Tuesday, November 03, 2009

I'm All for Secularism, but Jesus, France!

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.


Chris said...

You're absolutely right that it's a dicey area -- for the government to try to distinguish between a deliberate fraud and a well-meaning religious organization raising money to fund its operations. Ideally, people would be prudent enough to judge for themselves whether a group really deserves their donations and is likely to spend them productively. Unfortunately, people are not that smart. And, as you suggested, you've got the extreme case of televangelists, including some who will make the claim that if you send them your paycheck then God will reward you and repay you tenfold.

Our country (as well as others like us) has become so litigious and reliant on the government to settle every disagreement, I'm sort of surprise we haven't begun to see a wave of lawsuits against churches, pastors, etc. by people claiming that the good things the church promised them have not happened. Which reminds me of this lawsuit last summer: http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2008-07-09-gay-bible_N.htm

Julie said...

It is true that France is extremely protective when it comes to their culture. Radio stations have to keep airplay of foreign songs below mandated percentages and I've heard stories of citizens needing government permission to name a child by a non-traditional name. It makes sense that they'd carry it over to religion.

I do know that they cracked down on Muslims because there was an influx into the nation of young Muslim men that sparked widespread riots - mostly over unemployment. I have no insight into the Scientology stuff.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
courtney said...

I agree with you and with what Chris and Julie said. I'm uncomfortable with government involvement in religion, but it's a fine line between small religions and cults. I think Scientology is kind of funny too, but only because I didn't grow up with it. A lot of the things they teach in my church don't make sense either. It's not about logic.

This reminds me of the U.S. government's fight with the polygamists of the FLDS church. That's one case where I'm okay with the government stepping in, because it's not really about polygamy, it's about child abuse. If the FLDS were all consenting adults marrying, then I doubt it would be much of an issue. But they marry off young girls to old men, so now you have rape to think about. Even though polygamy is part of the FLDS's belief system, I'm okay with the government making it illegal.

I honestly don't see how Scientology is that big a threat, though. If someone is scared into giving lots of money to their church, I think that's their problem and they'll have to deal with the consequences. Besides, when it comes to religion, people are going to do what they want regardless of the law.

Sid said...

Must say I really enjoyed reading everyone's point of you. I'm not quite sure where I stand on the whole Scientology fraud issue. Mostly because I scoff at the very idea of Scientology as a religion. But then again how much different is it from all the other "fables" I've read in the Bible/Quran. They all seem really laughable.

Also I agree wholeheartedly with Courtney.

Jacob said...

Courtney: Good comment. I disagree that there is any difference between a cult and a religion. The cult is usually a "bad" religion, but that definition depends on who you're talking to. Where I live, it's pretty common to hear that Catholocism is a cult and the speaker is sincere and really thinks equating Catholocism with Satanism and Jim Jones' group is reasonable.

I think the thing a just society does is basically ignore whether the group is a religion, gang or whatever and just require them to follow the same laws everyone else does. Banning the group is kind of pointless. Fraud is going to be impossible to establish in a religious context, but child abuse, murder, and other crimes can be. I agree with you on the FLDS, but the US handled it the way that it should have been handled (more or less). The crime wasn't the religion, it was the child molestation and statutory rape. The people involved were charged with the crime they committed. As far as I know, there's nothing illegal about being a member of the FLDS as long as you aren't breaking any criminal laws. You technically don't have to rape 12-year-olds to be a part of that religion.

Honestly, I'd have a little trouble supporting prosecuting a polygamist who was doing so on religious grounds if those involved were all consenting adults because I don't think anyone would be hurt in that situation. Honestly, I'm a little surprised with the Muslims in the US that this hasn't been a problem, although I think Islam only allows polygamy and doesn't almost require it like the FLDS.

I'm pretty sure we would agree a religion requiring human sacrifice would require murder charges against those involved in the sacrifices.

Rassles said...

I disagree on one small, tiny little part - a cult is devotion to a leader or an idea, while a religion has a planned doctrine, and involves practicing a system of beliefs.

But I think this case is crap. If scientologists truly believe in their own cosmological origin story and concept of soul, and are willing to dish out obscene amounts of money to clear their emotional business, fuck 'em. They deserve to lose it. Oh, and blah blah separation between church and state and all that business - agreed.

Jacob said...

Rassles: Yeah, but the mainstream religions also have that. Christianity has the cult of personality based on Jesus. Islam has Mohammed. Buddhism has the Buddha, who was a real person.

A Free Man said...

I understand, and actually approve of, what they are trying to do. But they're using a bulldozer where they should be using needle nose pliers. Just comes off ham handed and ugly.