Where do Scientologists go when they die?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 11 2008 7:13 PM

The Afterlife for Scientologists

What will happen to Isaac Hayes' legendary soul?

Isaac Hayes. Click image to expand.
Isaac Hayes

Singer Isaac Hayes died on Sunday at the age of 65. Besides being a sex symbol, a soul-music legend, and a beloved voice-over artist, Hayes was also a dedicated Scientologist. According to his religious beliefs, what happens to Hayes now that he's passed away?

His soul will be "born again into the flesh of another body," as the Scientology Press Office's FAQ puts it. The actual details of how that rebirth occurs are not fully understood by church outsiders, but some core beliefs of Scientology are that every human being is really an immortal spiritual being known as a thetan and that the "meat bodies" we inhabit are merely vessels we shed upon death. (Members of the elite church cadre known as Sea Org, for example, sign contracts that pledge a billion years of service throughout successive lives.)

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When a body dies, its thetan forgets the details of the former life, though painful and traumatic images known as engrams remain rooted in its unconscious. In order to move up the path of spiritual progression—known as the Bridge to Total Freedom—one must eradicate these psychic scars, which cause a person to act fearfully and irrationally. Once a Scientologist has purged them through the counseling process known as auditing, he or she is said to be "clear."

According to an avowed Scientology antagonist who claims, on her Web site, to present factual information typically omitted from church press materials, the official Scientology publication Celebrity announced that Hayes attained "clear" status around 2002, though it is not known whether he progressed onto the highest parts of the Bridge, the "operating thetan" levels. Details about what happens in these advanced stages remain closely guarded Scientology secrets, but at the very end of the process, thetans are supposed to gain power over the physical world; consequently, according to founder L. Ron Hubbard, they "feel no need of bodies," ending the cycle of birth and death and becoming pure, incorporeal souls.

If Hayes had progressed high enough on the Bridge, he might have begun preparing for his next life in the final days of this one. According to former Sea Org member Chuck Beatty, some upper-level operating thetans are said to possess the ability to choose their next set of birth parents.

In a widely reprinted 1990 Los Angeles Times article, Hubbard was quoted (apparently from a lecture given in the 1950s) describing how, after death, a thetan is carried to a "landing station" on Venus, where it is "programmed with lies," put in a capsule, and then "dumped" back on Earth, where it wanders in search of a baby to inhabit. Yet according to Laurie Hamilton, who says she has been a Scientologist since 1968, adherents are "free to accept or discard" such stories so long as they embrace the "methods and practices" of Scientology. One of the church's official Web sites stresses that a belief in past lives is not mandatory dogma but, rather, a personal truth that most Scientologists come to as they go through auditing.

The Web site also stresses that Scientologists do not believe in "reincarnation." Unlike religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, in which reincarnation functions as a kind of justice system—i.e., an individual's behavior in one life determines the caliber of the next—rebirth in Scientology is a more mechanical process. Hubbard described it as "simply living time after time, getting a new body, eventually losing it and getting a new one."

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Chuck Beatty, Stephen Kent of the University of Alberta, and Hugh Urban of Ohio State University. Thanks also to reader Mark Allender for asking the question.

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