Wednesday, September 29, 2010

If Religion is the opium of the masses, cults like Scientology are the crack cocaine of the few

Panorama did a piece on Scientology last night.
This was John Sweeney's second pop at the Church of Scientology, and a lot of time was devoted to how he was followed and caused to explode into anger in the first take. This time he was assisted by a couple of high-level defectors from the Church, which was interesting.

It was slow, and tweeps complained about the dramatic music, but as it unfolded, it became clear from the starey eyes, the unshakeable conviction, the weird beliefs about the alien Lord Xenu imprisoned on earth and the Men in Black heavies that Scientology is indeed a cult.

This is important, because Scientology is trying to establish itself as a bona-fide religion, with resultant tax benefits &c. However, it is not easy to disentangle a cult from a religion, despite the obvious qualitative fact that if religion is the opium of the masses, cults are the crack cocaine of the few.

A continuum exists with benign, life- and society enhancing spirituality at one end, passing through common or garden religion, and malign cultism at the other end.

Arguably, most religions begin life as a cult, with an intensely charismatic leader preaching life enhancing rules to his (it is mostly his) followers, with tempting rewards for the faithful. The initial cult may turn in on itself, often with unpleasant consequences (remember the Jonestown tragedy where 909 members of the Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones, died in 1978). Or it may turn outwards, and become a religion which may serve a purpose in social cohesion, though at the cost of predisposing the society towards conflict with other religions. Some religious groups (e.g. Quakers, Sufis) try to rid themselves of this dangerous exclusivism, and cults may exist within established religions - Exclusive Brethren within Christianity, Wahabism (Bin Laden's group) in Islam, and the ultra-orthodox within Judaism who are driving the settlements.

It is important for the distinction between a cult and an acceptable religion to be recognised in law.
The features of a cult are: 
  • Charismatic, omnipotent leader
  • exclusivity, in that only cult members are to be saved
  • detailed control of adherents' behaviour and minds
  • The capacity to split families, so that adherents are required not to communicate with non-adherent family members
  • That the cult has a special destiny 
    Clearly, there is an overlap between religion and cults, (neatly expressed on Twitter by @thewritertype as "Just because #scientology is weird, crazy and delusional, that doesn't make it a real religion". It is up to the courts to make a judgment in each case, as they come up, in matters of planning permission and charitable status. And maybe there is a case for Parliament to draw up a framework for the courts to work with.

    The key criterion should be "Is there a risk to others' health and well-being from the cult?" This is still a tricky decision, since there is a blurred margin between the valid choice of an individual to join a group, and what happens to the mind of that person as a result of brainwashing within the cult.  Legal protection should perhaps focus on what happens to individuals who wish to withdraw from the cult.

1 comment:

GE said...

"Just because scientology is weird, crazy and delusional, that doesn't make it a real religion"

Love it.

Religion: it makes you thick