Richard Ingrams: The Church and the ‘new religions’

An imposing Church of Scientology centre in Los Angeles (Getty)

I was never very good at philosophy, especially its modern version which I had chosen to study at Oxford as part of the two-year “Greats” (classics) degree course.

But although I found it hard, sometimes impossible, to follow what clever men such as AJ Ayer were saying, I think I did gain the useful habit, particularly for a journalist, of questioning what people mean when they say certain things.

It is particularly helpful today when so many of our problems are caused by the careless way in which words are used.

Take, for example, the widespread use of the word “victim” in the never-ending coverage of sex abuse. Ever since the topic was raised long ago by pioneers like Esther Rantzen, the assumption was made that if a child brought a charge of abuse then he or she must be telling the truth. The same principle came to be applied to adults.

Incredible as it may seem to anyone brought up to believe that a person is innocent until proved guilty, this principle has been adopted by the police currently investigating abuse.

Hence the emergence of the word “victim” now universally used to categorise not an actual victim but someone who claims to be a victim.

Much the same process has taken place in the coverage of religion. To the unsophisticated and unphilosophical reader the question “What is a religion?” seems an easy one to answer.

A religion is a belief in a God, or supernatural being, who is worshipped and prayed to by believers in a special building – be it church, mosque or synagogue.

That simple definition is challenged by many of today’s opinion formers with the result that the word “religion” can nowadays be used of any organisation claiming religious credentials.

So just as the person claiming to be a victim is automatically accepted as such, any movement, however weird, can gain recognition as a religion just because that is what it says it is.

It may seem strange that in an age that looks on religion with contempt, and even hatred, that many of the sects and cults that have proliferated in recent times are more than eager to be categorised as religious.

But there are a number of advantages. L Ron Hubbard, creator of the most successful cult of all, Scientology, is widely reported to have commented: “If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way to do it would be start his own religion.” Scientologists have since disputed that the words were said by Hubbard, but the fact remains that, early on, Scientology became the “Church of Scientology”. Hubbard’s biographer Russell Miller explains: “It made sense financially for there were substantial tax concessions available to churches.”

Hubbard’s executives henceforth described themselves as “ministers” and some of the more flamboyant even took to wearing clerical collars and prefixing their names with “Reverend”.

Commercial considerations apart, there are other advantages, in particular the protection that is nowadays accorded to any organisation calling itself a religion.

So entangled in the explosive issue of racism have two major religions, Judaism and Islam, become, that a body of opinion has grown up in guaranteeing “freedom of religion” as worthy of the same respect as political opinion or sexual orientation. And it is now guaranteed under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Nobody minds too much if cults – or “new religions”, as they are sometimes called – are given the same privileges as the old ones. In the eyes of our secular society they are all new or old – involved in the same business of peddling one or other variety of mumbo-jumbo to the gullible.

And what, it will be said, is there to distinguish new from old? Both go in for indoctrination of the young, confessions, fanciful tales about angels or aliens. Both demand regular payments from their followers.

The danger comes when, instead of combating this argument, the Church adopts a policy of appeasement, conceding that there are points on both sides and that, after all, both are concerned to help those, particularly the young, who are “looking for an answer”.

Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and the Oldie