France recently convicted the leaders of Scientology in the country of fraud. Now, I'm for criticizing and mocking the Church of Scientology as much as the next guy, but for some reason I get a bit squeamish when a government takes legal action against them. I believe in separation of church and state and I think that the government should be indifferent toward organized religion. Basically, the state shouldn't care if religion exists or not. This may sound like a very anti-religion opinion, but in fact, I believe governmental indifference is actually good for religion, at least if you're not the dominant religion in the country. Once a government takes interest in religion, they start to take sides on the issue and the result is either governmental control or influence on religion or an infiltration of government by the dominant religion at the expense of minority believers.
Of course I understand that Scientology is a unique case. A lot of what it does makes it come across as a bunch of sleazy snake oil salesmen looking to make their company billions of dollars rather than the supposed goals of "real" religions in fostering world peace, entrance into the good afterlife, and personal improvement. The problem here is that Scientology is really only an extreme version of many traditional religions. They encourage members to give as much money as possible to the church with either the implied or explicit message that doing so will help one's chances at happiness now or after death. They use outlandish stories* to scare or amaze their members enough to keep them in the fold. Now, I'm not accusing the corner Baptist church of taking advantage of its members in a cynical scheme for profit (although I will accuse the average televangelist of that). I honestly believe the people running most churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are sincere in their belief that what they're doing is right. Still, to an outside observer, an unbeliever, how different is the taking of offerings and the verses about tithing in the Bible all that different from what the Church of Scientology does? The level of pressure and amounts of money changing hands differ, but that's a matter of scale, not substance.
Basically, what I'm saying is that if we allow them to go after Scientology, what's to stop them in the future for going after smaller, but more mainstream denominations? No religious leader can prove for a fact that what he preaches is real. The law isn't supposed to work on faith. Of course, I understand that if we allow too much religious freedom that we end up giving cover to criminals to operate in the open without any way for us to stop them. That's why I'm ambivalent about this more than angry.
Also, I think in France's case the attacks on religious clothing (something that usually affects Muslims more than anyone else) and the governmental agency that fights cults have more to do with protecting traditional French culture that it does with protecting a secular government. After all, what is a cult except a small religion? There is no real way to define it, and France doesn't currently even try. Instead, they define the actions that can lead a religious organization into getting in trouble.
In other words, France, you need to stop worrying about what your citizens believe and worry more about the fact that they're putting a McDonald's in the Louvre.
* I'll admit that the stories of Christianity don't sound that weird to me, but then I grew up in that religion in a culture where it was dominant. Still, even I have to admit there's a lot of stuff there that wouldn't make a lick of sense if I were to read them through only the lens of my personal experience with the world. I'm using this as an example of why it's hard to legally distinguish between religions and not as a critique of any religion or its believers.