically. Rather, if you were to ask, they would tell you that they want to "clear the planet" - to remove, in a literal sense, the stain of war, insanity, and disease from the world - which, like all worthwhile endeavors, comes at a cost.

The church claims that more than half of its members were introduced to Scientology through family or friends. Indeed, at this point in its development, many current members are second- or even third-generation Scientologists. For example, the actress Priscilla Presley, who joined Scientology in the 1970s, raised her daughter, Lisa Marie, in the church; the British writer and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman, who currently maintains that he is not a practicing Scientologist, was nonetheless brought up in Scientology, at the church's worldwide headquarters. Other famous second-generation Scientologists include the actors Juliette Lewis, Elizabeth Moss, Giovanni Ribisi, and Danny Masterson, who introduced the faith to his girlfriend, the model Bijou Phillips, and to his former costar on That Seventies Show, Lauren Prepon. Sky Dayton, the founder of Earthlink, one of the first Internet service providers, also grew up in Scientology, as did the church's current spokesman, Tommy Davis, the son of the actress and longtime Scientologist Anne Archer.

But the vast majority of Scientologists are people you have never heard of. Many work in various parts of the entertainment industry, but still more of them write, teach, create art, build houses, trade stock, manage hedge funds, own businesses, and invent new forms of technology. They run schools and drug rehabilitation programs, work in prisons and inner cities, and lobby Congress and federal regulators. Roughly a quarter of them, according to church figures, were raised Catholic, another quarter Protestant; the rest come from Jewish, Mormon, Hindu, and even Muslim backgrounds. As for education, some Scientologists hold professional or advanced degrees; others are high school graduates; some never finished school.

Is Scientology the world's fastest-growing religion?S

What unites all of these individual Scientologists is a belief in their inherent spiritual imperfection, which can be rectified - if not totally reversed - only through intense study of, and rigid adherence to, the teachings of a single man: Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Though he has been dead some twenty years, Hubbard's followers regard him as a living, vital entity - a personal Jesus of sorts. They refer to him, often in the present tense, as LRH or Ron, as if he were a friend. Hubbard's writings are known as "technology" or "tech" and are considered infallible doctrine. "If it isn't written, it isn't true," Hubbard once said. For a Scientologist to question the efficacy of anything Hubbard wrote is to question the very foundations of his or her belief.

Right now, church officials claim, Scientology is experiencing unprecedented expansion, its worldwide membership "growing faster now than at any time in its history." This is a claim the organization has made for many years. And to be sure, Scientology has expanded its reach in the developing world, where the church is opening missions in such far-flung locales as Kazakhstan. As a corporation, the Church of Scientology owns tremendous quantities of real estate virtually everywhere, for which it paid cash. Its holdings include a 55-acre Georgian estate in Sussex, England; a 64,000-square-foot medieval-style castle and resort in South Africa; more than a dozen architectural landmarks in the United States and Europe; and a cruise ship. Since 2004, the church has purchased seventy buildings in cities around the world, many of them faded gems that have been meticulously restored.

Some observers of the movement, however, contend that Scientology's new churches front an organization that is on the decline. In 2001, a survey conducted by the City University of New York found only fifty-five thousand people in the United States who claimed to be Scientologists; in 2008, a similar survey conducted by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, determined that there might be only twenty-five thousand American Scientologists. And, even allowing for a significant margin of error, these figures fall in the same range as another measure of the movement's numbers: the International Association of Scientologists, to which virtually all dedicated Scientologists belong, reportedly has just forty thousand members. At most, experts say, there are probably no more than a quarter of a million practicing Scientologists in the world today.

But discerning what is true about the Church of Scientology is a challenge. Since it was granted tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service in 1993, Scientology has not released any public information about its membership or finances. The church also has earned a reputation for harassing former church insiders and squelching critics through litigation. Those critics, who comprise an ever-growing network of ex-Scientologists (or "apostates," in church parlance), academics, and independent free-speech and human rights activists, have fought back in recent years by blogging and posting a significant amount of information on the Internet: scans of controversial memos, photographs, legal briefs, and depositions, as well as written testimony and videotaped interviews with disillusioned former members, including some who were its highest-ranking officials. All paint the church in a negative light; some consider it abusive.

My own reporting on Scientology began in the summer of 2005, with an article for Rolling Stone. It was inspired, as were many of the pieces on the church assigned during that year, by Tom Cruise - or, more specifically, by the recent emergence of Tom Cruise as Scientology's most ardent proselytizer. This was a new role for the actor, who, until 2004, had been fiercely private about his faith, insisting that journalists stay off the topic entirely during interviews.

That was the news hook that first piqued my interest in Scientology. What sustained it was curiosity about a church that, for all of its notoriety, has remained America's least understood new faith, and seemingly an indelible one. The past fifty-odd years have seen the birth of dozens of religions; many have come and gone without a trace. The Church of Scientology has endured decades of scandal, litigation, government inquiry, exodus, street protest, and blistering media exposés in high-visibility venues such as the Saturday Evening Post, Time,* and CNN. But unlike many alternative religions, it has not died, or gone underground, or fled overseas. It has persevered.

