Recently, I was asked to look at why Scientology characterizes itself as a religion.
Anyone who pays any attention to the various controversies surrounding David Miscavige’s Church of Scientology knows that there is a lot of information available about this “religion” angle. It is obvious that the Church of Scientology was set up and is run like a business, and that the whole “religion” thing was tacked on as an afterthought, so the question is, “Why?”
Why does Scientology call itself a religion? And why is it important?
We’ll look at “why” in a bit. First, let’s look at who says it is a religion. The answer may surprise you.
Did Hubbard call Scientology a religion? Well… no. And yes. Originally, Hubbard was quite emphatic — Scientology is not a religion:
Scientology has opened the gates to a better world. It is not a psycho-therapy nor a religion.L. Ron Hubbard
Page 251, Creation of Human Ability 1954
(Statement removed from later editions, for obvious reasons)
Later, Hubbard changed his mind and declared that Scientology actually was a religion. Hubbard’s decision to start claiming Scientology as a religion was highly unpopular with many Dianeticists and Scientologists at that time and many did, in fact, leave because of it.
OK, who else says Scientology is a religion?
Does the Church of Scientology itself call Scientology a religion? Well… yes — and very emphatically, NO!
Surprised? It’s very, very true.
The Church of Scientology is “recognized as a religion” in only a small handful of countries. It is difficult to get an exact count, but it appears to be officially recognized in only eight or nine countries. Period. In case you were wondering, there are almost 200 countries in the world.
Now, you would think that the Church of Scientology would be fighting for religious recognition in all the rest of the countries, but, in most places in the world, Scientology itself insists that it is not a religion!
Check out Scientology’s official presentation of itself in Israel. Check out Scientology’s official presentation of itself in any predominantly Catholic country (like Mexico or even Spain where “church” and “religion” are in English only). Check out Scientology’s official presentation of itself in any predominantly Muslim country. Check it out. See what Scientology says about whether it is a religion or not. The Church of Scientology says it is not a religion in most countries. In most areas of the world, Scientology’s organizations are called “centers” or “associations” or something, but the words “religion” and “church” are not included.
Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi in the Marburg Journal of Religion: Volume 8, No. 1 (September 2003) writes about Scientology:
6. Self-Presentation as a Secular Movement.
Some Scientology representatives state that the so-called church is not a religion. When a Scientology branch opened in Japan in 1985, it was careful to present itself as a ‘philosophy’ and not a religion (Kent, 1999). In the United States, an article in a Maine newspaper that solicited thoughts about the “new millennium” from local church leaders reports that “Barbara Fisco, mission holder of the Church of Scientology in Brunswick, said that Scientology is not a religion and therefore not subject to the religious implications of the Year 2000” (Smith, 1999\www.timesrecord.com/main/79c6.html_).
The case of Scientology in Israel is quite instructive. In various organizational forms, Scientology has been active among Israelis for more than thirty years, but those in charge not only never claimed the religion label, but resisted any such suggestion or implication. It has always presented itself as a secular, self-improvement, tax-paying business. Otherwise, they offered the familiar products and deceptions, from the Oxford Capacity Analysis to Dianetics and Purification. The current Israeli franchise holder told me rather proudly that he pays all required taxes. In its history as a commercial venture, the organization still got into legal trouble, and was charged with tax evasion at least once.
Now isn’t that so odd? A “religion” that, well, if that interferes with the business operation, just casually drops the whole “church” façade in an instant. When it interferes with business, it turns out the “religion angle” isn’t important at all.
It could be argued that the organization that is most vocal and most insistent, around the world, that Scientology is “not a religion” is … the Church of Scientology.
So, finally and inevitably we come to the question, “Why?” Why does Scientology characterize itself as “a religion”?
Well, we have to reword the question now, don’t we? In context of the above, it no longer is a correct question. In most of the world Scientology vehemently insists that it is not a religion. So the question is incorrect. The accurate question is:
Why does Scientology only call itself “a religion” in a few, selected countries, but insists on calling itself a “self-improvement business”, a “philosophy”, a “community group” or something else equally non-religious, in the rest of the world?
Worded correctly, the answer now becomes much more obvious.
Pay close attention here. This is key. The factor that determines whether Scientology claims to be a religion is not what Scientologists believe. This doesn’t change from country to country. The factor that determines this is not what Scientologists do. This also doesn’t change. The deciding factor that determines whether Scientology claims to be a religion or not is the balance between the benefits and liabilities of doing so. That’s a business consideration.
When Hubbard implemented this “religion” angle he wrote:
Scientology 1970 is being planned on a religious organization basis throughout the world. This will not upset in any way the usual activities of any organization. It is entirely a matter for accountants and solicitors.L. Ron Hubbard
Policy Letter 29 Oct. 1962, “Religion”
Get it? “Accountants and solicitors”. It was then, and is today, solely a business matter. What are the benefits? What are the liabilities? In the United States, there is considerable legal protection and there are vast tax benefits for being a religion. The liabilities are relatively small. Sure, that “religion angle” has caused problems, like Albuquerque where Scientology wanted to move into a business location which was deemed “inappropriate for a church”. Oh, Scientology sure wanted a variance then. They wanted to be treated like a business.
Their front groups are the Church of Scientology’s attempt to have their cake and eat it too. The front groups are supposed to allow the church into areas barred from churches — like attempts to get Scientology’s children recruitment group, the Drug Free Marshals, into New Mexico schools. Unfortunately for Scientology, the group was linked back to the church, and then appropriately barred from the schools.
But all in all, the benefits in the U.S. outweigh the liabilities, so “it’s a religion!”
In other countries, the balance is different. And, as is often the case, when the liabilities of calling itself a religion are too great, “it’s a business!”
And that’s the answer to “Why ‘Religion’?” It’s just a “good business decision”. As some of the less ethical business executives might say, “If you can get away with it, why not?”
How pragmatic! How practical!