Recent Studies on Scientology and “Labeling”

Scientology symbol

Two articles discuss how applying labels such as “cult” or “extremist” is used to promote discrimination against minority religions.

Part 1 of 2

by Alessandro Amicarelli — Why are some religions and religious movements labeled as “cults” or “extremist”? And what are the legal and political consequences of using such labels? Two recently published studies about how these labels have been applied to the Church of Scientology offer new insights on the matter. One, by a law professor, examines the legal side of labelling; the second, by a former diplomat, its political side. In this first article, I offer some comments on the study by law professor Germana Carobene, published in the Italian journal Stato, Chiese e pluralismo confessionale. In a second article, I will examine a somewhat parallel study by Rosita Šorytė published in The Journal of CESNUR.

Germana Carobene (left) and Rosyta Soryte (right)

Carobene, who has written extensively on religious discrimination, starts with the legal meaning of “religion” and “cult” (the equivalent negatively connotated words are “setta” in Italian, and “secte” in French). Judges and legislators struggle with the concept of “religion,” whose definition is not univocal. One point courts in different countries have established, is that the self-definition of a community as religion is not enough, since it may be self-serving and simply aimed at fraudulently obtaining tax and other advantages. On the other hand, in some countries such as France case law definitions of religion suffer from an old, but still present, reference to the Christian model of denomination or church, which obviously does not fit very different religions. “Cults” (setta, secte) is even more vaguely defined, as a religion or movement that is “dangerous” or cause “harm.” Vague definitions easily become tools for discrimination.

The Church of Scientology, according to Carobene, has become the ultimate stress test case to probe the legal definitions of religion. Scientology, Carobene says, includes the three elements scholars of religious studies have identified as typical of a religion: the faith in an ultimate “fundamental reality,” practices to understand and grasp this “fundamental reality,” and a “community of believers.” Yet, how Scientology defines the “fundamental reality” influences the corresponding practices, and is very much different from how God is defined and approached in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. For this reason, old definitions of religion based on the Christian paradigm make it difficult for Scientology to achieve a legal recognition as a religion, as it happens in France. Italy is a different case. Since its case law favors an “open” and evolving definition of religion, the Supreme Court of Cassation came to recognize Scientology as a religion in 1997 through “a well-known and well-written decision,” if only after a very long case.

Carobene sees here a confirmation, from the legal side, of the conclusions reached by Italian scholars such as Aldo Natale Terrin: Scientology is indeed a religion, which has more in common with non-theistic religions such as Buddhism than with Christianity, although it also shares with the latter the notion of a “path to salvation.” Indeed, Carobene notes quoting a recent study by Eric Roux, Scientology did a favor to many other religions by “changing the rules of the game” through the court cases it fought and won in different countries.

In the third part of her study, Carobene discusses the theory proposed by French authors associated with the governmental anti-cult mission MIVILUDES or the anti-cult movement that, to be legally recognized as a religion, a community should pass both a positive test (proving that it has a community, a creed, and something similar to a ritual) and a negative one: a religion should not be “commercial” and not make it impossible for a member to leave the group. The negative test, Carobene says, is not acceptable. That the presence of “commercial” elements and services offered against a quid pro quo payments are incompatible with a recognition as a religion has been explicitly excluded in Italy by the 1997 decision, which correctly argued that the test would lead to exclude from the sphere of religion mainline religions as well, including Roman Catholicism. Scientology, Carobene argues, certainly does not prevent members from “interrupting their spiritual path” and leave. I would add that, if the test is aimed at declaring non-religious any groups whose relationship with “apostate” ex-members is problematic, again it would exclude from the definition of religion some historical religions as well, including Islam.

In the fourth part of her article, Carobene examines the attempts to use criminal conspiracy theories (in Italy, “associazione a delinquere,” in French, “association de malfaiteurs”) to attack Scientology. She shows how these attempts failed in Italy and Belgium, and notes that the Italian judges explicitly noted that blaming on a whole religion the wrongdoings of some members is a typical tool used for discrimination.

In the fifth part, Carobene discusses the attempts to use discredited brainwashing theories in new laws and court arguments in various countries. In Italy, this is difficult if not impossible because of the “wonderful” decision rendered by the Constitutional Court in 1981, which declared against the Constitution an old provision dating back to the Fascist era and incriminating “plagio,” something very similar to what would be later called brainwashing. Other countries, including France, should have followed the comment by the Italian judges in 1981 that “mental manipulation” is at work in our societies in myriad of contexts, including daily life, and is not justiciable, but did not, and passed laws that are both dangerous for religious liberty and difficult to enforce.

They did so, Carobene concludes in the sixth part of her article, because they were influenced by anti-cult movements, most of them part of the European federation FECRIS, which considers Scientology one of its main targets, and which has been recognized as dangerous for religious liberty both by mainline scholars of new religious movements and by public agencies such as USCIRF in the United States.

Religious liberty, Carobene concludes, is not without limits. It cannot become a pretext to justify violence or common crimes. When the latter are not present, “a secular and pluralistic system should be neutral towards all the very different religious paths that are born and grow within its territory,” no matter whether they are labeled as “cults” by their opponents or are unpopular with certain media.

This article is published also on Bitter Winter