L. Ron Hubbard's Alternative to the Bomb Shelter: Scientology's Emergence as a Pseudo-Science during the 1950s

Article excerpt

Scientology is the principle [sic] agency that is preventing and treating people for radiation at this time.

The Radiation count of Earth has not been increased by bomb testing. The anguish of Earth has been multiplied by bomb terror. You can survive with Scientology.

--Hubbard 1957a, 110

During the 1950s, the American government and supporting propaganda insisted that because it had the atomic bomb, America was "God's primary agent in history" (Ungar 1991, 505). This supposedly divine role, however, did not offset the destructive power of the nuclear bomb: "Only nations bent on violence could need such a device" (Ungar 1991, 505). American media and scientists debated the effects of radiation exposure as its ongoing impact became more apparent (Lutts 1985, 212). Radiation sickness and exceptionally high rates of cancers in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and in proximity to American testing sites proved the lasting effects of nuclear destruction. In response to these effects, numerous science-based organizations and advocates attempted to find new uses for nuclear technology or to stop its use altogether. When these organizations failed to solve all nuclear-related problems, a space opened for nonscientific organizations, including ones propounding pseudo-sciences, to promote solutions (see Hamblin 2006; Kirsch 2000; Kutcher 2009). (1)

Pseudo-sciences are nonscientific because their participants utilize research techniques and results that diverge from the methods and results that the scientific community and other disciplines whose members conduct rigorous research (such as the humanities) generally accept (Hansson 2008). Unlike other nonscientific undertakings, however, they work to create the impression that they are scientific while promoting a deviant doctrine (teachings that deviate from those with scientific legitimacy [Hansson 2008]). In the mid-1950s, science writer Martin Gardner realized that Dianetics (which would evolve into Scientology) was a new example of pseudo-science that was sweeping through the general population (Gardner 1957).

As a pseudo-science, Scientology offered solutions to nuclear radiation health concerns, which science could not relieve. In 1950, L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which swept through America as a lay-psychotherapy manual that alleged to relieve countless physical and mental ills. Thousands of people read Hubbard's scientific claims in Dianetics in Astounding Science Fiction magazines and within one year 150,000 copies of the book had sold (Atack 1990, 113; Wallis 1976, 24). Moreover, Time, The New York Times Book Review, and Look (among other magazines and papers) reported it as a best-seller (Bures 1950, 32; Gittleson 1950, 603-9; New York Times 1950, 8-10; Time 1950, 99). (2)

Initially, Hubbard did not promote his solutions to radiation sickness; rather he waited until controversies regarding nuclear fallout and the Cold War increased. In 1954, when Hubbard was nursing Dianetics's fledging successor, Scientology, the hydrogen bomb test's decimation of Bikini Atoll exposed the scope of the health risks associated with fallout. (3) Media articles and movies represented (at times dramatized) the danger of radiation exposure, and scientific studies increased through the mid-1950s. Hubbard recognized the opportunity to capitalize on Americans' unrelieved fears. In response, he gave lectures about radiation (1956-1957) and published his book, All About Radiation (1957a).

Radiation was one of several features of the Cold War that impacted Scientology's development. Hugh Urban (2006) details how Scientology was born during the Cold War and how its practices reflected Cold War paranoia, secrecy, and surveillance. Moreover, Stephen A. Kent outlines how Hubbard "developed his ideas in the shadow of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation" (2009, 494). These authors demonstrated how Scientology was built amid Cold War culture and how that culture is engrained within the organization. …