A University of Alberta researcher was in Ireland last week to take part in the ongoing global discussion about Scientology - a body of beliefs and practices initially developed by on the writings of L. Ron Hubbard.
Stephen Kent, a professor in the Department of Sociology, was invited by the Literary and Historical Society of the University College Dublin to participate in a debate centred on whether Ireland should support Scientology's right to organize in the Irish state.
Officially developed in the 1952, Scientology is based on Hubbard's earlier self-help system termed Dianetics, an approach which aims to clear one's mind of its 'reactive' portion which Scientologists believe is the source of both mental and psychosomatic physical problems.
"Scientology (representatives) did not show up for the event, so student debaters took its side; and the vote was overwhelmingly against the motion," said Kent. "My side won in a landslide. The students were clever, articulate, well-researched and excellent debaters."
Debate societies in Ireland and the United Kingdom have a long tradition of training up-and-comers for careers in politics and social policy, said Kent. "Consequently, these debating societies don't have any official status, but they have a fair amount of social prominence."
And the debate is just part of a much larger discussion going on throughout the European Union.
"Scientology's efforts to gain legitimacy, to gain charitable status in Ireland, are part of a larger European effort to gain charitable status throughout the European Union and beyond," said Kent. "So, the public discussion about the organization in Ireland is best seen in a larger European context, which has an intense debate about Scientology going on in political and legal arenas.
"Court decisions in Russia and Spain seem to support Scientology's efforts to be identified as a religion, whereas countries such as Belgium are moving toward a criminal case against the organization. Both the French and German governments remain very suspicious about Scientology, and it has increased its activities recently in the United Kingdom."
The parameters of the debate changed slightly. The original motion up for discussion was whether religious status should be granted to Scientology in Ireland.
"I think they avoided the issue of religion and charitable status because it was too specific, whereas this motion is deliberately vague, thereby allowing for debate about the possible religion's nature of Scientology, as well as discussions about its social and business practices," said Kent.
The problem with discussing Scientology solely in the context of religion is that it minimizes the organization's other endeavours, he said.
"When I thought the issue was going to be whether Scientology is a religion, I was going to argue that it's a multi-faceted organization, only one part of which is religious. It also is involved in business activities, pseudo-counselling, pseudo-medical claims, reputed drug treatment programs, educational programs and alternative family structures, and so on," Kent said. "Consequently, to elevate religion over all those other dimensions would give Scientology a master status that would ignore its multi-faceted aspects."
But 'religion' is also one of the safest designations for an organization to have, because it is inviolate.
"That's exactly why groups want it," said Kent. "You call a group a religion and it blurs all of its activities."
Recent talk about Scientology has also been fuelled by media buzz around celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta - just two of the many high-profile celebrities who are members of the organization.
"The buzz points to the kookiness, but it does so based on the careers of very successful people. It certainly is a force to be reckoned within the cultural world," said Kent. "You've got an organization deliberately targeting Hollywood personalities and occasionally having great success at doing so. On the other hand, you've got some people who have left the organization after three or more years of immersion, being very bitter and speaking quite harshly about the living and working conditions."
As one of the world's only academics researching and writing about Scientology, Kent has been invited to speak about his work in all sorts of public forums, including a high-profile court case in Ireland, in which a former member was suing the organization. "That's probably why I was invited to this debate," he said.
His research has been translated into German, French, Italian and Ukrainian.
"Not many academics study Scientology, and that may be because they may not want to risk the intense scrutiny and possibly harassment that sometimes gets focused on those that write critically about the organization," he said. "To speak objectively, but critically, about Scientology is to invite hostile reactions, and I've certainly had my share of those.
"So, you could say that I've tackled some controversial topics about Scientology, often invoking the ire of the organization itself and occasionally from academics who are supportive of the organization."