Space opera in Scientology
Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard included space opera narratives as part of his faith. He believed that thetans, or spirits, were reincarnated in different beings for quadrillions of years, retaining memories of these lives. Hubbard taught that humans could recall the details of these lives; he used these recollections to develop complex narratives about life throughout the universe. These stories included conflicts between confederacies of aliens and thetans, events which Hubbard said traumatized thetans in ways that affect them in modern times. The best known space opera myth is the story of Xenu, to whom Hubbard attributed responsibility for many of the world's problems. Scientology teaches that individuals can free themselves of the traumas that have occurred to their thetans, and that by doing so, the true power of the thetan can be released and gain the ability to transform reality.
Aside from a mention in an church glossary, the space opera doctrines of Scientology are not openly discussed by the church's leaders. They refuse to speak of them, casting them as esoteric teachings that can only be correctly understood by experienced Scientologists. Several former members of the church have leaked these secret documents, leading to lengthy court battles with the church. Scientology's efforts notwithstanding, their secret space opera doctrines became widely available on the internet. Critics of the church have noted that some of the narratives are scientifically impossible, and have thus assailed the church as untrustworthy for teaching them. The space opera teachings have also been satirized in popular culture. Scholars of religion have described the space opera narratives as a creation myth that is designed to encourage reverence of Hubbard as a supreme messenger. Several academics have drawn attention to the ways that the contents of the space opera myths reflect themes of the 1950s Cold War culture in which they were constructed.
L. Ron Hubbard created a self-help therapy known as Dianetics, which he promoted as a scientific, not religious, teaching. Until the early 1950s, he had a negative view of organized religions, but he changed his mind that decade and began to discuss spiritual topics. In these teachings, he focused on unconscious memories of past events, which he called "engrams", stating that they were the root of human suffering. By 1950, he had begun to ponder past lives, believing that they could be recalled; he attempted to use these recollections to develop a comprehensive narrative of the universe. He founded the Church of Scientology in 1953, advancing his beliefs as religious doctrines. The church was distinct from Dianetics-based groups but incorporated some of their views. Hubbard saw Dianetics as focused on the physical body but viewed Scientology as a way to address spiritual matters.
In Hubbard's efforts to shift from psychotherapeutic treatment to a spiritual program, he introduced the concept of thetans, the treatment of which was to be Scientology's focus. He taught that thetans were originally godlike, non-corporeal entities capable of creating and shaping universes. Eventually, he believed, they had become trapped in the MEST, the physical universe, and lost awareness of their powers while confined to physical bodies. He stated that thetans had been reincarnated into different species throughout the universe over trillions of years. Hugh Urban of Ohio State University states that these teachings bear similarities to Gnosticism, although he doubts that Hubbard was well versed in Gnostic thought.
In the 1950s, as Hubbard's followers recalled their past lives; he recorded many details of these recollections. He used these to describe the history of Earth, as well as accounts of other planets. Over time, he constructed an intricate history of the universe to provide insight into thetans; this record is often referred to as a "space opera". Although Hubbard believed that he had developed a comprehensive history, Urban notes that it is very difficult to tie his teachings together in a narrative, owing to the isolated and incomplete record of the statements.
Hubbard taught that there was a thetan universe that was separate from the material universe in which humans live. He stated that the thetan's universe was created by the power of these beings. The material universe, in Hubbard's view, began when other universes created by thetans collided. He believed that they entered the material universe in six invasion groups roughly 60 trillion years ago and became trapped there. Thetans, Hubbard taught, have been separated from their previous knowledge; he described a series of events that divorced thetans from the truth, referring to them as "incidents". He maintained that thetans could regain their former capability to act as gods, and referred to thetans that freed themselves from the material world as "operating thetans".
