By Paul Serran
The parallels between Scientology and NXIVM have, of late, been the object of some scholarly studies in the International Journal of Coercion, Abuse, and Manipulation. In my last article, I reviewed professor Stephen Kent’s “Comparative Reflections on Scientology And NXIVM”.
Another interesting and informative study from the Journal focuses more on the Church’ of Scientology is The Eternal Commitment: Scientology’s Billion-Year Contract” by Phil Lord, from Montreal’s McGill University, in Canada. In fact NXIVM is not mentioned at all.
Lord has a legal background, but has a keen interest in religion, and especially in new religious movements. Founded some 70 years ago, he points out, Scientology stands out, even among new religious movements, as a very recent religion.
“Scientology has […] garnered a great deal of attention in recent years, and its behaviour has been covered (and decried) in national outlets reaching millions of people, such as CNN and A&E.”
Often quoted in the media, the ‘billion-year contract’, Lord writes, is signed only by Scientology’s most dedicated, full-time members: the Sea Organization.
The naval theme of the Org comes from Ron L. Hubbard’s decision to live in his fleet of boats as ‘Commodore’.
“Hubbard’s experience in the Navy [during the Second World War], along with the fact that vessels in international waters are not subject to any domestic laws, explain Hubbard’s decision to move to his vessel.”
Scientology describes the billion-year contract, in its website, as follows: “The first Sea Organization members formulated a one-billion-year pledge to symbolize their eternal commitment to the religion and it is still signed by all members today. It is a symbolic document which, similar to vows of dedication in other faiths and orders, serves to signify an individual’s eternal commitment to the goals, purposes and principles of the Scientology religion.”
The author reminds us that the Sea Organization “is not a legal entity. Scientology describes the Organization as a religious order constituted of the most dedicated Scientologists. […] Sea Organization members work long hours, and all of their expenses, including housing, are paid by the Church.”
The ‘public Scientologists’ lead a fairly normal life and “may be considered in good standing even if they do not dedicate hours per day or week to the study of Scientology, [but] Sea Organization members are expected to study Scientology scripture for several hours every day.”
The ‘contract’ is deeply related to the training programs Hubbard instituted. Phil Lord quotes a study by Stephen Kent that states that the intent of the program “was to get a person to stop looking inward and (re)learn to accept the orders that the organization and its leaders demanded.”
Also according to Kent, like Raniere in NXIVM, Scientology used ethics as a compliance tool. “Hubbard’s ‘ethics’ system, would “address ‘counter-intention’: Lateness, poor work performance, negative attitude, etc., were ‘out-ethics’ actions that warranted [assignment of] the offender to a lower ethics condition, which involved penalties on a gradient scale of severity.”
“This staff member was to physically wear down people,” Kent describes, “when trying to get them to renounce their private doubts, with the goal of getting them to completely embrace the collective goals of the organization.”
When reflecting about the Billion-Year Contract, Lord ventures the opinion that that it “is both much more and much less than it appears.”
“[T]he word contract carries with it a legal meaning, which is likely misused”, Lord’s paper goes on to quote the legal precedent: “To create a contract there must be a common intention of the parties to enter into legal obligations, mutually communicated expressly or impliedly.”
“Contracts also strengthen a relationship, giving it an official and binding nature.” Phil Lord writes. “They give us certainty and alleviate our fear. We know that a failure to uphold the relationship would be a breach of the contract—and carry some consequences. The contract is simultaneously a recognition of our fear, the fear that others will take advantage of our trust and deceive us, and an aid to alleviate this fear.”
The so called ‘billion-year contract’ is, therefore, about the relationship that unites Scientologists to their religion. A relationship marked by extreme loyalty, and of great importance to the religion. A relationship for the ages, as we see.
The billion-year contract “is a reciprocal commitment wherein the members commit themselves to the organization, while the organization recognizes the members’ importance to its flourishment.”
The contract symbolizes and strengthens a commitment: one of a religious nature, uniting a religious organization to an unpaid clergy member.
“Although members of other religions would most likely see their relationship to their religion as eternal […]” Lord points out, “Scientology chooses to reinforce, recognize, and officialize this commitment by using what it calls a contract.”
However, there is this real-life fact, as the author remind us: “An employment contract that provides for no remuneration is invalid. A contract with such a long term is, similarly, invalid.li But to say that the billion-year contract is invalid within the mainstream legal system is somewhat beside the point.”
Scientology, the article clarifies, “has its own legal system, which operates independently of the mainstream legal system.[…] One’s commitment under the billion-year contract is never extinguished.”
But what if a member of the Sea Org reneges the contract? Lord states that “[t]he potential consequences include the imposition of a freeloader bill, under which former members of the Sea Organization are retroactively billed for the free services they received while they were in service.”
But in the world of Scientology, of much greater impact to the member than pecuniary consequences is excommunication.
Taking a closer look at this billion-year commitment, we can think of it as far more than simply a contract. “The billion-year contract can be thought of as an implicit yet significant affirmation of the legitimacy and independence of the legal system that exists within the Scientology religion.”
Phil Lord makes his legal investigation in search of an understanding of the religious dimension of this shady and secretive organization. “Studying religions helps us understand religious individuals whose religion is an intimate and central part of their lives. As we understand these individuals and what drives them better, we also begin to also better understand the human experience.”
By looking at Scientology and its structures, we can learn to deal and understand the many ‘cults’ and new ‘religions’ and their alleged methods of coercion, manipulation and abuse. That is necessary to navigate this brave new world filled with organizations promising to improve our lives, but delivering an eternity of self-harm.
Here are some attractive recruitment and promotional images for Sea Org.