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Scientology Glossary: Thetans, Engrams, Sea Org & More Key Terms

What’s a thetan? Who goes to the Sea Org? A cheat sheet for Scientology’s key terms.

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If you’ve heard anything about Tom Cruise in the past decade, you’ve likely heard that he belongs to a mysterious religion along with celebrities like John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Greta Van Susteren, and Beck. Now that Katie Holmes is dumping him, you’re probably hearing a torrent of unfamiliar words: He’s an Operating Thetan! Katie was afraid Suri would be audited and kidnapped by the Sea Org!

Since Scientology was founded by a sci-fi writer, it’s perhaps no surprise that it has its share of arcane jargon. While all religions have their own language, Scientology’s baffling cocktail of terminology—brewed from psychology, technology, and philosophy—can be particularly tough to untangle. Almost no concept in Scientology, even those borrowed from other religions or even everyday science, goes without a confusing new moniker.

Auditing – Resembling a blend of confession, psychotherapy, and hypnosis, auditing is one of the central practices of Scientology, intended to increase a person’s self-knowledge and remove emotional barriers tied to past experiences. An auditor asks the person being audited sets of questions directed at uncovering subconscious memories believed to be the root of trauma, addiction, or other obstructions to happy, ethical living. Auditing is an integral part of advancement in the ranks of Scientology. The contents of auditing sessions are said to be confidential, except in cases where the church has reportedly allowed them to be used to blackmail disaffected members (see Fair Game, below). (The church denies virtually all accusations made by ex-members and journalists who have questioned Scientology regarding the incidents the defectors describe.)

Blow – to leave the church.

Clear – a church follower who has reached the first of two main levels on the way to salvation, after undergoing auditing and freeing himself from the negative influence of his subconscious (see Reactive Mind). Before becoming a Clear, converts are known as “pre-clears.”

Dianetics – the name for the theories of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Hubbard described Dianetics as “a spiritual-healing technology” and an “organized science of thought,” though it is overwhelmingly seen in the scientific community as a pseudoscience. The purpose of Dianetics is to overcome the subconscious, which Scientologists believe is responsible for problems in physical, mental, and moral health.

Disconnection – one of the most controversial practices of Scientology, in which converts are required to sever ties with all friends and family members believed to be unsupportive of their decision to join the church. Those hostile to the church—including members who become skeptical—may be labeled a “suppressive person,” forcing other Scientologists to shun them. (See Suppressive Person).

E-meter – an electronic device created in the 1940s by Volney Mathison, an inventor and early collaborator with L. Ron Hubbard. E-meters are used during auditing sessions to measure the electrical conductance of a person’s skin, which Scientologists believe indicates changes in the “reactive mind” of the person being audited. Hubbard claimed that E-meters were sensitive enough to detect the screams of fruit being sliced. Mathison later became disillusioned with Hubbard and his theories and criticized the use of the E-meter by the Scientology leader and others for their “phony systems.” E-meter prices range from under $100 to more than $1,000.

Engram – a hypothetical process by which memories are claimed to be recorded in the brain—something still researched and speculated about in modern science. In the teachings of Dianetics, the engram is described as a mental picture, a recording of an experience that contained pain and some type of threat to a person’s survival. Discovered through auditing, a person’s engrams supposedly fit together to form a time track.

Fair Game – Scientology’s policy of retaliating against perceived enemies, based on Hubbard’s writing that “suppressive persons” may be “deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist … May be tricked, sued, or lied to, or destroyed.” Hubbard later canceled this order because it created bad PR, but the church has continued to follow it, resulting in its reputation for litigation. The church has also carried out numerous harassment campaigns against ex-members and critics. In the most famous case, known as Operation Freakout, the FBI discovered that the church had harassed, threatened, and plotted against journalist Paulette Cooper with an elaborate scheme to have her imprisoned or placed in a mental institution. More recently, the church tried to destroy the business of a man who employed a high-ranking defector.

Freewinds – a commercial cruise ship on which the highest levels of Operating Thetan training take place, and where Sea Org member Valeska Paris claimed she was held prisoner and forced to do manual labor for 12 years. Freewinds was built in 1968 and passed to a Scientology-controlled company in 1985. It was sealed in 2009 for asbestos contamination and its current status remains unclear.

Gold Base – the international headquarters of the Church of Scientology in Riverside County, Calif. Gold Base is a 700-acre compound whose location was kept secret even from lower-level Scientologists until the last decade. It is the home of Scientology’s top officials and the headquarters of the Sea Org.

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Operating Thetan – a Scientologist who has reached the second level in the religion’s hierarchy of salvation. The designation is divided into eight sublevels, which gradually reveal the deepest secrets of the church, including its creation story, which is revealed in the infamous OT III. According to ex-Scientologists and investigative reporters, progressing through the final echelons costs tens of thousands of dollars. Tom Cruise is rumored to be an OT VII.

Office of Special Affairs — officially the branch responsible for Scientology’s legal affairs and public relations, the Office of Special Affairs has drawn considerable attention for acting as the church’s “secret police,” carrying out “dead agent” or “Fair Game” operations against the church’s enemies. Former OSA operative Gary Scarff claimed in 1993 that he was ordered to murder the leader of an anti-cult group. Other rumored plots involved the OSA attempting to frame targets for phony crimes.

Reactive mind – the subconscious half of the human mind containing a person’s involuntary impulses. (The conscious mind is known as the analytic mind.) The goal of auditing and most other Scientology practices is to abolish the reactive mind, which Hubbard believed was the cause of most people’s physical and mental problems.

Sea Org – a fraternal order that originated from Hubbard’s sea travels in the 1960s, when he invented the upper levels of Scientology. Sea Org members, some of whom are teenagers, sign contracts for up to a billion years of service, and are discouraged from having families of their own. The organization has drawn fire for drafting Scientologist children before they are 18 years old, sequestering them from mainstream life in compounds and aboard the Freewinds, and according to some ex-members, held prisoner and required to do forced labor. Katie Holmes’s exit from the church is rumored to be driven by her fear that her daughter, Suri, was being groomed for the Sea Org.

Suppressive person – officially, a person with sociopathic tendencies or behaviors. In practice, the label is a catch-all term that church leadership uses for anyone at odds with Scientology, including internal critics. Since church teaching forbids members from associating with SPs, parents may be required to kick their kids out of the house or spouses to cease contact with each other. The term originates from Scientology’s growth in the 1960s, when Hubbard intensified his authoritarian control of the movement. Even he, however, expressed concern that the church was abusing the label with an overly elastic definition.

Thetan - an invisible part of a human being, similar to the concept of a soul or spirit in other religions, that exists whether or not it is currently operating a human body. Scientologists believe Thetans are trillions of years old, having been reborn repeatedly in various earthly bodies. They are responsible for the existence of the material world, which they willed into being, according to Dianetics.

Xenu – according to Hubbard, the dictator of a Galactic Confederacy who brought billions of people to Earth and massacred them with hydrogen bombs 75 trillion years ago. The slaughter, known as “Incident II,” sets up a major conflict in Scientology, as the thetans of the victims devolved into “body thetans” that torment modern humans. Releasing their grip is part of the goal of Scientology. The story of Xenu, which the church tried to keep secret until it leaked via an Internet newsgroup in 1994, is revealed in Operating Thetan level three, or OT III. Some Scientology officials now deny the existence of the Xenu story.