Small wonder that L. Ron Hubbard had the creative chops to parlay his 1950s self-help system, Dianetics, into a worldwide religion — and a very lucrative one at that. Hubbard was, after all, a science-fiction writer, a dreamer, a charming teller of tales and the inventor of much of his own history: He fabricated or embellished aspects of his military service, education and personal adventures, not least of them his purported run-in with a polar bear in the Aleutians.
His most famous invention, of course, was Scientology, a controversial religion-without-a-deity that has its own “technology,” galactic story line and quirky vocabulary. It teaches that spiritual freedom — the state of “clear” — can be reached through one-on-one counseling known as auditing, aided by a polygraph-like device called an “e-meter.” The sessions, along with extensive training courses, can cost Scientologists hundreds of thousands of dollars.
That Scientology has endured for six decades, attracting generations of devotees despite a legacy of secrecy and widespread allegations of intimidation and abuse of its own members, is in itself remarkable. Then again, as Janet Reitman demonstrates in “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion,” the church has always found a way, through a “combination of flexibility and mystery” to morph with the times: In its early days in Los Angeles, it reached out to free spirits and hippies, later to celebrities and, more recently, to African Americans and legislators.