The Unbeliever’s Guide to Religion: Dianetics (Scientology) Part 1

As you might have noticed, it’s been a while since the initial post explaining this series. While this is in some part due to a heap of work and social commitments (and holidays), it’s also because I’ve been intimidated by the task ahead of me; attempting to present religious texts in a fair and balanced way, without shying away from their issues. As world events occur and prejudices flair, the job seems to get more and more difficult. So, in a way, I’ve copped out for the first installment. I’ve gone for the book that I’ve read most recently; the one that’ll be both more and less controversial than the others but in ways that aren’t quite as socially ostracizing:

Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. The basis of Scientology.

Having said that, the inclusion of this as a “religious text” is somewhat contentious. Back in 1950, when this book was published, Scientology did not exist. Dianetics was not a religion, nor was it attempting to be. Rather, it was a self-help method (or, as the Amazon page would have it, it is “the most powerful and effective book on the human mind ever published”). However, Scientology as a “religion” did spring from the publication of this book and its subsequent popularity, and as my goal for this project is to understand the roots of each religion, I figured this book was as good a place to start as any.

I also think that this book represents the more relatable and accessible elements of Scientology rather than the outlandish books that have come after it, and in the interests of fairness and balance, I’m trying to present the least sensational side of each doctrine.

Dianetics is 700 pages long, with a lot of content that needs explaining to us non-Scientologists, so this blog post will be the first of several on this book. This time, we’ll look at the context, structure and overview, then next time we’ll get into the specific content – and all that brings with it.

So here we are. Let’s dive in.

The Book
The version I’m using is the 1993 paperback edition of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health by L. Ron Hubbard, published by New Era. The cover states that over 16 million copies have been sold, so just consider what that number will have ballooned to by now. And they say there’s no money in publishing.

Context
Scientology is one of the newest religions, so we know a lot more about the context and production of Dianetics than we will know about the other books in this series.

L. Ron Hubbard was a science fiction writer. While it’s a little difficult to access reliable facts about his life, due to the cult of personality that has sprung up around him, it is clear that he was a writer for pulp fiction magazines through the 30s. In 1938, after what Scientology describes as an 8-minute period of death in the midst of an operation but what others describe as a tooth extraction while under nitrous oxide, Hubbard experienced a “revelation” and quickly wrote a manuscript called Excalibur, which purportedly discussed the nature of human existence. Allegedly, Hubbard said that this book would have “a greater impact upon people than the Bible“.

According to Forrest J. Ackerman, Hubbard told him that:

whoever read [Excalibur] either went insane or committed suicide. And he said that the last time he had shown it to a publisher in New York, he walked into the office to find out what the reaction was, the publisher called for the reader, the reader came in with the manuscript, threw it on the table and threw himself out of the skyscraper window.
– Ackerman, Forrest J (November 19, 1997) Secret Lives: L. Ron Hubbard. Channel 4 Television

Excalibur didn’t sell. I suppose if you tell everyone that a book will make them commit suicide, its retail factor is about equal to that of the death-inducing video in The Ring.

There would have been more Post-Its, but the book wouldn’t close.

After a stint in the U.S. Navy, Hubbard moved to California and lived with Jack Parsons, an occultist and follower of the British ceremonial magician (or, as others denounced him, the “Satanist”) Aleister Crowley. If you’re keen to read about the frankly incredible things the two got up to, I’ll leave that to you, but suffice it to say that Hubbard married Parson’s girlfriend and the two moved back to California, where he carried on writing sci fi and was beset by money issues.

It was around this time that Hubbard became involved with the study of mental health issues and neuroses, writing a book that he described as being about “the cause and cure of nervous tension“. His method of treating people was said to be revolutionary, and was said to cure every single case; this method was Dianetics. In May 1950, the book was published. By August 1950, 55,000 copies had sold, and hundreds of groups across the US were employing Hubbard’s methods.

Even the science fiction community became enchanted. Aldous Huxley is said to have been “audited” by Hubbard himself. However, not all sci fi writers fell under its spell; Isaac Asimov allegedly called it “gibberish,” while Russell Miller, author of Hubbard biography Bare-faced Messiah, claims that author Jack Williamson called it “a lunatic revision of Freudian psychology”.

The book’s argument was so convincing that people in their thousands mailed $500 cheques to Hubbard in order to reserve their place on an “auditing course”, so they could employ Hubbard’s methods. The book was a success, and the roots of Scientology had been sown.

Structure
Dianetics is separated into three “books”, which are ambitiously entitled:

Book 1: The Goal of Man
Book 2: The Single Source of all Inorganic Mental and Organic Psychosomatic Ills
Book 3: Therapy

It’s written in the fairly straightforward first person, addressing the reader directly, although there is one strange technique employed throughout the book, and that’s the excessive use of footnotes to explain, sometimes erroneously, often very basic terms.

This seems all well and good, but it does mean that throughout the book words can be given definitions that benefit the theory; in essence, Hubbard can make words mean something they don’t. The method is also massively over-employed, often “explaining” terms such as loud, signal and “present time”, though this does abate somewhat as the book goes on.

