The 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 Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith
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 beliefs? The answer is that use the same tactics that the Moonies learned the hard way.
Once contact has been made with a member of the public (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 Barker
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 featured 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.