Scientology is in the mainstream news again with the announcement that a woman who wants to marry in a Scientology chapel has won a Supreme Court battle to have it recognized as a ‘place of meeting for religious worship’. Five judges have over-ruled a 1970 ruling that prioritized veneration of a God in deciding what was genuine religious worship or not.
Good news for Miss Louisa Hodkin who gets to go through her choice of ritual in her choice of location.
But what does this really mean for Scientology? Is it really a religion now?
This is a subject I’ve been considering in a paper that I am hoping to submit in the new year to a journal – it considers Jediism and the question of what is ‘really real’ religion and where we get our ideas about ‘realness’ from.
In the case of Scientology this Supreme Court ruling means that lots of people are discussing the case online and declaring that the “UK recognizes Scientology as religion” (tweet at 10.33am, 12.12.2013) or that they are “Pleased UK has recognized scientology as a religion. Believing aliens infest us more rational than believing God impregnated a woman …” (tweet at 10.30am, 12.12.2013).
Well… this is not exactly what has happened. There is no legislative process in the UK for recognizing a religion as ‘really real’. Attempts at forming laws around definitions of ‘real religion’ have always floundered. Take, for example, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act which came partially into force in 2007 after several years of drafting and redrafting. In one round of amendments Scientology, Satanists and Jedi Knights were suggested as groups that should be excluded from the rights and protections of the Bill. The proposer of this amendment suggested he had written it in just for effect, a tongue in cheek way of drawing attention to the issue of the increasing popularity of NRMs and the issues that they raise. But some of the readers of the Bill took this amendment very seriously:
My hon. Friend is being rather modest when he says that he tabled the amendments in a tongue-in-cheek way. Does he not agree that they go to the heart of the matter? The fact that the Government have not stated what a religion is will cause huge problems with the Bill. Disreputable groups will undoubtedly hide under the protection that comes with being classed as a religion and will potentially not be able to be criticised for their abhorrent views. Does my hon. Friend not agree that the definition of what is and is not a religion goes to the heart of the Bill? (Standing Committee E, 2005)
But even if the definition of what is and what is not a religion does in fact go to the heart of the Bill, this committee and others that followed could not work out a definition that worked. Concensus was not possible. The Supreme Court’s ruling that religion does not necessarily need a Supreme Authority or god to be considered a ‘really real’ religion has likewise received criticism from more monotheistic, or theistically inclined religious groups and scholars, and those who see the more open definition of religion as an open-door to humanist or political groups to claim the same benefits as religious organisations.
Which brings me to the real crux of the matter. When there’s conflict, ask yourself, where is the money? Or, perhaps, who wants the money?
Scientologist Tom Cruise wants to know where it is!
In the BBC’s reporting of the story there is a quote from Local Government Minister, Brandon Lewis, who ‘said he was “very concerned” about the ruling and its implications for business rates.’ Religions, both here in the UK, and notably in the USA, qualify for certain exemptions, but only if they are formally recognized as religions by the Inland Revenue Services. Scientology was involved in a twenty six year court battle with the USA’s IRS over their legal status and settled in 1993, paying them only $12.5 million, when their actually debt would have been many times higher. If Scientology is accepted by the legislature as a ‘really real’ religion in the UK then monies that would normally go to the State would remain with the Church.
Will this happen? Well, I propose that although a functional, but certainly ugly, definition could be drawn up for ultimately determining ‘really real’ religion, one that twists itself into a spaghetti hoop trying to cover all the variations and diversity of NRMs, it is actually already irrelevant. Instead, what makes a religion ‘really real’ is a snowballing of legitimacy. Admittedly a proportion of legitimacy IS gained through legal, tax and State procedures such as this recent ruling, but also, and more importantly, the ongoing conversation about the NRM that takes place between people provides legitimacy for Scientology’s place at the discussion table. This is a conversation that occurs more and more online.
Even if this ruling had gone against Miss Hodkin, and she did not have the wedding she hoped for, Scientology would be no less ‘real’ for her. Or for any of the other members of the Church. It is all too easy to point out L. Ron. Hubbard as the stereotypical charismatic leader and quote him saying things like: “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion”. But the fact of the matter is, once you get past the issue of origins, NRMs have a life of their own, one that inter-plays with contemporary discussions about religion, but a life that also exists outside of that discussion, while also being legitimated by being a part of the discussion. Fears about “Disreputable Groups” using the law to their advantage miss the point that the law is already being influenced by the policy makers who are in turn influenced by this conversation. The fact that Jedi Knights made it into the amendment (and Scientology etc) means that there is a thing called Jediism that needs to be taken seriously… and they know it exists because of this discussion about what religion is.