Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Scientology on trial in France

The Church of Scientology is on trial again - this time in France. It is being accused of fraud and manipulation:

The two main branches of the Church of Scientology in France go on trial today on charges of organised fraud in a case that could lead to the nationwide dissolution of the organisation.
The case centres on the testimony of a woman who claims she was preyed upon by the organisation at a time when she was "very psychologically fragile" and encouraged to spend more than €21,000(£18,000) – her life savings – on Scientology products including "self-purification packs''.

The investigating magistrate in charge of bringing the case against the church, Jean-Christophe Hullin, argues she was the victim of a deliberately manipulative system that exploits people's weaknesses to make money. He claims the church, which in some countries is considered a religion but in France is categorised as a sect, is "first and foremost a commercial business'' whose actions reveal "a real obsession for financial remuneration''.

Lawyers for the Scientologists deny any evidence of psychological manipulation and insist theirs is a system of belief like any other. They say the church is the victim of a "carefully orchestrated campaign" by French anti-cult organisations determined to close it down.

Well...couple of issues here: Is Scientology creepy? Yes. Is Scientology based on a crazy belief system? Yes. But are these reasons enough to shut it down (there are 45,000 Scientologists in France)? What exactly is meant by "dissolution" of a religious organization? Is this shutting down significantly different from persecution based on religious beliefs?

I don't have clear-cut answers to these. It seems that Scientology falls somewhere between psychics/mediums (yes - frauds) and mainstream religions (yes - unquestioned belief in the fantastical). I think they are as guilty of defrauding as psychic and mediums - who also take advantage of a fragile emotional states and pretend to have a supernatural ability. But then there have been cults, such as Heaven's Gate and the Branch Davidians, that have led to the deaths of its members. I don't think Scientology is close to this extreme. But can its members freely leave Scientology or do they get hassled afterwards? But then such social pressures are also common in other mainstream religions - such as Islam (though there is much disagreement about the punishment for apostasy in Islam).

I think we have to be very careful about not applying double-standards to small religions - no matter how strange or creepy. Scientology is often the target because of its high profile due to Hollywood celebrities. I think criticism should be focused on a specific custom rather than the whole religion. For example, if Scientology starts telling its members to stop vaccinating their kids (as far as I know, they don't do that - this is just an example) - then this particular practice should be targeted in the courts. But avoid a legal ban on the whole religion. In the mean time, here is a CNN report on the trial:


Anonymous said...

You have asked "What exactly is meant by "dissolution" of a religious organization? Is this shutting down significantly different from persecution based on religious beliefs?"

My response is based on complete ignorance of the French laws upon which the suggested dissolution might rest, but many years working as a lawyer for the corporate regulator of another country. It is common for there to be a law that, if a company or other corporate legal structure is used as a vehicle for fraud or other serious crime (usually on more than one occasion), the court may dissolve the entity. It is a liquidation, just as in cases involving insolvency. My hunch is that the potential dissolution, therefore, has NOTHING to do with the scientology corporation being a religious entity or otherwise.

As I say, I could be wrong. I look forward to finding out.

I hope that is helpful.

Personally, I hope they don't dissolve the

Salman Hameed said...

aha. Thanks for providing this input. Ok - so it is the registration of the Church of Scientology as an institution, i.e. they may not be able to own buildings etc in France (I think a similar ban on Scientology is already in place in Germany). But then will there be any limits imposed on individuals practicing Scientology?? But then France also has the (crazy!) headscarf ban in schools - but then that is about the display of religious symbolism in schools.

In any case, we'll see how the ruling treats the beliefs of Scientology (if at all)