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The bizarrely cosy relationship between the “Church” of “Scientology” and the London police is something I blogged about at CiF last year, and it is only getting more peculiar. Now comes the news that a teenager has been served a summons by City of London police for participating in a peaceful demonstration outside the shiny new £24-million London HQ of “Scientology” with a placard that called the organization a “cult”:

[T]the teenager facing court said: “I brought a sign to the May 10th protest that said: ‘Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult’.”

“‘Within five minutes of arriving I was told by a member of the police that I was not allowed to use that word, and that the final decision would be made by the inspector.”

A policewoman later read him section five of the Public Order Act and “strongly advised” him to remove the sign. Section five of the Public Order Act prohibits signs which have representations or words which are threatening, abusive or insulting.

The teenager refused to back down quoting a 1984 high court ruling from Mr Justice Latey, in which he described the Church of Scientology as a “cult” which was “corrupt, sinister and dangerous”.

Quite. If you live in France, you can call “Scientology” a cult or secte with impunity, because that is how it is defined in law. And as a point of fact, the “Church” of “Scientology” is not a religion under UK law either.

If it’s inaccurate, then, to call “Scientology” a religion, is it nonetheless correct, as the police claim, that to call it a “cult” is “threatening, abusive or insulting”? The OED actually offers a perfectly neutral usage not yet marked as obsolete:

2. a. A particular form or system of religious worship; esp. in reference to its external rites and ceremonies.

However, it must be admitted that these days, the word “cult” does usually signal disapprobation, as the draft additions of May 2004 to the OED entry record:

A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.

Perhaps this definition helps us out even so. For it can hardly be denied, even by a “Scientologist”, that some “others” regard the organization as strange or sinister. In which case, to call it a cult is merely to acknowledge that some people hold a low opinion of it. And indeed, the existence of such benighted folk would seem to be required by the organization’s own “philosophy”. It is only natural, after all, that people outside “Scientology” should think bad things about it, because they are still infected by the ghosts of dead aliens.

What would you call “Scientology”, readers?

  1. 1  William  May 20, 2008, 2:13 pm 

    How about, ‘A pyramid scheme set up by a drug-addled science fiction writer, in order to make himself and his friends massive amounts of cash’?

  2. 2  Steven  May 20, 2008, 2:27 pm 

    That has a certain piquancy, but I worry that it wouldn’t fit on a placard.

  3. 3  CB  May 20, 2008, 2:48 pm 

    I guess it could be shortened to fit, though:

    ‘Junkie-founded church money-spinner’

  4. 4  leinad  May 20, 2008, 2:58 pm 

    Offensive signery eh?

  5. 5  abb1  May 20, 2008, 3:03 pm 


  6. 6  Steven  May 20, 2008, 6:15 pm 

    Ah, that’s great leinad, a single still from Father Ted is enough to put a big smile on my face for the rest of the day.

  7. 7  sw  May 20, 2008, 6:44 pm 

    Scientology is best viewed as “a very mildly amusing parody of mid-20th century psychology and psychiatry, which some people have taken way, way too seriously, including the original parodists”.

    I like to think of Scientologists as the equivalent of Marxists – by which I mean, people who follow the Marx Brothers and think that such comic classics as Duck Soup and Monkey Business are straight-faced polemics on the nature of politics and class, and are willing to pay all their money to fellow Marxists in order to have the secrets of Marx brothers films explained to them while they tell their own secrets to Higher Marxists (those who have gone past the entry Harpo stage, transcended Chicoism, and are now in the Groucho level of Marxism, where they begin to learn the secret truths of Zeppo). Yes, they’re like Marxists. Except lacking the genius of the Marx Brothers. That bit is left out.

  8. 8  sw  May 20, 2008, 6:48 pm 

    BTW, if you want to learn more about the Church of Marxology, send me 50 Euros for introductory materials. It will include a Marx Brothers Quiz, to test your aptitude for cigar-chomping, harp playing, Italian-American-accented chicanery. I accept paypal, cheque, credit cards, and deep massage (please send a photograph).

