What the Moonies Have to Teach Us about Scientology

220px-Unification_Church_symbol.svgThe Church of Scientology is a difficult organisation to study. It is secretive, and typically responds to requests from academics to observe its activities with refusal, suspicion and hostility.

However, all New Religious Movements are not like this. In its early days, the Unification Church (AKA ‘the Moonies’) allowed sociologists free access to its activities.

Two classic studies of the Unification Church were made during this period. Both closely examined the process of  ‘conversion’  – that is, how outsiders are persuaded to think of themselves as believers.

Both studies made interesting observations about the process of ‘conversion’ and collected reliable figures about the success rates of Unification Church Missionaries. These insights can help to make good estimates of how successful Scientology’s recruitment efforts are  – something Scientology keeps strictly secret.

doomsday cult1966
Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith

John Lofland

In, “Doomsday cult”, John Lofland relates how he lived in America with a Korean missionary for the Unification church (Young Oon Kim) and his small following. During this time, Lofland  studied their attempts to ‘convert’ the US public.

Initially, their efforts were based on the Unification Church’s most important theological textbook, “The Divine Principle”. This book presents a strange and complicated argument, which includes spiritualism, resurrection and an alternative family structure.

Lofland found that the efforts of the Moonies to convert the public by presenting these doctrines in public lectures were a complete failure. People found “The Divine Principle”  complicated, bizarre and unconvincing.

The Moonies only began to have limited success when they switched tactics. They organised  weekend retreats where the missionary’s worked hard to form personal relationships with potential converts – a sort of ecclesiastical team-building exercise. Some of the outsiders who attended these events became involved with the ‘Church’  because they had formed bonds with believers, not because of it’s teachings.

Parallels to Scientology

Even the most basic information about  Scientology is a closely-guarded secret. L Ron Hubbard taught that Scientologists had to approach his teachings in a particular order, and that becoming aware of  material that they have not properly prepared for could cause them serious harm. Additionally, Scientologists are not even allowed to discuss their beliefs among themselves (this is called “Verbal Tech”, and is sternly punished).

This raises an obvious question – how do Scientologists make converts at all if they are not allowed to discuss their beliefsThe answer is that use the same tactics that the Moonies learned the hard way.

Once contact has been made with a member of the stress_testpublic (through the familiar ‘Free Stress / Personality Test’ or an invitation from a practising Scientologist)  Org staff take such pains  to present the Church as a stimulating environment , where new members will:

  • Be surrounded by new friends
  • Do good works
  • Improve themselves
  • Learn amazing things

All this is achieved without going into detail about Scientology itself. Consequently, converts to Scientology begin their religious career knowing hardly anything about their Church.

This initial focus on creating personal bonds may be why so many ex-Scientologists report that they enjoyed the early stages of their involvement. It was not until they had taken a number of courses that the atmosphere started to become controlling and oppressive.

By this time it was too late to back out easily. The new convert had become a loyal member of the group, and social pressure discouraged them from questioning their allegiance.


 1984 |The Making of a Moonie | Eileen BarkerThe_Making_of_a_Moonie

Barker gathered the material for this book over a period of seven years.  She attended many of the weekend retreats and workshops and studied not only people who joined the movement, but also those who were unimpressed by it.

She found that, out of those people approached by missionaries, only a tiny minority signed up for  a two-day retreat. Most of the people who expressed an interest did not turn up. Of those who did:

  • Fewer than 25% stayed for more than a week
  • Only 5% were still members a year later
  • The ‘drop-out’ rate among attendees was more than 99.5%.

This means that, despite the best efforts of the missionaries, only a tiny fraction of one percent of the people that they approached joined the Church for more than a year. The  membership of the Unification Church in the United States never exceeded a few thousand because a constant recruitment effort was necessary just to keep membership static – missionaries had to run hard just to stay in the same place.

Parallels to Scientology

In its early days, the conversion rate of Scientology was likely to be broadly similar to that of the ‘Moonies’. Scientology membership is probably also subject to a high turnover – like the Moonies,  Scientology also has to, ‘run hard just to stand still’.

This is supported by the figures that the Church itself has published over the years. Church periodicals routinely contain dated lists of members who have completed courses. If we assume that people who have not completed a course for a number of years have left the Church,  it appears that a significant majority of new members leave before they complete their first year.

The Internet Changes Everything

It is probably significant that both of the books wwwfeatured here were completed before Internet access became  a routine part of everyday life. In those days, what counted as news was decided by the people who owned the mass media, They tended to leave organisations like Scientology alone, because they did not need wealthy enemies, well-known to resort to both legal and extra-legal action to suppress criticism.

With such limited press coverage, people who were approached by Scientologists probably knew nothing about the organisation. They were not deterred by bad publicity, because there was very little. Consequently, it did not matter to the church if most Scientologists left after only one year – recruiters could easily replace the losses.

However, when Internet access began to become commonplace the mass media gatekeepers could be bypassed. Critics could express themselves without needing the approval of a risk- averse media mogul. When Scientology’s ham-fisted attempts to control growing online criticism offended the collective that we now know as “Anonymous”, the floodgates opened.

