Scientology is back in the news these days, and the top story is that Katie Holmes is filing for divorce from prominent Church member Tom Cruise (born July 3, 1962). This is allegedly in part to protect her daughter from the practices of the Church.
There have been many other major defections and revelations as well, all covered in great detail at the Village Voice by Tony Ortega. There has been so much bad news lately that one writer called it the Summer of Hell for the Church.
Coincidentally, several historic dates in the history of the Church of Scientology occurred in July, so I thought to take a look at that history. They relate to the technology of the Church, criminal law and civil law.
If you’ve seen Scientologists recruiting people on the street, they sometimes use a device called an E-meter to "test your personality". This device actually just a simple circuit that measures the resistance of your skin to electric current. There’s very little scientific evidence that this measurement has anything to do with your mental state.
The original e-meter was actually invented by a chiropractor who was a collaborator of L.Ron Hubbard’s. Volney Mathison was granted his first patent on this device on July 27, 1954. He applied for and received a second patent on a modified version of the device on July 16, 1957.
Mathison later got into a dispute with Hubbard over credit for the invention of the device, and at one point Hubbard even disavowed its use in Scientology. Mathison himself gave up on Scientology, and the church started using a slightly different form of the device supposedly invented by Hubbard himself. These patents (and the battles over them) were an early legal tactic of the Church in protecting their methods.
Twenty years later, on July 8, 1977 the US Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a massive raid of Scientology offices in two cities. This was in response to the organization conducting something called “Operation Snow White” where they attempted to infiltrate various government agencies. Serious federal charges resulted in several convictions.
The conflict between the Church and its critics moved to the Internet with the creation on July 17, 1991 of the Usenet newsgroup called alt.religion.scientology. When several key Church documents were posted here, Scientology responded, resulting in a legal battle commonly referred to as “Scientology versus the Internet.” That battle continues, to a certain extent, to this day.
Aside from the revelations about the group being posted in the blogs of key defectors and at the Village Voice, two major books about Scientology were published last summer. Another major book by Lawrence Wright (based on his 2011 New Yorker article about Paul Haggis) is still in the works.
Skeptic Magazine recently featured a cover story on Scientology by Jim Lippard which covers much more of the background of the Church, you can read more about it here.
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(This is adapted from a segment that originally appeared on the Skepticality podcast episode #160)
Tim Farley is a Research Fellow for JREF, and will speak and present a workshop at TAM 2012 in Las Vegas next week.