Narratives and civilizations
Hubbard stated that the first key incident in the material universe occurred four quadrillion years ago. He related that a thetan encountered loud cracks and brightness and then observed a cherub and chariot before experiencing total darkness. In Scientology, this is known as "Incident 1". Hubbard discussed subsequent encounters between thetans and civilizations in space trillions of years in the past. One important event in Scientology's early chronology of the universe occurred on a space city known as Arslycus, the inhabitants of whom brought about an incident when capturing thetans.
The best-known portion of Scientology's space opera is the myth of Xenu, known as "Incident 2". Hubbard stated that there was a group of 76 planets around stars that are visible from Earth that organized in a Galactic Confederacy about 75 million years ago. Xenu, an evil and corrupt dictator, led the confederacy. The confederacy became overpopulated: each planet had 178 billion inhabitants. In an attempt to solve his overpopulation issue, Xenu placed several billion of his citizens onto DC 8 planes in refrigerators and sent the planes to the planet Teegeeack (now known as Earth). Hubbard stated that Xenu told the subjects that they were being transported there for tax auditing. When they arrived on Teegeeack, hydrogen bombs were detonated inside volcanoes, killing the aliens. After their deaths, their thetans were captured and brought to Hawaii and the Canary Islands, where Xenu's priests and psychiatrists brainwashed them.[a] These instructors lectured on invented ideas, such as the myth of Jesus, to deceive thetans about their nature. Eventually, a group of officers of the Galactic Confederacy launched a rebellion against Xenu. They pursued him for six years before capturing him and placing him in an electrified prison cell in the center of a mountain. Hubbard taught that the thetans who had been brainwashed by Xenu's forces remained on Earth. When humans evolved, he said, the "body thetans" that had been wandering the Earth began to contribute to human problems. He believed that individuals could be freed from these brainwashed thetans and thus attain a type of salvation.
Hubbard taught that, upon the deaths of humans, thetans left their bodies and went to "implant stations", including locations on planets near Earth, where their memories were erased and new ones were added. Some "implant stations" were better than others, Hubbard advised his followers to avoid the one on Venus. After going through an implant station, he taught, the thetan was put in a capsule and returned to Earth, where it would seek an infant to dwell in. Hubbard taught that the Christian concept of heaven was based on a physical location on another planet, which he claimed to have visited. He compared its appearance to Busch Gardens in Pasadena, California, and noted that it contained effigies of characters from the New Testament. Over time, he recalled, the location fell into disrepair. There was a town nearby that contained an implant station, at which thetans were convinced to attempt to return there.
Another significant encounter in Hubbard's narrative about thetans and attacking forces occurred when a large group of planets united two hundred thousand years ago, forming the Marcab Confederacy. The Marcabians, Hubbard said, were an evil group who sought slaves; he saw their confederacy as a "decadent" society. He related that this civilization formed an invasion force that caused a significant implant upon their encounter with thetans.
Hubbard discussed the history of human civilizations on Earth, and the lives of ancient sea monsters and fish people, as well. He also taught that humans could recover memories of life that occurred in previous ages of evolution on Earth, such as the experiences of clams and Neanderthals. He spoke about the city of Atlantis, which he believed had been an actual location, saying that it was a completely electronic civilization, whose inhabitants possessed disintegration guns. He stated that Earth was invaded by multiple groups around 1200 BCE, at the time of the ancient Egyptians; he recalled that the "fifth invader force from Martian Command" met the "fourth invasion force from Space Command" in a battle that took place on Earth.
Because thetans had been forced to believe various faulty ideas; the church teaches that their courses allow "theta beings" to be freed from these faulty beliefs and regain their former abilities. Committed Scientologists pursue courses and procedures offered by the church in the hope of gaining freedom and enlightenment. Hubbard believed that thetans could regain their seemingly miraculous powers and travel around the solar system. He referred to the process of a thetan leaving its human body as "exteriorization", which he said allowed for space travel. Urban notes that this is similar to Aleister Crowley's teachings about astral projection, although he adds that Hubbard did not use that term.
