The political science of Scientology
Setting aside the context of his demand for the abolition of the Act of Settlement, or his apparent bigotry, or indeed any legitimate Protestant challenge to Mr Gummer’s assertion that Roman Catholicism is somehow ‘religiously correct’ (whatever he means by this), there is an inference that Scientology is somehow pseudo-religious, quasi-spiritual, and to be dismissed as a weird cult.
The editor of the BBC's Panorama programme might agree. Reporter John Sweeney exploded during the filming of a documentary into this ‘religion’, losing his temper with one of its leaders. According to The Guardian, the Church of Scientology is now considering legal action and a formal complaint to the media regulator Ofcom. They profess to be a church of social action, involved in the rehabilitation of criminals, drug addiction, drug prevention and human rights. They seek a civilisation without war, without criminality and without insanity, where honest people have rights. Any notion of cultic brainwashing tendencies is naturally offensive to them.
Critics accuse the organisation of cult-type practices and exploiting followers for financial gain. It is opposed to democracy, and presupposes a very black and white image of the world, comprising those who are friends and those who are foes. This has led to the perception that ‘Scientology uses totalitarian ways of handling problems and even people’. In Germany in particular the Church of Scientology has been under surveillance for years, with accusations that it is ‘involved in activities directed against the free democratic order’ and the country's constitution. They further assert that ‘Scientology is a totalitarian commercial cult. It is dangerous because Scientologists are against freedom of religion and freedom of opinion’.
Cranmer would like to point out that Scientology is not a religio/cultic-political construct unique in this respect.
The BBC asserts that Scientology is an ‘extraordinary organisation’ which has ‘no way of dealing with any kind of criticism at all’. A Scientology spokesman told the BBC that he had ‘no right whatsoever to say what is and what isn't a religion; the definition of religion is very clear and it's not defined by John Sweeney’.
In actual fact, the definition of a religion is not remotely clear. According to the Charity Commission for England and Wales, ‘Belief in a supreme being remains a necessary characteristic of religion for the purposes of English charity law’, but the term remains undefined as a matter of international law. The absence of a definition is not peculiar to international human rights conventions; most national constitutions also include clauses on freedom of religion without defining ‘religion’. Thus, on the one hand, there are important provisions guaranteeing fundamental rights pertaining to religion, but on the other hand the term itself is left undefined. Of course, the absence of a definition of a critical term does not differentiate religion from most other rights identified in human rights instruments and constitutions. But because religion is much more complex than other guaranteed rights, the difficulty of understanding what is and is not protected is significantly greater.
It would appear therefore that both the BBC and Mr Gummer are free to dismiss Scientology as ‘religiously rubbish’. But Cranmer wants to know by what criteria such an assertion may be made, and why Islam or Hinduism may not all be similarly dismissed; and why BBC reporters do not lose their tempers with imams, or MPs do not deride these faiths for being ‘intellectually difficult’ or ‘religiously rubbish’.