“The Church of Scientology in the United States” – An Army Chaplin Assesses Scientology in 1973

The Church of Scientology in the United States | Albert C Skinner USAR | 1972 | Download as .pdf

This document was made available when the archive of the U.S. Army Chaplain Center & School Library was scanned. Its title page describes it as a term paper written by Albert C Skinner for Chaplin Gremmels.

At the end, Skinner signs himself “Albert C Skinner Chaplin (CPR) USAR”, so his paper was likely part of ongoing training as a Chaplin in the US Army Reserve.

Here we have a evidently intelligent person whose vocation requires him to understand and respect a wide range of faiths and interact with believers, sometimes in extreme circumstances. However, in 1971 information about the Church of Scientology was hard to come by and there was no Internet.

Today, there is controversy about religious scholars who uncritically accept the Church of Scientology’s account of itself as a bona fide world religion and overlooking credible accusations of   bad faith and abusive behaviour

How realistic was Skinner’s assessment of Scientology, given his background and his relatively limited sources of reliable information?

The Chaplain’s Purpose

With a growing number of Scientologists serving in the Armed Forces, it is important for the Chaplin to be made aware of certain basic tenets of the Church of Scientology. It is necessary for the Chaplin today to understand the background and practice of the Scientologists, in order to effectively minister to him. Therefore, this paper is my attempt to clarify and understand the practice of Scientology. (pg 5)

I can sympathise with this aim. Skinner did not quite achieve it, because his good faith was exploited by the entity he was examining. To be fair, as a Chaplain, he had to take account to Scientology’s account of itself – it was not his job to judge the credibility of religious belief,  but to minister to believers.

At that time, the Church of Scientology was the only readily available source of information about itself. Consequently, Skinner  repeated a lot of claims which we now know to be false. However, he did do his research, and has some wonderful sceptical moments worthy of a no-nonsense Army Chaplin.

His point of view is valuable because it is that of an intelligent, open-minded person approaching Scientology in the 70s. If he was taken in to such an extent, you can understand how less critical people were recruited.

He would likely be disappointed to learn that today there is essentially no Scientology presence in any of the US armed forces. The Department of Defence recognises no less than 221 faithsbut not Scientology.

Scientologists would likely tell you that is an example of religious bigotry, but a practice that requires you to train at an org for four hours every day,and encourages social isolation and requires exclusive loyalty, is not really compatible with military service.

The Church of Scientology in New York City, circa 1972

Skinner opens with an account of  attending a Church of Scientology in New York City, where he was assured by a ‘Rev’ Meisler that:

[…] one does not have to leave his present faith to become a Scientologist. A person can be a Jewish Scientologists, a Catholic Scientologists, or a Lutheran Scientologist. Scientology is open to all people of all religions and backgrounds. (pg 1)

We now know that several aspects of this presentation were made in very bad faith.

L Ron Hubbard originally described Scientology as a science. It was only after early practitioners got into trouble with the law that the decided to adopt religious cloaking – this would give Scientology’s practices the protection of the US first amendment (Congress shall make no law concerning and establishment of religion) and position it to claim exemption from taxation.

Scientology adopted Christian Iconography in in a very heavy-handed way. This included a new symbol – and 8-pointed cross. Newly-minted ‘ministers’ dressed  in clerical garb. They even wore the 8-pointed Scientology cross around their necks carried books emblazoned with it, which were easily mistaken for bibles.

This is also when Scientology publications  adopted the habit of using the phrase, ‘the Scientology religion’, rather that just saying ‘Scientology’.

However, Hubbard made it clear to Scientologists that status as a ‘Church’ would not “upset in any way the usual activities of any organization. It is entirely a matter for accountants and solicitors”. In other words, it was a convenient pretence. This tactic can be seen on full display in 1977  in a propaganda text distributed in response to an FBI raid on Scientology’s secret police, then called ‘The Guardian’s Office’.

Skinner would doubtless have been miffed to learn that, while he he had to work hard to qualify, the Rev Meisler had acquired his title after an undemanding Scientology ‘Chaplain’s Course’ lasting a few days.

Also, as a person ‘advances’ in Scientology they learn that exclusive commitment is required and that mixing  ‘other practices’ (which include those of the religions listed above) with Scientology is absolutely forbidden.

Critics observe that, if Scientology demanded exclusivity up front, it would have excluded a large portion of its religiously inclined customer base. The Church of Scientology  will initially accept members of any faith – but it is quickly made clear they you simply can’t be a Jewish, Catholic of Lutheran Scientologist after a certain point in y0ur ‘training’.

The Reverend Meisler – Pastor or Secret Policeman?

The good Chaplain would likely have been utterly appalled to learn that, in 1972 (when his term paper was published) his contact with Scientology, the ‘Reverend’ Meisler was heavily involved in a plot to frame a journalist called Paulette Cooper for a crime that carried a penalty of 15 years in prison.

Why? Because L Ron Hubbard objected to a critical book she had written entitled “The Scandal of Scientology“. The whole astonishing story is told in “The Unbreakable Miss Lovely” by Tony Ortega.

Skinner approached Scientology in good faith, and they lied to him. Moreover, the man who told him these lies (The ‘Reverend’ Meisler) was engaged in the kind of secret  activities that you might have expected from the KGB, but not from a ‘Church’.

Scientology Does Not Change

Back in New York, Skinner then took a Scientology ‘personality test’ (which still claims to be rigorous and  ‘scientific’, when it suite them – see image below) then left to listen to an audio tape made by Hubbard.