  9. 9  Steven  May 20, 2008, 8:23 pm 

    I sent you a photograph of Angelina Jolie, will that do?

  10. 10  Gonerill  May 20, 2008, 9:29 pm 

    A remarkably toxic combination of Science Fiction, Psychotherapy, Military Organization, and Amway.

  11. 11  C. Reaves  May 20, 2008, 10:50 pm 

    Just when I, as a liberal American, start to think I’m living in a repressive police state you Brits bring me back to reality and cheer me up. Things could be worse! In the area of CCTV and now in protest signs we clearly haven’t sunk to the bottom of the scale. At least the police don’t arrest us for our protest signs – they just shove us off to wire-fenced “Freedom Zones” where no one can see them.

  12. 12  Steven  May 20, 2008, 10:58 pm 

    Yes. Say what you like about America (and I often do), this kind of insania couldn’t happen there, since they have very much the right idea on “free speech”.

    The very notion that it should be forbidden to say or hold a placard saying anything that might be construed as “insulting” to a multimillion (or is it billion?)-dollar international surreal-science-fiction corporation just beggars belief.

  13. 13  richard  May 21, 2008, 12:09 am 

    perhaps the police officer was just dyslexic? Cult is awfully close to another word that actually is threatening, abusive or insulting.

    In any event, objecting to the content of a placard is plain weird and, when indulged in by the police, threatening, abusive or insulting. I wonder where you go to complain about that.

    My own day was made when I had to search for a working payphone outside Goodge Street tube. The only one accepting money was covered in “anonymous” stickers, repeating their “we will destroy Scientology” slogan. From the right angle you can see the Scientology branch shop framed in them.

    Oh, and: a corporation really, really is not a person. How, when and why did it get the right and ability to be offended?

  14. 14  WIIIAI  May 21, 2008, 1:53 am 

    My favorite phrase in the Guardian article: “religiously aggravated crime.” As opposed to aggravating religions, I suppose.

    P.S. I always thought Duck Soup was a documentary.

    P.P.S. I have reached the level of the Invisible Order of the Gummo.

    P.P.P.S. Where’s my picture of Angelina?

  15. 15  Flying Rodent  May 21, 2008, 10:11 am 

    What would you call “Scientology”, readers?

    Idiot tax?

  16. 16  ukliberty  May 21, 2008, 12:55 pm 

    You could hold a placard reading “Scientology is an orange” and be subjected to this stupid law.

    Perhaps protestors should wear clothing and brandish placards that read, “we are threated, abused and insulted by any writing, sign or other visible representation of Scientology or the City of London police and are likely to be harassed, alarmed or distressed by it.”

    Then the law, Scientologists and City of London police can disappear up their own collective arse.

  17. 17  john b  May 21, 2008, 2:49 pm 

    Say what you like about America (and I often do), this kind of insania couldn’t happen there, since they have very much the right idea on “free speech”.


    I’m sure I’ve seen plenty of cases of peaceful Yank placrad-wavers being hauled off by local plod, at least in the more hick districts. Obviously the cases get thrown out of court as soon as a judge who isn’t the demonstration’s target’s uncle turns up – but the same would be true for this one if it ever reached court. Which it won’t.

    Definitely time to abolish the City of London police and fold it into the Met, though. It’s not surprising that one arcane, weird, undemocratic and meaningless organisation backs up another…

  18. 18  Roger  May 21, 2008, 3:16 pm 

    On the face of it, this is an ass of a law. It is clearly a discretionary law, otherwise any amount of billboards for sexy lingerie (I assume you have them in Blighty?) and even those religioius exhortations outside churches could be guilty of causing harassment, alarm or distress to someone. Half the t-shirts people wear would be actionable. For goodness’ sake, even god could be arrested for the very public electrical storms which are, and have been described as, “visible representations” of god’s wrath – Katrina? Burma? China? – which cause alarm and distress. None of the three defences would be available to god:

    (1) The defendant had no reason to believe that there was any person within hearing or sight who was likely to be alarmed of distressed by his action.
    (2) The defendant was in a dwelling and had no reason to believe that his behaviour would be seen or heard by any person outside any dwelling.
    (3) The conduct was reasonable.