Space opera and Scientologists
A glossary on the Scientology website defined the term "space opera" as a description of actual events:
"Space opera has space travel, spaceships, spacemen, intergalactic travel, wars, conflicts, other beings, civilizations and societies, and other planets and galaxies. It is not fiction and concerns actual incidents."
The Scientology publication Have You Lived Before This Life contains some space opera, describing past lives—including some on warlike planets—which were recalled through auditing. In the 1960s, Hubbard introduced a series of questions, known as "security checks", to verify members' loyalty. Rothstein sees the Xenu myth as building off of, and the culmination of, these accounts. The Xenu myth was released to Scientologists in the late 1960s, after teachings about thetans and their relationship to the physical body had been disseminated; its release provided the cause and origin of many of the group's teachings. Rothstein describes "space opera" as "Hubbard's introduction of a new reality, and new foundation for everything".
Although Hubbard spoke openly about space opera in the 1950s, Scientology eventually became an esoteric faith: some teachings are withheld until followers reach a certain point in their spiritual development, and the mythological foundation of the courses are unknown to many members. Over a decade of auditing and study—and donations of tens of thousands of dollars—are required for a member to reach the highest echelons of hidden knowledge. Followers below a certain level (OT III) of growth are denied access to the church's cosmological teachings, and they are given different explanations for the church's teachings. German scholar Gerald Willms notes that in addition to the esoteric foundations, Scientology cites practical justifications for its rituals, so they can be pursued without knowledge of advanced teachings. The Church of Scientology has attempted to prevent the public release of their esoteric teachings, but, through the internet, their confidential aspects have been widely released. The church considers public discussion of their space opera teachings offensive and has asked academics not to publish their details. Scientologists maintain that the true meaning of these texts is only accessible to those who have progressed through their courses, and that those who read them prematurely risk damage to their spiritual and physical conditions. Church leaders have sometimes outright refused to discuss the subject with journalists. Rothstein observes that the church also has a strong financial motivation to keep members from accessing higher level courses, as devotees are required to make large payments to obtain them. Free Zone Scientologists, however, are sometimes more open about space opera. Some Free Zone Scientologists believe that the Church of Scientology has been hijacked by undercover agents of the Marcabian Confederacy.
During auditing, Scientology members sometimes recall details of life in space. Rothstein states that this is part of a "mythological paradigm" that members initially partake of through Scientology's scriptures. He notes, however, that some Scientologists do not believe that there are space opera myths in the group's teachings, and that others have left the group after learning about the higher-level doctrines. Reitman relates that some members accept the space opera teachings by seeing them as similar to seemingly implausible stories of popular religions or simply remain quiet about their doubts.
Rothstein states that space opera is a "part of the total fabric of Scientological thinking and narrative, but not of prime importance." He argues that these teachings are a "second order belief", in that they exist to support the group's core teachings about thetans. Mike Rinder, a former spokesman of the Church of Scientology, stated that extraterrestrial auditing is merely "a small percent" of their canon.
Criticism and leaking
Scientology's space opera teachings were publicized in accounts given by former church members, most notably during court cases. One such case was filed by a former Scientologist, Larry Wollersheim, against the church in 1980. Five years later, Wollersheim offered confidential Scientology materials, including space opera teachings, to the court as evidence, a move that was vigorously protested by the church's attorneys. They were unable to prevent disclosure, however, and the documents were published by the Los Angeles Times in November 1985. This was the first time that some aspects of Scientology's space opera teachings were offered as public evidence about the church. In the mid-1990s, Wollersheim published some of the materials on a website, prompting the church to sue his organization, FACTNet. The Church attested that the space opera narratives were trade secrets; this claim was rejected by the court.
In 1990, after being sued for libel by the Church of Scientology, Steven Fishman, a former member turned critic, offered a large amount of the group's highly confidential teachings in court. The documents, contained in what is known as the Fishman Affidavit, included detailed accounts of the church's space opera narratives. This material was subsequently posted on alt.religion.scientology and a website of Dutch journalist Karin Spaink. The church filed suits against those who posted the documents, claiming copyright violations. Lengthy court battles ensued, but the church was unable to prevent the materials' dissemination over the internet.
