The Sydney Morning Herald, Wed 23 Nov 1983, p14

When fervour leads a faithful flock astray


If Moses did not receive the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, but only said he did, Judaism would still constitute a valid religion.

This hypothetical argument was put to the High Court in the recently concluded Scientology case.

Mr D. Bennett, QC, representing the Church of Scientology, said that a movement's claim to be accepted as a religion did not depend on the sincerity or honesty of its founder or leaders - what counted was the attitude of the members.

The High Court judges, in their record of findings, take a tolerant view of fraud in religion, accepting that a distinction should be drawn between a "shepherd" and his "flock".

Justices Mason and Brennan state: "Charlatanism is a necessary price of religious freedom, and if a self-proclaimed teacher persuades others to believe in a religion which he propounds, lack of sincerity or integrity on his part is not incompatible with the religious character of the beliefs, practices and observances accepted by his followers."

This view disagrees with the findings of Justice Crockett, who ruled in the Victorian Supreme Court that Scientology was "no less a sham because there are others prepared to accept and act upon such aims and beliefs as though they were credible when they cannot see them for what they are. Gullibility cannot convert something from what it is to something which it is not."

Mr Bennett, who argued against the concept of "sham", offered further hypothetical examples.

If an independent tribunal were to find that Henry VIII broke with Rome for motives which were unworthy - that is, to obtain a divorce - would this affect the claim of the Church of England to be recognised as a religious body?

If a hospital operating under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church were found to be administered or controlled by non-believers, would this affect its claim to be a bona fide religious institution?

Mr Bennett said the answer in both cases must be no.

There is a view in legal circles in the US that any organisation calling itself a religion should be so regarded.

Reference was made to a body calling itself the Neo-American Church, which was registered legally in California, in 1965.

The Church, which claims a membership of 20,000, is headed by a Chief Boo Boo. His deputy, a man called Kuch, has title Primate of the Potomac. The Church's only article of faith is that "everyone has the right to expand his consciousness and stimulate visionary experiences" through the taking of LSD.

The tolerant attitude of the California State Government did not impress Federal US tax officers, who declared the Neo-American Church a "sham."

Evidence was given to the High Court that pecuniary interests do not rob a religion of its character. Mr Bennett referred to the protest of Martin Luther against the sale of indulgences, and Christ's upsetting of the money-lenders' tables.

(The court had earlier heard that Scientology, as well as charging fees for its courses, gave a financial inducement to church members who enrolled others.)

Mr Bennet stated: "It cannot, in my submission, be a disqualification of a religion that some aspects of it make money for the purposes of the religion."

Justice Murphy, in his record of findings, supports the thrust of this argument, stating: "Most organised religions have been riddled with commercialism, this being an integral part of the drive by their leaders for social authority and power. The amassing of wealth by organised religions often means that the leaders live richly, sometimes in palaces, even though many of the believers live in poverty.

"Many religions have been notorious for corrupt trafficking in relics, other sacred objects, and religious offices, as well as condoning sin, even in advance, for money."

The court overruled a decision of the Victorian Supreme Court that "the ecclesiastical appearance now assumed by the organisation (Scientology) is no more than colourable in order to serve an ulterior purpose", namely, that of acquiring the legal status of a religion in order to gain tax benefits.

Justice Crockett stated at that time that "the very adroitness and alacrity with which the tenets of structure" of Scientology were "cynically adapted" to meet alleged deficiencies robbed the movement of "that sincerity and integrity that must be cardinal features of any religious faiths."

The High Court accepted the right of a body, which once considered itself non-religious, to change its mind.

Evidence was given of an "evolution" within Scientology. The movement started in Australia in the 1950s, at which time it was known as the Hubbard Association of Scientologists (HASI).

A members' journal published about this time stated: "HASI is non-religious - it does not demand any belief or faith, nor is it in conflict with faith. People of all faiths use Scientology."

According to Justice Murphy: "Many religions alter their beliefs to retain their social standing and acceptability. Most religions are not static but evolve in belief and structure as a result of internal and external pressure.

"As science has advanced, many religious beliefs have been abandoned or reinterpreted. When followers become sceptical, dogma tends to be reinterpreted as allegory, religious fact as fantasy and religious history as myth."

The High Court's summary of findings contains unintended humour. There is a reference, for instance, to the "impenetrable obscurity" of some of the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology.

Justices Mason and Brennan observe: "The meaning of obscure passages in writings advanced as religious writings is not necessarily ascertained by taking the ordinary meaning of the words used.

"The true meaning of such passages - that is, the meaning intended by the author, or apprehended by the adherents of the religion - can be furnished by those for whom the passages bear that meaning, but may well be missed by others.

"... A court cannot be assured that the meaning of writings said to be of religious significance is the meaning which the ordinary reader would attribute to them."

Justice Murphy, who is rather more cynical than his colleagues, says in his summary that organised religion has always had sceptics, unbelievers and outright opponents. He quotes Voltaire: "Nothing can be more contrary to religion and the clergy than reason and common sense."

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