There has never been a religion as controversial as Scientology. Described as both a sect and a cult, the group rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars from followers every year, dumbfounding those who view the sect as a trap built on lies and falsehoods. However, the religion didn’t thrive overnight, and one man pushed hard to get Scientology to the public light: Lafeyette Ron Hubbard. While L. Ron Hubbard remains a highly vexing figure to this day, how Scientology came to be is as fascinating as it is disturbing.

Hubbard’s fascinating upbringing

L. Ron Hubbard always had a flair for the imaginary. Growing up in Montana, young Hubbard had a wild imagination and a fascination with making the parts of his life that he disliked more favorable. These two traits coupled together produced a child who loved to lie and did so compulsively and without a thought for consequence. While this may have made him a better sci-fi and fantasy writer (which was his forte before creating the Church of Scientology), it didn’t make him a particularly believable human being. Even entering adulthood, Hubbard fabricated lies relating to his surroundings. This only seemed to get worse once he joined the U.S. Navy, during which he learned to paint himself as a war hero. He claimed to have created the U.S. Air Force, struck down numerous Japanese and German ships, and experienced so much hardship that he was left disabled at the end of the war. In reality, Hubbard never saw combat, never won any medals, and was in good enough health to begin working on a variety of stories and novels that would define his public persona before he created Scientology.

We have to hand it to Hubbard: he was a prolific and masterful writer. Across the course of his career, he produced hundreds of pieces of writing, from stories to articles to fantasy, sci-fi, and nonfiction novels. While he appeared functional on the surface, behind the scenes, Hubbard was venturing into some pretty odd scenarios and behaviors. Hubbard’s flair for the impossible and bizarre only swelled as he grew older. He was a flirt and a cheat, being both sexually promiscuous and unfaithful to his wives (of which, in his early life, he had two). Ceremonial “magick” was also a curiosity of his and he even spent time studying under the infamous and heretical occultist, Aleister Crowley (who allegedly hated Hubbard).

Hubbard also binged on drugs he denounced, such as nicotine and cannabis, and frequently journaled meditations on his lack of confidence and desire to be more powerful. As Hubbard slipped into psychosis and thoughts of grandeur like a pair of fleece pajamas, he began to silently hatch the constructs that would eventually become the basis for the Church of Scientology.

Scientology: From bankrupt to enlightened

In the public light of the 1930s and 40s, Hubbard seemed perfect. As a writer, he was on route to becoming the world’s most published author (which he eventually accomplished), and people ate up his pulp fiction novels with glee. However, after serving in World War II and furthering his self-delusions, Hubbard released a book in 1950 that would become infamously associated with his future religious sect: Dianetics. This novel was meant to explain the connection between an individual’s physical body and their mental state, particularly focusing on the peculiarities of the human brain. After producing Dianetics and experiencing a quick bankruptcy of his Dianetics Foundation, Hubbard decided to shift his focus from writing about the mind to writing about religion, attempting to pull together his many thoughts and writings to create a new beliefs system leading to personal, mental enlightenment. While it’s difficult to say what inspired Hubbard to produce the “science” that would become Scientology (it was 100% the money), the religion gained traction despite the bizarre falsehoods that its foundation was built on.

Advertised as the “science of knowledge,” Hubbard’s new religion incorporated concepts from both Dianetics and other theories he introduced, many of which involved Hubbard receiving a hefty paycheck from the followers who bought into his program. From a therapeutic trauma cleansing called “auditing” to supposedly providing those in the Church of Scientology with a new sense of rationale, the theories of Scientology scooped up followers from every class, age, race, and status across the U.S. and the world. Scientology’s odd approach to interpreting one’s own emotions and the world appealed to a mass of people…yet L. Ron Hubbard’s lies, fibs, and wildly imaginative thoughts only continued to plague him. As he gained more autonomy over his followers, his frightening level of power turned dangerous. Eventually, his already controversial religion found itself under even more scrutiny, and a paranoid Hubbard panicked. What happens when a delusional man panics? Nothing good.

A descent into madness

By the mid-1950s, Scientology was practiced and praised by people across the globe, including those in America, New Zealand, and several European countries. Several physical churches in the name of Scientology were constructed worldwide, and many public figures and celebrities began to follow the church. While Hubbard’s following was expanding, Hubbard began to grow more desperate to preserve the image of his church, presenting his ideologies and thoughts as they emerged. Many of his statements through the 50s and 60s contradicted or discredited his earlier teachings, such as condemning psychiatric practices despite employing them within his own theology. Hubbard was chasing his lies in circles, and, as his group began to experience major controversy, his impulsivity and eccentricity became forces to be reckoned with.

Throughout the late 1960s, Hubbard’s thoughts became more erratic, and the lies he told expanded in impossibility. Would you believe a man who told you he buried treasure in a past life, or that he drove around aliens in his free time? Not likely. However, through all of his fibs, Hubbard still held onto a plethora of loyal followers, all of whom were willing to follow him across the globe to please him. And they did. Hubbard decided to quit his executive director job to focus on the original basis of Scientology: writing. However, when Hubbard’s paranoia against the government, the medical board, and anyone who threatened his authority grew, he decided, like any level-headed dude who just wants to enjoy his money-cult, to invest in a fleet of ships and flee from the shores of America. What was his excuse to rope people onboard the three ships known as the Sea Org? That he was on the hunt for the buried treasure he punted under the sea in a previous life. While this may have been a red flag for some people, not everyone (literally) jumped ship. Those that ended up on board, however, likely weren’t happy they stayed. Those who deviated from Scientology while out at sea were exposed to abuse at the hands of Hubbard, being tossed into the ocean, starved, and forced to injure themselves.

Eventually, Hubbard’s chaos caught up with him. In 1979, after being charged with crimes in France and being denied full protection in the United States, Hubbard went underground, only emerging from hiding for his own benefit. Meanwhile, the Church of Scientology was facing more criticism than ever, both socially and politically. As more groups began to classify Scientology as a cult, the F.B.I. began to catch up with and arrest the unlawful members of the church. However, Hubbard didn’t stick around much longer to watch his dominion unravel. He passed away in 1986 in the comfort of his ranch in California. Today, despite the massive controversy surrounding the sect, the Church of Scientology is alive and well, still forging onward in L. Ron Hubbard’s name.