The Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF) is a religious program undertaken by a very small number of members of the Church of Scientology. Neither staff members who work in local Churches of Scientology around the world, nor the Church’s non-staff parishioners, would qualify to undertake this program. Only those who belong to the Sea Organization, the religious order of the Church of Scientology, may do the RPF, and then only for specific reasons. The purpose of the RPF is to provide a “second chance” to those who have failed to fulfill their ecclesiastical responsibilities as members of the Sea Organization.
The Rehabilitation Project Force is a voluntary program of spiritual rehabilitation. The emphasis is on the word rehabilitation, meaning, in this context, to restore one’s condition to an optimal spiritual state. It represents a free religious commitment by the individual to a spiritual discipline. The word force in this context means “[A] group of people working or acting together.” (Thorndike Barnhart Dictionary, 1992)
The Rehabilitation Project Force is a voluntary program of spiritual rehabilitation.… It represents a free religious commitment by the individual to a spiritual discipline.
The RPF is based on one of the oldest and most fundamental concepts in religion—a religious retreat in the form of a cloister focusing on intensive spiritual introspection and study and balanced by some form of physical work. This practice is common to the religious orders of many other world religions in addition to Scientology, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and the monastic orders of the Roman Catholic Church.
Within the hierarchical structure of the Church of Scientology exists the Sea Organization, a religious order comprised of the dedicated core of the religion, individuals who have signed a pledge of eternal service to the Scientology religion. This group is known as the Sea Organization, or Sea Org, because when the group was established in 1967 its members underwent basic training aboard ships, training designed to increase ability to deal with a challenging environment, gain competence as a team member and to raise one’s ethical level.
Sea Organization members devote their lives to service of the Scientology religion. Sea Organization members, like members of other religious orders, are spiritually and not materially motivated. They work in Church organizations for a small stipend and live in a religious community with housing, meals, clothing, medical care, dental care and other necessities provided for by the Church. They study the fundamentals of Scientology for a portion of each day and dedicate themselves to whatever their assigned task may be in the furtherance of the objectives of the religion. Their disciplined lifestyle in a religious order is comparable to that of members of religious orders in many other world religions. Sea Organization members comprise the ecclesiastical leadership of the Church of Scientology.
As with any religious program requiring high spiritual and ethical standards as well as dedicated service, there are some Sea Org members who stumble in their effort to maintain such high standards and a few members who commit serious breaches of ecclesiastical rules that govern their conduct as a member of this order.
In such a situation, the individual is given the choice of either leaving the Sea Organization or participating in a religious program designed to provide the individual with an opportunity to progress spiritually and remedy past shortcomings. This is the Rehabilitation Project Force, or RPF, religious program. The RPF was created in the 1970s at the request of Sea Organization members. Again, this religious program is solely for this religious order; it is not administered to other Church staff or parishioners.
The Scientology religion comprises a body of unique knowledge about Man, the mind, the spirit and Man’s relationship to the divine. This knowledge is the foundation for a religious technology which, when applied, enables an individual to, among other things, systematically uncover the root cause of problems in life and resolve them. In the RPF, away from pressures and the stress of a challenging staff position, an individual learns and applies these fundamentals as a form of spiritual retreat and rededication. The program is designed to achieve full spiritual recovery and renewal, thus enabling one to return to his position in the religious community as a contributing staff member.
The RPF is a religious retreat which represents an opportunity for redemption. The RPF is entirely voluntary and an individual is free to leave at any time. It is structured as follows:
Sea Organization members in the RPF live in clean quarters, get adequate rest, eat well, and pursue spiritual betterment and renewal in what is in essence a voluntary religious retreat. The RPF is designed to provide an opportunity for valued and respected members of the Scientology core religious order to overcome problems and to facilitate their productive return to the general religious community. Members rededicate themselves in the RPF to their religious goals and the achievement of high spiritual and ethical standards through this time-honored form of religious discipline. Upon completing the RPF, members return to their duties within the Church and many eventually assume or reassume high-level ecclesiastical positions.