Overview
The goal of Dianetics, as laid out in this book, is to cure a person of the “aberrations” of mind that Hubbard claims cause all mental health issues and psychosomatic ills. According to the book, such psychosomatic ills include bad eyesight and hearing, colourblindness toothache, arthritis, asthma, high blood pressure and coronary complaints.

Hubbard divides the human mind into three sections. The first is the “analytical mind”, or the “perfect computer”, which is “incapable of error” (page 66). The second is the “reactive mind”, which can be generally understood to be your subconscious. The third is the somatic mind; Hubbard claims that cells “are evidently sentient in some currently inexplicable way” (page 103), and that “The cell is a unit of life which is seeking to survive and only to survive” (page 73).

Dianetics holds that the reactive mind contains engrams, and it is these engrams that are the source of all mental and many psychical illnesses. The concept of an engram is a difficult one for those of us used to science that’s based in physically verifiable facts, so let’s take a couple of definitions directly from the book:

Engram: A mental image picture which is a recording of an experience containing pain, unconsciousness, and a real or fancied threat to survival. It is a recording in the reactive mind of something which actually happened to an individual in the past, and which contained pain and unconsciousness, both of which are recorded in the mental image picture called an engram. It must, by definition, have impact or injury as part of its content. These engrams are a complete recording, down to the last accurate detail, of every perception present in a moment of partial or full unconsciousness.
– page 1

And a little later:

The word "engram" in Dianetics is used in its severely accurate sense as a "definite and permanent trace left by a stimulus on the protoplasm as a tissue". It is considered as a unit group of stimuli impinged solely on the cellular being. - LRH

In essence: during moments of unconsciousness (which is variously defined throughout the book), traumatic things happen to you and create engrams, which are imprinted on your cells. From these engrams, all your problems arise.

These engrams exist in the “engram bank” in your reactive mind, and “no human being examined anywhere was discovered to be without one or without aberrative content in his engram bank, the reservoir of data which serves the reactive mind” (page 75). The engram bank in the reactive mind causes all mental and psychosomatic ills, and it is the only thing that can cause these problems.

In Dianetics, the goal is to empty this reactive mind; to rid the engram bank of its contents.

Discharge the content of this [reactive] mind’s bank and the arthritis vanishes, myopia gets better, heart illness decreases, asthma disappears, stomachs function properly and the whole catalog of ills goes away and stays away.
Discharge the reactive engram bank and the schizophrenic faces reality at least., the manic-depressive sets forth to accomplish things, the neurotic stops clinging to books which tell him how much he needs his neuroses and begins to live, the woman stops snapping at her children, and the dipsomaniac can drink when he likes and stop.
These are scientific facts. The compare invariably with observed experience.
The reactive mind is the entire source of aberration. It can be proved and has been repeatedly proven that there is no other, for when that engram bank is discharged, all undesirable symptoms vanish and a man begins to operate on his optimum pattern.
– page 76

By ridding yourself of engrams, you become “Clear”. Going “clear” is the goal of “Dianetic therapy”. By clearing your reactive mind, you allow your analytical mind to work to its full potential – and remember, according to Hubbard, the analytical mind is incapable of error. In fact, Hubbard claims that your total body is under the full control of the analytical mind when you are cleared:

…when the organism is not aberrated – the analytical mind can influence the heartbeat, the endocrines (such things as calcium and sugar in the blood, adrenaline, etc.), selective blood flow (stopping it in the limbs or starting it at will), urine, excreta, etc. All glandular, rhythm and fluid functions of the body can be at the command of the analytical mind. This is not to say that in a cleared person they always are. But it does say that the analytical mind can effect changes at desire when it skills itself to do so. This is a matter of laboratory proof, very easy to do.
– page 71

It is also claimed that, when cleared, your IQ “soars”, and unless you are cleared, you cannot be considered sane. A cleared woman, in addition, finds birth a “very mild affair”: “A cleared mother needs no anaesthetic” (page 231). There are many things that are supposedly caused by engrams, and the book runs through a dizzying number of ways in which these engrams are created (including making noise whilst giving birth).

We’ll go into these in more details in subsequent blog posts. However, I risk causing you an engram by giving you so much information at once, so this seems as good a place as any to take a little pause.

Don’t think for a second, though, that we’ve touched upon the more outlandish parts of Dianetics. The book claims that those undergoing therapy can actually send part of their “I” into the past to record things he is experiencing. It claims that there may be vicious physical reactions to auditing, but that this is not the person reacting; it is their engrams.

More interestingly, it goes into great detail about the many engrams that come from your own mother, who may have incited such engrams by having sex, straining to defecate or having high blood pressure when pregnant. It’s also claimed in Dianetics that it’s not uncommon for a pregnant woman to attempt to abort her baby twenty or thirty times, and that this global pandemic of attempted abortions are the cause of morning sickness.

Attempted abortion is very common – and remarkably lacking in success. […] Morning sickness evidently gets into a society because of these interferences such as attempted abortion and, of course, injury.
-page 225

Yeah. Strap yourselves in for the next installment, because it’s about to get wild.