Q: When is a cult not a cult?
In a judgment delivered last week, the Supreme Court held that Scientology, which is a belief system founded in the 1950s by the American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, is a religion. Scientology, it may be remembered, teaches that we are all immortal beings, but that most of us have forgotten our spiritual nature and have to be ‘rehabilitated’ in order to be restored to knowledge and freed from limitation. Materials and counselling to achieve this are provided to members on what’s called a fee-for-service basis. The result, perhaps unsurprisingly given their celebrity membership, is that the ‘Church’ of Scientology has become extremely rich. But it’s also claimed that they brainwash and defraud their members, and harass anyone unwise enough to try and leave, not infrequently resorting to expensive litigation. Up to now in the UK, Scientology has been regarded as a cult, to be approached with extreme caution.
However,the Supreme Court said that in today’s society it would be unacceptable religious discrimination not to call Scientology a religion. Their Lordships added that religion should not be confined only to those that recognise a supreme deity – with the implication that any belief system will now qualify, provided only that it has followers. All of which raises some very interesting questions. First, exactly how do we define ‘religion’? Second, by what authority does the Supreme Court claim to change such understanding in favour of those who try and tell us it is purely a matter of choice? And third, where on earth is all this going to end?
For example, will belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden qualify? Or how about practitioners of black magic? Or can someone take a leaf out of Hubbard’s book and start their own religion, claiming extra-terrestrial contact and guidance from inhabitants of Uranus?
Permutations aside, the definition of this slippery concept is notoriously difficult to pin down. Virtually every culture that has ever existed – maybe even all – has or had some kind of religion. Some are peaceful, some violent, but all alike have to do with the meaning and purpose of life; with intangibles, like good and evil; and, one way or another, all posit a relationship between the manifest and the divine. Most also have at their heart revelation, but some look beyond that to control through performance of ritual, sometimes extending to sacrifice – as seen in the tribal burial rites accorded to Nelson Mandela only this week. But the point is, not all outcomes of these different belief systems are equally good. In fact some are downright evil.
So how can members of the judiciary, who may or may not have some form of belief themselves, objectify beliefs to the point where all are apparently equally acceptable?
Their Lordships should beware. In legitimizing any and all belief in the name of equality, they will let loose the forces of chaos that first appeared in Eden, and that have been fighting for supremacy ever since. Unfashionable though it may seem, this is one particular fence on which it’s impossible to sit. This is not destruction of a barrier between different types of religion, but destruction of the line between religious and non-religious belief.