‘I was There…’ Harlan Ellison Witnesses the Birth of Scientology

James Underdown

In 2014, I had a long phone conversation with Harlan Ellison, during which I took many notes. I had sent him a letter asking if he’d appear in (or at least consult on) a music video that my band, The Heathens, was considering shooting. Craig Else and I had written a song about L. Ron Hubbard and thought it would be fun to have Ellison be a part of it somehow.

Ellison was not interested in being a part of the video, because he had concerns for himself and his wife that there might be retribution from the Church of Scientology (CoS) and because he preferred to leave the criticisms of the church and its leadership to others.

During the conversation, however, he set the record straight about the night he personally witnessed a seed being planted that would eventually grow into the CoS.

The year was 1953 or 1954, and a not-yet-twenty-year-old Harlan Ellison had come to New York city from Ohio to meet author Algis Budrys and other members of the Hydra Club, a social organization of science-fiction professionals and fans. The club had gathered at the apartment of author L. Jerome Stanton. There, Ellison found himself in the company of some of the elite science-fiction writers of the time—of all time, really.

Present were Budrys, Arthur C. Clarke (visiting from England), Lester del Rey, Fletcher Pratt, L. Sprague de Camp, Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron Hubbard. Ellison described Hubbard as “a liar from birth who never told the truth about himself that was not bloviated, exaggerated, over filigreed … .”

It was surprising to me to hear that Ellison also seemed to hold some professional admiration for Hubbard, despite his obvious disdain for him as a person. He mentioned Hubbard’s ability to crank out prodigious amounts of material—not all of which was hack work. He called Hubbard’s books Final Blackout and Slaves of Sleep “fucking brilliant.” And he acknowledged Hubbard’s space adventure stories, written under the name René Lafayette, some of which years later would be incorporated into Scientology’s wild backstory.

At some point that night, L. Ron Hubbard—who was making considerably more than the penny-a-word that most of the others were making—got up and said that he couldn’t make a living getting paid these wages; he couldn’t make ends meet. (Ellison agreed that sci-fi writers were treated poorly and saw unsavory publishers ripping off writers during his whole career.)

So then del Rey, a sci-fi author who had been a child tent-revival minister (and knew how religion could be used to fleece people), said, “Ron, if you want to get rich, what you gotta do is start a religion.”

Ellison made it clear that other writers have told him about similar exchanges occurring at different times and places involving people telling Hubbard he ought to start a religion. This was the time Ellison saw it firsthand.

Hubbard wrote—and made a lot of money from—his book Dianetics before creating Scientology. Some have argued that Hubbard saw franchising Scientology as a better way to control income and content than writing a book that is released everywhere.

Nevertheless, Harlan Ellison had to be one of the last living eyewitnesses to see that seed planted into the mind of L. Ron Hubbard, prolific creator of fiction.

I’ll miss his brutal frankness and indomitable spirit. (Ellison’s, I mean.)

James Underdown

James Underdown is the executive director of the Center for Inquiry/ West in Los Angeles and host on Point of Inquiry


In 2014, I had a long phone conversation with Harlan Ellison, during which I took many notes. I had sent him a letter asking if he’d appear in (or at least consult on) a music video that my band, The Heathens, was considering shooting. Craig Else and I had written a song about L. Ron …

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