L. Ron Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology in 1954 to supposedly rid his parishioners of self-doubt. More than half a century later, the religion is under more scrutiny than ever.
The Church of Scientology has been a lightning rod of controversy for decades — even well before Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise propelled it into the pop-culture stratosphere.
Founded in 1954 by science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, the church experienced groundswells of notoriety in three distinct phases: the initial founding in the 1950s, successor David Miscavige taking the mantle upon Hubbard's death, and Tom Cruise becoming the de facto face of the religion soon after.
What is a soul-saving compendium of self-help philosophies for devout members — based on Hubbard's own Dianetics text — is by many accounts a corrupt business benefitting from its non-profit religious status and run on a system of lies, threats, and punishment.
In order to thoroughly understand the self-described church — what its foundations are based on, how it's run, and what lies ahead for the organization — an informative walkthrough of its history, alongside 44 captivating photos chronicling its existence, is in order.
What Is Scientology?
"Scientology is a religion that offers a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one's true spiritual nature and one's relationship to self, family, groups, Mankind, all life forms, the material universe, the spiritual universe and the Supreme Being." - Official website of the Church of Scientology
Scientology conveniently posits that its tenets are rooted in "all great religions," boasting "a religious heritage as old and as varied as Man himself." The church posits that man is "basically good, and that his spiritual salvation depends upon himself, his fellows and his attainment of brotherhood with the universe."
Modern science, according to the church, leaves people with an "absence of answers" to their deepest troubles. L. Ron Hubbard and his disciples, however, claimed they had found the "workable methods of application that made it possible for Man to reach the ancient goal he has been striving toward for thousands of years: to know himself and, in knowing himself, to know and understand other people and, ultimately, life itself."
It all sounds broadly appealing — who wouldn't want to understand one's "true spiritual nature" with a combination of the best parts of the world's religions? — but Scientology's inclusive marketing masks a extremely rigid set of requirements for church members.
In order to achieve enlightenment and proceed with the tools and mindset to overcome any challenge that comes your way, the church declares, you have to read its books, use its technology, and submit to its stringent set of rules. And none of that comes cheap.
As was recently revealed in the documentary series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, presented by the Hollywood actress who was a Scientologist for 35 years before leaving in 2013, Scientology requires its members to spend an enormous amount of time — and money — in order to cross the "Bridge to Total Freedom," the church's way of describing its version of spiritual enlightenment.
Members have to complete both "training" — i.e. study the complete texts and teachings of Scientology — and "auditing" — the church's version of therapy.
To complete the required training, members have to buy all 12 books of Scientology which, according to Remini, cost about $4,000 altogether. Whenever the church updates the books, members have to buy new ones – if they want to be good Scientologists.
Parishioners have to read the books, complete lessons, and listen to hours of Hubbard's lectures "in a precise order set forth on a checksheet," according to Scientology's website. The church estimates that if you spent 40 hours per week studying its doctrine, the full round of coursework would take about a year to complete.
"L. Ron Hubbard has written many times about the fact that 50 percent of one's gains from Scientology come from training and 50 percent are from auditing," proclaims Scientology's website. In auditing sessions, members are taken through challenging, disturbing, or traumatic memories and feelings to try to overcome them — to transition from "preclear," as beginning Scientology members are called, to "clear."
In auditing sessions, members hold the electrodes of an e-meter, a device that Scientologists believe measures one's emotional response to ideas, phrases, and even individual words. Auditors use the e-meters, whose psychological uses have been officially disproven by the U.S. courts, to guide their sessions.
According to Remini, each auditing session lasts a minimum of two and a half hours and costs $800 an hour.
"There is no other religion that I know of that requires two and a half hours of your day, a quarter of a million dollars minimum, and at least 40 years of your life," Remini said.
According to Jeffrey Augustine, author of the blog The Scientology Money Project, the church collects about $200 million every year and has a book value of $1.75 billion, most of which is tied up in real estate in Florida, Hollywood, Seattle, London, New York, and other places.
When a Scientologist has had enough and decides to leave the church, they suffer "disconnection," by which the church pressures Scientologists to sever any and all ties with every ex-member — or anyone deemed hostile to the church. These disconnections have separated children from their parents, spouses from each other, and have devastated countless lives.
Scientology's Technology And Xenu, The Intergalactic Warlord
So how did Scientology's pseudo-scientific practices come to be? It all started with one American science-fiction writer.
Hubbard’s overarching thesis was released in 1950. Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health introduced the author’s pseudo-therapeutic "auditing" technique.
At the core of the man's self-designed religion was the idea that unhappiness was created by mental blocks and errors, which he called "engrams." These settled in a person’s mind at an early age — possibly even from a previous life — and could only be exorcized through auditing.