Religious scholars have visited and observed the RPF religious program for themselves and concluded that the program represents an appropriate religious retreat. Three noted religion experts thoroughly examined the program in Denmark and the United Kingdom, its two locations in Europe. Professor Juha Pentikäinen,1 Prof. Dr. Theol. Jurgen F. K. Redhardt2 and Dr. Michael York3 each came to the independent conclusion after their yearlong investigations that the RPF provided the opportunity for religious growth and enhancement under appropriate conditions and in an appropriate environment.
Because we were aware of criticisms of the programme, we examined [the] main claims and included them into our fieldwork questions. Based on our firsthand observations and interviews, we are unable to concur with [the critics’] evaluations. Specifically we found no evidence of physical constraints or coercive means to get or keep people on the programme. Anyone may leave the RPF at any time, and some have done so without completing the programme (and others have returned to it after a while). Some of the people we interviewed had indeed left the programme during the year of our investigation, and, in two cases, people we had interviewed had returned to the programme to complete it satisfactorily. Anyone who exits the programme or chooses not to do it in the first place may remain a parishioner of the Church of Scientology, even though she/he leaves the Sea Organization. No conditions are attached to departure beyond the usual procedure for any departure from a Church of Scientology staff.
Our empirical findings are that there is no evidence that any fundamental rights are violated. Basic needs are taken care of. The individual agrees to any restrictions and may reject them at any time.…
As our interviews indicate, the programme is physically and spiritually challenging and has to be done intensively. Those doing the RPF have agreed to the conditions as they find the programme a necessary means to resolve serious difficulties in their lives. Those who have done the RPF attest that they have achieved or are achieving their goals and have resolved the problems that led them to the RPF in the first place. We are aware of … criticisms and allegations that have been made against the programme and the evidence that we have uncovered in no way supports these.
One discovery that the researchers made during this investigation was that progress within the RPF program and development towards the state of Clear and spiritual advancement beyond Clear as taught and sponsored by the Church are not contradictory, but one can continue and advance in both processes simultaneously.
These experts reached their independent conclusions after spending over a year on their study, investigating living, sleeping and working conditions of the program in its two European locations and interviewing approximately 25 individuals who were participating in or had graduated from the RPF program.
The study has persisted for a year or longer, and in all cases we have been satisfied with the cooperation we received with our project. We have been able to conduct follow-up interviews, and we have all individually collaborated our independent findings through interviews and direct observations. The Church of Scientology’s Rehabilitation Project Force—A Study by Juha Pentikäinen (Chair of the Department of the Study of Religions, University of Helsinki, Finland), Jurgen F.K. Redhardt, and Michael York (Bath Spa University College), 2002
Other experts have had unfettered access to the RPF and its participants and have reached similar conclusions. Professor J. Gordon Melton is a renowned American religion scholar who was founding Director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion and is currently a research specialist in religion and new religious movements with the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of over 25 books, including several encyclopedias, handbooks and almanacs on American religion and new religious movements. Dr. Melton thoroughly examined the RPF in its two locations in the United States—Southern California and Clearwater, Florida—as well as in its two locations in Europe as part of his study The Sea Organization, A Contemporary Ordered Religious Community. After investigating the RPF, Dr. Melton concluded:
The RPF is located within the Sea Org facilities, but members dine and sleep in separate quarters. In Los Angeles, for example, the RPF space—dorm, dining hall and kitchen, and woodwork shop—are in the main building. In Copenhagen they are in the basement (study space) and top floor (dorm rooms) of one of the Sea Org buildings currently undergoing renovation. In Clearwater they are located in two separate buildings in the Sea Org residence complex. In Clearwater, the buildings housing the RPF are on the edge of the complex and immediately outside the front door of the two buildings is a gate that opens from the inside. Any person could simply walk out of the buildings and out of the gate into the city of Clearwater.
