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Tracking Scientology’s claims about membership — a new digital project with Jonny Jacobsen

While we were researching material for our book on Paulette Cooper a few years ago, we happened upon a 1969 New York Times article that quoted James Meisler, the PR man and “minister” for the New York org in those days. In 1972 Meisler become a key player in the plot to frame Paulette for a crime she didn’t commit, which had her facing 15 years in prison.

But that was in the future. In 1969, he was interviewed by the Times, and what really caught our attention was that he was asked how large Scientology was around the world.

15 million members, he said.

In 1969.


The only larger public estimate that we can remember was uttered by Kirstie Alley in one of her Twitter rants, claiming 20 million members. (To give you some idea of how large that number is, there are somewhere around 15 million Jewish people in the world.)

Over the years, Scientology’s claims about membership have ranged wildly, but in general, they’ve been in the 6 to 10 million range over many years that we can remember. But once we started questioning those numbers, as well as others did, we couldn’t help noticing that Scientology got a lot more shy about those estimates. If you look around in the last several years, you’ll see that spokespeople like Tommy Davis or Karin Pouw refer simply to “millions.”

We’ll talk about the real numbers in a minute, but first, we wanted to make you aware of a new project being put together by our man in Paris — strike that, he’s back home in England now — journalist Jonny Jacobsen. He’s decided to take on, as a research project, documenting the Church of Scientology’s public statements about how many members it has. Here, we’ll let him describe it to you…




Bunker regulars may have noticed I’ve been fairly quiet of late, after all the fun of the Belgian trial of Scientology. (That one ended, you may recall, with
the judge throwing the case out.)

Since then I have quit Paris, at least for now, and started an MA in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University, England. For my first project, I’m sticking with a subject I know fairly well: Scientology — which is where you come in.

As you know, Scientology often describes itself as the world’s “fastest growing religion” (though try running that phrase through a search engine and see what you get). The official line is that their members number in the millions — which is why they need all those Ideal Orgs, right?

So what I want to do is gather in those official figures, from way back in the 1950s right up to the present day. I want to collect as much official data from Scientology as possible, put it in a spreadsheet and produce a data visualisation, a timeline, tracking how those official figures have evolved over the years.

The format for your submissions should be something like this:

1. Date claim was made 2. Membership # claimed 3. Who made the claim 4. Source of statement

Just to be clear on that last category: “Source of statement” is where anyone can find it if they want to check, which magazine, book or broadcast. (Oh, and if you would like to be acknowledged in the credits for this project, be sure and add your name.)

I expect my primary source material will be the figures produced in their literature — the various editions of What Is Scientology? for example. But I am also interested in numbers given by any Scientology official representatives in media interviews, public events or court affidavits.

Radio or television interviews are relatively straightforward to source and verify. Press interviews are more problematic as Scientology can always say they were misquoted, but let’s not exclude them out of hand.

In the end though, I may stick to figures that can be undeniably attributed to Scientology officials or Scientology literature. It is vital that the data is verifiable by anyone who wants to take the time; and the easier that is, the more convincing the finished product will be. With that in mind, then, for printed material, ideally I would need a scan of the relevant passage and for broadcast material, a link to — or copy of — the interview.

I can take responsibility for screenshots, downloads and any copyright issues (but I think Fair Use should cover most cases). And if you come across something you’re not sure about — whether it’s the source, the date, anything — send it over anyway. Once we unleash the hive mind of the Internet, we should be able to crack most cases.

I am also interested in vaguer statements where general claims for millions of members are made — and in any country-specific data. It’s all good for the mix.

And just so you know: the clock is ticking. Although this is an open-ended project, which can develop indefinitely as more data comes in, I need to have at least a first version up by early January — or my MA supervisor locks me in a room and forces me to learn code on a typewriter.

I’ll be launching this appeal on Twitter and on Facebook using the hashtag #FGRProject (geddit?). You can send me your material by email at; or on Facebook or Twitter — but please, use the hashtag to make it easier to find. (I’ll launch a Twitter thread and pin it to the top of my account so you can find it easily and post your contributions.)

That’s Stage One then. I’ll tell you about Stage Two another time.

Thanking you in advance,

Jonny Jacobsen



Thank you, Jonny. Now, let’s get back to Scientology’s actual size.

The real numbers are nothing close to the millions that the church claims. Mike Rinder, Marc Headley, Jefferson Hawkins, and many others have demonstrated that Scientology’s actual membership isn’t in the magnitude of millions. Our estimate, after polling former executives who had access to enrollment documents, was that Scientology had reached a maximum extent of about 100,000 active members around the year 1990. But by 2011, we explained that the best estimate was closer to 40,000 using several different lines of evidence.

Then, more recently, Paul Burkhart, a new defector who had worked at the Hollywood Guaranty Building and had access to sensitive church documents, told us that as of August 2013 when he left, worldwide active membership was “under 20,000.”

Another new defector, Peter Nyiri, who escaped from the Flag Land Base only months ago and who also had access to enrollment numbers, told us that he agrees with Burkhart’s assessment.

It’s a small and shrinking organization that gets a disproportionate amount of press thanks to its small number of high-profile celebrities. Anyway, please help out Jonny if you can, and send him your citations.


Bonus items from our tipsters

They’re back at the Shrine this year!



Scientology disconnection, a reminder

Bernie Headley has not seen his daughter Stephanie in 4,925 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his grandson Leo in 71 days.
Clarissa Adams has not seen her parents Walter and Irmin Huber in 1,134 days.
Carol Nyburg has not seen her daughter Nancy in 1,908 days.
Jamie Sorrentini Lugli has not seen her father Irving in 2,682 days.
Quailynn McDaniel has not seen her brother Sean in 2,028 days.
Claudio and Renata Lugli have not seen their son Flavio in 2,522 days.
Sara Goldberg has not seen her daughter Ashley in 1,562 days.
Lori Hodgson has not seen her son Jeremy and daughter Jessica in 1,274 days.
Marie Bilheimer has not seen her mother June in 800 days.
Joe Reaiche has not seen his daughter Alanna Masterson in 4,889 days
Derek Bloch has not seen his father Darren in 2,029 days.
Cindy Plahuta has not seen her daughter Kara in 2,349 days.
Claire Headley has not seen her mother Gen in 2,324 days.
Ramana Dienes-Browning has not seen her mother Jancis in 680 days.
Mike Rinder has not seen his son Benjamin and daughter Taryn in 4,982 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his daughter Spring in 1,088 days.
Skip Young has not seen his daughters Megan and Alexis for 1,491 days.
Mary Kahn has not seen her son Sammy in 1,364 days.
Lois Reisdorf has not seen her son Craig in 945 days.
Phil and Willie Jones have not seen their son Mike and daughter Emily in 1,450 days.
Mary Jane Sterne has not seen her daughter Samantha in 1,694 days.
Kate Bornstein has not seen her daughter Jessica in 12,803 days.


3D-UnbreakablePosted by Tony Ortega on November 6, 2017 at 07:00

E-mail tips and story ideas to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

The Best of the Underground Bunker, 1995-2016 Just starting out here? We’ve picked out the most important stories we’ve covered here at the Undergound Bunker (2012-2016), The Village Voice (2008-2012), New Times Los Angeles (1999-2002) and the Phoenix New Times (1995-1999)

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts

Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield


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