Hubbard even claimed these sessions could cure blindness, make a person smarter, and even make them more attractive. As he refined his semi-religious, semi-psychiatrical tome with more steps and phases, so did he the requisite price of attaining its information.
The first church of Scientology opened in February 1954, while the following decade saw more than a dozen new churches spring up. In the 1960s, membership began to soar.
During that same period, Hubbard established the notion of "Thetans." These clusters of spirits which supposedly consume a person's psyche were purportedly sent to Earth 75 million years ago by an intergalactic warlord named Xenu. Of course, this massive, global affliction could only be cured via auditing — which, again, you have to pay quite a few pretty pennies for.
This is when the IRS perked up, resulting in one of the most notorious moments in the church's existence.
The Early Days Under L. Ron Hubbard
According to Richard Behar's "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power" published in Time, Hubbard's sought to establish a movement that would "clear" people of unhappiness. Part con-man, part pulp author, Hubbard was born in Nebraska in 1911 and served in the Navy during World War II.
After making claims to the Veterans Administration that his "suicidal inclinations" and "seriously affected" mind were plaguing him, he began writing science-fiction novels at an impressive rate. Their quality, however, indicated that speed may not have been a virtue.
In the early days of his cult, brochures described him as an "extensively decorated" hero of the war, who was both crippled and blinded in combat. They also stated that he died — twice – but was brought back to life by Scientology's spiritual and technological components. These, of course, were all lies.
His doctorate degree from "Sequoia University" turned out to be a fake mail-order document. When somebody sued Hubbard's biographical researcher for publishing this slew of falsities in 1984, a California judge described the founder as "a pathological liar."
Scientology Battles The IRS
In 1967, the International Revenue Service decreed the Church of Scientology no longer warranted a tax-exempt status as a religious organization. A federal court ruled in 1971 that L. Ron Hubbard's e-meter claims were scientifically unsound, and that Scientology's medical aspects were nonsense (though it did rule that the e-meter could be used "only in religious setting subject to explicit warning disclaimers on the device itself and on all labeling").
At this juncture, Hubbard was fully emboldened to use the First Amendment to his business's advantage. He sought Constitutional protection for Scientology's self-proclaimed rites, began building chapels, and had his counselors wear clerical collars.
The buildings used for auditing became "missions," fees became "donations," and Hubbard’s text became "scripture." Frankly, the man understood the rules he was playing by — and used them successfully. That is, until the IRS uncovered some major financial fraud.
The IRS conducted its investigation in the early 1970s, and discovered that Scientology's leader had funneled millions of dollars from his organization, laundering some of these funds in sham organizations supposedly based in Panama and safeguarding them in multiple Swiss bank accounts.
On top of that, the IRS discovered that numerous church members stole documents from the IRS, filed fraudulent tax returns, and routinely harassed the Service's employees (Hubbard had long pushed his church's members to infiltrate the U.S. government). This criminal conspiracy eventually became known as Operation Snow White, a tactical effort to stifle the IRS using illegal means.
According to a Scientology defector, members "worked day and night" on this initiative, shredding documents requested by the IRS. According to a Scientology defector, members "worked day and night" on this initiative, shredding documents requested by the IRS.
In 1979 and 1980, seven Scientologists — including Hubbard's own wife — were convicted, fined, and sentenced to jail for directing a conspiracy to steal and destroy government documents about the church.
L. Ron Hubbard Is Dead, Long Live David Miscavige
During the government investigation, L. Ron Hubbard's health deteriorated. He gained weight, developed a growth on his forehead, and in 1973 suffered a motorcycle accident. Two years later he had a heart attack, and the following year he fell into a coma. He spent his last two years in hiding on a ranch in California. In January 1986, he suffered a stroke, and died a week later. He was 74 years old.
Enter David Miscavige — a far more ruthless, cunning, and relentless alternative to the sloppy, rotund pioneer. The year after his ascension, Scientology reported an income of $503 million.
In the 1980s, in the wake of the IRS scandal, the Church of Scientology saw hundreds of members quit. Many claimed they had been physically and mentally abused and defrauded of thousands of dollars. Some lawsuits on their behalf actually succeeded, while others settled for various amounts.
Across the disparate lawsuits lobbied against the church by former members, various judges have described the church as "schizophrenic and paranoid," as well as "corrupt, sinister and dangerous."
Cynthia Kisser, who formerly served as executive director for the Cult Awareness Network described the organization as follows: "Scientology is quite likely the most ruthless, the most classically terroristic, the most litigious and the most lucrative cult the country has ever seen. No cult extracts more money from its members."
