Frank K. Flinn
Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Washington University
Tuesday, July 5, 2005 3:00 PM
Frank K. Flinn, adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., was online Tuesday, July 5, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss Scientology.
Flinn received his undergraduate degree from Quincy College, a Bachelor of Divinity, magna cum laude, from Harvard Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in Special Religious Studies from St. Michael's College, University of Toronto. He also serves as an expert in forensic religion, testifying on the legal definition of religion and religious practices in the United States and abroad. He has appeared on radio and television around the globe on issues relating to the New Religions, Waco, the militia in the United States, Heavensgate, and religious violence.
Recent Post Coverage:
Washington Post staff writer Paul Schwartzman reports in his article "Testing Openness to Scientology" (Post, June 12) that the church offers stress exams, and a pitch, at local public booths:
"The Rev. Susan Taylor, the D.C. church's president, said the stress test is a way for the organization to spread the message of Scientology, a faith movement that acolytes have lauded for helping people gain control of negative emotions but that skeptics have dismissed as a cult. 'It goes back to' the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Taylor as she retreated from the table to the shade. 'After 9/11, it was realized by many people the amount of stress is incredible, and we feel we have some tools that can be beneficial.'"
In January, Washington Post staff writer Peter S. Goodman reported on Scientology and tsunami survivors in southern India in his article "For Tsunami Survivors, A Touch of Scientology" (Post, January 28):
"Amid the grief and loss in southern India, against a clamor for food and attention to the threat of disease, the Scientologists are here, offering up "locational processing," cognition and "spiritual beingness."
Washington Post staff writer Richard Leiby was online Thursday, July 7, at 1:30 p.m. ET to field questions about Scientology teachings and its celebrity adherents.
The transcript of the discussion with Frank K. Flinn follows.
Frank K. Flinn: Hi! My name is Frank K. Flinn. I teach religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis and have published a number of articles on Scientology. I have also appeared as an expert witness in a number of their court cases.
Charlotte, NC: What are the basic principles or dogma of the church? Articles I've read indicate the church clergy exercise a great deal of control over the members' personal lives. Is this true?
Frank K. Flinn: Many people have asked whether Scientology is a religion. I answer that to be a religion a group has to have 1) beliefs in something transcendental or ultimate, 2) practices (rites and codes of behavior) that re-inforce those beliefs and 3) a community that is sustained by both the beliefs and practices.
Scientology has all three. In its belief system it holds that humans are immortal "thetans" (or substantial souls) that have an eternal destiny with the Infinite. Second its religious practices are centered on "auditing" and training for auditing, whereby thetans are freed from "engrams" (more or less the equivalent of the Jewish and Christian concepts of "sin"). Third they definitely have a community set up in a number of churches throughout the world with headquarters in LA.
Columbia, Md.: Potentially dumb question ... but why is Scientology called 'Scientology?' It doesn't seem to embrace what we would consider mainstream science (i.e. medicine, psychology/psychiatry). Yet the name seems to indicate a scientific provenance or bias. Just curious.
Frank K. Flinn: The term "Scientology" means, literally, the study of (logos) knowingness (scientia). The church teaches that people have to attain knowingness if they are to fulfill their eternal destinies as thetans. In this they are remarkably like early Christian Gnostics who sought the secret and saving knowledge about their own selves as spirits.
Washington: Hi. I've been reading a little about Scientology thanks to Tom Cruise's recent outbursts, and I was wondering if you could just explain the money factor a little more. I read that a member of the church couldn't hear the truth about Scientology and the alien souls here on earth without giving a lot of money (like $300,000 to $500,000) - is that true? I am generally supportive of outside the mainstream religions (being agnostic myself) but any religion that charges money to learn the truth is not a religion -- it is a cult.
Frank K. Flinn: Generally, Scientologists offer fees for receiving auditing services. There are a number of ways a person can receive free services, for example, volunteering to work at the local church. There is fee set in stone ahead of time that a person must pay in order to begin the process. They believe in being self-reliant for your own spiritual welfare and paying for the auditing is one way to do that. Many new religions expect high up front fees from members in order to survive.
Scientologists have been much criticized for this practice, but it is no different that the fixed tithes certain evangelical churches demand of their members, or the tithes that Mormons pay. Many Jewish synagogues still have fixed fees for seating at the High Holidays. Catholics used to collect stole fees for baptisms, weddings, etc., and today it is still customary for members to "offer" fees (they are expected!) for these kinds of services.
