During a third quarter television commercial break, Super Bowl watchers in January found an advertisement from an unusual source: the Church of Scientology.
The full video is available online and received mixed reviews. TIME.com gave the ad an “A” grade “because now we live in a world where religions advertise during the Super Bowl.” Scientology’s primetime presence, however, should not have been very surprising. The church bought commercial time for the 2013 Super Bowl as well, and has a history of promotion on television dating back to commercials and infomercials for the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
This use of mass media should alone raise questions regarding the role of technology as a tool in disseminating Scientology—and indeed religion at large—in the twenty-first century. But if we examine the most recent Super Bowl ad closely, it becomes clear that it represents more than Scientology’s use of savvy modern marketing. Rather, it suggests that, for Scientologists, the categories of science and technology themselves occupy vastly different spaces than they do in more “mainstream” faiths. As this video illustrates, Scientology is a modern religion whose central theological claim is that it combines technology and spirituality, and as such challenges the notion that the categories of science and religion are incompatible or mutually exclusive.
On the face of it, the video contains a simple message, set to inspirational and upbeat background music:
Imagine science and religion connecting. Imagine technology and spirituality combining. Now imagine that everything you ever imagined is possible. Scientology…there are higher states of existence.
The phrase “Spiritual Technology” then flashes on the screen. These words recombine to form the word “Scientology,” which itself transforms into “Scientology.org,” inviting the viewer to the church’s website. This reflects the church’s message that one should learn about Scientology independently, instead of relying on the opinions or viewpoints of others. “Nothing in Scientology is true for you,” the founder of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) wrote, “unless you have observed it and it is true according to your observation.”
Scientologists understand and express this subjective epistemology—this call to experience truth firsthand—through scientific language and practices. The phrase spiritual technology may seem paradoxical or even oxymoronic, but it is an apt description of Scientology on its own terms. The beginning of the video emphasizes this confluence of scientific and religious vocabularies and technologies. The ad features the E-Meter, or electro-psychometer, used in Scientology counseling, or auditing, to assist the counselor in locating psychological-spiritual aberration in the person being audited. The idea is that the E-Meter functions as a quantifiable means to measure and eliminate spiritual traumas as they come up in counseling sessions.
The E-Meter is understood as a religious artifact, not as a diagnostic tool, lest it be misunderstood as a medical device.
The relationship between spirituality and technology is again visually emphasized as the opening line of the ad, “imagine science and religion connecting,” ends just as the E-Meter cans rest in two hands in preparation for a session. In practice, the E-Meter runs a small and harmless amount of electricity (approximately 1.5 volts) through the cans; the current in turn runs through the body and gives a reading on the machine directing the counselor to areas of possible travail.
The E-Meter is, in fact, an ohmmeter, an improvement on the Wheatstone bridge. It has commonly been compared to a lie detector, which Hubbard addressed in an early lecture: “The difference between this machine and a police department machine,” he said in 1952, referring to the model then in use, “is elementary: a police department machine is just more of it. A police department machine measures respiration, blood pressure, […and] electronic impulse. They measure maybe as many as four or five factors. The point is, this machine measures solely the electrical resistance of the body.” And in another reference from that year: “In the course of auditing, the E-Meter is never read for lies, but only for stress. A surge does not mean the pc [pre-Clear] is lying. It means he has stress connected with the question. And stress is what the auditor is trying to find. For stress is the thing which makes the pc ill and aberrated.”
According to Scientologists, by measuring the rise and fall of electrical resistance, the meter helps the auditor pinpoint spiritual problems that may be consciously or subconsciously upsetting the person receiving auditing. The E-Meter is thus understood within the church as a religious artifact, not as a diagnostic tool, lest it be misunderstood as a medical device. While the E-Meter’s functionality depends on electrical engineering, its application remains within the realm of the religious. In this context, it is sometimes even used as a confessional tool.