    On the other hand, the teenager in question ought never to have been summonsed, since his placard was clearly reasonable.

    Strangely, there is no definition (or is there?) of precisely what a “sign” is. I think the semiologists and postmodernists could drag out debates in the courts for years.

    It is really very sad to see Britain, which used to be a shining light, contracting into such silly, ignorant, narrow, secular-calvinist moralism.

  19. 19  Stephen  May 21, 2008, 5:33 pm 

    They don’t like being called a ‘cult’ do they? One of the joys of the famous John Sweeney documentary was his dropping the word ‘cult’ into a question and watching the Scientologist PR people kick off like the actors in that Blackadder episode where Rowan Atkinson kept saying ‘Macbeth’.

    I’m guessing that some genius at Scientologist HQ has decided that if they can stop anyone, anywhere calling them a ‘cult’ no-one will bat an eyelid at anything else they get up to, without twigging that the average person will consider the degree of over reaction involved vastly more sinister than someone knocking on the door during Football Focus and asking to have a chat about the Bible.

    Perhaps they should have a go at reclaiming the positive use of the term ‘cult’, as in that TV series a while ago ‘The Cult of [Insert Name Of Much Loved TV Sci-Fi Series From The Seventies]’. They could re-brand themselves as the Blake’s 7 of dubious pyramid selling schemes.

  20. 20  Picador  May 21, 2008, 9:44 pm 

    The very notion that it should be forbidden to say or hold a placard saying anything that might be construed as “insulting” to a multimillion (or is it billion?)-dollar international surreal-science-fiction corporation just beggars belief.

    But of course, the UK has always had fairly draconian defamation laws, and corporations have deployed them quite effectively to persecute their critics. (See, e.g., the McLibel case of the 1990s, which only got overturned by the ECHR in 2005.)

    The kicker in this story which no one seems to have pointed out in the comments is the prior Guardian story on how the London cops are BFFs with the CoS after an extended suck-up campaign in 2005-2006:

    The hospitality included guest invitations in May for two constables and a sergeant to attend the premiere of Mission Impossible 3 in Leicester Square, where they were able to rub shoulders with the best known Scientologist of all and the star of the film, Tom Cruise.

    The gang who were screaming and yelling about the religious hate speech legislation in 2006 and its potential for abuse should find this latest development unsurprising.

  21. 21  Steven  May 22, 2008, 1:04 am 

    I think there is a problem with Flying Rodent’s “idiot tax” in that “Scientology” preys on welcomes into its fold the vulnerable, not merely the stupid.

    Stephen is right to point out the positive meaning of “cult” as in cult book or cult movie. Perhaps “Scientology” can call itself a cult cult?

    PS WIIIAI, your picture of Angelina is here.

  22. 22  dsquared  May 22, 2008, 9:25 am 

    What would you call “Scientology”, readers?

    based on casual observation of friends’ experiences with it (not all of which have been negative, I’d have to say), I’d call it an expensive form of psychotherapy (is there any other form kind) which seems neither more nor less effective than Freudian analysis and which is run by complete tools.

  23. 23  hey zeus  May 22, 2008, 12:05 pm 

    i’d call it a club. it’s like one of those old BMG ‘book clubs’ where you got the first five books or videos or games for a tenner and then you had to buy one a month for the next year and a half at full price. (or they just sent you the editor’s choice of the month.)
    it’s just an expensive psychology club.
    buyer beware, innit?

  24. 24  D-Notice  May 22, 2008, 10:23 pm 

    What would you call “Scientology”, readers?

