Saturday, 2 February 2008


The recent focus on the Church of Scientology has got me thinking.

Where has all this vitriol come from? There seems to be a perception that the Church of Scientology is somehow fundamentally (ahem) different from other religions and that unlike, say, Judaism, mocking them incessantly is perfectly acceptable.

I'm not defending Scientology in any way. As you know, dear reader, I'm no fan of any religion. But it seems that Scientologists attract a particularly brutal heaping of bile that mainstream religions do not.

And I genuinely don't understand why this is.

Is it that their beliefs are way out there, and clearly the work of a failed science fiction writer? Give me any one belief of the Church of Scientology and I can name five wackier ones belonging to mainstream faiths.

Is it because they require large cash donations to advance in their organisation? So do a lot of other churches. The only difference is that Scientologists publish their fees.

Is that that their practices result in the breakup of families? This is a regular story from people who've had friends or family members join groups like Hillsong. And I saw of a lot of this myself in my evangelical Christian upbringing.

Is it that they target the vulnerable with their 'stress tests'? Vulnerable people seeking guidance and support are the backbone of mainstream religions, and have been for years.

Is it because they influence politicians and try to enforce their moral code and beliefs on people who don't adhere to their faith? Actually, they don't do that at all. That's Hillsong again.

Is it because it's a 'cult'? I'll leave aside the fact that this word is not well-defined, and simply say that every definition of cult (and there are a lot) that might apply to Scientology, applies just as well to the Catholic Church.

Is it because they use strong-arm intimidation tactics in denouncing any opposition (as seen in the fascinating short documentary Scientology and Me)? This also happens at Hillsong, and similar allegations have been made against members of the Catholic church, particularly in the latter's tactics used to cover up child sex abuse cases.

Now I'm not disputing any of these accusations. I think the Church of Scientology is genuinely scary and weird and probably a cult (whatever that means).

I just don't see how it's that different from mainstream religions.

In fact, I find them significantly less obnoxious than the Westboro Baptists. I'd like to see a lot more column inches dedicated to denouncing them.

So what's actually going on here? Why are Scientologists being singled out as the freaks of the religious community?

Am I missing something?


Ty said...

Nice piece Matt. I liked it alot.

Spoon said...

I think you hit it on the head with the first point, which you then dismissed (as you did with all of them) by saying "well that's the same of any religion". But no. No other religion is based on the work of a failed Sci Fi writer. And there are so many obvious elements of that particular brand of unimaginative Sci Fi of its time in the religion that, coupled with its relative newness, it is almost impossible to take seriously.
Spaceships that are described to look like DC10s. Alien overlords, atomic bombs. It's just so Twilight Zone. It's not just sci fi, it's on the cutting room floor of X Minus One.

Coupled with the fact that they claim this to be science (at least many religions don't bother with this one and simply deny science and go with faith), and I would suggest there is more scientific evidence supporting creationism than there is supporting Xenu.

What you've done here is simply set up various straw men which you have shown you can knock down as easily as you can knock down Scientology. But they don't have substance, and they don't represent the religions in their entirety. Sure this is a blog and not a theological thesis, but still.

I'm not saying Scientology deserves more scepticism than any other religion (because I agree that scepticism is important for any religion), but I am saying it deserves more incredulity.

And as to why it gets more press? Well you know the answer to that.
No other religion has Tommy Teeth. OR Vinnie BArbarino. And let's face it. If it didn't it would not be in the press as much, and I dare say wouldn't be as popular.

Matt said...

You're absolutely right that the tenets of Scientological faith are clearly ludicrous.

But why are scriptures written by a failed science fiction writer worse than, say, scriptures written by people who weren't there, that have been revised numerous time over the centuries by vested political interests, and claim that a 2,000-year old Jewish carpenter cum moral philosopher is still conscious and will answer prayers?

Or why are they worse that the work of a conman who claimed to see the scriptures in his magic hat (Mormonism)?

Or scriptures that were relevant 6,000 years ago for a nomadic people living in the desert, but bear little relevance to the 21st century (Judaism)?

All religious beliefs can be dismissed as ludicrous if you scratch the surface (and please note I'm making a clear distinction here between religious beliefs and their moral teachings) and you're right . . . for Scientology you don't have to scratch very deep.

As for scientific claims, this is a 20th century phenomenon that's definitely not unique to Scientology.
I've sat through sermons claiming there are numeric codes running through the Bible that prove its divine inspiration.
A few years ago Christians in the US were trying to pass Creationism off as a scientific theory called Intelligent Design.
And this website is an absolute corker.

I know the claims in the post don't represent any of the religions mentioned in their entirety. But they don't represent Scientology in its entirety either. I'm just identifying the aspects that are used to mock Scientology. And pointing out that they're not that far removed from religions that run our schools, lobby our Governments, push their own agendas, and get millions of our tax dollars to do so.

Ty said...

The difference is that the Bible was written by a team of fantasy writers...

Spoon said...

I guess one of the differences is that we weren't there to refute these claims. The complete newness of Scientology, combined with the communications boom of the 20th century makes it almost impossible to actually believe that what this guy said was true and that the fantastical things they claim are true. While you might consider the claims of Christianity and Judaism as equally outlandish, they happened so long ago, and in a world so vastly different from ours that we don't know for sure that it couldn't have happened. There could have been a guy who was a carpenter and who performed miracles. It's possible. We don't know.