There are no locks on the doors of the RPF facilities, and at almost any time, a participant in the program could, if they decided, simply walk away. In the case of the Los Angeles, Clearwater, or Copenhagen facilities, such a person could lose themselves in the city in a matter of minutes.
Dr. Melton found that the RPF helped to improve participants’ lives:
Following completion of their program, graduates generally return to the post (or a similar post) that they held when they went into the program. Graduates to whom I talked indicated that they received a cordial welcome back to their post. While most of the people with whom I have talked about their previous RPF experience hold [lower-level] staff positions, several people have gone on to hold high positions and a few are now well known in the Church internationally. People whom I have met who lead different church organizations report that staff who have completed the program subsequently become their most productive staff members.
Experts who have examined the program have determined that it is similar to—and in many ways less stringent than—programs run by religious orders of other religions. The Sea Organization, A Contemporary Ordered Religious Community by Professor J. Gordon Melton; The Church of Scientology’s Rehabilitation Project Force, a study by Professors Pentikäinen, Redhardt and York; and Declaration of Dr. Frank Flinn.
Dr. Melton notes that Catholicism and Buddhism have ethical standards similar to the Sea Organization’s, but that in Scientology, unlike these religions, one may earn a second chance to remedy violations of religious order rules. “The Sea Org’s system differs from that of both the Roman Catholic and Buddhist systems in that it offers a means for those judged guilty of expulsion offenses to redeem themselves and be reintegrated into the community.”
Dr. Melton notes that the physical labor requirements also are not unlike those of other religions, notably Buddhism. “It is reminiscent of the work (‘chop wood, carry water’) that is often integrated into the longer Zen Buddhist retreats. Work remains an integral part of the daily life of Zen monks and nuns, and visitors to a Zen monastery for retreats or short stays will be scheduled to participate in the workday that might include cooking, chopping wood, heating water, working in the fields, and cleaning.”
A noted scholar of comparative religion and former Franciscan monk, the late Dr. Frank K. Flinn was Adjunct Professor in Religious Studies at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, when he undertook an examination of the RPF program as part of an independent study he conducted on Scientology.4
Dr. Flinn notes: “It is my opinion that spiritual disciplines and practices such as the Rehabilitation Project Force of the Church of Scientology are not only not unusual or even strange but characteristic of religion itself when compared with religious practices around the world. Contrary to the generally second-hand opinions of outsiders and to the claims of disaffected members, whose motives are suspect, I would say that submission to such practices … follows as a natural consequence from a free religious commitment to a spiritual discipline in the first place.”
Dr. Flinn writes that physical labor is a daily activity in Roman Catholic monasteries for both men and women and consists mainly of gardening, woodworking, washing laundry, running and repairing farm equipment, harvesting and preparing food for the monastery. Those who have chosen the religious life undertake such rigors under the solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience willingly, even as Dr. Flinn did himself as a Franciscan initiate:
Contemplatives, monks and mendicants and other religious societies not only take the three vows mentioned above, but also commit themselves to other religious practices such as long hours of meditation each day, periods of manual labor, midnight choir (the singing of Psalms), fasting during Lent and Advent, study of the rule of the order and other spiritual writings, and silence. As a member of the Franciscan order (which I left voluntarily and was free to do so), I myself freely submitted to the religious practice of flagellation on Fridays, striking the legs and back with a small whip to mortify the desires of the flesh and to commemorate the flagellation of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion. In the tradition of St. Benedict’s dictum ora et labora (Latin for pray and work), I also spent several hours each day, with the exception of Sunday, doing physical labor, including woodworking, tending a garden, cleaning floors, washing laundry, peeling potatoes, etc. These tasks were assigned to me by my superiors, and because I took a vow of obedience, I did them. Furthermore, as a mendicant, I took a vow of absolute poverty such that I owned absolutely no material possessions, including the robe which I wore. When rules of the monastery are broken, monks and friars are regularly assigned menial tasks as penances. Compared with these Roman Catholic practices, the practices of the RPF are not only not bizarre but even mild.
