Damian Thompson – The Telegraph
October 18th, 2013
The Church of Scientology is furious. France’s judges have upheld its conviction for “organised fraud”, which includes charging followers thousands of euros for an “electrometer” to measure mental energy. “A heresy trial!” yells the Church, promising to fight this “affront to religious liberty” in the European Court of Human Rights.
I’m trying to think of the last time the Scientologists were this angry. Probably in 2005, when South Park aired an episode in which Stan joins the outfit and learns that 75 million years ago an evil intergalactic emperor called Xenu “rounded up countless aliens from different planets, froze them… and dumped them into the volcanoes of Hawaii”. The wickedly funny animation carried the caption: “This is what Scientologists actually believe.” Which was true.
Scientology became a laughing stock: a cartoon had accomplished more in 25 minutes than anti-cult campaigners had in decades. And now France labels it “organised fraud”. If you were to attach any of the Church’s leaders to an E-meter – an electronic device that checks “spiritual impediments” – I reckon the needle would be flickering wildly.
You’re probably thinking: well, cry me a river. They don’t like it up ’em. It’s hard to feel sorry for followers of L Ron Hubbard, particularly now that any search engine can uncover terrifying allegations against rogue Scientologists.
But – and I’m saying this through gritted teeth – the Church has a point. Not necessarily about this particular French case, but about a general threat to religious liberty in Europe.
The French government regards Scientology as a “cult” rather than a “religion”. That may seem like a statement of the obvious – but as soon as you start to nail down the differences between cults, sects and religions you run into trouble.
The EU says it guarantees religious freedom. But here’s the crucial thing: in some countries that applies only to groups that governments register as a religion. Generally speaking, the further east and south you go, the more arbitrary the cult/sect/religion definition. If you’re a registered Baptist in Russia, then you’re fine; if you’re unregistered, you could be breaking the law by hosting prayers in your house.
I once went to a conference in Saxony at which a government minister lectured us on the difference between real and fake religions. “Lack of sense of humour” was a clue to fakery, he told us – a tricky rule of thumb to employ in Germany, I would have thought.
This isn’t to deny the existence of cults and cult-like behaviour: we’re perfectly entitled to apply the word to religious bullying. But “cult” isn’t a scientific term, any more than “church” is. You can find creepy sectarian movements in suburban parishes, inner-city mosques and internet start-ups. Britain’s most impartial cult-monitoring body, Inform at the LSE, receives troubling inquiries from the families of newly converted Christians.
Inform takes the line that all religious groups need to obey the same laws as civil bodies. That’s a sensible approach, rooted in English and American concepts of freedom.
The danger is that we’re moving towards a European model in which faith needs to be rubber-stamped by civil servants and a “cult” is any religious group the government dislikes.
We may smile at the fury of the Scientologists, in their comic-opera uniforms, at the leaking of the story of Xenu. But it’s worth remembering, next time you visit a country church, that it wouldn’t be there if genuine evil emperors hadn’t failed to crush a supposedly dangerous cult founded by Jesus of Nazareth.