One of the biggest claims against Scientology in my mind (and which I brought up in my previous comment) is that it uses strong and even now dated, pop culture references all throughout its mythology. (How could something so 50s have happened millions of years ago? It defies serious consideration)

Now the bible most likely does the same, but it's harder for us to recognise that as hokey on the same level, because it's not OUR pop culture. There may be things in the New Testament that 1st century people would look at and laugh in the same way that we do at the DC10s. But then again, maybe there aren't. It's not as easy for someone who lives in the 20th century to immediately dismiss the claims of Christianity as it is for them to dismiss those of Scientology.

But if Christianity as it is believed today tried to get off the ground in the 20th century, it would need to do a lot more than Scientology has done to be taken seriously. People these days tend to need one of 2 things to believe something: proof or tradition. Christianity offers one of these, Scientology offers neither.

And for what it's worth I wouldn't say that religions run our schools, either. The private ones perhaps, but not from my experience (both as a student and a parent), the Government ones. Christianity is certainly present, but avoidable.

Matt said...

On the schools thing, I was just thinking of private schools. Such schools do get a huge amount of government funding.

And I think you've answered my question. The big difference is recency.

It's more obvious to the man-on-the-street that Scientology is hokey, because the content is recent and recognisable.

Christianity and Islam and Judaism are older, have centuries of detailed tradition, and are based in cultures foreign from our own (both geographically and temporally). So it takes a bit of study and thought to debunk them (if that's the right word).

And if you do so, you run the risk of offending someone's Grandma, and this tends to put people off doing it too vocally. But Scientology presents no such dilemma.

Yet, anyway.

I wonder what perceptions of Scientology will be in 100 years' time?

Spoon said...

I managed to insult a religious philosophy lecturer (who was himself a Christian) by suggesting that when it started, Christianity would have been seen as a cult in the same way the Branch Davidian was at the time, and that Jesus may have been seen in the same way that David Koresh was. (The whole Texan thing had only just gone down at the time.) Like I say, he wasn't impressed, but couldn't exactly tell me why I was wrong other than saying "but Christianity has been around for so long, and this is so obviously made up." I said "time will tell" and he got grumpy at me.

But the point I was making in my previous comment was not just that the reason it is not taken seriously is because of its recency, but also because of the pop culture in it. Scientology is silly. Not just in its beliefs (because as you say, they are (or at least can be viewed as) really no more silly than Christianity) but more importantly in its imagery and mythology. Knowing what we know about L. Ron, and knowing what we know about the era it is obvious to us that it is just made up.

The point I was making is that we don't really know the pop culture of the time of Jesus (even with digging, and James Cameron bulldozing Nazareth), and we don't know anything about the authors of the stories, so we don't know if it has that same ludicrousness. It's possible that it doesn, but I think the very fact that is HAS survived beyond that era suggests that it was at least believable at the time. Scientology doesn't even have that.

One thing we haven't talked about, and it is probably the most important distinction between any religion, especially when you consider your past posts, is the morality. It's all very well to talk about aliens and carpenters but these details should step aside to the teachings that come from the beliefs, and the conduct in which these people live their lives.

Scientologists are, in their own way, reasonably quiet about their faith. Any details that people know have been fairly strongly forced out of them, and this is more because of the celebrity element than anything else. Also most of those details are about the mythology more than the morality.

But is the morality a question of ridicule?

What if we took the word religion out of there. What if people ignored the Thetans and Xenu and considered Scientology as a self help program? How would people react to it then?

Also, I just thought:
It would be interesting to see what someone who was actually good at making up worlds and mythology, like Tolkien, could have done had he decided to call the Middle Earth mythology an actual religion.

Matt said...

Time will tell, as you say.

And that's an interesting point about morality v. beliefs, too.

It seems that if people think highly enough of the morality side of a faith, they'll put up with a lot of irrationality on the belief side. Remember that South Park episode about Mormonism? That was pretty much the entire point.

This is actually a big problem when questioning anyone about their faith. When questioning religion, atheists like me are solely concerned with debunking the beliefs. But when defending their faith, adherents stick to arguments about the value of their faith's morality . . . good works inspired by its teachings etc.

Never the twain shall meet and the shouting just gets louder and louder.

I think there's another blog in this.

Spoon said...

oh, and just because you can never go wrong with a father Ted quote:

Father Dougal: I've heard about these cults, Ted. Men in black going around telling people how our Lord's coming back to judge us.

Father Ted: No Dougal, that's us - Catholicism.

Father Dougal: Oh Right.

paul said...

The fires of gehenna await all you.

No, seriously.

You should be scared.

Be scared

Oh go on.

Sam Sejavka said...

As a long term scientology watcher [and ex-member, though only for a couple of months when I was a teenager] I would like to concur with your instincts that the Org is not dissimilar from other ravening religoid charlatans.

It's just a matter of degree. And of holding the world championship for vexatious litigation. And of believing that we are inhabited by refugee thetans from a galactic warlord's torment of the galaxy. [That would be the much afeared 'Xenu'.]

Notice the pseudo-cross they use as their symbol? That's wholly to do with tax-evasion, nothing to do with Christ.

C of S is a really good example of how the mental illness of a megalogomanic can be tranferred to an institution.

More info? Read 'The Bare Faced Messiah', particularly the bit about Hubbard's mini-skirted Messengers aboard ship as he scours the Mediterranean in search of treasures he secreted in past lives.