As Professor Flinn points out, similar practices exist in Jesuit Orders and in some Eastern religions such as Hinduism.
Likewise, Professors Pentikäinen, Redhardt and York note the similarities of the RPF with programs operated by other world religions:
Certain Buddhist and Christian monastic orders require an erring member to complete a regimen of exercise and training, as defined by the order, before re-admittance as a full member. These processes may include in-depth reading and study of the principles of the religion, physical work and training, meditation and other spiritual exercises, and possibly also a period of hermetic contemplation.
From the interviews, it was apparent that the participants had much greater opportunity to concentrate on their spiritual counseling in the RPF than in their previous careers in the Church of Scientology. In seclusion, as it were, they were able to withdraw from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and focus on achieving redemptive goals. This concept, of course, is a traditional one. Within Christianity there are hermits called anchorites who withdraw from society to devote themselves to prayer and penance. RPF Study, Pentikäinen, et al.
In the 1980s, a few former members of the Church of Scientology who undertook the RPF program decided not to complete it and subsequently left the Church. Some of these individuals then started to criticize the RPF and make false claims about its treatment of Sea Organization members. These claims by a few disgruntled apostates were totally contrary to the experience of scores of Sea Organization members who have successfully completed the program and by the religion scholars who have independently investigated the RPF.
A so-called “study” of the RPF by Stephen Kent of the University of Alberta, Canada, which in the 1990s was often cited by German government officials to deflect criticism of their human rights violations targeting Scientologists, bears special scrutiny. Kent has been used by professional anti-Scientologists who have paid him for his opinions against Scientology. (See, for example, by Massimo Introvigne: Have Gun, Will Travel: Stephen Kent’s German Holiday on Thin Ice; Cost of an Anti-Cult Affidavit by Stephen Kent: $11,000; Update on Stephen Kent’s Expensive Affidavits: One Claims that Scientology Is a Religion, Cost of the Affidavit—$21,600)
Kent’s study is not only suspect because it is premised upon misinformation and constitutes nonvalid pseudoscience, it also is suspect because of Kent’s inherent bias on the subject of Scientology and new religions: Kent traveled to Germany in the 1990s at the invitation of German government officials and the Lutheran Church on several occasions as a featured speaker in various German cities at a series of anti-Scientology events and press conferences organized by the Socialist Party, the Christian Democratic Union, members of the Enquete Commission and the Lutheran Church. This was no dispassionate scientist searching for truth but someone with a vested interest in supporting the German government’s propaganda campaign to demonize Scientologists.
The methodology and conclusions of Kent’s study have been decisively rejected and discredited by every responsible scientific organization that has studied the subject. Scientific evidence dismissing and discrediting “coercive persuasion” allegations directed at Scientology and other new religions is voluminous, well documented and published in numerous leading professional journals and books. In fact, there are no scientific studies which remotely support Kent’s false statements and outlandish theories.
Kent’s “study” is completely devoid of legitimacy for a number of reasons. First, the information relied upon by Kent to justify his conclusions is false. It consists of biased and anecdotal accounts from only six apostates regarding their supposed experiences decades ago, accounts which are unsubstantiated and thoroughly unreliable. Second, a strong consensus of scientific and professional opinion has thoroughly and emphatically rejected the validity of this very claim of “religious brainwashing.” Third, the underlying methodology and scientific principles from which Dr. Kent’s “brainwashing” theory purports to be drawn do not even remotely support application of the theory here.
Kent’s conclusions are based on interviews with six apostates who tried to make a living criticizing Scientology after they left the religion and on self-serving documents filed and supplied by these apostates and a few others seeking millions of dollars from the Church. No substantiation of the lurid and false claims by these apostates exists. Moreover, they are the only individuals Kent interviewed, and he made no attempt to interview hundreds of Sea Organization members who have advanced through the program and regard it as a valuable and rewarding spiritual experience which has enriched their lives.
