Last month, Germany's Federal Finance Office granted the Church of Scientology full tax-exempt status, clearing the way for the organization to be recognized as a bona fide religious group. Scientology was founded in the United States nearly 50 years ago by L. Ron Hubbard, an engineer and novelist. Many political leaders in Europe have accused the group of being a cult and the German decision comes at a time when here in the United States, a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the church awaits trial.
By the church's own estimate, Scientology has spread to more than 150 countries since the organization was first founded in 1954. Church officials say as many as 640,000 people may be joining the Church of Scientology each year. And 80 percent of these people boast an annual income that's higher than the U.S. national average. More than half of all Scientologists say they were Christian before joining the group.
But Susan Taylor, who heads the organization in Washington, DC, says Scientology isn't a Christ-centered religion. "The Church of Scientology religion, its basic beliefs, are actually rooted in eastern philosophies. L. Ron Hubbard said many years ago that if you were to liken Scientology to any other religion, it'd be closest to Buddhism," she says. "So we have a very eastern core, but with a very western approach."
That "western" approach includes something called "auditing", one the of the group's more controversial practices. According to Ms. Taylor, the process involves a precise set of questions posed to a person in stages. The goal is to achieve what Scientologists call "spiritual freedom". Auditing sessions are conducted by people who've been specially trained by the church, and the process is designed to take place over the course of 20 years.
But Susan Taylor is quick to point out it isn't therapy. In fact, the Church of Scientology stands in active opposition to modern-day psychiatry. "Scientology is nothing like psychiatry or psychology," she says. "I mean, nothing at all. For instance, a psychiatrist and a psychologist, in most cases, do not have a belief in God. You have a problem? We're going to label you, and we're going to give you a drug. Scientologists approach an individual's difficulties from a spiritual viewpoint. We also believe that the whole field of mental health belongs in the field of religion."
And therein lies the problem for some people, including the family of 36-year-old Lisa McPherson. They've filed a lawsuit in Florida, claiming she died because, among other things, the Church of Scientology removed her from the care of a psychiatrist. Ms. McPherson joined the church when she was 18.
In 1995, she was involved in a minor traffic accident, during which she exhibited behavior that law enforcement officials thought could be a sign of mental instability. She was admitted to a hospital, where a psychological evaluation was ordered. But representatives from the Church of Scientology insisted the evaluation would violate Ms. McPherson's religious rights. They removed her from the care of doctors, and 17 days later, Lisa McPherson was dead. The official cause of death was a blot clot, said to have been the result of dehydration and excessive bed rest.
"Scientology's complete rejection of all dimensions of psychiatry can have dire consequences for people who need psychiatric care," says Stephen Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta who specializes in alternative religions. He's interviewed hundreds of people who have left the Church of Scientology and says under the banner of religious freedom, church officials are practicing medicine without a license. "The auditing process is a multi-faceted activity, and one could argue that at least part of it involves belief in supernatural forces. But a lot of it is straight pseudo-psychotherapy," he says.
Professor Kent also says the church requires its members to pay large sums of money to participate in auditing sessions. He says Scientologists are asked to reveal a lot of personal information during these sessions, information that's recorded in the church's official records and because of that, he says many who want to leave the church feel they can't.
But those allegations are exaggerated, according to J. Gordan Melton, who directs the Institute for the Study of American Religion, an independent research group. Mr. Melton compares the money Scientologists pay for their auditing sessions to a tithe, which many mainstream churches ask members to pay. And he also says the stories Stephen Kent has gathered from apostates, that is, people who have left the church, are fairly standard when it comes to any religion that's new. "You can go back into 19th-century American history, certainly, with the Mormons, the spiritualists, with the Shakers, with Christian Scientists, and you have these apostate accounts," he says. "And one of the things about them is that they tend to tell the same stories. And their stories are generally picked up in the press, because they do make exciting reading."
In fact, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, was arrested several times before being killed by an angry mob in 1844. He was charged with everything from theft to murder, in large part on the basis of testimonies by former Mormons. Today, his church is one of the fastest growing religions in the world.
Officials from the Church of Scientology say lawsuits like the one involving Lisa McPherson are the modern-day equivalent of the persecution Mormons endured in the 19th century. But so far, Scientologists have been fairly adept at keeping that persecution at bay. They've managed to get the McPherson lawsuit delayed six times since it was filed in 1997. The most recent delay was issued the same week Germany's Finance Office granted the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status.