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Scientology and Past Lives: Was L. Ron Hubbard Actually Serious?

A funny thing happened on Thursday. We reviewed Vance Woodward’s book, Addicted to Scientology, and noted that one of the more interesting things in it was Woodward’s contention that a close reading of Scientology’s foundational texts convinced him that L. Ron Hubbard thought of past-life therapy as a form of make-believe.

Scientologists, however, take very seriously the idea that when they go through “auditing” and bring up memories from millions or billions of years ago they are making use of an exact science and their memories are very real.

On the same day we brought up Woodward’s doubts about that, over at Marty Rathbun’s blog, the former church executive did something really remarkable: he surveyed his readership about this very issue.

So on this Saturday, we’re going to take a closer look at the responses to Rathbun’s survey as well as Vance Woodward’s insights about Hubbard in order to answer a fascinating question:

When L. Ron Hubbard said you could hook yourself up to an e-meter and see yourself slaying enemies billions of years ago in another part of the galaxy, did he actually expect anyone to take him seriously?

First, we want to point out how remarkable it is that Rathbun is asking his readers about their past-life experiences.


Even ex-Scientologists can be touchy about this stuff, as we found out when we asked several of them to describe their “whole track” stories several months ago.

But Rathbun has shown repeatedly that he’s interested in challenging the members of the “independent Scientology” movement. If the Church of Scientology is known for slavish, doctrinaire adherence to the literal word of L. Ron Hubbard, Rathbun has encouraged the “indies” to consider the words of other philosophers, to take some of Hubbard’s words with a grain of salt, and even to think of some important Scientology ideas as more metaphor than literal truth.

And now, he’s asking them to talk publicly about their past-life adventures — yet another thing we can’t imagine the church itself doing.

Rathbun asked his readers to consider three questions. The first asked them how they knew their past-life memories were real — were they just convinced of it, or had they ever found any external evidence to corroborate their tales? Second, he asked if auditors had ever determined their subject to be a reincarnated Scientologist, and could they then determine the previous church member who had been reincarnated? And finally, he asked what happened to their immortal souls — thetans, in Scientology lingo — between lives. Rathbun has received more than 100 responses.

For our purposes, we’ll focus on the first question. Most respondents chose the answer “A,” which meant that they came to believe in their past-life memories without any outside evidence.

On occasion, a note of skepticism showed up:

“No longer certain these were perceptions of past lives or I just wanted to believe they were.”

But some claimed that they had found actual historical evidence to back up what they had remembered in a past life. (We imagine these must be relatively recent, and not of the billion-year-old variety).

And then there was this gem:

“Looked up historical events after the fact of recalling them in session. Could not otherwise have known of them. On a number of occasions became furious at the way history misrepresented events and twisted the facts.”

Overall, the message was clear: the independent Scientologists who responded to Rathbun’s blog overwhelmingly believed that they have genuinely remembered actual events from their past lives during their auditing.

But did Hubbard really intend for that to happen?

In Addicted to Scientology Vance Woodward describes his 22-year journey in the church, and repeatedly points out that he got much more from Hubbard’s books and lectures than from the auditing offered at the orgs in Winnipeg and San Francisco.

Woodward says more than once in his book that few of the Scientologists he knew actually read Hubbard’s works carefully.

At several points in his book, Woodward provides entertaining cogitations on the details in Hubbard’s work. We found this passage, about past lives, particularly fun…

In the end of 1952, LRH gave a lecture series entitled the Philadelphia Doctorate Course, or PDC. It is the seminal lecture series on the definition and capabilities of OT. It’s a perennial favorite among the Scientologists, the literate ones. In one of the lectures, LRH tells the audience that they have the ability to recall not just their own past lives, but they can also recall, for instance, the history of the room that they are sitting in, going all the way back in time. He says they can even recall alternate histories of the room. And he invites them to do it. That suggests to me that LRH’s idea of past lives was subjective, that is, 100% imagination.

He says that a person can have overlapping past lives. That is, two of your past lives could overlap in time. It’s no big deal. That leads me to the same conclusion, auditing on past lives is potentially therapeutic but is completely fabricated storytelling.

We asked Woodward for his thoughts on the responses at Rathbun’s survey, and he sent us several interesting thoughts. We’ll finish up with one of his statements…

Hey, if you think you lived before and have memories of it, great. But I hope you don’t expect anybody to believe you. Or, if a little girl believes her doll is a sentient being, so be it. It makes her feel good and hurts nobody under most circumstances. I think we all agree on that. But once money and behavior control get involved, most people rightly lose their sense of humor very quickly. So, sure, do whatever floats your boat. But let’s not pretend we’re having a scientific discussion here.

OK, now it’s your turn. We’d love to hear your thoughts on Scientology and past lives. We have no doubt our commenting community has much to say on the subject!

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