Former Scientologists and members of the anti-cult movement often discuss Scientology's space opera teachings. They generally take a rationalistic approach to the narratives and see them as absurd, or even as drug-fueled delusions, using them as a source of humor. The doctrines have been satirized in popular culture, most notably in the South Park episode "Trapped in the Closet". The anti-Scientology website Operation Clambake prominently uses space opera doctrines in their criticisms of the church, casting the implausibility of the stories as a clear reason to reject the group. Anti-cult critics of Scientology argue that the content of these teachings demonstrates that Scientology misleads its followers; many aspects of the narratives, such as the age of the volcanoes that Xenu is said to have used, contradict scientific consensus. Rothstein notes that scholars of religion usually do not pursue this line of analysis because all myths contain unscientific content; he notes that cultural conditioning determines whether religious narratives appear reasonable.
Rothstein argues that in the construction of the space opera narratives, Hubbard drew from tropes that were common to his audience. The concept of a Galactic Confederation, Rothstein observes, was present in other UFO religions of the 1950s. He also notes that overpopulation and atomic bombs were often discussed then. Urban asserts that at the time the doctrines were constructed, many Americans were interested in extraterrestrial phenomena; he cites UFO encounters and alien invasions as popular themes during the Cold War. Rothstein draws parallels between Hubbard's teachings and the beliefs of UFO religions, citing similarities between thetans trapped in human bodies and the walk-in hypothesis of the Ashtar Command. Andreas Grünschloß notes that Scientology's space opera teachings place them in the tradition of the ancient astronaut hypothesis; he states that the group's teachings about thetans bears similarities to "star seeds" found in UFO religions. He speculates that UFO contactee narratives may have played a role in the group's development of space opera, specifically citing the resemblance of Hubbard's description of life in Xenu's time to statements by George Adamski, a UFO contactee of the 1950s. Rothstein notes that the group's teachings about extraterrestrials varies greatly from most of the UFO movement, particularly in Hubbard's descriptions of demonic characters.
Hubbard was a science fiction writer before starting Scientology, and some aspects of the church's space opera bear similarities to his previous writings. Noting the similarities between Hubbard's fiction writing and creation of religious myths, Rothstein argues that "perhaps no division between such categories should be made". Kent posits that some of his cosmology, such as the priests and psychiatrists loyal to Xenu, were modeled after events in Hubbard's life, such as his distaste for Christianity and clashes with the psychiatric establishment. Hubbard theorized that science fiction writers sometimes recalled portions of events from past lives and incorporated it into their works, and Urban writes that Hubbard's science fiction writings "contain more than a few seeds of Hubbard's religious movement, the Church of Scientology".
At their most fundamental level, Rothstein sees Scientology's space opera teachings as an attempt to describe the nature and origin of humans. He argues that they construct a dualistic worldview that casts Xenu as the root of evil and Hubbard as the key hero. Rothstein notes that the church's mythology emphasizes that Hubbard is an all-important messenger of truth who uncovered the mysteries of the universe. Because no one else was capable of discovering the truth about Xenu, Hubbard demonstrated that he was the source of truth. By learning these teachings, Scientologists are able to follow Hubbard's path; Rothstein states that the group's teachings about "salvation" may simply be a means to encourage reverence of Hubbard. In addition, Rothstein notes that the space opera teachings also provide fundamental justifications for some practical aspects of Scientology, including the rejection of psychiatry and the formation of the Sea Org. He sees space opera as similar to most types of mythology, involving superhuman beings in the far distant past. Willms states that the mythology of Scientology differs from many other religions because it focuses on material beings. However, he argues that the Xenu myth is a religious narrative, although the Church of Scientology has never used this claim in their efforts to be recognized as a religion.
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