If you’ve seen the A&E docuseries Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath or the HBO documentary Going Clear, you may be familiar with Scientology. Regarded as a cult by some and a modern religious movement by others, the controversial practice was created by American author L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s. Though he’s been dead for more than three decades, the Scientology founder still has an enormous influence on his followers, many of whom are big-name celebrities. Here’s a look into the life of this divisive leader and the religion he created.
Who is L. Ron Hubbard?
L. Ron Hubbard was born on March 13, 1911, in Tilden, Nebraska. The son of a U.S. Navy officer, Hubbard became a prolific pulp fiction magazine writer and science fiction author in the 1930s, publishing more than 1,000 books. To this day, Hubbard still holds the Guinness World Record for most works published by a single author.
According to Lawrence Wright, author of the book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, a life-changing experience at the dentist is what first sparked Hubbard’s interest in metaphysical matters. In an interview on the NPR program Fresh Air, Wright said:
[Hubbard] believed that he had died and gone to heaven and his disembodied spirit floated through these gates and suddenly all the secrets of existence were revealed to him and all the things that people have been asking since the beginning of time about the meaning of existence. And then, suddenly, these voices were saying, ‘No, no. He’s not ready. He’s not ready,’ and then he felt himself being pulled back, back, back, and then he woke up in the dental chair and he said to the nurse, ‘I was dead, wasn’t I?’ and she apparently looked startled and the doctor gave her a dirty look.
“But this was a big moment in Hubbard’s career because suddenly he became interested in metaphysics,” Wright continued. “He wrote a book called Excalibur, which was never published, but it was based on the revelations he supposedly had achieved during this dental surgery.”
These revelations, along with some of the terms and ideas he created in his science fiction novels, would become the basis for the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which Hubbard published in 1950.
Though poorly received by scientific and medical professionals, the book was a commercial success. It sold more than 55,000 copies and was translated into French, German, and Japanese. Hubbard went on speaking tours across the country to promote the book’s principles, which became some of the basic tenants of the Scientology religion.
What Do Scientologists Believe?
According to the religion’s official website, Scientologists believe that “man is a spiritual being endowed with abilities well beyond those which he normally envisions. He is not only able to solve his own problems, accomplish his goals and gain lasting happiness, but he can achieve new states of awareness he may never have dreamed possible.”
In order to work toward reaching these new states of awareness, followers of Scientology must undergo a process called “auditing.” The website describes the process as “exact sets of questions asked or directions given by an auditor to help a person locate areas of spiritual distress, find out things about himself and improve his condition.”
The ultimate goal in Scientology is to reach a spiritual state referred to as “clear.” Followers do this by participating in regular auditing sessions and working up a ladder of required training courses. Neither of these practices are cheap—it’s been reported that members pay up to $800 an hour for auditing sessions and shell out thousands of dollars each month to take courses. Books and other required materials are also costly and there’s even a membership fee. As ex-member Leah Remini said in an episode of her A&E docuseries:
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.
But when Hubbard first introduced Dianetics and Scientology in the 1950s, he didn’t have much trouble getting believers to fork over their cash in exchange for the promise of enlightenment. Self-help and psychology practices were just starting to gain traction in America at the time, and many people appreciated how Scientology combined religious components with easy-to-follow techniques for personal growth.
Hubbard was also able to establish a devoted following by courting high-profile individuals in arts and entertainment. In fact, at the time he founded Scientology, Hubbard was writing screenplays, hoping to break into Hollywood. “He really said that he wanted to take over the entire entertainment industry,” Lawrence Wright said in his Fresh Air interview. “But his dream grew larger when he established the Church of Scientology in Hollywood and set up the Celebrity Center with the goal of attracting notable celebrities.”
Why Did L. Ron Hubbard Go Into Hiding?
As Hubbard worked to grow Scientology over the years, the movement and its fearless leader began to face scrutiny. Hubbard was wanted by the IRS for tax evasion, and in 1977, the Church’s Los Angeles headquarters were raided by the FBI. This led to 11 senior church officials being convicted of obstructing justice, burglary of government offices, and theft of documents and government property.
As a result of the heat, Hubbard went into hiding—though the Scientology founder claimed he was going into seclusion to work on rekindling his science-fiction writing career. He was last seen in public in 1980, and spent the last years of his life on a secluded 160-acre ranch in California. On January 17, 1986, Hubbard suffered a stroke and passed away one week later at the age of 74.
The Wide Criticism of Scientology
Scientology continued on in spite of Hubbard’s death under the leadership of devotee David Miscavige, who is still head of the Church today. Miscavige continued to cultivate the Church’s relationship with celebrities, which brought the religion to an even higher level of prominence (and wealth) in the 1990s and 2000s.
In recent years, however, Scientology has been widely criticized. Many well-known former members have left the organization and come forward with accusations of abuse, manipulation, and illegal activities. From 2016 to 2019, actress Leah Remini—now one of Scientology’s most outspoken defectors—used her critically-acclaimed A&E docuseries to expose the organization’s injustices. The actress continues to speak out about the religion on her podcast Scientology: Fair Game.
Which Celebrities Are Scientologists?
Former Cheers star Kirstie Alley has been a Scientologist for more than 40 years. She credits the religion with helping her overcome a severe addiction to cocaine.
Laura Prepon of That ‘70s Show and Orange Is the New Black fame has been a member of the Church of Scientology since 1999.
Prepon’s former That ‘70s Show co-star Danny Masterson, who was charged with three counts of rape in June 2020, is also a devoted Scientologist.
Lisa Marie Presley
Daughter of legendary rocker Elvis Presley, Lisa Marie Presley was also a member of the Church since she was a child. She chose to leave the religion in 2012.
For better or worse, L. Ron Hubbard has clearly left a lasting impression on some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.