    “Twat-ism”, so the followers can be called “Twats”.

  25. 25  Steven  May 23, 2008, 1:11 am 

    Hey Zeus, I remember those book clubs. I did get a beautiful edition of the letters of Delacroix from one of them. Nice analogy!

  26. 26  Guano  May 23, 2008, 2:39 pm 

    The boy is not to be charged. Sanity has been restored.

  27. 27  Steven  May 23, 2008, 3:34 pm 

    Excellent, thanks for the update.

  28. 28  hey zeus  May 25, 2008, 3:36 am 

    Delacroix? props to you Steven, i joined up and all i got was monty on the run for my amstrad. I played it for a week and sent it back recorded delivery, only the “book club” didn’t recognise my request to terminate my membership of the contract and started threatening to take me to court. I was only nine, so they had to let it go in the end, but looking back – perhaps this very transaction was the root of a lot of STRESS for me. My fear of commitment, my distrust of authority, my indiscriminate cynicism.
    Now that i’ve unearthed the cause of my problems i can bury them again and move on with my life, or i can shoot them with with this imaginary laser. Pyeow! Hooray, success for me. thank you Jeebus.

  29. 29  Joseph H. Vilas  May 25, 2008, 5:09 pm 

    Perhaps the teen should adorn another sign with a direct quotation from Mr Justice Latey’s decision (with a suitable citation, of course). While I don’t want this teen to get in trouble again, I relish the idea of police arresting someone for brandishing a court decision.

  30. 30  Jeff Hussein Strabone  May 26, 2008, 6:45 am 

    As Steve pointed out at the top, in many countries, like the UK, there are legal and other consequences to official determinations that something is or is not a religion. Leaving such questions aside, I don’t understand why one would not call Scientology a religion. That its beliefs are utterly ridiculous to non-believers or that its leaders appear to be enriching themselves on their congregants’ assets does not distinguish it from some other things in the world that one readily calls ‘religions’, although one could clearly say the same about them.

  31. 31  Steven  May 26, 2008, 11:59 am 

    From the Charity Commission’s 1999 decision [pdf]:

    (1) […] (a) The Commissioners considered that the legal authorities establishing the meaning of religion in charity law were ambiguous, but having construed such authorities in a way compatible with ECHR they concluded that the definition of religion was characterised by a belief in a supreme being and an expression of belief in that supreme being through worship. Re South Place Ethical Society [1980] 1 WLR 1565, Dillon J at p. 1572 D-E.

    (b) The Commissioners decided that the concept of a supreme being was broader than the theistic concept of a personal creator god, but otherwise it would not be proper to specify the precise nature of that concept or require it to be analogous to the deity or supreme being of any particular religion. However the Commissioners did not find themselves compelled to reject the concept of theism altogether nor to accept the abstract concept of the notion of a supernatural thing or principle. The Commissioners concluded that Scientology believed in a supreme being.

    (c) The Commissioners decided that the criterion of worship would be met where the belief in a supreme being found its expression in conduct indicative of reverence or veneration for the supreme being. R v Registrar General ex parte Segerdal [1970] 2 QB, 697 Winn LJ at p. 709A. It was not possible to worship an ethical or philosophical ideal with reverence. Re South Place Ethical Society, Dillon J at p. 1573A. Worship may manifest itself in particular activities which might include acts of submission, veneration, praise, thanksgiving, prayer or intercession. R v Registrar General ex parte Segerdal, Buckley LJ at p. 709 F-G..

    The Commissioners having considered the activities of auditing and training, which Scientology regards as its worship, concluded that auditing is more akin to therapy or counselling and training more akin to study and that both auditing and training are not in their essence exhibitions of reverence paid to a supreme being and such Scientology practices are not worship for the purposes of charity law. The Commissioners decided that auditing and training do not constitute worship as defined and interpreted from the legal authorities.