Miscavige Attracts VIPs
Celebrities played a key role in Scientology's proselytizing strategy from the church's early days.
Hubbard did an impressive job of forming his new religion into a tax-exempt, celebrity-alluring organization. In 1969, he established Scientology's Celebrity Centre International, a hub for "artists, politicians, leaders of industry, sports figures and anyone with the power and vision to create a better world." It was situated in a resplendent chateau just off of Hollywood Boulevard.
Hubbard was fully focused on amassing as long a list of famous members as possible. The church's internal newsletter, "Project Celebrity," regularly reaffirmed this quest to "quarry" A-listers like Walt Disney, Orson Welles, and Greta Garbo.
"Celebrities are very Special people," Hubbard wrote in 1973. "They have comm[unication] lines that others do not have."
L. Ron Hubbard's death fell in the midst of Reagan's America — with a booming economy and a national fetishism for fame, wealth, and celebrity. In that environment, David Miscavige helped the church find its new poster child in Tom Cruise, with John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and Anne Archer flanking the church's lead protagonist.
The controversial figure has been Scientology's leader for more than 30 years now, and has made sure Tom Cruise remains under its umbrella ever since he joined in 1990. The U.S. government officially recognized Scientology as a religion three years later.
The two seemed, by all accounts, inseparable — riding motorcycles together, awarding each other medals of valor, and celebrating each other's birthdays. The church stuck its nose in nearly aspect of Cruise's life — including his personal life.
The church allegedly broke up Tom Cruise and his wife, Nicole Kidman, because it suspected her of being a "Potential Trouble Source" and a bad influence on his Scientology adherence (Kidman's father was a major psychologist in her native Australia, and Scientology is notoriously suspicious of psychiatry and psychology).
After Cruise and Kidman split, according to the HBO documentary Going Clear, the church tried to set Cruise up with a new girlfriend, only to separate them after a bad trial-run. Katie Holmes, the actor's third wife, allegedly broke up with Cruise for fear of the church's influence on their daughter, Suri.
But while Scientology promoted its star parishioner at church events, it did everything it could to hide the whereabouts of one member: David Miscavige's wife.
The Disappearance Of Shelly Miscavige
Michele "Shelly" Miscavige, the First Lady of Scientology, stood by her husband's side for decades. In every trip, meeting, and photo opportunity, the two displayed the perfect picture of loyal married life. But when they weren't in front of cameras or at an official church function, their relationship showed obvious signs of strain.
"I never, ever saw them kiss," said Marc Headly, a former member who worked closely with the couple. "I was there for 15 years...so I had plenty of opportunities to witness them together and never, ever saw them affectionate with each other....Iim talking about in a room with four other people."
"Informal. We're all just chatting, and he isn't touching her."
"Odd, odd couple," added Tom De Vocht, a former Sea Org member during David Miscavige’s time on the ocean. "There was obviously a working relationship, but odd. I don’t think I once saw Miscavige hug or kiss or anything Shelly. I spent a lot of time with them. There was no real affection."
In August of 2007, Shelly disappeared. For a religion that has been the subject of much controversy for strange deaths and vanishings, this was cause for concern.
Leah Remini On A Quest For Answers
When former Scientologist Leah Remini inquired about Shelly's inexplicable vanishing, she was told a variety of stories. Asking high-ranking Scientologists where her friend had gone also led to harsher auditing sessions, interrogations, and the clear feeling that she should stop investigating.
"You’re a cocksucker," Miscavige would tell people when angered or impatient. "I’ll rip your balls off, you dirty cunt."
"They'd say, 'Oh, she's on a special project' or 'Oh, she's visiting a sick relative,'" Remini explained.
When she finally left the church in 2013, Remini filed a missing persons report with the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD seemed to take her filing seriously — but quickly closed the case. They ruled the report "unfounded," and claimed they’d met with Shelly.
They didn't provide any more information.
According to Page Six, Remini has considered the worst possible scenarios, as Shelly hasn't been seen publicly in over a decade.
"'Shelly is fine, and she's alive.'…That’s the PR line," said Remini. "I don’t believe that."
Ron Miscavige — David's father, who left the church in 2012 — confirmed that Scientology's higher-ups are not to be toyed with.
"Shelly, she’ll never be free," he said. "These are pretty bad people, but they don’t have a conscience and that lets them do it."
The official response on behalf of the Church of Scientology, of course, denies any wrongdoing and simultaneously goes on the offensive. The statement claimed Ron Miscavige is merely attempting to financially exploit his son "in a sad exercise in betrayal."
