31 October 2009

On the Eve of All Saints

Oh dear. There was an article by Marina Hyde in yesterday's Guardian -- I know, I'm not quick with this, but I am busy elsewhere -- emblazoned with the heading 'The internet has done for Scientology. Could it rumble the Christians, too?'

The headings's probably the work of a sub-editor of course, as I gather Guardian journalists rarely write their own headings. Ms Hyde's not really talking about Christians in general here, or even using Christianity as catch-all to criticise all religions, though some of the commenters on the article believe this is so; all three of the critical references to other religions in the text are to Catholics in particular. She compares the Pope's response to certain Anglicans as an attempt to lure them into a cultish communion; she cites the rantings of Mel Gibson, who espouses a rather peculiar strain of Catholicism, about the apparently inevitable damnation of Anglican wife; and she imagines a senior cardinal being asked whether he accepts -- albeit in caricatured form -- the most basic teachings of the Catholic faith. Frankly, it looks as though she has an axe to grind against Catholicism in particular, in that peculiarly English way. But I digress.

Predictably, Ms Hyde is picking up on the story of how the French have found the Church of Scientology guilty of serious fraud, and indeed on other recent developments:

'In France, Scientology was found guilty of defrauding its followers after a judge effectively debunked the idea of the church's trusty e-meter, a crude polygraph whose readings are used to encourage Scientologists to purchase everything from books to extreme sauna courses. In Los Angeles, the Oscar-winning (even if it was only for the abysmal Crash) director Paul Haggis cut his ties with Scientology in protest at what he branded their tolerance of homophobia, adding for good measure that the church's claim that they do not tell people to "disconnect" from unsupportive family members was untrue – his own wife had been ordered to do so. Meanwhile, Scientology's chief spokesman Tommy Davis stormed out of a television interview with Martin Bashir, after the latter pressed him on what we might delicately term "certain articles of faith". The alien stuff, basically.'

Hyde's general argument is that all this has happened because of the internet, that the internet has proven a threat to Scientology that L. Ron Hubbard never imagined facing. Structurally, Scientology is a mystery religion -- like the Greeks had at Eleusis, say, or the Gnostics who played with the Christian template in the centuries when the early Church was fighting to survive. It claims secret knowledge, and for a price you can be initiated into that knowledge, being purified in the process; the more you pay, the more you learn, and the purer you get. The thing is, thanks to the internet, huge amounts of the Scientologists' secret knowledge is in the public domain, and -- as South Park caricatured it in 'Trapped in the Closet'- it's not really very likely. Alien warlords? Spaceships like DC-8 airliners? Intergalatic genocide? Hydrogen bombs? Volcanoes? In fact, it's just the kind of scenario that a hohum pulp sci-fi writer from the middle of the last century might have been inclined to make up.

That's bad enough, but then there's all the whistleblower stuff, and most recently the thing with Paul Haggis, and then the rampant loopiness of what Tom Cruise said about Scientology last year, when I particularly loved how he was introduced:

'There is a worldwide arena where the game is played for the fate of whole populations . . . where one side schedules entire generations for psychiatric drugging, and marks five million more for lethal toxic exposure . . . Also on the board, scores of nations where no workable technology will even be permitted . . . and plans in play to keep people so restimulated they can barely envision a future, much less consider the eternal scope of Scientology.But there's someone on the other side of that global arena . . . Someone advancing Scientology on a fully epic scale to a very different future . . . And he is Class 4 OT7 Platinum Meritorious and IAS Freedom Medal of Valor Winner . . . Tom Cruise!'

And, then for me there's the jewel in the crown, which is that it's very easy to find solidly researched biographies of L. Ron Hubbard online, which depict him, frankly, as a fraudster, as someone who made this all up with the aim of making money.

