Lawrence Wright, who wrote the excellent and definitive account of  the September 11 attacks, THE LOOMING TOWER, has written a new expose  about Scientology, which was excerpted recently in The New Yorker.  It's worth reading.

In this week's issue, there are two letters in response to Wright's piece.  Here they are:
Lawrence Wright, in his Profile of Paul Haggis  and his thirty-five-year relationship with the Church of Scientology,  asks why the Church counts so many successful Hollywood celebrities  among its followers (“The Apostate,” February 14th & 21st). One  factor not considered is that these successful, talented, and creative  people tend to be undereducated. Some celebrities dropped out of high  school, and may sincerely wish for a formal education. Some have  revealed that they suffer from dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder,  hyperactivity, or restlessness. Some may show impatience; many are known  to be highly imaginative. A lack of education, coupled with great  imaginative powers, leaves people open to suggestion and yearning for a  better grasp of truth. The promise that Scientology offers—that  knowledge can be acquired without traditional study—is appealing, and  seems authentic. But knowledge is a form of power that takes time and  effort to acquire. It’s not easy, and no one book, person, or theory can  bestow it upon us.
Anna Bates
Lafayette, Calif.

Cults are distinguished from religions only by the number of  believers that they attract. The most depressing feature of Wright’s  article was that any of the other ten thousand or so religions that the  human ego has invented could have been substituted for Scientology. Only  the names, dates, and places would need to be changed. In reading  Wright’s piece, I am reminded of Edward Gibbon, who wrote, in “The  Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” “So urgent on the vulgar is the  necessity of believing, that the fall of any system of mythology will  most probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of  superstition.”
Ross Taylor
Canberra, Australia

Read more


Is reader Ross Taylor right?  What, if anything, does distinguish a religion from a cult?  Sometimes a distinction may be imposed by law or decree.*  What does that tell us about a culture's inclination to tolerate, or to reject, a body of beliefs?



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Look at Scientology - considered a cult, but it has millions of members. Some countries have banned it, mainly because stories of abuse, and how much money is involved, are coming from people who have left the cult. They don't even bother to mention god or jesus - it's all about the money. Ron. L. Hubbard claimed to be a religion, purely to evade paying tax.


I think ALL religions are cults. I think the word cult is loved by the bigger cults, like the catholic church, to try to differentiate and create distance, to make their 'cult' look legitimate.

Right, Suzanne.  As Jerry Coyne wrote a while back:


>>>  Most of us probably consider Scientology a cult rather than a religion, but that’s only because it has relatively few followers compared to, say, Mormonism, and because its official dogma is so bizarre.


But is it?  As The Los Angeles Times reported, here’s the “theology” of Scientology, a theology that has been deeply hidden by the Church and emerged only during lawsuits:

“A major cause of mankind’s problems began 75 million years ago,” the Times wrote, when the planet Earth, then called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of ninety planets under the leadership of a despotic ruler named Xenu. “Then, as now, the materials state, the chief problem was overpopulation.” Xenu decided “to take radical measures.” The documents explained that surplus beings were transported to volcanoes on Earth. “The documents state that H-bombs far more powerful than any in existence today were dropped on these volcanoes, destroying the people but freeing their spirits—called thetans—which attached themselves to one another in clusters.” Those spirits were “trapped in a compound of frozen alcohol and glycol,” then “implanted” with “the seed of aberrant behavior.” The Times account concluded, “When people die, these clusters attach to other humans and keep perpetuating themselves.”

Okay, that sounds really crazy, but is it any crazier than the Christian myths?  As actress Anne Archer (another celebrity Scientologist) points out in the article, one of the reasons Scientology is despised is simply because it’s new.  When we’re around to see how a faith is really formed—L. Ron Hubbard popping pills and writing science fiction, Joseph Smith pretending to find golden plates, Mary Baker Eddy’s recovery from a back injury—we see the chicanery, duplicity, and credulousness that attends the whole enterprise.  But as a faith ages, it gains more and more respectability, so we rarely think of how crazy theological doctrine really is. If Scientology survives another 200 years (and I’m not sure it will), it will be a respectable faith.