People are now far more aware of Scientology’s bizarre beliefs and bad behaviour that they ever have been. This makes it significantly harder for the organisation to recruit the new members which it constantly needs.

 While Scientology claims to have 10 million members worldwide independent estimates put the number of US Scientologists at significantly less than 25,000. This figure is likely optimistic and, like the church, in rapid decline.

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4 thoughts on “What the Moonies Have to Teach Us about Scientology

  1. Nice article.

    My only word of advice is to take most of what Eileen Barker says with a goodly helping of salt – She’s very much a cult apologist, in the same vein as J Gordon “Aum Shryenko didn’t do the Tokyo Sarin Attack, and I’ll prove with this Aum-funded investigation” Melton. She has a record of dismissing apostate testimonies as ‘unreliable’ while being happy to spout NRM PR without a thought; She didn’t get mentioned in When Scholars Know Sin (Kent/Krebs, Sceptic Magazine, 1998), but she might as well have been.

    • As you can see from this site, I generally agree with you about apologists – James R Lewis only appears here as a bad example, and J Gordon Melton not at all.

      On the other hand, I have a lot of time for Stephen Kent and specifically his stand on the facts, against the apologist camp.

      It seems to me that the distinction between real scholars and apologists should be made entirely on the basis of their ability to face facts about the groups they study (J Gordon Melton being the classic example of a person who loses all credibility by completely failing to do this).

      “The Making of a Moonie” is a good piece of work, which found, after painstaking research, that there was little evidence for the the hypothesis that the ‘success’ of the Moonies was due to “Brainwashing” (in fact, it found that the Unification Church was remarkably unsuccessful). This offended groups who were ideologically committed to the idea of “Cults” as a threat to society precisely because of supposed “Brainwashing” (an attitude that occasionally led, logically enough, to the appalling practice of “deprogramming“).

      Whatever may be said about Barkers other work, this book stands on its own merits, and its observations about the way in which NRMs have to work so hard at recruitment because they only appeal to to a tiny percentage of the people that they approach certainly applies to Scientology, and goes some way to explaining the ongoing collapse of their membership (combined, of course, with the farcical efforts of Miscavige).

      However, taking anyone‘s word with a pinch of salt is good advice. Nullius in Verba, and all that!

      • Having read your article on Lewis’ godawful 2009 book, and his subsequent Open Letter, I consider it heartening that he was able to admit to being wrong (even of that admission was wrapped up in self-justification). Having arrived in the field of cult criticism with the Anon avalanche in 2008, I’d never actually considered the whole business of ‘deprogramming’ at all, never mind its abusive nature, or the implications that might lead to questionable testimony, mainly because all the Scientology critics I knew were either ‘never-in’ or had left on their own terms (often disturbing terms, but their own terms nonetheless), and so there was never any question of the authenticity of their testimony.

        I personally feel that the whole business of Coercive Methods and Thought Reform does need re-investigating – Nobody who’s seen Derren Brown at work can deny that the human brain *can* be fiddled with, and cognitive processes can be altered – but leaving a perjorative term like ‘brainwashing’ by the wayside should help focus the discussion on what actually happens within cults (doesn’t mean we won’t take advantage of the loaded term while on the street outside the Org, though)

        • I sometimes wonder about Lewis… He is a religious scholar, used to studying and debating doctrines whose real origins are lost in history (as are the ‘revisions’ made by whichever factions came out on top in theological disputes).

          Scientology is ‘only’ 60 years old, and had the misfortune to encounter something called ‘The Internet’ at a crucial point in its development. Those other religious organisations could quietly forget embarrassing ideas and practices. Scientology is one of the first New Religious Movements that can’t bury its past.

          Lewis, however, insists in approaching Scientology on it’s own terms – and ignores the evidence that many of its ‘doctrines’ were cynically formulated for practical reasons (e.g. making money and suppressing criticism). This is the perspective from which he has studied other religions, and it seems that he can’t think outside of his particular academic box. He is more misguided and naive than he is malicious.

          As for deprogramming – this was a mercifully brief historical episode (and a logical conclusion of the deeply flawed ‘brainwashing’ thesis) which is covered in this book. I was taken aback to learn that Cyril Vosper and elements of the Cult Awareness network practised it. Good riddance. Besides, we now have ‘Anonymous’ whose approach has proved humane, broadly effective and much more fun.

          I don’t think the deprogrammers damaged the credibility of ex-Scientologists, because the ‘deprogramming movement’ was so short-lived and the testimonies of ex-scientologists is so consistent over so many years.

          My position is that Scientology’s practices are psychologically and socially manipulative to an extreme extent. However, it is well past time to put ‘brainwashing’ aside and apply the insights of the past 60 years to examining how this is done. Real understanding will lead to more effective tactics that are more likely to lead Scientologists to question their commitment, and approaches to help them recover from it.

          This is what I have been trying to do in this series (which is by no means complete).

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