Don’t Scientologists Have Rights?

Forgive me, enlightened readers, for defending Scientology for a moment. Of course, I am not a scientologist myself, and I find many of their teachings and methods as strange as the next man, but I can’t help but believe that they are not given a fair shake in the general public, including the media. A Washington Post article today quotes Michael Shermer, in an LA Times piece, in which he said:

“I’m a scientist who studies belief systems for a living, so take it from me: Scientology is unlike any other religion in history. Although the Church of Scientology is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt religion (despite years of litigation by the IRS to collect taxes on its income), no other religion I know of considers theological doctrines and core religious tenets to be intellectual property accessible only for a fee.”

As the Post article rightly points out, the Scientology clan doesn’t have a corner on the practice of making money on religion (just cruise by the home of any pastor of an evangelical megachurch in your neighborhood and you’ll be quickly disabused of the notion that Scientology alone is a profitable business). So how exactly does their focus on being profitable set Scientology apart from other major religions operating today? Scientologists, just as Evangelical Christians, would tell you that “saving souls” is their first priority, but why must that rule out making money?
Shermer seems to suggest that the reason this practice is unacceptable in the case of Scientology is that “most of us do not consider Scientology a religion, at least not a religion that resembles in the slightest the world’s major faiths.” But this seems like a sorry reason to me. Since when is it is a necessity that any religion, in order to qualify as a religion, must resemble “the world’s major faiths?” Imagine that Hinduism were formed today, instead of thousands of years ago. If this were the case, it would certainly not resemble the established religions in many ways. Would we therefore be justified in withholding the title of “religion” from Hinduism?

Indeed, it seems trivially true that any truly new religion will differ greatly from other established religions–otherwise it would not be a new religion, but a variant of an already existing religion. Scientology, even with its focus on making a profit, seems to me to qualify as a religion. We, in the United States, have decided that religious organizations qualify for tax-exempt status. If we are going to be consistent with this, we ought to accept that Scientology qualifies. If, however, we are wary of granting this status to Scientology, perhaps we ought to rethink the practice in general. Perhaps the evangelical megachurches should not be tax-exempt.

I suspect that what is behind much of the mud being slung at Scientology is simply the resistance many of us feel toward new religions in general. We tend to think of religions which are not old and revered traditions as somehow fake or insincere. I’m not sure why this is the case, considering that every religion was once “new”. And as much as I heap scorn upon new religions here (see my post on Falun Gong, for example, which I particularly dislike), as a good libertarian (at least concerning social issues) I can’t help but feel that we should give Scientologists a break. Plus–isn’t free enterprise the American ideal? They’re selling a product and people are buying it!

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