Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Scientology is a religion-- says the UK Supreme Court

Scientology is a Religion: that's what the UK Supreme Court recognised today in a very high profile case called Hodkin v Registrar.

The facts of the case are simple. Mrs Hodkin wants to get married in Church with her fiancee. The only problem is that the Church of Scientology is not registered as a place of worship according to the Place of Worship Registration Act 1855. Moreover, a 1970 precedent of the Court of Appeal (Segerdal), already excluded Scientology from the benefit of celebrating religious marriages on the ground that Scientology is not a religion because it does not believe in a God (Lord Denning) and in any case it does not worship in a way that can be compared to any other more established religion (Winn & Buckley LJ).

Today the UK Supreme Court overrules its precedent in a clear and forceful way. Scientology is a religion and its premises should be registered for the purpose of celebrating a religious marriage. This result is not surprising and largely expected. It is the correct result since there was no principled reason to exclude scientology from a religious benefit that applies to all other religions.

The key question was precisely whether or not Scientology is a religion. As pointed out before, Lord Denning squarely admitted that Scientology was not a religion for him. It was more like a philosophy but not a religion because it did not worship a god. Implicit in Lord Denning's position is a Theistic definition of religion: namely religion has to coincide with a belief in a supranatural entity. Of course, this poses immediate problems: what about widely practiced religions such as Buddhism or Jainism ? they do not worship a god: are they religion then? Lord Denning had to grant an exception for Buddhism and for few other religions. He does not explain what justifies the exception. He just asserts that Buddhism is in and Scientology is out.

The UK Supreme Court moves away from a Theistic definition of religion. Lord Toulson, writing for the majority, argues that a Theistic definition of religion does not capture a great number of cases. It would merely impose a Judeo-Christian definition upon the rest of the world's religious experiences.

But is it possible to come up with a water-tight definition of religion? Lord Toulson is adamant that lawyers are not fully equipped with the appropriate tools to settle this question. It is more appropriately done by students of comparative religions. However, he still believes that it is possible to give empirically grounded indicia so as to provide a basic framework to help with the task. Lord Toulson is quick to admit that his is not a definition but it is merely a description.

So what is his description? In his words: " For the purpose of PWRA I would describe religion in summary as a spiritual or non-secular belief system, held by a group of adherents, which claims to explain mankind's place in the universe and relationship with the infinite, and to teach its adherents how they are to live their lives in conformity with the spiritual understanding associated with the belief system."

Toulson's definition has four elements:

1) religion is a spiritual or non-secular belief system
2) adherents to the belief system form a group
3) the belief system claims to explain mankind's place in the universe and relationship with the infinite
4) there is a code of behaviour consistent with the belief system

None of these indicia is meant to be exhaustive of the idea of religion, they are purely offered as aids to figure out what religion looks like. Needless to say, most leading religions easily meet all the criteria. So the problem remains-- what is not to be considered as religion?

One thing alone seems to be excluded according to the first indicium: secular beliefs squarely fall outside of the realm of religion. As if it was easy to tell apart secular beliefs from religious beliefs. Most secular beliefs are formed against the background of  Judeo-Christian roots. Take the idea of Human dignity that many takes as a self-evident secular truth and a foundation of secular human rights. Dignity is obviously not a secular value in its origin; it may have evolved into a quasi secular belief, but it has deep religious roots. Examples could be multiplied.

Toulson understands that this distinction is problematic: it imposes a dichotomy between secular and spiritual beliefs. The latter is the real of religion. The former is, according to Toulson, whatever "can be perceived by the senses or ascertained by the application of science." This dichotomy reinforces the well trodden dichotomy between science and faith, which is much less staunch than one believes.

Moreover it also suggest that to be a secularist is incompatible with having spiritual beliefs. This is clearly wrong. To have a secular outlook simply means that political institutions should not be directly influenced by religious arguments that can only be understood by one group of the community that happens to sign up to the relevant religious beliefs. It is important to stress that it is in the interest of religious pluralism and religious people generally speaking to have political institutions that do not favour one religion over another or one religious idea over non-religious ideas.

A secularist can indeed have spiritual beliefs. The description provided by Lord Toulson is not going to dispel the greatest problem of all: how do we draw the boundary between religion and everything else.

The description Lord Toulson provides is painted with a very broad brush: it gives an impressionist view of the cathedral, but leaves the contours completely blurry. Perhaps a court cannot do more than that: just to give an impression of religion but not a legal definition. That is impossible: it would take much more expertise in Theological and Sociological debates as well as in comparative religious studies.

Pragmatically, the decision is a good one. It shifts from a very narrow Judeo-Christian definition of religion that requires the veneration of an identifiable God to a much more sociological, empirically responsive and open description that is suited to a pluralist society.

New cases will come up, there is no doubt about it. Indeed, the Supreme Court leaves the door open for new religions to come forth and ask for the registration of their place of worship. The English registrar
will have to do her investigations on the basis of the criteria provided by the court. A negative response will always be reviewable by the courts.

The only fear, to conclude, concerns the power of the courts more than the claims of religions. Lord Toulson would like to lower the heat of the debate and tune down the disagreement. What he does not say loudly enough is that judges are being modest as to what they can say about religion, but the truth is that the last word on this matter will always be theirs.


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