That's the key point, really, and that, I think, is where Ms Hyde's article falls down. She goes on:

'Yet there is the rub. In France, Scientology is deemed a sect as opposed to a religion, which is why they are required to produce evidence for their claims, where recognised religious leaders are not. For those of us who believe that all religions are full of tall tales, this might seem slightly unfair [...] Clearly, Scientologists should be forced to justify their doctrinal lunacies – the only sadness is that other religions are apparently exempt from having to do the same. Imagine for a moment a Bashir-type interviewing some senior cardinal. "So," he might inquire, "you're saying that by some magic the communion wafer actually becomes the flesh of a man who died 2,000 years ago, a man who – and I don't want to put words into your mouth here – we might categorise as an imaginary friend who can hear the things you're thinking in your head? And when you've done that, do you mind going over the birth control stuff?"'

I know, this is silly: the Scientologists are being asked about their beliefs because they 're a mystery religion that in return for payment will reveal secret knowledge; Christians wouldn't need to be grilled in quite this way, as Christian teaching is freely accessible to everyone. In a way, though, she does have a point. Extraordinary claims can hardly be taken on face value; these things need to be justified, and Christians, for example, shouldn't expect to be treated with kid gloves. Indeed, 1 Peter 3.15 pretty much says we should expect to have to justify our beliefs: and should always be ready to do so: 'always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.'

The thing is, though, if you're going to ask someone to justify their beliefs, you have to be prepared to listen to what they say. And I don't mean to smile and nod politely, I mean to listen. Given that we all too often find each other's beliefs to be, to a greater or lesser degree, ridiculous, the big questions here are surely not so much based around 'what?' as they are variants on 'why?'

Some of these questions are philosophical and scientific, such as 'why do you believe there is more to the universe than meets the eye?', or 'why do you think, in an exclusively material universe, one pack of neurons is more valuable than another?' or 'why do you think, in an exclusively material universe, you have any control over how the atoms bounce in your head?', but others are historical...

Is there any basis for Scientology's fundamental beliefs other than the claims of L. Ron Hubbard, who made huge amounts of money from his claims? Is there any basis for Mormonism's fundamental beliefs other than the claims of Joseph Smith, who was widely regarded as a fraudster in his own time and who gained influence and several dozen wives from the religion he founded? Is there any basis of Islam's fundamental beliefs other than the claims of Muhammad, who used his claims to rally an army and conquer Arabia? Is there any basis for Christianity's fundamental beliefs other than the claims of -- as Paul says at 1 Corinthians 15 -- witnesses such as St Peter, St James, St Paul, and hundreds of Christ's other followers, none of whom had anything to gain from the claims they made, and many of whom faced persecution and death for making these claims?

These are the kind of questions that should be asked. I don't mind justifying what I believe, but if someone's going to demand an explanation, they ought to be willing to listen to it.

Whether you consider it a religion or not, Scientology's a new phenomenon, not yet 60 years old, and it's one that's had a very ease ride so far; this is something Ms Hyde seems to be skating over. It's a shame, she says, that other religions are exempt from having to justify their beliefs. I can't speak for Buddhism, Hinduism, and so forth, but I'll say this: Christians have been justifying their beliefs for two millennia. For the first three hundred years of the Faith they regularly did so at the point of a Roman sword, and even now, throughout the world, this is still all too often the case. It'd be worth thinking of the martyrs tomorrow, especially given how there may well have been more of them in twentieth century than in all the previous Christian centuries combined.

It's one thing to attack religions; it's another to attack them because you can't be bothered finding out about them. It's not close-minded to disbelieve religious claims, but it is close-minded to dismiss them without considering the evidence fairly and thoroughly. This stuff has been justified, and continues to be justified every day. I'm not saying that Ms Hyde would accept these arguments, but it seems remarkable that she's unaware that they're out there. They don't just hide that information in books, you know, nor do they only proclaim it in churches that are open to all. It's on the internet too.

You know, the thing that's rumbled the Scientologists.

1 comment:

Neil said...

To pursue just one issue here, I have often found that challenger of religions realise that they're asking questions based around 'why?' The problem is that they fail to distinguish between 'why do you think this is so?' and 'why do you think this should be so?' (For example, 'why do you believe that the unrepentant will be damned?' is a legitimate question, but 'why do you want the unrepentant to be damned?' isn't.)

In other words, the problem I usually see is people who don't know the difference between a belief and an opinion.