Scientology is not a religion - it is a cult and should be treated as such
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Last weekend the new UK headquarters of the Church of Scientology opened its doors in Moseley, a residential suburb in the south of Birmingham. Ten years since the property was initially acquired for the hefty sum of £4.2 million, the opening ceremony at Pitmaston House (a Grade II-listed building) was met with widespread controversy amongst local residents.
Can we justifiably call Scientology a ‘religion’, as it so claims to be, offering ‘a deeper certain understanding of one’s true spiritual nature and one’s relationship to self’? Or, is it, in fact, a dangerous cult, as the more suspicious amongst us might assert?
Ever since L. Ron Hubbard, former science-fiction writer, and the movement’s founder, outlined the principles of the movement in 1954, Scientology has faced an ongoing battle to be accepted as a mainstream religion.
Its critics often ridicule the church’s belief that 13.5 trillion aliens were banished to Earth by a warlord, under the name of Xenu, over 75 million years ago. The church argues that these aliens’ souls, known as thetans, then latched on to humans, and are the root cause of humanity’s emotional and social problems today. Surely, such a fantasy belongs to the realms of fictional make-believe, not the founding values of an authentic religion?
Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013 that the movement could be classified as a verified religion in the United Kingdom, the following of Scientology is widely regarded by many, even renounced followers, as inherently problematic and potentially dangerous. Throughout the process of the Birmingham opening-ceremony, a number of protesters gathered outside the gates to the property to oppose what Roger Godsiff (Labour MP for the local constituency of Hall Green) has previously called ‘a money-making cult’.
Its detractors have spoken of a widespread abusive culture structured on dubious beliefs, whilst many point out that it operates as more on the level of a for-profit business, rather than as a church should do. Yet true believers and devoted acolytes continue to insist that Scientology is a legitimate religion that assists its followers in finding spiritual fulfillment.
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Scientology’s failure to accept public criticism of its values and beliefs appears to form a common trope throughout the history of the movement. In the past, the church has been forced to defend itself against allegations made by former members that it has held people against their will and forced them to cut ties with family members who opposed their views.
In particular, there is a repeated narrative of the Church intimidating and threatening journalists who have attempted to expose a negative view of their practice. In more recent years, both a BBC Panorama documentary series and Louis Theroux’s ‘My Scientology Movie’ have depicted the crazed nature of the movement, painting the picture of a group of fanatics, who are unable to accept open criticism of their beliefs.
One of the very first journalists to oppose the movement was an American freelance writer named Paulette Cooper in the early 1970s. In retaliation, the Church of Scientology framed her with forged documents, accusing her of sending supposed ‘bomb threats’ to them. So convincing were their claims, that she was charged with the crime in 1973 and only fully exonerated in 1977 when the F.B.I., acting on a tip-off, raided Scientology offices and unearthed the plot against her. So what exactly, we might ask, are Scientologists so reluctant for the world to discover about their movement? Does something more sinister lurk beneath the outer façade?
Regardless of the religious movement that the Scientologists claim their beliefs pertain to, any organisation that follows the command of a single living leader and tries to force, coerce or brainwash people into holding certain views, must surely be classified as a cult. As Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury has stated, “Any group of people can claim to be a religion . . . religion is defined by its relationship to hope and what it says about man’s destiny and the Almighty. Scientology falls into the bracket of being a cult by the secrecy with which it surrounds itself. It is for the enlightened, for special people. It is claiming far more than Christianity claims.”