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Is Scientology really a religion?

2013 December 12
by Paul Vallely

What is time, St Augustine once mused and then pronounced: “If no-one asks then I know. But someone asks me, and I have to say, then I know not.”

He might have said the same about religion. What is a religion?  Everyone assumes they know – until, that, is we have to define it.

The Supreme Court has just discovered this slippery truth. It has had to rule on whether or not Scientology is a religion.

Previously the courts had said No because, they had adjudged, though Scientology calls itself a Church its ceremonies were not “acts of worship”.  They were backing a previous court ruling from 1970 which had pronounced that Scientology did not involve the “veneration of God or of a Supreme Being”.

Common sense definitions, based largely in the culture of Britain’s Judeo-Christian inheritance, once supposed that religion was something to do with God, or gods for those who had done classics at school.

The world’s main religions seems to fit that label. Some five billion people – Hindus, Jews, Christians and Muslims – see religion as something to do with deity. So do Sikhs, Zoroastrians and many smaller faiths.

But as our society has learned of far-off philosophical faith-systems like Confucianism and Shintoism it has dawned that a deity is not essential to a religion. There is no God in Buddhism.  That is why, presumably, the Supreme Court justices have now said religion should not be confined to faiths involving a “supreme deity”.

So definitions have cascaded down to sociologists and anthropologists who, over the years have assembled rafts of criteria involving text, tradition, myth, ritual, symbol, gnosis, morality, law, sacred places and scriptures.

But beyond the fact that, as Durkheim noted, religion is always social where spirituality can be solipsistic and individual, all these academics have failed to find a definition that could be universally accepted. Today we have got to the point where individuals can pretty much define it as they want, hence those who declared their religion to be “Jedi Knight” on a recent census form.

In our relativist age, self-definition is considered the ultimate arbiter of truth. Religion is any system of belief or behaviour by which humans give meaning to their lives. The great philosophers of the past, from Aristotle to Kant, would have been unimpressed.

Still it allows everyone their two-penn’orth. It allows Scientologists to claim their beliefs and services have evolved in the four decades since the last legal ruling. And it permits politicians like Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to offer a more venal view. He said: “I am very concerned about this ruling, and its implications for business rates”. If Scientologists are a religion rather than a psycho-cult they will get exmptions from local taxes on their premises.  Once the traditional definitions of religion are loosed there is no knowing where we will end up.

Paul Vallely is the author of Pope Francis – Untying the Knots published by Bloomsbury

from The Independent


2 Responses
  1. December 12, 2013

    One possible conclusion from this is to think twice about any legal or political arrangements in which it matters if something is a religion. I see no more reason to give – say – tax relief to Christian religions than to scientologists; so if you are uncomfortable about arrangements which privilege Scientologists then you now know how many of us feel about the same privileges for Christians. A good solution would be to remove all privileges for all religions: then it won’t matter if scientology is a religion or not.

  2. December 12, 2013

    Fair point, though I would argue that as Christianity is part of the warp and weft of British culture the cases are not quite equivalent. And that is not to take into account the controversial nature of Scientology which has been described by some of those who have left it as a money-making business masquerading as a church.

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