Scientology is a set of beliefs and practices invented by American author L. Ron Hubbard, and an associated movement. It has been variously defined as a cult, a business, or a new religious movement.[10] The most recent published census data indicate that there were about 25,000 followers in the United States (in 2008); around 1,800 followers in England (2021);[11] 1,400 in Canada (2021);[12] and about 1,600 in Australia (2016).[13][14] Hubbard initially developed a set of ideas that he called Dianetics, which he represented as a form of therapy. This he promoted through various publications, as well as through the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation that he established in 1950. The foundation went bankrupt, and Hubbard lost the rights to his book Dianetics in 1952. He then recharacterized the subject as a religion and renamed it Scientology, retaining the terminology, doctrines, and the practice of "auditing".[6][15][16] By 1954 he had regained the rights to Dianetics and retained both subjects under the umbrella of the Church of Scientology.[23]

Scientology teaches that a human is an immortal, spiritual being (Thetan) that resides in a physical body and has had innumerable past lives. Some Scientology texts are only revealed after followers have spent more than $200,000 in the organization, and it charges tens of thousands of dollars for access to these texts in what it calls "Operating Thetan" levels. The organization has gone to considerable lengths to try to keep these secret, but they are freely available on the internet.[24] These texts say that lives preceding a Thetan's arrival on Earth were lived in extraterrestrial cultures. The Scientology doctrine states that any Scientologist undergoing "auditing" will eventually come across and recount a common series of events.[25] They include reference to an extraterrestrial life-form called Xenu. The secret Scientology texts say this was a ruler of a confederation of planets 70 million years ago who brought billions of alien beings to Earth and then killed them with thermonuclear weapons. Despite being kept secret from most followers, this forms the central mythological framework of Scientology's ostensible soteriology: attainment of a status referred to by Scientologists as "clear". These aspects have become the subject of popular ridicule.[26]

From soon after their formation, Hubbard's groups have generated considerable opposition and controversy, in several instances because of their illegal activities.[27] In January 1951, the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners brought proceedings against the Dianetic Research Foundation on the charge of teaching medicine without a license.[28] During the 1970s, Hubbard's followers engaged in a program of criminal infiltration of the U.S. government, resulting in several executives of the organization being convicted and imprisoned for multiple offenses by a U.S. Federal Court.[29][30][31] Hubbard himself was convicted in absentia of fraud by a French court in 1978 and sentenced to four years in prison.[32] In 1992, a court in Canada convicted the Scientology organization in Toronto of spying on law enforcement and government agencies, and criminal breach of trust, later upheld by the Ontario Court of Appeal.[33][34] The Church of Scientology was convicted of fraud by a French court in 2009, a judgment upheld by the supreme Court of Cassation in 2013.[35]

The Church of Scientology has been described by government inquiries, international parliamentary bodies, scholars, law lords, and numerous superior court judgments as both a dangerous cult and a manipulative profit-making business.[42] Following extensive litigation in numerous countries,[43][44] the organization has managed to attain a legal recognition as a religious institution in some jurisdictions, including Australia,[45][46] Italy,[44] and the United States.[47] Germany classifies Scientology groups as an "anti-constitutional sect",[48][49] while the French government classifies the group as a dangerous cult.[50][51]

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