Yet, experts in the field of religion note that individuals disaffected from a faith are routinely biased and unreliable witnesses. Preeminent religion scholar, the late Bryan R. Wilson of Oxford University, wrote:
Informants who are mere contacts and who have no personal motives for what they tell are to be preferred to those who, for their own purposes, seek to use the investigator. The disaffected and the apostate are in particular informants whose evidence has to be used with circumspection. The apostate is generally in need of self-justification. He seeks to reconstruct his own past, to excuse his former affiliations, and to blame those who were formerly his closest associates. Not uncommonly the apostate learns to rehearse an “atrocity story” to explain how, by manipulation, trickery, coercion, or deceit, he was induced to join or remain within an organization that he now forswears and condemns. Apostates, sensationalized by the press, have sometimes sought to make a profit from accounts of their experiences in stories sold to newspapers or produced as books (sometimes written by “ghost” writers). Bryan Wilson, The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1990
Common sense suggests—and scientific analysis confirms—an inevitable bias in reliance upon these sources. Individuals who have been removed from the Church of Scientology and rejected by their religious community for their misconduct might be expected to provide lurid, false and hostile accounts of their experience, and to seek self-serving rationalizations justifying their past misconduct. By learning to explain their prior affiliation as “brainwashing,” former members can attempt to place responsibility for their past actions on others rather than on themselves.
Many of these sources also had a substantial monetary stake in making the false claims promoted by Kent, having filed civil suits against their former religion, demanding millions in compensation. Scientific commentary on the unreliability of such sources and their claims is substantial and accumulating.5
Contrary to the handful of apostates, scores of Sea Organization members who have undergone the program attest to the healthy conditions and fulfilling and rewarding spiritual enhancement they experienced on the program.
Moreover, independent experts with impeccable scientific credentials have conducted exhaustive firsthand investigations of every aspect of the RPF and have emphatically rejected Kent’s unsupported allegations. As noted by Professors Pentikäinen, Redhardt and York in their definitive study on the RPF:
Because we were aware of criticisms of the programme, specifically by Professor Stephen A. Kent, we examined his main claims and included them into our fieldwork questions. Based on our firsthand observations and interviews, we are unable to concur with his evaluations.
Indeed, while a study by Professor Stephen Kent refers to the testimony of former members who claim knowledge of the programme (mostly during the mid 1980s, 10 to 15 years earlier than his study was written) and complain of degrading conditions and forcible confinement, we were unable to find any member of the RPF who remotely felt this way. On the contrary, every participant was told that he could leave the programme whenever he or she felt necessary, and these members attested that they were happy doing it. RPF Study, Pentikäinen et al.
Purporting to cloak his assumptions in neutral abstractions of science, Kent relies on the highly biased, unreliable and unscientific information provided by the six disaffected former Scientologists to justify his “assumption” that the RPF amounts to “religious brainwashing.” Yet authoritative experts committed to the dispassionate application of scientific methods to the study of religion have completely discredited such assumptions. In their consensus view, this allegation of “brainwashing” has no scientific validity. Indeed, not one methodologically sound study supports the theory, and a host of such studies refute it.
The academic community, including scholars from psychology, sociology and religious studies, has articulated an almost unanimous consensus that “mental manipulation” and “brainwashing” theories as applied to religious communities are completely lacking in scientific merit. Brainwashing has never gained any scientific credibility. Instead, scholars and scientists have debunked the whole notion as a pseudo-scientific, socially constructed weapon used to discriminate against religious minorities.
Professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association and American Sociological Association have issued definitive studies debunking the unscientific theory of “coercive persuasion” in relation to Scientology and other religions. These studies echo the position taken by the Dutch government in 1984 in its Report on New Religious Movements that “new religious movements are no real threat to mental public health.” The Swedish government reached a similar conclusion in its report.