And yet, for virtually all of its history, Scientology has maintained an aura of mystery. This holds true even today, when the church is in some ways more accessible than ever. Since 2009, the Church of Scientology has significantly upgraded its online presence, creating, for example, a fl ashy new website to explain its beliefs and its connection to other religions and philosophies; it even offers a virtual tour of a Scientology organization. A separate Scientology video channel presents scores of testimonials to Scientology's effectiveness in handling life's problems, as well as slick advertisements featuring hip-looking young people promoting such themes as "life" and "purpose." In a recent online ad, "An Invitation to Freedom," a multiracial assortment of college-age men and women, standing atop skyscrapers, along beaches, and on oceanside cliff s, reach toward the sunrise. "You," proclaims one pretty girl, "are a spirit." "You are your own soul," the narration continues. "You are not mortal. You can be free."

It's not a bad pitch, immortality. And yet the ads stop short of precise explanation. This is a central problem and in some ways the central genius of Scientology's presentation of its message. It is a church that deals in generalities: freedom, truth, immortality. Problems crop up when interested parties try to pin down the specifics. Scientology has always been hostile to serious journalistic inquiry and independent peer or academic review, and indeed has been so covetous of its doctrine that it has gone to court to keep its most exclusive teachings out of the public domain. The writer James R. Lewis, a philosophy professor and an expert in New Age and other new religious groups, has called Scientology "the most persistently controversial of all contemporary new religious movements." Even today, with much of Scientology's doctrine freely available on the Internet, many academics, well aware of Scientology's reputation for defensiveness, have avoided the subject entirely; the same has often held true for many news organizations. This situation has allowed Scientology, for good or for ill, to remain relatively inscrutable. It has also made understanding Scientology, in any meaningful and balanced way, almost impossible.

Is Scientology the world's fastest-growing religion?S

This book, the culmination of a five-year journey, sets out to provide that understanding. It has been my goal to write the first objective modern history of the Church of Scientology. Much of the current Scientology canon - a relatively slender list - consists of memoirs and histories penned by former Scientologists, and they present some credibility problems. These accounts, while compelling, contain information that is hard to verify, and they are palpably hostile toward the organization. To make things even more complicated, a number of former church insiders who've given sworn testimony against Scientology have later changed their stories after allegedly receiving payoff s or other incentives. The church itself, while more open to speaking with reporters in recent years, has always balked at truly meaningful dialogue. In one stunning example of this, the Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis in 2009 walked off the set during an interview on ABC's Nightline after the reporter Martin Bashir dared to ask him about a controversial aspect of church doctrine.

Is Scientology the world's fastest-growing religion?S

How then to write about the church? Perhaps the most credible source is L. Ron Hubbard himself, whose voluminous "tech" in many ways tells the unvarnished story of both his ideology and his organization. But to glean the truth of Hubbard's church, in all its permutations, requires that one learn its language - the lingua franca of Hubbard's world.

It is the goal of Inside Scientology to translate this language and separate myth from fact. My reporting is based on the reading of thousands of pages of Scientology doctrine, including many confi dential papers and memos that have never before been made available, and on personal interviews and e-mail exchanges with roughly one hundred former and current Scientologists, ranging from well-known critics of Scientology to church loyalists who, before being interviewed for this book, had never spoken to a reporter. It also draws on my conversations with a number of academics on both sides of the ideological spectrum, and, crucially, my talks with Scientology officials. Early in my reporting, in an unexpected moment of openness, the church granted me unprecedented access to its officials, schools, social programs, and key religious headquarters. This yielded a rare, and at times wholly uncensored, view into one of the most exclusive, and elusive, communities in the world.

Scientology is a faith that is both mainstream and marginal. Known for its Hollywood members, it is run by a uniformed set of believers who rarely, if ever, appear in the public eye. It is an insular society - one that exists, to a large degree, as something of a parallel universe to the secular world, with its own nomenclature, ethical code, and, most daunting to those who break its rules, its own rigorously enforced justice system. As an American subculture, it has been described to me, many times, as a subculture within a subculture within a subculture, whose outer layers appear harmless and even appealing, but which hides an inner stratum that reeks of authoritarian control.

For the past five years, I have sought to understand Scientology: not to judge, but simply to absorb. What I have found defies expectations, and even definition.

* The issue of Time published on May 6, 1991, bore the cover story "Scientology: The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power," which accused the church of "Mafia-like tactics"; it remains one of the most scathing exposés of the church ever written. In response, Scientology sued Time and the reporter Richard Behar for libel, and lost, though the suit cost the publisher, Time Warner, millions of dollars.

Excerpted from Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman. Copyright 2011 by Janet Reitman. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Images by Amanda Rachel Gardner, Arcane Randomity and Coaxial on Flickr.