Reincarnated Aliens!

Why Do People Believe in Scientology and Other Fringe Religions?

Those who join Scientology or other new religious movements don’t tend to be particularly odd, psychologists tell Jesse Singal. Instead it’s their social networks that play a more important role in their religious beliefs.

07.07.12 8:45 AM ET

It’s no wonder that Scientology, which has been in the news over the last few days as a result of its possible role in the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes split, is such red meat for journalists. The religion has it all: Hollywood adherents, a set of beliefs that includes reincarnated aliens (parodied most memorably by South Park, and authoritarian practices.

So it’s easy to criticize L. Ron Hubbard’s church. In many circles, “Scientology” has become a stand-in for a certain harebrained strain of Hollywood religiosity. But there’s a more interesting question in all of this: why do people join Scientology in the first place? For that matter, why do they join any fringe religion?

The strangest thing psychologists—whose profession is opposed by Scientologists—have discovered about this subject is that the people who join these movements aren’t very strange.

First, a point on terminology: over the last couple decades, the term “cult” has fallen out of favor in sociological and psychological circles. It’s too loaded. Instead, researchers use the term “new religious movement” as a catchall to describe any faith or belief system outside the mainstream.

So how do otherwise normal people get sucked into these movements?

“There’s no one simple answer,” said Lorne Dawson, chairman of the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo. Dawson has done extensive research on new religious movements and is the editor of Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader. “Everybody is in pursuit of something unique.”

But there are certain consistent features of these stories, said Dawson.

“Studies of people joining new religious movements suggest that it’s primarily about issues associated with identity, about forming a secure sense of identity, and it’s about the interplay between your personal identity and your social identity.

“So it’s often people who are struggling with issues about their personal identities, and not finding the social context in which they’ve been brought be sufficiently helpful in guiding them through the process of trying to figure out who they are.”

Social networks are a huge part of this process, said Nathaniel Wade, who studies religion and spirituality in the context of counseling and psychotherapy at Iowa State University.

“People join all different kinds of groups, the Lions Club, the local country club, all kinds of things,” he said. “So I think we’re just pulled by those group forces. The one thing that religions have going for them that country clubs and other things like that typically don’t is that transcendent quality.” In other words, they bring a sense not just of belonging to a group, but of that group instilling a larger purpose or meaning—an effect certainly at work in mainstream religions as well.

Those group dynamics bring with them pressure that can act in surprising ways. Just as social scientists have shown that this pressure can have a significant influence on our answers even to seemingly objective questions, like which of two lines is longer, it has an impact on our religious beliefs as well.

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“If you talk to anybody who goes to a mainstream church or an evangelical church, and they’re asked, ‘Do you really believe all of this stuff?’ mostly they say no,” said Marion Goldman, a sociologist at the University of Oregon who studies marginal religions and their cultural impact. “But they’re in there with their friends, and they kind of feel like they can pick and choose if they’re quiet about it, and then the social component becomes just so overwhelming.”

It’s quite common, said Wade, to get into situations in which “you begin to believe [something] because of the social group you’re in.” Fringe religions may be the most extreme example, but it’s something we all experience. “You get into a social group, and they believe X is cool, and you start to believe it.” (Anyone who remembers the slap bracelet craze would have no trouble arguing with this statement.)

So believing in seemingly strange things can be as simple as hanging out with other people who believe in those things. Dawson pointed out that most members of new religious movements show no sign of underlying psychological dysfunction when they’re examined in psychological studies, and the rates of disorder among members don’t appear to be any higher than in the general population. “The vast majority of the individuals tested scored with ‘normal’ bounds on all of the scales used,” he said in an email. “No pattern of abnormality could be detected.”

The process by which people first enter a new religion further highlights how important the social component is. Unlike the popular conception of fringe religions recruiting new members at bus depots or other places where they’ll have easy pickings, it’s much more frequent for a new adherent to have arrived by an already paved social path.

“One of the No. 1 ways in which people get drawn into new religious movements is...through pre-existing social networks,” said Dawson. “So rarely do you join a group that is full of strangers. You join because your friends, your brother, your sisters, your aunt, your uncle, your mother, your father, your neighbor has gotten involved. So most people in the groups you can trace their networks and find out that very large numbers of people all knew each other before they joined the movement.”

Scientology is no exception. Just look at the network of Hollywood stars who have joined up, said Goldman. “You get John Travolta. You get Kirstie Alley. And you begin to see this tree of people who have worked together and been friends who join together.” This is one of the reasons why fears of fringe religious movements suddenly and permanently snatching away friends or family members might be a bit overblown, although it certainly has happened.

Another is that the vast majority of people who come into contact with a new religious movement don’t stick around for long. “One of the most conclusive facts we have about new religious movements is about 90 percent of people who join any kind of new religion usually leave, totally on their own, without being forced to leave by relatives or something of that nature, in less than two years,” said Dawson. (And, strangely enough, they “usually report fairly positive understanding of their experience.”)

Scientology, for example, despite attracting so many headlines, has about 25,000 American members—a number that may be in decline.

Given all this, Katie Holmes’s concerns about her daughter’s spiritual upbringing are more understandable. If Suri Cruise is raised in the Church of Scientology, she’ll be surrounded by people who believe (or who at least purport to believe) in the religion’s tenets. If she’s raised outside it, the church will be a distant, eminently ignorable thing. Because of how profoundly our social networks affect what we believe, the difference is pretty stark.

“Context is everything,” said Dawson. “In the right context, with the right in-group social support, people will believe almost everything, or behave in almost every way.”