For years I have preached the story of the Heinlein-Hubbard Wager. Any time
Scientology or Hubbard came up in conversation, I would merrily launch into the
tale of the wager and do my pedantic duty to relay poorly researched information.
It never occurred to me that it may not be true. It seemed so plausible, especially
so once I read some of the Scientology theological history.
The most common version of the story goes something like this:
Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard, two good friends and legendary contributors to
the golden age of science fiction, are sitting at a bar/dinner table/convention
table and discussing the nature of religion/mass hypnosis/writers wages when Hubbard
exclaims "The way to make a million dollars is to start a religion" or
"Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous, if a man really wanted to make a
million dollars, he would start a religion." or one of several variations on
the same theme. The legend continues by claiming that Heinlein and Hubbard then entered
into a wager to see who could start a religion the fastest and make the most money.
Heinlein’s entry was Stranger In a Strange Land.
The myth was spread and gained popularity for many of the same reasons that all
myths persist, it has the potential to be true and it has a root in fact. It's an easy
story to believe, two men renowned for their outspoken opinions decided to create
religions, one of them succeeds with Scientology and the resultant theology sounds
strikingly similar to most of his fiction. Few people besides Scientologists take
Scientology seriously or even consider it a religious faith. For many people this
only further reinforces the idea that Scientology is contrived and has certainly
aided in the belief that its genesis was a wager.
Eventually someone I was doing the disservice of attempting to spread this myth
to called me on it and asked me to produce proof. I no longer remembered where I
had received the information from myself, but I seemed to recall that Harlan Ellison
had been the source of it. I commenced to researching the topic and the more I
discovered the less likely it seemed that the myth was true. The only evidence
available in favor of the myth were second hand accounts or different variations of
the same story I had been telling.
An associate claimed that Larry Niven told her a variation of the myth while
doing the waltz at a convention. Another claimed, as I had believed, that Ellison
had mentioned the same thing in an interview. Others believed the wager was made at
a Los Angeles convention in the 50's but had heard it from someone who was present
although not engaged in the conversation personally.
I decided that I was going to get nothing but the same rhetoric by searching
google.com, and interviewing acquaintances. What I needed was an authority on either man to give me some details. So
far no one I had asked had offered any counterproof, only the same vague
assertion that the wager had happened but the details were fuzzy. I wasn't about
to contact the church of Scientology for their slant on the subject. Their version
would be inescapable and terribly biased. Instead I decided to contact someone with
authoritative information on Heinlein
I wasn't likely to get a response from his surviving wife, Virginia, as I
couldn't find any way to contact her. Even if I did have contact information for
her, I have too much respect for the man to go around bugging his wife for details
regarding something that had the potential to be a touchy subject. Instead, I began a
correspondence with Bill Patterson, Chairman of the Heinlein Society, to see if any
light could be shed on the subject. His help has been instrumental in straightening
out some of the details, false logic and misinformation that have helped this myth
The simple truth of the matter is that a wager never took place. It never
happened, end of story. Having said that however, the possibility does exist that a
series of conversations between the two authors and commentary made by Heinlein, may have been
the catalyst for Hubbard’s authorship of Dianetics. Heinlein and Hubbard were close
friends and Hubbard greatly respected Heinlein, his opinions and his ideas.
Mr. Patterson revealed to me, "RAH and LRH had one or more discussions during
1944 and or 1945 when they were both in Philadelphia, and RAH pointed out to LRH
that religions had an inordinate amount of legal latitude in the U.S. and that
churches could engage in a great many activities otherwise thought of as secular,
under the tax and other protection churches enjoy. He had already explored these
ideas in some of his stories and was to revisit these notions in their original
form in Stranger. It is possible that this conversation or series of conversations
took place as late as December 1945 or early 1946 and in Los Angeles."
The theme of money and religion was apparently a very popular one for Hubbard
as he seems to have mentioned it at several other informal discussions around the same time. In a 1978
interview Harlan Ellison commented "Scientology is bullshit! Man, I was there the
night L. Ron Hubbard invented it, for Christ Sakes!...We were sitting around one
night... who else was there? Alfred Bester, and Cyril Kornbluth, and Lester Del
Rey, and Ron Hubbard, who was making a penny a word, and had been for years. And he
said "This bullshit's got to stop!" He says, "I gotta get money." He says, "I want
to get rich"."
Editor and Author Sam Moskovitz claimed a number of times that Hubbard had made
similar remarks at a convention he hosted in Newark in either 1947 or 1948.
Another respected SciFi author, Theodore Sturgeon, revealed to Mike Jittlov,
himself a respected filmmaker, an incident in the 1940's when Hubbard had become
upset and said, "Y'know, we're all wasting our time writing this hack science
fiction! You wanta make real money, you gotta start a religion!" Lloyd Arthur
Eshback related in his autobiography, an incident in either 1948 or 49, "I think of
the time while in New York I took John W. Campbell, Marty Greenberg, and L. Ron
Hubbard to lunch...The incident is stamped indelibly in my mind because of one
statement that Ron Hubbard made. What led him to say what he did I can't
recall--but in so many words Hubbard said: "I'd like to start a religion. That's
where the money is!"."
Several of these claims have been refuted, but others have not. The Church of
Scientology takes these matters very seriously and has won several court cases in
regards to the issue of Scientology’s origins and disparaging remarks made against
it. The origins of Dianetics and Scientology may still be a little clouded but it
seems clear to me now that a wager between the two authors, or anyone else for that
matter, was not responsible and while it's possible that Heinlein planted the seed
for Hubbard’s Dianetics, Mr. Patterson cautioned me to remember, "Both LRH and RAH
were talkers of the first water. This particular conversation was one of many
they had at the time -- it only looks significant when we see it through the
historical lens of experience of what LRH did with the ideas, long after he and RAH
had fallen out of intimate personal contact."
The Real Harlan Ellison. Saturday Evening Wings, Nov-Dec 1978 pg 32
Eshback, Llyod Arthur. Over My Shoulder: Reflections on a Science Fiction Era.
Oswald Train: Phila. 1983
Lindsay, Don. http://www.planetkc.com/sloth/sci/religion.money.faq.html
Patterson, Bill. Perosnal correspondence