The E-Meter shown in the ad was released to the church only two months earlier (November 2013) alongside the opening of a cathedral at the church’s spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. The second half of the video foregrounds the impressive structure and includes a shot of the sun rising behind the Scientology cross atop the cathedral. It juxtaposes the sun with the closing line “Scientology…there are higher states of existence.” This last line refers to the spiritual progress that the church offers, primarily through auditing and the training of auditors, but also through introductory courses available at missions, churches, and even online.
Scientology can be understood as assimilating a variety of religious traditions as much as synthesizing science and religion.
In its advertising and its theology, Scientology attempts to collapse traditional barriers between science and religion, and as such occupies a liminal, unique, and largely unexamined place in recent religious history. In my own research, I have encountered expressions of this viewpoint from Scientologists who choose not to speak of their religion in the language of belief or faith but instead insist that Hubbard’s spiritual technologies are the basis for knowledge about one’s spiritual self. Some of the most valuable experiences in this regard are recollections of past lives in auditing sessions and, occasionally, out-of-body experiences called exteriorizations. In an exteriorization, the spirit (called the thetan) separates from the body and is no longer encumbered by the physical universe.
These and other expressions of technological theology have made it difficult to assess Scientology’s place on the religious landscape, although in comparative terms the religion in some ways resembles forms of Buddhism and Gnosticism. Religious studies scholar Frank Flinn, for instance, has argued that Scientology is a form “technological Buddhism,” and Hubbard himself wrote that it “considers itself a culmination of the searches which began with the Veda, the Tao, Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions. Scientology is a gnostic [sic] faith in that it knows it knows.” Scientology can be understood as assimilating a variety of religious traditions as much as synthesizing science and religion.
Despite its implications for understanding the relationship between science and religion, Scientology has received remarkably little attention from academics, though this situation is beginning to change. More graduate students are conducting research on the subject. This includes work on a variety of academic topics that have been neglected, such as systematic theology, religious practices such as auditing, the history of the church post-Hubbard, the international state of Scientology, and fieldwork and ethnographic research among current members. My own research has focused on the latter, and I agree with Seth Perry’s 2011 assessment in The Chronicle of Higher Education that “…no study has yet answered the question of what it means for Scientology to act as a religion for its adherents.” In addition, others are conducting research on the perspectives of former members and critics, which will contribute to the study of exit narratives, disaffiliation, disaffection, and splinter groups.
The cumulative result should be a transdisciplinary set of perspectives in which the global phenomenon of Scientology is better comprehended on its own, even if idiosyncratic, terms. This will in turn contribute to the study of new religious movements and religious studies more broadly. And, moving forward, I suspect that Scientology’s theology, practices, and marketing will continue to provide promising case studies for understanding contemporary intersection points between science and religion.
Donald Westbrook is a PhD Candidate in American religious history at Claremont Graduate University. He is preparing a dissertation on the Church of Scientology based on extensive fieldwork and interviews with Scientologists in the United States and abroad. He worked as a summer research intern (2014) for Harvard’s Pluralism Project, documenting inter-faith organizations in the Greater Los Angeles Area.
 Hubbard, “Indoctrination in the Use of the E-Meter,” lecture given on March 8, 1952, Scientology: Milestone One lectures (Los Angeles: Golden Era Productions, 2010), 347.
 Pre-Clear is one name for the person being audited. Scientology offers a progressive and soteriological “Bridge to Total Freedom,” the most recent version of which was released in November 2013.
Hubbard, Electropsychometric Auditing Operator’s Manual, June 1952.
 Flinn, “Scientology as Technological Buddhism,” in James R. Lewis, ed., Scientology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 209-24.
 Hubbard, The Scientologist: A Manual on the Dissemination of Material, originally published in Ability magazine, March 1955.
 See, for example, J. Gordon Melton, The Church of Scientology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2000), 25-38; Hugh B. Urban, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 82-88; and Régis Dericquebourg, “Legitimizing Belief Through the Authority of Science: The Case of the Church of Scientology,” in James R. Lewis and Olav Hammer, eds., Handbook of Religion and the Authority of Science (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 741-62.
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