In Bad Faith

As a religion, why is Scientology any less legitimate than Christianity?

Watching the new HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, many questions swirled around my brain, but that was the one that kept bouncing back.  As a culture, why should we be any less respectful toward a belief system founded by L. Ron Hubbard than toward one founded by Jesus?  By what possible standard is one religion superior to another?

To be sure, Going Clear, based on the book by Lawrence Wright, makes an extremely valiant attempt to delegitimize its subject among the world’s organized moral philosophies—in part, by arguing that it is neither moral nor a philosophy.  Indeed, if even half of the film’s claims are true, then charges of false prophesying are the least of Scientology’s problems.

Then again, it is precisely because the Church of Scientology is so widely derided as a joke—some kind of weird Hollywood cult—that we need to more closely examine how and why certain faiths become worldwide phenomena while others never quite catch on.  The difference between the two might be a whole lot narrower than we think.

In fact, we can have no idea whether (and for how long) Scientology will endure.  It was only established in 1953, meaning it is still very much in its infancy.  Estimates of its membership vary wildly—depending on whom you ask, it’s anywhere between 40,000 and 15 million worldwide—but at this point, it hardly matters.

(Case in point:  The Mormon Church, founded in 1830, claimed roughly 200,000 adherents at the same point in its existence.  However, after another 62 years, the number had spiked to 1.3 million.  Today, Mormons number 15 million and continue to grow.)

So for all we know, the Church of Scientology may yet become the Next Big Thing in world theology.  No one can say for sure.  Beyond sheer size, the measure of a religion’s success resides in its benefits to its individual adherents—something that cannot be so easily dismissed by those outside the congregation.

On the other hand, there is one “official” means of ascertaining whether something is a “real” religion, and it lies in the U.S. tax code.

As we know, any organization can achieve tax-exempt status by convincing the Internal Revenue Service that it’s a charitable, non-profit enterprise, and this often comes through claiming to be a “church” of one sort or another.

As it happens, the Church of Scientology did exactly that, achieving tax-exempt status in 1954, losing it in 1967, then regaining it in 1993.  As far as the government is concerned, Scientology has been a religion for 22 years running, and the rest of us just have to accept it.

To answer my own question, then:  In practice, there isn’t any means for determining the relative legitimacy of different faiths.  You believe what you believe, and no one can tell you that you don’t.

Which brings us to Indiana.

Last week, the Hoosier State enacted a new law called the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” passed by the state legislature and signed by Governor Mike Pence.  As written, the law stipulates that “a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.”

Crucially, the bill uses an extraordinarily wide definition of the word “person,” which it takes to include “an organization, a religious society, a church […] a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint-stock company, an unincorporated association,” and so forth.

Critics of the Indiana law have said that its true objective—or, in any case, its primary effect—is to allow businesses to discriminate against certain customers on the basis of their sexual orientation.  While many of the law’s supporters are at a loss for why anyone would think this, I would humbly volunteer the fact that when Indiana Democrats proposed an amendment to the bill that would have explicitly prohibited such discrimination, the bill’s supporters voted it down.

At the moment, the debate seems to boil down to one question:  “Does the RFRA protect religious liberty, or does it sanction discrimination against gays?”

This is an incredibly stupid question, and everyone should be ashamed for asking it.

The correct answer—as if I needed to tell you—is both.

Of course it ensures that individuals—or, in this case, corporations—maintain their constitutionally-protected right to exercise their religion of choice.

And of course it allows for denying service to gay people—just so long as the denier claims a faith-based reason for doing so, which he or she might do by citing the Biblical verses that proclaim homosexuality an abomination punishable by death.

Indeed, if I truly thought that a same-sex couple were morally defecating on God’s perfect design, I wouldn’t want to bake them a cake, either.

When Governor Pence (among others) insists the RFRA is not a license to discriminate, he either takes his audience for fools or cops to being one himself.  I cannot do better than The Onion, which mock-quoted Pence as saying, “The new law has nothing at all to do with what it was explicitly intended to do.”

We know the purpose of the RFRA isn’t simply to protect the free exercise of religion, because the First Amendment already does that.  If you want to attend Sunday Mass or abstain from eating pork, the law is resolutely on your side.

The tension—as with so many other things—comes when those same religious practices or beliefs affect someone else.  And, more importantly, when they come into conflict with established law.

In fact, there is no question about this.  Generally speaking, if a particular religious practice requires breaking the law, then the practice cannot be practiced.  America is an explicitly secular country, and you are not entitled to engage in illegal behavior just because your Bible says so.

This is why, no matter how strongly the Old Testament endorses rape, slavery, genocide and the stoning of disobedient children—all of which it does—there is no immediate danger of any of those pastimes roaring back into fashion.  You cannot get away with murder by saying that God (or the devil) made you do it, much as some people try.

On the other hand, there have been many recent examples of wiggle room in the church-state divide, in which the government has given “accommodation” to certain practices that, while otherwise frowned upon, are probably reasonable in a religious context.  These include, say, allowing a prisoner to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with Muslim teaching, or permitting a practicing Sikh to carry a ceremonial dagger in certain public venues.

This, it can be fairly said, is what the Indiana law means in instructing the government to use “the least restrictive means” of interfering with a person’s faith.  There is little reason to restrict personal behavior that is unlikely to cause anyone any harm, and the government is very much responsible for making everyday religious customs as easy to observe as possible.

However, this arrangement is completely irrelevant to the matter before us.  However much some argue to the contrary, there is no way around the fact that the belief in the inferiority of gay people, when put into practice by an organization or business, will axiomatically require violating the core American principle that everyone be treated equally in the public square.  Denying service based on sexual orientation is discrimination by definition.  I have yet to hear even a sliver of an explanation for how it’s not.

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but your right to practice your faith does not override my right to live in a free and open society.

Then again, this brings us to the real scandal, which is how, in Indiana and many other states, such anti-gay discrimination is actually legal, with or without a religious freedom law.  As many have now pointed out, Indiana offers no legal protection to gay patrons who might be turned away by businesses that don’t approve of their so-called “lifestyle”—a fact that the RFRA has reinforced.  To paraphrase an old cliché:  If Indiana thinks all people are created equal, it sure has a funny way of showing it.

However, my overriding concern—apparently not as widely shared as I’d have thought—is that, in practice, the RFRA will not just be about gays.

Supporters point out that the word “gay” does not appear in the Indiana bill, and it’s true that it does not single out gays and lesbians—or anyone else, for that matter.

To the contrary, what the law does is provide cover for anyone who wants to discriminate against anyone else for any reason.  As previously stated, all they need is a religious justification and they’re home free.

I began by illustrating how easy it is to invent a religion from whole cloth.  (L. Ron Hubbard, the father of Scientology, was by every account a liar and a fraud.)  And yet, once you’ve accomplished that, you are accorded an elevated level of respect and privilege that enables you to do just about anything you want.

Without specific protections in place, what would prevent, say, a bakery run by ultra-Orthodox Jews from refusing to serve a woman wearing a skirt?  What would stop a restaurant run by strict Muslims from withholding business from any woman?

What would stop a store owner from inventing his own religion on the spot and deciding to turn away every customer with red hair, on the grounds that his faith teaches that redheads are possessed by Satan?  If religion is the only basis for making these decisions and religion is a personal matter, on what basis could you tell this man to take a hike?

Such scenarios might not be terribly likely, but with legislation like Indiana’s RFRA, they are now possible.

Are we sure we want to live in a society in which one person’s beliefs, however sincere, hold veto power over the values of the entire country?

Call me old-fashioned, but I would wager that the right to individual freedom does not include the right to abolish the freedom of another individual.

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