Hugh Urban, "The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion" (Princeton UP, 2011)


What is religion? Who gets to define it? Why is defining something a religion such an important endeavor? What exactly is at stake in determining the status of religion? Like many people think, you may say "Religion is self evident - you just know it when you see it." But the process of defining the boundaries of religion have real economic, social, and political consequences. Hugh Urban, professor of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University, explores these questions in his book The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion (Princeton University Press, 2011). As a historian of religion, trained at the University of Chicago, the categories that define our discipline were of great interest to Urban. Years ago when his teacher, Jonathan Z. Smith, famously explained, "Religion is solely the creation of the scholar's study," Urban wondered if this is really true. In this case study, he explores the complex story of how Scientology described itself and eventually become recognized as a "religion" in the United States. As a specialist in secrecy in religion, Scientology offered a dynamic example where secrecy played several roles in shaping the tradition, including insider esoteric religious perspectives but also through the anxieties of Americans throughout the Cold War period. In our conversation we discuss the American spiritual marketplace, the science behind Dianetics, the development of the Church of Scientology, the term cult, challenges of the Internet for religious secrecy, how to approach problematic religious groups, New Religious Movements, and Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, "The Master."

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Kristian Petersen

Kristian Petersen is an Associate Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Old Dominion University. You can find out more about his work on his website, follow him on Twitter @BabaKristian, or email him at

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