Munich, Germany: Since both cavort with aliens and practice psychic healing, how do you compare the New Age Movement, a la Shirley Maclaine, with Scientology?
I know for a fact that Scientology is frowned upon in Germany since I was once suspected of being a Scientologist. A friend of mine, who was deeply interested in New Age Religion, and I, were once accused by a mutual acquaintance of having Scientology brochures mailed to him. Harassment and invasion of privacy was the result.
Is there proof to the claims that the Scientology movement uses brainwashing to recruit new members, and is there any truth to the stories of Hubbard's South Sea "Scientology Armada"?
Frank K. Flinn: Scientology has come under severe governmental surveillance in both Germany and France, and somewhat less so in other European countries. However in 2003 they won a major court battle in Spain in which their religious status was verified. This will have repercussions throughout the EU.
Washington, D.C.: Can you explain the connection between the novel Battlefield Earth and Scientology? Is it supposed to be the Bible-equivalent? What is the deeper meaning that readers are supposed to take from the novel?
Frank K. Flinn: Scientology holds as sacred scripture the writings of L. Ron Hubbard relating to Dianetics and Scientology proper, including the auditing and training for auditing material. There is a vast amount of material there.
While important to Scientologists, Hubbard's novels, including Battleship Earth, is important but do not have the same canonical status.
College Park, Md.: Do you practice Scientology?
Frank K. Flinn: I have been asked: Do I practice Scientology? The answer is no. I am a practicing Catholic.
San Francisco, Calif.: I note that you chose not to respond to an earlier question regarding the nature and extent of control that Scientology wields over its members. Thus, I have the following series of questions regarding Scientology's policies and practices regarding "Suppressive Persons" and "Fair Game."
Isn't it true that Scientology in policy letters from the Hubbard Communication Office that Scientology labels any persons "who impedes the advancement of Scientology or any Scientology as a "Suppressive Person?"
Hasn't Scientology in its policy letters characterized someone who is a "Suppressive Person" as being subject to its "Fair Game Policy?" Doesn't it's Fair Game Policy say that an SP is an "enemy" of Scientology and therefore may be "sued, lied to, tricked or otherwise destroyed" by any Scientologist without such person being subjects to Scientology "ethics," its name for discipline?
Didn't the California Court of Appeal in Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology find that Scientology's practice of "Fair Game" to be so inherently coercive as to not be worthy of religious protection under the First Amendment and characterize it as a modern day parallel to the Christian inquisition?
Frank K. Flinn: Because of abuses and the potential for abuse, the Church of Scientology discontinued the policy known as Fair Game in the early 80's.
That does not mean the church will not vigorously defend itself if it believes it has been attacked unfairly. It also vigorously defends the secrecy of its upper level auditing materials.
washingtonpost.com: Frank K. Flinn notes a correction to this answer later in the transcript.
Dallas, Tex.: Reviewing your definition of a religion, could those same answers be a foundation for a cult? What is the true difference between the two?
I'm also intrigued on the secrecy aspect -- how many other religions, similar to Scientology and the Mormon Church have secrets or revelations that are shown when a person has achieved a certain level of 'enlightenment'. Why is the secrecy necessary?
Frank K. Flinn: Sometime ago I published an article in Liberty: the Magazine of Religious Liberty in which I discussed the terms church, sect, denomination and cult. The word cult is very ambiguous. I always liked the definition of Leo Pfeffer, the great scholar of the 1st amendment. When as to define a "cult," said at a lecture here at Washington University in the mid 80's: "I am happy to define it. If you like a person, you call his religion a faith. It you are indifferent, you call it a sect. But if you really hate the b------d, you call it a cult!"
All kidding aside, the term cult used to apply to 19th century New Age groups like Theosophy. It meant those whose approach to God was through mysticism. Today the term means 1) a deranged leader who 2) entertains insane ideas and 3) engages in financial skulduggery and 4) practices sexual hanky-panky and 5) brainwashes his or her followers. In other words, the term has become a pejorative stereotype.
I have argued in a number of court cases that the U.S. Constitution uses only one term--religion. So the only proper constitutional question is: Is this a religion or not a religion? Whether a group is a church, sect, cult, denomination, meeting, gathering, fellowship, synagogue, or whatever, is absolutely and completely constitutionally irrelevant.
for the long-winded answer.
Washington, D.C.: Does Scientology have tax-exempt status with the U.S. government?