  32. 32  Sam C  May 26, 2008, 1:51 pm 

    The Charity Commission’s decision is interesting (and admirably clear). CoS can’t be a charity either (1) as a religion; or (2) as directed to the moral and spiritual improvement of the community. It can’t be (1), as above, because it’s not sufficiently like a religion: its practices don’t express reverence for a supreme being. It can’t be (2), though, because it’s too much like a religion: its putative benefits are limited to members of the organization, not available to anyone, as a matter of individual choice, from time to time. You have to join to be improved.

    So, CoS is in an odd gray area: it’s a religion in institutional structure, but not in the practices it promotes. Are there other such organizations?

    I’m also intrigued by the Commission’s decision that one can’t revere an ethical or philosophical ideal (in the relevant religious sense).

  33. 33  Jeff Hussein Strabone  May 26, 2008, 7:31 pm 

    If people say their beliefs are a religion, then I say their beliefs are a religion.

  34. 34  richard  May 26, 2008, 10:26 pm 

    I agree with Jeff in principle but I concede that, if I sat in a committee that had to decide on the awarding of a charitable status that came with tax breaks, I might rely on something other than my own instincts.

    I’m not convinced the CoS is penalised for being too much like a religion: it’s assumed not to provide a ‘public benefit’ because of its whole cash-milking structure, which somehow makes any benefit ‘private.’

    My first reaction to the Charity Commission’s report, though, is that it provides a remarkable, and interestingly accented, negative portrait of Christianity. The criteria it sets down are… interesting. Scientology was not established for public benefit, we are told. Were other religions?

  35. 35  Steven  May 26, 2008, 11:20 pm 

    There can be no doubt that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was established for the public benefit.

  36. 36  Jeff Hussein Strabone  May 27, 2008, 2:31 am 

    Again leaving aside legal determinations and their consequences, the OED provides a broad definition of ‘religion’ that is grounded first in practice and membership more than divine belief.

    ‘1. a. A state of life bound by monastic vows; the condition of one who is a member of a religious order, esp. in the Roman Catholic Church.’

    From the outside, Scientology certainly looks like a state of life. I am no authority, but I think that its members pledge themselves to the organization in a way that would satisfy the definition of ‘monastic’.

    The second definition is similarly broad and has no requirement of belief in a divine being per se:

    ‘2. a. A particular monastic or religious order or rule; a religious house. Now rare.’

    The third definition requires divine belief, although one can merely act in a way that ‘implies’ such belief. (I should point out that all three are traced to the early 1200’s.)

    ‘3. a. Action or conduct indicating a belief in, reverence for, and desire to please, a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice of rites or observances implying this.’

    Finally, for the consideration of Unspeak readers, a quotation from the fourth definition:

    ‘1849 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. vi. II. 65 All religions were the same to him.’

  37. 37  ejh  May 29, 2008, 9:09 am 


  38. 38  richard  May 29, 2008, 9:29 pm 

    a peculiar Islamophobic racist who haunts my blog raised the Canadian case for comparison. I’m conflicted: on the one hand, the Canadian case seems to give neo-Nazis a forum to appear rather sensible: on the other, they appear rather sensible…

    NOTE: it all seems to be about defending Mark Steyn. I would only do this with the greatest reluctance. The one light I see in this turgid, intolerant landscape is the possibility that the Scientologists (who are patently ridiculous) might go into legal bat for all religious groups everywhere and lose resoundingly. Imagine if an actual legal precedent were created, in favour of free (if offensive) speech, simply because the offended parties were Hubbardians. I think I’d like that.

  39. 39  ukliberty  June 2, 2008, 8:43 pm 

    can’t use the word cult in Strathclyde either.

  40. 40  richard  June 6, 2008, 2:02 am 

    and now even the emo kids are getting in on the cultophobia:

    Ah, the Daily Mail. Whenever I question my decision to move to the US, o find myself yearning for a more tolerant and balanced society, a quick whiff of the Mail sets me straight.

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