Stephen A. Kent (Ph.D.)
Department of Sociology
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, CANADA
Although some social scientists insist that Scientology is a religion, the more appropriate position to take is that the organization is a multi faceted transnational that has religion as only one of its many components. Other components include political aspirations, business ventures, cultural productions, pseudo-medical practices, pseudo-psychiatric claims, and (among its most devoted members who have joined the Sea Organization), an alternative family structure. Sea Organization's job demands appear to allow little time for quality child rearing. Most disturbing, however, about Sea Organization life is that members can be subject to extremely severe and intrusive punishments through security checks, internal hearings called "Committees of Evidence," and a forced labour and re-indoctrination program known as the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF) and its harshest companion, the RPF's RPF. Taken together, these harsh and intrusive punishments likely violate a number of human rights clauses as outlined by two United Nations statements.
June 30, 1997
Scientology--- Is this a religion?
Rarely, if ever, in the post-war period have diplomats from the superpowers troubled themselves over questions about the alleged religious nature of a transnational organization. Consequently, the current debate between Germany and the United States over the alleged religious nature of Scientology is remarkable, and probably unique in recent history. The fact that German officials, institutions, and citizens are seeking additional information about this organization is commendable, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share insights that may help to clarify the issues in this debate.
For the record, I did not have any contact with German parliamentary officials as I was preparing my talk. For about ten minutes I spoke by telephone with one German professor who is involved with the current discussion about the organization, but we only touched briefly on issues related to Scientology. The German Kirchentag paid my air fare and my hotel in Leipzig, and Berliner Dialog is covering some of my expenses, but they are not paying me a fee or honorarium. I prepared my talk while in Canada, and did not consult with anyone in Germany or elsewhere about its content. I had complete freedom to write whatever I wanted around the general topic of the debate about Scientology's religious claims.
As a person trained in religious studies, I find the debate about Scientology's alleged religious nature to be an interesting and important one. It should not be, however, the only issue over which we evaluate the German American debate over Scientology's religious claims. Intimately related to the religious question are human rights questions. Some people assume that religious practice is a guaranteed human right, but even a superficial examination of world events shows that many atrocities occur in the name of God or religion. Universally, therefore, religious belief must receive absolute protection, but religious practice stemming from that belief must receive protection only until it begins to violate the rights of its members or nonmembers. Following from this last point, I argue that even if Scientology contains a theology and cosmology that some members interpret religiously, its organizational actions and behaviours raise serious human rights questions. Without wanting to review the pronouncements from all German officials about the organization, I conclude that the German government has good reason to investigate Scientology's activities in this country. It also has compelling reasons to inquire about the well-being of German citizens in Scientology facilities in the United States and elsewhere. I will share just a few of the documents that led me to these conclusions, and some of them are available in numerous world wide web sites on the "internet."
Is Scientology a Religion?
For a number of my social scientific colleagues around the world, the debate between Germany and the U.S. revolves around the question of Scientology's religious claims. Many of my social scientific colleagues have examined some Scientology documents and possibly participated in some Scientology events, and they have concluded that the organization is religious in nature. Bryan R. Wilson (b. 1926), for example, who is a respected British sociologist of religion, concluded "that Scientology must indeed be regarded as a religion" (Wilson, 1990: 288). He reached this conclusion after comparing Scientology's belief system with twenty characteristics usually found within what he called "known religions" (Wilson, 1990: 279). Significantly for the current debate in this country, he dismissed historical information from the early 1950s about Dianetics presenting itself as "a mental therapy and Scientology a science." Specifically with these early self-representations in mind, Wilson insisted that "even if it could be conclusively shown that Scientology took the title of 'church' specifically to secure at law as a religion, that would say nothing about the status of the belief-system, and it is with the belief system that we are specifically concerned" (Wilson, 1990: 282-283).
Footnote:  Undoubtedly because of this interpretation, Wilson has become a champion of Scientology's religious claims (see also Wilson, n.d.: 35) and the organization alludes to him ("[t]he foremost sociologist in the world") as an academic who concluded "that Scientology was setting the trend for the 21st century for all religions -- as it offers practical solutions for people's problems in the real world" (International Association of Scientologists, 1995: ). Scientology also employs his opinion in arguing before an American court that the organization has the right to keep secret its upper level materials (Wilson, 1994: 11).In fact, I have made precisely the argument that Wilson dismisses. In a study that Berliner Dialog (Heft 1-97) translated into German, and in another study that I hope to publish soon, I show that L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology's founder) claimed that Scientology was a religion because he saw the claim as a marketing device to make money and avoid taxes (Kent, 1997b: 25ff; Miller, 1987: 199-203, 220) as well as a way "to reduce the likelihood of governmental interventions against it for allegedly practising medicine without a license" (Kent, 1996: 30). Moreover, Scientology denies its reputedly religious nature if it is attempting to enter a country that might react adversely to religious proselytization (such as Japan or Greece [Kent, 1997a: 18-19]). Nevertheless, the historical reasons behind Scientology's religious claims, as well as the organization's selectivity in making the claims, do not diminish the probability that many Scientologists view their commitment as a religious one.
From a social scientific perspective, and probably from a legal one as well, the objective "truth" of an ideology is not the determinant of a group's "religious" designation. Mere belief in supernatural beings or forces may be enough to get an ideology designated as religious, even if the origins or doctrines of the belief system are highly suspect. Along these lines, the inspirational figure in the sociology of religion, Max Weber, refused to exclude charlatans from his identification of charismatic figures, since the devotion of followers was a far more salient fact than authenticity. After mentioning two types of charismatic figures, Weber added that "[a]nother type is represented by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonisn, who may have been a very sophisticated swindler (although this cannot be definitely established)" (Weber, 1968: 242). Similarly, from a social scientific perspective, a belief system is religious if it contains supposedly supernatural elements, regardless of the accuracy of those elements. Perhaps unlike Joseph Smith, Hubbard's sophisticated swindle has been definitely exposed by a number of critics (for example, Atack, 1990; Kent, 1996; Miller, 1987) who have shown that his religious alignment was purely expedient, but now many of his followers see their lives in the context of the doctrines that he developed.