Religion. How do you know when you’ve got it?

This is what the Supreme Court have been discussing (reported in the Guardian here), with reference to whether a Scientology church should be approved for religious marriage ceremonies.

The question is, is Scientology a religion or not?

We don’t know what the five judges (Lord Neuberger, Lord Clarke, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed and Lord Toulson) think yet, because they have reserved judgement. However, this is my take on the subject. I wonder if their lordships will agree with me? (Or, with slightly less hubris, if I will find that I have agreed with them.)

Firstly, a religion is a system of belief. If it was a system of fact, then it would be science. This is important, and it also includes atheism. Just as ‘proofs’ of the existence of God (or gods) cannot stand up to formal logical refutations, neither can the reverse: as stated by Terry Pratchett (in Feet of Clay) “atheism is also a religious position.”

Secondly, religion is a system set up to deal with the intangible, but important, questions of life, such as “where did we come from?”, “where do we go?” and “why are we here?” and “while we are here, what should we do?” These are questions that cannot be answered by reference to evidence, because there is none. Even the existence of evolution does not disprove the existence of a god, because how do you know that’s not how he did it? Even if the answers are, as with Humanism, “there is no soul”, “we didn’t come from anywhere”, “we cease to exist when we die” and “during life, we should do our best to treat our fellow humans, animals, and the environment well”, these are still answers to the ultimate questions. Humanism is the most tentative inclusion in the ‘religion’ group because a person can have humanist beliefs without identifying themselves with Humanists as a group. But Humanism does tick all the boxes – so people self-identifying with the organised Humanist movement should count as practitioners of the Humanist religion.

Thirdly, its practitioners should genuinely believe in its teachings. This differentiates ‘true’ religion from cynical attempts to circumvent laws by invoking religious freedom (like the Neo-American Church regarding which a judge decided that “one gains the inescapable impression that the membership is mocking established institutions, playing with words and totally irreverent in any sense of the term”) or satirical social protests against religious intolerance (like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster).

So, Scientology? Is it a religion or not?

Well, they have a theory on how the universe came to be, and they have views on what is essentially the soul (thetans). They have a philosophy for life, and they believe that thetans are reborn over and over again into different bodies (reincarnation – corporeal life after death). And its adherents certainly seem to take it seriously as a religion.

So, yes. Scientology is a religion.

However strange a religion’s answers to the ultimate questions appear, we cannot use that as a means of deciding whether something is a religion or not. After all, every religion’s beliefs seem at the very least mistaken, and at worst wrong to the point of obscenity to non-believers. We must stick to the bare bones: is it a belief (rather than a fact) and does it deal with the ultimate questions?

If our objection to classifying Scientology as a religion is that we do not approve of what it teaches, or of its practices – either towards its own members or towards outsiders – then we need to say that for recognition by the state, a religion must not just exist (and be a real religion), but its aims, objectives and conduct must be such as can be respected in a democratic state.

Trying to argue that a belief system is not a religion simply because we don’t approve of it is only going to cause trouble later on, because if I can detect the logical difficulties in this kind of argument, it’s a safe bet that they won’t escape the kind of lawyers who will be fighting the case.


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