Cult or religion: What's the difference?

The Church of Scientology is doing its utmost to be recognised in the UK as a bone fide religion.

BBC News, July 13, 1999

E-cyclopedia It has launched a TV advertising campaign, set up a month-long exhibition, and is pasting up posters in London's underground at a great rate of knots.

Its efforts are co-ordinated to assist the church's case for religious status with the Charities Commission.

But whatever the outcome of its applications to the commission, it will have a mighty battle on its hands to shed its popular image as a cult.

The Unification Church, also known as the Moonies did it, and now enjoy being officially recognised in this country as a religion.

But Scientologists have no such reputation, with the church being banned from British prisons - whilst in Germany, members are not allowed to stand for parliament.

The term "cult", says the Cult Information Centre in London, applies to a group which demonstrates five different qualities (see fact box).

Scientologists are by no means averse to suing when the faintest scent of defamation is in the air. And the centre does not say that the church is a cult.

But the centre's spokesman Ian Haworth, says the group and its activities have caused him serious concern for the past couple of decades.

The judge in a custody battle in 1984, said the Church of Scientology was "corrupt, sinister and dangerous".

Allegations which the church strenuously denies, saying the word cult is merely propaganda by redefinition of terms.

Spokesman Graeme Wilson said: "Cult was originally a word that indicated religious worship, but it has now been appropriated to incorporate new religions - and dangerous apocolyptic groups.

"There is no way that Scientology can be compared to groups like the Solar Temple, or with what happened at Waco or Jonestown."

In a nutshell - and the church has published more than one million pages on the subject - the aims of Scientology are to free the "Thetan" (free-thinking being) which is passed through incarnations into every mortal body.

It was the brainchild of the late Reverend L. Ron Hubbard, one-time science fiction writer, and has been in the UK since the mid 50s.

Hubbard set up processes designed to eliminate "engrams" (established dodgy patterns of thought, which may have resulted from misdeeds in past lives).

Moonies are recognised as belonging to an official religion. Getting rid of engrams and striving for enlightenment through Dianetics - a kind of personal reprogramming achieved by intensive counselling - are the general aims and activities of church members.

People who have left Scientology have also complained that as well as being intensive, the counselling can be extremely expensive.

All very well for the celebrity members, who count the likes of John Travolta, Kirsty Alley and Tom Cruise in their ranks, but a potentially heavy burden for the average man or woman in the street.

Mr Howarth says that it is not unknown for individuals to spend tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pounds trying to free their Thetan.

But he added that it was not a group's central belief - or even the amount of money it made - that earned it the status of cult.

He said: "In a democratic situation, if people want to believe something, however strange that may appear to outsiders, then that is entirely their business and their right to do so.

"And people are free to give money to whatever cause or faith they see fit.

"If, however, someone - whatever group it might be - is interfering with someone's right to free choice, then that is completely anti-democratic, and dangerous."

He said that estimating conservatively, there were currently about 500 cults operating in the UK, most purporting to be religions.

"Many people choose to believe that people who end up in cults are weak-minded," he said.

"There is this misconception that cults single out lonely, marginalised people. While you cannot dispute that lonely people may be more receptive to any kind of social contact, it would be wrong to say that cults know who the lonely ones are.

"The truth is that people who are taken over by cults are generally smart people. What we are talking about is mind control, and where that is involved anyone can be a victim."

The imminent arrival of the new millennium has brought the issue of cults into sharp focus.

Waco: Scientologists say they can't be compared to doomsday cults like the Branch DavidiansThey are gaining in popularity across the board. While the Concerned Christians have been dispatched from Jerusalem (where it was believed they would try to kick-start armageddon as the clock ticked past midnight on January 1 next year) - the Aum cult is stronger in numbers than it ever has been.

But the Church of Scientology says members are free to come and go as they please, and that it does not use "brainwashing" techniques.

And they say that the church is a religion, if an unconventional one.

Mr Wilson added: "Our problems of image stem from the days when Dianetics was published. That upset a lot of psychiatrists, who were criticised for their use of mind controlling drugs, lobotomies and electro convulsive therapy."

He said allegations of brainwashing were left over from "a conspiracy" against them by the psychiatric profession.

"It is important to us that we are recognised as a bone fide religion. All new religions go through a period when they are thrown to the lions and persecuted.

"Then there is the crossover when they are accepted into the mainstream - and we are at that crossover now."

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