Historically, scholars have placed New Religious Movements in definite (and broadly similar) categories. One popular distinction made by the Sociologist Roy Wallis is between ‘world rejecting’ and ‘world-affirming’ movements.
World-rejecting movements (e.g. Krishna Consciousness) regard wider society as evil, and separate themselves from it. World-affirming movements typically claim to have the means to unlock the ‘hidden potential’ of believers, so that they become more effective in the world. Scientology clearly belongs to the second group.
However, Kent argues that these kinds of categories are limited, and do not provide a perspective that enables researchers to investigate who world-affirming movements actually go about their perceived mission to transform the world.
Kent describes an alternative approach – rescourse mobilisation theory, which investigates how a group is organised and how members are motivated to persist with what most sometimes seem to be a futile effort to transform the world into their image.
This perspective works well for an investigation of Scientology, which Kent characterises as a transnational corporation, the bulk of whose members are motivated by religious ideology, not personal profit.
One of the aspects of Scientology’s ‘religious’ motivations is the way in which it presents itself as the last hope of mankind, under siege by corrupt vested interests who fear that they would lose power if Scientology was widely practised.
These groups include psychology/psychiatry and organisations such as Interpol – a vision which now appeals to those prone to conspiracy theories. This presentation can also be used to justify Scientology’s aggressive persecution of any person or organisation that opposes it.
Kent also describes Scientology’s efforts to influence international ‘elites’ (that is, anyone with influence that they might be persuaded to deploy on behalf of Scientology) for example ‘celebrities’.
Although this paper was published in 1992 it is highly relevant to a contemporary controversy about the way in which Scientology is apparently trying to influence the academic debate about by targeting religious scholars in an attempt to deploy their influence.
It is worth pointing out the pressures that academics who critically study Scientology have been subjected to for its entire history. As Kent puts it:
The study, however, of Scientology’s transnational control techniques presents unique challenges to researchers, as the late sociologist, Roy Wallis, discovered some years ago. After working on research that culminated in his still-unsurpassed Road to Total Freedom (1977), Wallis realized that:
“Whether with or without the connivance of the leadership of the Scientology movement, I was the subject of a concerted attempt at harassment designed to ‘frighten me off’ Scientology, to undermine my credibility as a commentator on their [sic] activities, or to keep me so busy handling these matters that I had little time for research (Wallis, 1973: 547)”.
Subsequent writers (none of whom have been academics) have been harassed in efforts to block publications of their critical examinations of the multifaceted group (Behar, 1991a: 51; New York Times, 1990; Sappell and Welkos, 1990: A48; Welkos, 1991). The group itself has attempted to restrict the availability of critical or revealing documents through successful efforts to seal court records (Koff, 1989) or placate litigious opponents with hefty out-of-court settlements that require them to return primary Scientology materials. Document restrictions of this kind make research exceedingly difficult, yet knowledge in the sociology of religion suffers as a consequence.