This is my contribution to a debate on Thursday at the TCD Philosophical Society on the motion that Scientology is as legitimate as any other religion. Other speakers included Mike Rinder, former chief spokesperson of the Church of Scientology, Irish anti-Scientology activist Matthew McKenna, and former Scientologist John Duignan.
Members of the philosophical society, ladies and gentlemen, fellow Thetans, I have a lot of sympathy with the Church of Scientology, because I am also a member of a small church that is ridiculed by society.
When Atheist Ireland started campaigning against the blasphemy law a few years ago, one of the things that we did was to set up a new church that worshiped Dermot Ahern, the Minister who brought in the law, and that church is the Church of Dermotology.
Our beliefs are pretty similar to mainstream religious beliefs. We believe Dermot Ahern created the universe out of nothing. We believe ice cream wafers are literally the body of Dermot Ahern. And like the Mormons, we have magic underpants. We have over a thousand Facebook members, which makes us bigger than the Baha’is in Ireland.
And like the Scientologists, we have a free personality test to judge members. Ours is slightly simpler than the Scientology test. We have only two questions. Number one: are you vulnerable? Number two: have you money? If you answer yes to both of these questions, you’re in.
In terms of the theology of Scientology, we have heard a bit about the intergalactic warrior Xenu and so on, which is pretty silly to most people. But on balance, when you look at the claims of Christianity, and if you look at the non-anthropomorphic deity of Scientology, and the science fiction underneath it, it’s marginally less silly than Christianity.
Question from audience member: Do you not think that there is more validity to Christianity in that you don’t have to pay thousands of euro to learn about Christianity?
Michael: Yes, I’ll come to that in a second. I’m talking about the theology at the moment. With regard to the practice, I agree with you about that.
The theology is marginally less silly because it doesn’t involve anthropomorphic supernatural beings who impregnate virgins in order to give birth to themselves, so that they can die and return to life and write a book about it.
In terms of the practices of Scientology, and the beliefs of its members, I’m sure a lot of you have seen the video of Tom Cruise saying “If you see a road accident, and you are a Scientologist, you can’t just pass by. You’ve got to stop because, as a Scientologist, you are the only who can really help!
That sounds kind of odd, but we had a major accident in Cork not too long ago, where an airplane crashed. And the local parish priest took it upon himself to get on his bicycle, and go down to the airport, and made his way past the security cordon into the accident area, in oder to bless dying people, who may or may not have been of his own religion, and he was legitimately let through by the accident and emergency people.
Can you imagine if, after this debate, we go out and there is a major crash on the street, and I go over to the police cordon and say “Excuse me, I’m the chairperson of Atheist Ireland, and I’ve really got to get through, because there may be some people dying there, and I’ve really got to tell them that there is no God”.
I think I know the response I would get, and it wouldn’t be “Certainly, Mr. Nugent, take your place in the queue behind Tom Cruise and Father Dougal Maguire.”
So in terms of the theology and the belief systems of Scientology, they are no sillier, and no less legitimate, than those of most other religions.
In terms of the practices, and this is where it does get serious, in terms of the practices of the Church of Scientology, I think it’s fair to say that they are a pretty harmful organisation. They disconnect people from their families, they take a lot of money from people, and they physically abuse people as well. They are a bad, bad organisation.
But this motion isn’t about whether Scientology is a good organisation. It is: is scientology as legitimate as any other religion? And in that phrase, the legitimacy level could be hovering around zero for all of them, and they are still as legitimate as each other.
If you look at the harm that Roman Catholicism has caused over the centuries, if you look at the Pope’s position that condoms are worse than the spread of AIDS, if you look at the harm that Islam causes to women and minorities in particular…
if you brought in here a survivor of child sex abuse and its cover up by the Roman Catholic Church, and if you brought in someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali to tell you about how women suffer under Islam…
you would agree that the main difference between the harm caused by the Church of Scientology and the harm caused by Islam and Roman Catholicism, is that Islam and Roman Catholicism do it on an industrial scale, and that the Church of Scientology are amateurs in the field of harming people.
That’s not to say they are a good organisation. They are quite clearly a bad organisation. But so are the other religions who also cause harm, and on a greater scale.
These other religions call Scientology and other smaller religions a cult. In fact, that is what a cult is. It is what large religions call small religions. Every religion that started off, no matter how old, other than whatever happened to be the first one that somebody invented, started off being called a cult by the other established religions.
The Church of Scientology is a bad organisation. It’s morally harmful. But the reason for that is partly because religion itself is morally bad.
Religion itself, by focusing on claims of faith and revelation, complicates and corrupts the already difficult task of figuring out what is the right thing to do in any situation.
The right thing to do morally is based on the consequences of your actions, the impact of your actions, on the suffering or the wellbeing of other sentient beings. And that’s a pretty complicated set of interactions. You can’t really figure out exactly what is right, you can just make your best judgment as to what you think is the best thing to to do in any given situation.
But what religion does is it adds in a corrupting factor, which is the imaginary consequences for imaginary souls, or Thetans or whatever, in imaginary afterlives.
And where those religious values clash with our natural sense of empathy and compassion, religion gives priority to the religious claims. And it allows people to justify causing individual people and other animals to suffer unnecessarily, because they believe that the creator of the universe has told them that is the right thing to do.
In terms of the overall claims of Scientology, I’ll just summarise the key points that I made earlier.
The theological claims are as silly as other religions, and arguably marginally less silly than the anthropomorphic personal deities of the Abrahamic faiths. And I’m not giving them credibility, I’m not saying that it is likely to be true, I’m just saying that it doesn’t break the normal laws of nature in the way that the Abrahamic gods do. Aliens are marginally less improbable than the Christian god.
In terms of the believer, most believers of all religions are basically decent people, doing their best. In most religions, Scientology included, I think it is kind of like a pyramid scheme, with innocent people passing on false ideas to other innocent people, believing them to be true.
And in terms of the organisation, the Church of Scientology is a morally bad organisation, that is as legitimate, or as illegitimate, depending on what way you want to look at it, as any other religion that also causes harm, on a far greater scale than Scientology.
Thank you very much.
You can also view the full debate here.