Scientology seems an easy target. Founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, some of its beliefs seem, well... silly. In addition, the Church of Scientology has amassed tremendous wealth. Numerous reports suggest that its leaders organize various kinds of harassment against detractors - and particularly against former members. In many ways, Scientology seems more like a successful, fiercely aggressive business than a religion.
Scientology and other groups were once described with the derogatory epithet 'cults.' Such groups are now usually described - at least by academics - using the more neutral term 'new religious movements' or NRMs. Some, but not all NRMs have the heavily manipulative character that we tend to associate with 'cults.' Some, but not all of them manage to amass tremendous wealth for their founders or gurus.
But then, the lines between 'normal' conventionally accepted religions and abusive groups are not all that clear. To those who don't believe in the basic tenets of Christianity, the notion that you are doomed to eternal damnation if you don't believe that a particular historical character was the human embodiment of the one true God can look pretty abusive too - especially when some of the more elaborate descriptions of hell get trotted out.
A rather uncharitable definition of Christianity has been making the rounds on the internet:
Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.Whether or not you find Christianity believable or not, let's not forget the enormous wealth of the Catholic Church. And this religious group has been even tougher on some of its critics than the worst accusations against the Scientologists. Does the Inquisition ring a bell with anyone? Burning at the stake seems just a tad bit more severe than harassment... or is that just me?
But, my intention is not to make a mockery of any particular religious group. There are few who don't deserve at least some of the very critical treatment that we tend to reserve for 'cults.'
The question I really want to ask is what kind of behavior is acceptable. I suspect that there will be a broad area of agreement in some key areas: We can probably agree that any religious group that is solely out for financial profit is illegitimate. Most of us would also agree that any religious group that uses physical violence or other severe and harmful methods to enforce its rules or beliefs or to prevent the defection of its members is unacceptable.
But these are the exceptional circumstances. Much more relevant is the behavior of religions with good intent. What is acceptable action for a religious group that has no aim but to help others? What if a religious group truly and deeply believes that it has the answer and knows what is best for humanity. How far should that group go in trying to convince people to do what they believe is good for everyone?
Let's put aside the fact that it seems incredibly arrogant for any one group to suggest that it knows what's best for others. I will do that because the fact is that we all do this. I say that freedom is better than slavery. Why? It just is! It's obvious! Well, is it? In a post-modern world context, I don't really have a right to make that judgment. Well, yeah, but I'll do it anyway because I just know that I'm right!
How about the Alpha Course? This incredibly popular Christian program is advertised with the slogan "Explore the meaning of life." That sounds nice and appealing, doesn't it? Who, in this frantic, materialistic, fragmented world doesn't want to get a better handle on 'the meaning of life'? Well, Alpha Course is not the inclusive program that its slogan would suggest. By the end, the goal is for you to be speaking in tongues and accepting Jesus as your personal lord and savior! "Explore the meaning of life" is an attractive ruse to get you into the hopper of what is essentially an Evangelical Christian conversion machine. [Yes, I know that some people have had more open inclusive experiences in Alpha Course groups. It certainly varies somewhat from place to place, but as far as I can tell, inclusive is the exception.]
Perhaps what bothers me most about these tactics is that I'm not using them and that I'm not willing to use them. I'm intent on sticking to honesty in the way I present Unitarianism. And I stick to this even though I know that we could be helping millions to 'explore the meaning of life' and even though I believe with great certainty that Unitarianism could help reduce hostility and misunderstanding, and could help create a more peaceful world.
Part of the problem is that we're too ethical to trick people - even for 'their own good'! We're too respectful of other perspectives to say that we've got the answer... even though we do. We have the answer because we recognize that many different perspectives - even ones that contradict each other - are true! We have the answer because the answer is that there is no single destination, but that journeying together in love is the 'right' way to be religious.
Well, do I put up a banner saying "salvation guaranteed here" so that I can later slip in the message that salvation is offered everywhere and anywhere and that the trick is in finding the courage to understand, accept, and love?