I have mixed feelings about this one.
Following a five-year battle in lower courts, the British Supreme Court has ruled that Scientology is a religion. It started when an English
dupe woman, Louisa Hodkin, wanted to get married in the Scientology chapel in London. This was disallowed, for British law defines religion as involving worship of a supreme being. Now we all know that Xenu was Master of the Universe, but you don’t get to worship him—or even know about him until you’ve sunk several hundred thou in the organization and become privy to its innermost secrets.
The Torygraph reports:
Miss Hodkin launched a legal challenge after the Registrar General of births, deaths and marriages refused to register the chapel to conduct marriages because it was not recognised as a place of “religious worship”.
That decision stemmed from a 1970 court case which excluded scientology because it did not fit within the terms of the 1855 Places of Worship Registration Act which counts only groups which revere a “deity” as true religions.
But even in the 1970 case Lord Denning observed that Buddhist temples are already treated as an “exception”.
Miss Hodkin’s legal challenge was initially turned down by Mr Justice Ouseley at the High Court last year on the basis of the legal definition but he immediately passed the case to the Supreme Court to reassess the law.
. . . The court heard that although scientologists use the word “God” in services, the term is understood to mean “inifinity” [sic] and not a specific being.
So what is the new definition of “religion” in British law? The President of the Supreme Court (the equivalent of the U.S. Chief Justice) announced the opinion:
“Unless there is some compelling contextual reason for holding otherwise, religion should not be confined to religions which recognise a supreme deity,” said Lord Toulson, delivering the lead judgment.
“First and foremost, to do so would be a form of religious discrimination unacceptable in today’s society.”
. . .He concluded that religion could be defined more accurately as a “spiritual or non-secular belief system” which “claims to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite” and give people guidance on life.
“Such a belief system may or may not involve belief in a supreme being, but it does involve a belief that there is more to be understood about mankind’s nature and relationship to the universe than can be gained from the senses or from science,” he said.
This is a slippery definition, as are all definitions of religion. In essense, it argues that religions are simply “other ways of knowing”! (The “spiritual” and “relationship” with the infinite” part could simply constitute some kind of awe and wonder.) According to some opponents of scientism, that could include the arts and literature, which, they claim, are not subject to scientific analysis and can tell us about our relationship to the universe. And religions could also include pantheism, belief in paranormal phenomena like ESP and telekinesis, and so on, not to mention worship of Satan, which may soon get its own monument at Oklahoma’s state capitol, right next to the Ten Commandments.
Of course the British government is worried about this not because of the philosophical question of what constitutes a religion. No, they’re worried about it because Scientology can now share the tax breaks that other UK churches get:
Brandon Lewis, the local government minister, said: “I am very concerned about this ruling, and its implications for business rates.
“In the face of concerns raised by Conservatives in Opposition, Labour Ministers told Parliament during the passage of the Equalities Bill that Scientology would continue to fall outside the religious exemption for business rates.
“But we now discover Scientology may be eligible for rate relief and that the taxpayer will have to pick up the bill, all thanks to Harriet Harman and Labour’s flawed laws.”
“Hard-pressed taxpayers will wonder why Scientology premises should now be given tax cuts when local firms have to pay their fair share.”
That’s a good point, really, because Scientology, whatever else it may be, is a business.
The obvious solution, of course, is to eliminate tax breaks for all “churches”, but clearly that won’t happen.
I have mixed feelings because, after Islam and Catholicism, Scientology is the most odious of all cults, and its blatant financial bilking of adherents really puts it apart from most other religions, except, perhaps, for those that demand tithes. The Church is brimming with cash, and now it’ll get even richer. Perhaps this is just my prejudice, for, really, how does Scientology differ in essence from Mormonism? They’re both man-made, believe ridiculous stuff, and have transcendent nature stories. And Mormons are asked to give 10% of their income to the Church (which is, of course, why that Church is also rich). I’m not willing to consider a distinction between belief and disbelief in God for tax purposes, because that presumes that belief in a deity confers some special financial status on you. There is no justification for giving tax breaks to religions.
What’s good about this decision, though, is that now the British Government will have to get involved in the sociological/philosophical question of “what is a religion?”, and that will be an amusing mess. Although I don’t foresee all kinds of weird cults clamoring for tax breaks, I’m sure some will—and I hope that Satanists will demand their share.
If I had to define “religion,” I suppose I’d agree largely with Dan Dennett, who defined it in Breaking the Spell as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” That’s not a perfect definition—some Buddhists, for example, don’t accept a supernatural agent but do accept supernatural phenomena like reincarnation and the concept of karma, and Scientologists believe in “thetans”—but no definition will satisfy everyone. Religions are continuous with philosophies as well as paranomal beliefs, and any line drawn between “religion” and “nonreligion” will perforce be subjective. I suppose the British Court’s definition is as good as any. But it’s setting up the UK for a lot of future legal action. (Scientology is, by the way, considered a “secte” and not a religion in France.)
At any rate, get ready for some fun. And kudos to the happy couple; may they have many audits to come!
Weigh in below on your feelings about this decision.