"Leah Remini has been stalking Mr. and Mrs. Miscavige for years because of her psychotic obsession," the statement added. "It is time for her to stop."
Clearwater And Scientology's Sea Org
The Church of Scientology doesn't only take over people's lives — it takes over entire cities. While Scientology's "Gold Base" is comprised of a 520-acre compound about 100 miles outside Los Angeles, the church has also virtually taken over the city of Clearwater, Florida, on the state's western coast.
In a 1977 raid of Scientology's headquarters, the FBI found a trove of secret plans to gain control of Clearwater. Dubbed "Project Normandy," the plan's purpose was to "obtain enough data on the Clearwater area to be able to determine what groups and individuals [we] will need to penetrate and handle in order to establish area control."
According to a 2017 report by the Tampa Bay Times, the Church of Scientology owns $260 million worth of property in Clearwater under its name, plus an additional $26 million of downtown real estate that it purchased using shell companies.
One of its properties includes the Fort Harrison Hotel, a 220-room lodge in the middle of downtown that's now the church's main spiritual headquarters. Across the street from it lies the Flag Building, a 889-room behemoth that takes up an entire city block — the biggest building in the city. It's used for a high-level training course called the Super Power Rundown, and is topped with an enormous bronze Scientology cross that's visible from much of the rest of the city.
This part of town is riddled with khaki pant or navy-blue trouser-wearing Scientologists, who abide strictly by traffic lights, call everyone "sir" — including women — and move around the area in tightly packed clusters. This is the "Sea Organization," which the church claims is comprised of its most elite members, according to 2006 report in Rolling Stone.
This sub-sect of Scientologists is often ocean-based, aboard vessels like the Freewinds, which most recently found itself in a four-day quarantine in St. Lucia after a measles outbreak.
Sea Org And Freewinds
In order for Scientologists to achieve Operating Thetan Level Eight (OT VIII) – the highest level of Scientology — they must board the Freewinds, a cruise ship built in Finland in 1968, for a period of intense, distraction-free study.
Scientology's obsession with marine vessels started in the 1960s, when Hubbard was kicked out of England and needed a loophole to operate his business. "Hubbard's shift to a sea-based organization during these years was clearly in part a response to his inability to operate freely in many nations," Hugh Urban, author of The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion explained.
Hubbard created the Sea Org, a faction of Scientology comprised of the church's most elite, dedicated members. It is also one of the strictest organizations within Scientology.
Attained by the church in 1988 — two years after L. Ron Hubbard's death — the 440-foot Freewinds is a vital part of the Sea Org. Sea Org members staff the ship and work on it for as many as 100 hours per week, while high-level Scientologists — including Tom Cruise – use the ship to commune and celebrate.
In 2011, an Australian woman claimed she was taken aboard the Freewinds for a two-week vacation. At least, that was what had been conveyed to her. Instead, she found herself on a 12-year stretch of indentured servitude.
In April and May 2019, the Freewinds broke into the news cycle after a Scientologist aboard was found to have contracted the measles. The ship was under quarantine for days at the port of St. Lucia in the Caribbean.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg for what staff members of The Freewinds, Scientology’s ship of horrors, have to endure while serving people like Tom Cruise and David Miscavige," Leah Remini tweeted as news of the ship's quarantine trickled out.
"The Scientology ship, The Freewinds, is where they reach one of the highest levels of Scientology and are supposed to be impervious to 'Wog' Illness," she explained. "A Wog is a derogatory term used to describe all of you, who are all just average humans compared to the superior Scientologist."
Scientology Always Blames Its Critics
If you're looking for the truth about Scientology, you probably won't find it with the church itself. Its modus operandi is to go on the offensive, ridiculing its critics for their supposed "lies."
"Week after week, month after month, and now year after year, this series has poisoned the airwaves in an avowed effort to create hatred against the Scientology religion and Scientologists," read the church's statement in response to Leah Remini's documentary series after a 16-year-old stabbed a Scientologist to death at a church complex in Sydney, Australia. "Now, somebody is dead. You paid for the hate that caused his murder."
Alternatively, of course, the financial exploitation, physical and mental abuse, and untenable conditions aboard ships like the Freewinds and Scientology buildings across the country are likely more of a cause of these unstable, violent incidents than televised criticism of the church. Perhaps that's the reason why its membership has reportedly dwindled from a high of 100,000 in the 1990s to just 50,000.
When so many lives have been irrevocably ruined, and there's so much smoke — the fire is probably real.
After learning about Scientology and exploring its past through 44 shocking photos, take a look at these 28 photos of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology's early days. Then, learn about Scientology's new TV network, intended to function as part of its "global dissemination crusade."