After reading my post on Scientology, a man wrote me to express his opinion that Scientology “has very little to do with religion.” What, I thought to myself, disqualifies a proclaimed religion from being widely accepted as one?
In the case of Scientology, the means, or “audit,” is bascially psychological in nature. The practice consists of two people sitting down together. One questions the other using a sequence of questions geared to helping the other one to be free of his or her frightful memories. Once freed from one’s fears from past tramas, one can partake in an experience that can be said to transcend the realm of our ordinary experience. I am not myself a Scientologist, and it has been some years since I read its rather thick book. In very general terms, my sense is that the means of Scientology can be considered as a form of counseling, while the goal can be labeled religious (although I could be wrong on the latter).
Perhaps we can generalize to say that something is a religion if either its means or ends involve the practioner ideally transcending “the world.” Ideally, religion involves transcending the limits of human cognition and perception to an experience geared to the “wholly other,” or “beyond.” In another post, I argue that it is a mistake to presume we know very much of that which by definition is beyond our limits, and therefore our ken. I argue that it is the transcending itself (oriented to going beyond what we can know and experience) that is the focus that facilitates the religious experience.
I submit that the question “is X a religion” can be approached in terms of whether it involves a salient transcendent aspect. Of course, the question of salience points to the subjective element in answering the broader question. Furthermore, the tendency of bias is apt to distort a person’s answer. One might presume an answer without sufficiently studying the candidate. The vested interests of the leaders of one’s own religion might unduly sway one into a precipitate or premature conclusion. Prejudice against new movements can also act as a distorting filter.
In more general terms, the decision of whether something is a religion can be influenced by the mistaken belief that the very act of delimiting religion is not politically correct, and therefore “anything goes.” At the same time, the decision can also reflect the assumption that one’s own religion is the only true religion. Both of these assumptions are dogmatic, or artificial. Their co-existence in one society demonstrates how difficult it can be for a consensus regarding a candidate to emerge.