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Delimiting Religion

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.

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The Church of Scientology has been convicted of fraud and fined nearly $900,000 in Europe.  According to the NYT, “the case was brought by two former members who said they were pushed into paying large sums of money in the 1990s, pressed to sign up for expensive “purification courses” and harassed to buy a variety of vitamins and other forms of pharmaceuticals, plus electronic tests to measure spiritual progress. One woman said she had been pressed into spending more than $30,000.”  Meanwhile, in Florida, “the longtime head of Scientology, David Miscavige,” has been investigated for ruling “the church through a ‘culture of intimidation and violence,’ including physical assaults on his aides.” 

These cases raise or demonstrate two lapses to which religion has been susceptable.  In particular, there has been a tendency to blur the line between marketing and the profit-motive and proffering an alternative vision to the world in which we live.   The source of this temptation could be the typical presumption that religion is an institutional phenomenon.  Worship is assumed to be corporate, or communal, and some sort of organization of offices or titles typically ensues.   Such artifacts are all too human, and, I submit, unnecessary and even counter-productive to the achievement of religious experience. 

The second, related, issue is the tendency to vaunt religious functionaries.  This proclivity provides those persons with the temptation to infringe on other people’s personal boundaries.   Behind the excessive praise is the tacit assumption that people differ significantly in a religious sense with respect to God.  That is, coming to view one person as a savior of sorts assumes that he or she has a stronger religiosity such that following him or her could lead one to God.   This assumption runs up against another view–namely, that as human beings, we are all in the same boat as finite beings.  In this alternative view, no one (or several) of us has a monopoly on religious truth.  For one person to seek to authoritatively announce religious truth to another is dogmatic (as well as highly presumptuous).    In other words, among human beings, we can only differentiate ourselves so much with respect to any “inside track” to God.  We all see dimly, with different shades being a far cry from any black and white distinction.   In other words, the distance between Ghandi and a sociopath is dwarfed by the abyss between humanity and God.   Nothing against Ghandi; I’m simply stating that it might be wise to put our hero-worship in some kind of broader, more encompassing, perspective.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/28/world/europe/28france.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=scientology&st=cse

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