I think article that Don presents hit the nail right on the head. All religions start as cults and are hated because they are new, but after hundreds of years they gain respect. The thing about Scientology is that there are alot of shady things about it. You have to pay large amounts of money to go up the ranks, I don't know any other religion that requires you to pay to be apart of it, and the story sounds very science fiction like, and we all know the Ron L. Hubbard is a science fiction writer.

I don't like any religion, but I really don't like Scientology, they seem to want to take over the world. Most religions do, like Islam, but Islam says they want to conquer the world, but everybody else in the world just says whatever, because we all know that a bunch 3rd world countries can't conquer the world, but the difference is that they don't say it but it seems like as they a secretly trying to do so.

With all that said, religion is no good. But you guys probably already knew that.

It depends. The word cult originally just meant a system of ritual practices, its only  more recently that it came to be associated with negative practices like brain-washing and small authoritarian groups with odd beliefs.  In Sociology, the term cult is usually used to describe any group with new religious beliefs, so under that definition all religions started off as cults and then grew to be larger and more socially accepted. A lot of religious people use it as a slur against any religion that is too different from their own, like when christian fundamentalists call Islam or neo-paganism cults. I think most people nowadays use the word cult in reference to fringe groups, like Scientology, the FLDS, and groups like the Heaven's-Gate cult. Some people I've heard say that cults are any group that brain-wash and condition people to control them, but under that definition I think you could make the argument that all religions are cults since they all involve indoctrination to some extent. Just watch "Jesus Camp".

It's true enough that nowadays the use of the word "cult" to refer to longstanding mainstream religions (as opposed to Scientology, say) seems to many ears a denigration or an insult---and that says something about how the connotations of the word have evolved. 

But, in fact, the enduring, primary definition of "cult" (from the redoubtable Webster's Third Unabridged) is: "(1) religious practice; worship (2) a system of beliefs and ritual connected with the worship of a deity, a spirit, or a group of deities or spirits."  With this definition in mind, it seems plain that, to an objective observer, ALL religions are properly described as cults.

All religions start off as cults. It is only when they gather enough followers that they become accepted as mainstream. That is they become normalised in society’s viewpoint. They are no longer deemed to be fundamentalists.
Yes, Reg, they all start out as cults, and yet, even after decades and centuries, after they have become accepted because they have somehow managed to attract generations of adherents, in the standard--and primary--definition of the word, they are still cults.  The have become encysted in the culture, that's all.
I was in a cult and although I think most religions are faulty and oppressive in philosophy, they aren't always physically abusive or emotionally abusive. In religion you have voluntary brainwashing. In cults you have an authoritarian leader who enforces his power using mind control and abusive behavior. Sometimes members are physically harmed in cults if they disobey. Sleep deprivation, isolation from family, friends and outsiders are encouraged and sometimes enforced in cults.

I do agree that from the outside they both look very similar. Those of you who have stepped inside a church or temple may know its not always as directly harmful and is easier to leave.

I would agree that fundamentalism, esp Christian is a destructive, harmful belief system that could be considered a cult.
Cults and religions are indeed very similar, so similar, in fact, that I think it's fair to say (as Ross Taylor says in his letter, above) that they may be considered identical.  In their methods of enforcing allegiance, some lesser cults may seem more overtly extreme than others, but what distinguishes a cult from a religion (if anything does) is not whether its leaders resort to abuse to keep its members in line.  Certainly a cult like Catholicism that terrifies its believers with lavishly detailed threats of eternal agony should they commit "grave" sins, like fornication, is resorting to profound abuse to enforce its arbitrary edicts.
Also, I recently did a radio interview with some religious studies professors. I'm on my phone so I don't have the interview link but if you Google "examining cult culture" on north Carolina radio, The State of Things with Frank Stasio, that's it. It's all about cults.
Thanks. That link (or a link) is here:

And the mp3 audio is at

It made for interesting listening over the lunch hour.
Thanks for findin


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