After listening to the tape, Skinner was enrolled in a ‘communications course’. This is still one of the first courses that Scientologists do, and involves nine ‘training routines’ (referred to as ‘TRs’).

The young lady who interviewed me indicated that the Communications Course would really “blow my mind” and would improve my personality test score. The cost of this course is $35. (pg2)

This statement is at least partly true The TRs open with a strange staring contest which can provoke hallucinations. That experience might well blow your mind.  As for improving your (Scientology) personality test score:

  • The test given is worthless
  • Since you repeatedly take exactly  the same test before and after ‘training’ , your score is likely to improve simply because you learn the ‘right’ answers

This is Scientology’s approach today, practically unchanged after more than 60 years. The audio tape has been replaced by a video on DVD, and the ‘personality test’ is now used far more aggressively –  the subject always ‘fails’ and is told that they desperately need Scientology training. However, the only reason Skinner did not encounter this kind of pressure is that, back in 1972, Scientology did not lack for willing recruits.

The Rev Meisler told Skinner that there were:

[…] 600,000 practising Scientologists in the US and as many as three million who have made an inquiry into Scientology. It has become one of the fastest growing new religions in our country. (pgs 2- 3)

I can’t comment on the US figures as there is little independent and reliable information. Estimates for US membership today are less than a tenth of 600,000.

I can observe that Scientology routinely exaggerates it’s membership figures and claimed figures vary widely according to which Scientology source you consult. Independent opinion today is agreed that recruitment is at a standstill and membership ageing out. The recent Australian Census recorded a 20% over the last 10 years.

“L Ronald Hubbard” Attracts the Chaplain’s Scepticism

On page 6, Skinner takes a sceptical look at the hagiographic account of L Ron Hubbard put out by the the Church of Scientology opening with:

In order to understand Scientology, you must understand something about its’ founder — Lafayette Ronald Hubbard. This is not as simple as it sounds, because his life is shrouded by mysticism, and it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction when reading biographical accounts of him.

That warning given Skinner then gives an account that relies heavily on Scientology sources.  It reproduces some of Scientology’s sillier claims – opening with the claims that Hubbard grew up on his grandfather’s ranch, could ride a horse before he could walk and was a blood bother to the local Blackfoot Indians.

It’s pointless to debunk this personal myth now (not least because it’s been done much better by Russell Miler in his book, “Bare Faced Messiah“) . Suffice it to say the the Niitsitapi people (the Blackfoot) didn’t have a ‘blood brother’ ceremony at all.

Skinner catches up with reality on page 7,  where he notes that:

Scientology literature claims that he graduated with a BS degree in civil engineering from George Washington University and was trained as one of the first nuclear physicists. However, in a tax case involving a a Scientology center in Washington DC, university official testified that Hubbard entered their school in 1930, took and flunked physics, was placed on probation after his first year. Hubbard failed to return after his second year and certainly did not receive a degree.

Skinner also notes that he failed to find the ‘Sequoia University’ from which Hubbard claimed to have received a Phd. He did not know that this ‘institution’ was a degree mill that Hubbard himself was involved in.

Skinner also reproduces Scientology’s account of Hubbard’s war record, beginning on page 8.

A useful corrective to these superhuman claims is “Ron the War Hero” by Chris Owen. Hubbard’s official military record is risible. This is important because Hubbard’s claim to have cured his (non-existent) war injuries play a  central in Scientology mythology.

However, Skinner dryly notes that:

Today, Hubbard is reportedly afloat in the Mediterranean on on the ships of the flotilla called “Sea Org”. Hubbard’s floating domicile is like a retreat for advanced Scientologists. He continues to write additional textbooks of Scientology. Hubbard maintains communications to his Churches by frequent instructions by telegrams to his headquarters in England. On board ship Hubbard is a kind of Jesus Christ-cum-Buddha all rolled into one. His busts and photographs are everywhere. He is just God.

A Thorough Examination

That’s probably a good place to leave Skinner’s account and let you read it for yourself. The next chapter, “The History and Organization of Scientology in the United States” is about as accurate as it could be, given the sources of information available to Skinner at the time.

He goes on to discuss

  • The FDA raid
  • The early stages of Scientology’s  ‘war’ with the IRS
  • The influence of one its first ‘celebrity members’ ( the football star John Brodie)
  • Narconon (which the ‘Reverend Meisler claimed had an literally unbelievable 80% success rate)
  • The ‘Communications Course and ‘Training Routines’ (TRs)

Reading this, you are stuck by how little Scientology has changed over the intervening years.

I’ll close with this passage from page 11:

There seemed to be a great many reasons why Scientology aligned itself with religion. Society accords to men of the church an access not given to others. Becoming a church gave Scientology the needed respectability to become a worldwide organization. The practice of Scientology was now protected by the first amendment.

And another from Skinner’s conclusion:

Scientology seems to me to be a combination of the Power of Positive Thinking, A Dale Carnegie Course, and applied portion of self-hypnosis and some religious philosophy thrown in to give it real sense of mystery. It is something like eating one side of an apple and not knowing what the other side looks like.

Conclusion

Skinner’s effort was impeded by the fact that, as a Chaplain, he started out with good will towards other religious believers. Also, his source of information about the Church of Scientology was the ‘Reverend’ Meisler – a minister who was behaving like a secret policeman at the time of their encounter. Finally, so much information about Scientology’s abusive behaviour was yet to become feely available.

Despite those difficulties, he managed to give a reasonably balanced account. He is a model for those among today’s  ‘religious scholars’ who uncritically fall for whatever the Church of Scientology tells them.

I hope Chaplain Gremmels gave him a good mark.

 

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