As an outsider, it has taken me a long time to appreciate the vital importance of secrecy in Scientology – and the way that it pervades every aspect of doctrine and practice.
Most casual observers come away with the impression that only a few ‘advanced’ teaching are reserved for the elect (notably the much lampooned Xenu story). This is not true. Every Scientology practice is, one way or the other, subject to secrecy.
The result it that Scientology resembles an extreme form of a Roman mystery cult, far more than it does a modern religion. The Cult of Mithras had seven degrees of secret teachings. Scientology has eight OT levels, which amount to the same thing.
However, once new members of the Cult of Mithras has been initiated into a secret teaching, they could discuss their experience and understanding of it with other initiates who were at the same level.
Scientology goes one better than Mithras. Even Scientologists who have completed OT8 (the current highest level) are prohibited from discussing the OT8 materials, and their understanding of them, even with each other.
This extreme form of secrecy (which resembles the compartmentalisation of information practised by Cold War security services) is undertaken in obedience to a variety of instructions in the writings of L Ron Hubbard, and is very strictly enforced.
Knowledge is power, and secrecy helps the Church of Scientology control its membership by isolating each of them inside their own heads. After the break, I discuss some of the doctrines of Scientology that justify secrecy and ask ‘Why do people join a church that won’t tell you what it believes up-front’?
Secrecy in Auditing
The central practice of Scientology (auditing) is performed in private, with only two people present (the student and the auditor). The student is told that, like the catholic confessional, whatever is said in these sessions is absolutely confidential. Unlike the confessional, the penitent is not allowed to discuss the experience either.
In practice, copious notes are made of everything said in the session, and there are well-documented examples of this material being used against disaffected Scientologists. High level defectors also speak of audio and video equipment that is installed in the “auditing rooms” used by celebrity Scientologists.
Secrecy of Doctrine
L Ron Hubbard taught that the teachings of Scientology must be approached in a fixed order (“on a gradient”) from the basics, step by step, to the most ‘advanced material’.
He claimed that students would be harmed if they become aware of any of his teachings before they had been properly prepared for them. The classic example is the OT3 story (which was revealed in a famous episode of “South Park“). Hubbard claimed that unprepared exposure to this would cause pneumonia and kill within two days.
Critics suggest that Scientologists have to be deterred from reading the OT3 until they have been thoroughly assimilated into the subculture because, if they read it unprepared they will see that it is plainly farcical.
Even after years of careful preparation, and under social pressure from the group, many ex-Scientologists report that the bizarre and unbelievable nature of this revelation is what broke their faith.
Suppression of Discussion through the Prohibition of “Verbal Tech”
Scientologists are strictly forbidden from talking about their understanding of doctrine to each other even when they are on the same level.
Hubbard emphasised that the subjective experience of each individual during auditing was paramount. Any discussion of this experience, even with another believer, would impeded the progress of both people, because their experiences would be different. This is termed “Verbal Tech” and is strictly forbidden.
Critics would view this policy as functional. The fact that new Scientologists are surrounded by ‘higher level’ members who claim mysterious knowledge (and powers) motivates them to continue, and deters scepticism. It is also the perfect environment for the operation of pluralistic ignorance.
All of these prohibitions on free discussion within Scientology are backed up by an elaborate system of discipline and punishment, which is administered by a department of the Church referred to as ‘Ethics’.
If a Scientologist becomes aware of any violation of the policies listed above, they are required to submit a formal, written, “Knowledge Report” to an ‘ethics officer’. Failing to submit such a report is viewed as seriously as the ‘offence’ itself.
The punishment for any offence can have serious consequences for a Scientologist. They may be required to make a humiliating series of ‘reparations’ to the group. They may be ‘busted down to private’ and have to take (and pay for) expensive courses all over again. They may even be excommunicated and (in extreme cases) subjected to harassment according to Hubbard’s policy of “Fair Game”. It is well documented that this kind of environment can lead good people to behave with extraordinary cruelty.
This system exploits obedience to authority, and further suppresses internal discussion. Scientologists who still want to discuss their experience are deterred from doing so with the only people who would really understand because they are afraid of being informed upon (for their own good, of course) and severely punished.
Why do People Join a Church that Won’t Tell You What it Believes Up-front?
In the case of the cult of Mithras, there were compelling reasons for joining. It was popular with the Roman military, and initiates were taught recognition signs (including a secret handshake). The effort of becoming an initiate provided a secret support network, that could help you out of trouble, and even advance your career.
In the case of the church of Scientology there are few practical advantages to membership. It is unlikely that an effective informal support network could grow between people whose beliefs require them to snitch on each other… and would be offset by the significant cost of Scientology courses in any case.
It is perhaps more useful to ask how the church or Scientology recruits people.
The answer seems to be that it uses hard sell techniques to promote various nebulous promises – and once a newcomer is in the new Org, positive social pressure is applied to keep them there.
Scientology’s recruitment tactics have nothing to do with their beliefs – in fact, their recruitment rates benefit from the concealment of those beliefs.
One important recruitment technique is the’ Free Stress Test’ – the one that always concludes that the subject is a psychological mess who is desperately in need of Scientology training to improve their life (now – before it’s too late). But that’s another post.