Indeed, attempts to qualify mental health and sociological professionals as “experts” based on this discredited theory have been denied by the courts in the United States on this basis.
The “brainwashing” theories advanced by Kent and discredited mental health experts such as Margaret Singer purport to be based on studies of American prisoners mistreated by Chinese officials during the Korean War. Several scientists who studied the conditions of these prisoners concluded that extreme physical hardship, torture, prolonged confinement and fear of death might temporarily induce some individuals to accept belief systems antithetical to those previously held.
As Judge Krupansky stated in his concurring opinion in United States v. Kozminski:
The brainwashing techniques employed by Chinese as studied by Dr. Lifton were scientifically implemented, and scientifically monitored around the clock. The techniques were professionally structured into a planned, systematic, progressive program calculated to totally pervert and/or destroy an individual and to change his behavior and his beliefs. Essential to effective metamorphosis of the prisoner was an environment of physical captivity, a realization of the futility of escape or rescue, and the use of force or the ever-present threat of force and even death. United States v. Kozminski, 821 F.2d 1186, 1204 (6th Cir. 1987) affd. 108 S. Ct. 2751 (1988)
For this reason, the consensus view of scholars6 repudiates the effort to extend the POW mind control hypothesis to the context of new religious movements.
Because the true facts regarding this program lack the very elements that scientists who studied prisoners of war concluded were sine qua non of “coercive persuasion,” simple invocation of their works provides no valid support for assuming that new religious movements pose a genuine danger of “brainwashing” members.
Dr. Flinn’s study of the RPF, written more than a decade earlier than Kent’s study, debunks this very premise in its application to the Scientology religious program:
Critics of the new religions charge that this kind of discipline constitutes mind and milieu control of the sort used by the Chinese Communists to enforce political re-indoctrination after the communist takeover in 1949. The aim and goal of the RPF, however, is entirely different than that of the communists in China. The Communists wanted to guarantee political uniformity, whereas the Scientologist wants spiritual release and enlightenment and an immortal thetan. Secondly, Chinese peasants were forced into the re-indoctrination programs, whereas the Scientologist freely participates in the RPF program as a consequence of his or her vows of eternal service. Thus the proper comparison is not to political but to spiritual disciplines, which are present in every religion known to me and which I have undergone myself.
At bottom, the Kent “study” was based on unfounded assumptions premised upon false allegations advanced by a few apostates. To reach his conclusions, Kent completely ignored voluminous scientific research by accomplished and respected scholars who objectively reached a consensus that such claims have no scientific validity. He also completely ignored the true facts available from a host of members of the religious order who voluntarily entered and graduated from the program and regarded it as a rewarding spiritual experience. Under these circumstances, Kent’s study merely masqueraded as science and truth.
The Rehabilitation Project Force is a religious program designed to allow a willing participant to engage in a religious retreat and get a “second chance” in the Sea Organization through religious services and training. It reflects Scientology religious beliefs that Man is basically good, that one should be forgiven for past transgressions upon repenting and taking appropriate measures to improve and make amends.
Members on the program are provided adequate food, clothing, shelter and all necessities. They perform basic physical tasks such as maintaining and improving Church facilities while on the RPF, designed to provide a necessary physical release from the intensive spiritual retreat and study which forms the heart of the religious program. As recognized by religious scholars who have seen and investigated the religious program firsthand, the RPF has many comparatives in other religions. It requires religious discipline, and that discipline is undergone willingly by those who participate in the program. The results they obtain in spiritual revitalization are gains which last a lifetime.
The individuals on the program are all valued and respected members of the core religious order of the Church who voluntarily undertake this religious discipline with the support of their friends, colleagues and family in the religious community to improve themselves and have a second opportunity to remain in good standing in the community. The program provides support, enhancement and respect for the individuals who participate in it.