Frank K. Flinn: Scientology has tax-exempt 5013c status as a religious entity. It was in a long-lasting suit with the IRS (I appeared in that suit) which, guessing--correctly in my estimation--that it was going to lose, settled with the church in the early 90's.
P.S. Scientology church leaders receive comparatively modest salaries and nothing to approach evangelicals like Billy Graham, Benny Hinn or Joyce Meyers!
Brooklyn, N.Y.: Could you give us some background on the birth and spread of Scientology? Was it all the work of Hubbard?
Frank K. Flinn: A big question. The short answer is:
The growth of the church, in my estimate, started with the publication of Dianetics, a kind of self-help therapy in 1948.
After doing auditing many people started experiencing past-lives. Hubbard was asked to confirm or disconfirm ca 1952. He refused to disconfirm as it was happening to too many people. At that moment, in my estimate, Dianetics became a religion and the term Scientology came into use. The Dynamics were expanded from four to eight and the concept of "thetan" received sharp definition.
Remember, there is always a bit of untruth in short answers.
Clarendon, Va.: Earlier you compared the "start-up" costs to audit oneself under Scientology with the costs of belonging to other denominations that encourage tithing and other contributions. But the belief and practice of, say, Christianity is not dependent on spending money or even attending a specific church or following a given denomination. Is the same true here? Can you be a believing/practicing Scientologist without getting audited, and paying for the privilege?
Frank K. Flinn: In the early stages of Christianity, new converts very often turned over all their assets to the church. Read Acts 4!
Falls Church, Va.: Although you have discussed the basic ideas of Scientology, you talk about training. What is training and what does it consist of?
Frank K. Flinn: Training is what one does in order to become an auditor, who helps others do their own auditing.
NW Washington, D.C.: How do Scientologists view L. Ron Hubbard? As Prophet or god or other? How do they believe he received or came to know his truths/beliefs?
Frank K. Flinn: I think Scientologists see L. Ron Hubbard as their teacher,the discover of the "technology", the way many Indians view their teachers as their "guru" or guide to the Godhead. Jesus was called teacher, too ("Rabbi" means "My Teacher"). Scientologists do not worship Hubbard, though.
Does that answer your question?
Alexandria, Va.: Do Scientologist eschew other medical services, or just psychiatric medications?
Frank K. Flinn: The Tom Cruise celebrity brouhaha has created a lot of confusion.
Scientologists go to regular medical doctors they way you and I do for physical ailments and will take medications indicated for physical diseases.
They have an animus toward the field of psychiatry in general, because that profession so readily resorts to psychotropic drugs which Scientology opposes. Likewise Scientologists oppose the use of electro-shock therapy. Both psychotropic drugs and electro-shock, in their view, can do damage to the self as "thetan."
This is one of the reasons Scientology founded the Narconon program, which is affiliated but not under the direct direction of the church.
Arlington, Va.: How many members of the Church of Scientology are there in the United States? How many worldwide?
Also, I've heard that a person can practice Scientology and also be a Christian. Can you please elaborate on this?
Frank K. Flinn: The census numbers on Scientology, as with all other newer religions, are very iffy. Scientologists count about 8 million people worldwide, but that includes people to took just an introductory course without necessarily continuing.
Baltimore, Md.: What is auditing?
Frank K. Flinn: Auditing (which literally means "listening" in the sense of listening to one's own spiritual state) is a process whereby a believe deals with unresolved flashpoints or "engrams" from this life or past lives that have left a mark on the self as "thetan." Most members use the E-meter (= electrogalvanometer) to check on whether or not they have successfully rid themselves of engrams.
Washington, D.C.: I have heard, as the story of Scientology's origins, that Hubbard boasted to fellow sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov that he could create his own religion and attract followers. Asimov scoffed at the suggestion, so Hubbard went home and wrote Dianetics.
True, or urban legend?
Frank K. Flinn: I have heard this story too, but have never been able to verify any actual words published or recorded. No matter what was said, there is no doubt in my mind, or in the mind of the United States courts, or the High Court of Australia, or the Appeals Court of Spain, or many other courts around the world that Scientology is a bona fide religion.
You may not like it, but it is a religion.
Frank K. Flinn: Thanks for all your questions. I think it is about time for me to sign off. I am happy to do this some other time.
There were a lot of good questions.
Frank K. Flinn: P.S. L. Ron Hubbard officially cancelled the Fair Game policy in 1968. I put down 1980's because that is when I did most of my initial study of the church, and by that time I saw no practice of Fair Game. Self-defense yes, Fair Game no.
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