The Church of Scientology was founded by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in the early 1950s.
The Church of Scientology was founded by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in the early 1950s. (AAP: Dean Lewins)
Senator Nick Xenophon's attack on the Church of Scientology has raised several questions about its position within Australia.
A lecturer in philosophy and religious studies at La Trobe University, Dr Rod Blackhurst, spoke to The World Today about the Church and the current controversy.
Depending what country you are in, Scientology could be a religion, a cult, a quasi-religion, or a religious charity.
It was founded by the science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in the early 1950s and in 1983 the Australian High Court ruled it is a religion.
Dr Blackhurst says Scientology is able to thrive because of the difficulty in defining religion.
"Generally speaking, it seems to behave as what you'd describe as a cult, certainly not as a full-blown religion in the sense that Christianity or Buddhism or Islam are religions," he said.
"It's a new religion, there's lots and lots of these new religions. By and large they're referred to as cults or sects."
He says Scientology takes advantage of the confusion over what constitutes a religion.
"There's no certain definition of what a religion is and Scientology plays upon that. It thrives in that ambiguity of exactly what a religion is and in different parts of the world there's different answers to that," he said.
"[These answers are] largely decided by courts and judges because religions in this particular case come with tax exemption and that really is the crucial issue.
"What is a religion only matters in the public sphere in as much as in most places it provides you with a tax exemption."
'Mishmash of stuff'
The religious studies lecturer says Scientology draws heavily from Buddhism and science fiction.
"It's essentially a mishmash of stuff - it's syncretic. By and large it's closest I guess to Buddhism in some ways," he said.
"Basically what L Ron Hubbard did - the founder of Scientology - he's a science fiction writer and he took some of the basic simple techniques of Buddhism and elements from other religions and he re-packaged them with a scientific veneer and then linked it to his particular science fiction.
"So it's a very strange sort of mixture of stuff from all different traditions. But probably closest in some ways a perversion of the doctrines of Buddhism."
He says while it is not necessarily always destructive for practitioners, there have many cases of people who have had problems with the church.
"There's many, many people who practice Scientology and who live perfectly comfortable and productive lives, and so in that sense they would certainly say that it is not dangerous," he said.
"However there is a long, long list of people who've had severe problems with Scientology, and Senator Xenophon has letters from people who claim that they've had very bad experiences with Scientology.
"So I don't think you can generalise. I don't think you can say, 'well it's dangerous to everybody', obviously I think it probably helps some people. But obviously others, they get mixed up in it and they feel ripped off and cheated and abused."
Church spokesman Cyrus Brooks has slammed Senator Xenophon's claims as an outrageous abuse of parliamentary privilege.
He says the allegations have never been put to the church by the people who have written the letters.
Dr Blackhurst says Senator Xenophon's claims that Scientology is a criminal organisation refer to its tax status.
"He thinks that they're fraudulent and that they're posing as a religion and that they're taking the Australian taxpayers for a ride on that basis," he said.
"Also I think the criminal elements he'd be referring to would be the way that people who are not happy with the organisation are treated.
"Scientology has a long history of having some very, very savage lawyers who will go after people who are discontent with the organisation or who speak out against the organisation."
Dr Blackhurst says he does not believe it is a real religion and therefore does not deserve its tax exemptions.
"This is a matter for the courts to decide and it really comes down to exactly what does constitute a religion and to what extent it contributes to the public good," he said.
"My own view is that it's not really a religion; it's packaged like a religion, and that therefore it shouldn't be subsidised by the taxpayers.
"Although there are elements of it that are involved in charity and things like that and I suppose that in that sense it's a community organisation and it may do some good in that capacity."