Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

4.4 Religion and social policy

Understanding religious beliefs and practices and what we mean by ‘religion’ is not merely of academic interest. It is often bound up with social policy and so relates to the rights and privileges of individuals. In Britain, for example, the Church of Scientology has not been allowed to register its centre as a place of worship – the closest an organisation can get under British law to being recognised as a ‘religion’ – and thus it has been refused the tax exemptions granted to religious groups as charitable organisations. Between 1968 and 1980, foreign Scientologists were not allowed to enter Britain if their declared purpose was to further the cause of Scientology.

The Church of Scientology has been a highly controversial movement. I will briefly explain why, but I want to use this controversy primarily as an example of the way in which societies determine what is and what is not ‘religion’. The theory of Scientology came from the American science-fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard, who, in 1950, outlined his theory of ‘dianetics’. Dianetics is a form of therapy designed to purge the individual of ‘engrams’ – the accumulated imprints of past unpleasant experiences that disturb the reincarnated spirits (or ‘thetans’), dwelling within human beings. Scientology claims to help the individual by using a therapeutic method developed by Hubbard. The Church of Scientology was created in 1954 in the United States, according to one view, so that Scientology could take advantage of the freedom of religion guaranteed under the American Constitution. Scientologists meet on Sundays at services led by recognised ministers in which taped lectures by L. Ron Hubbard are widely used and take the place of prayers and worship. It is on account of this change from therapeutic system to ‘church’ that Scientology is often counted as a ‘new religious movement’.

For almost two decades in Britain, however, accusations have been levelled against Scientology that it is a commercial rather than a religious concern, that its therapeutic system is based on fraud. In 1968 the then Minister of Health described it as a ‘pseudo-philosophical cult’ and as ‘socially harmful’. It has been accused of being an oppressive and intimidating organisation that insists its members separate (or ‘disconnect’) themselves from family and friends who express hostility towards the movement. In ruling that the custody of children should be granted to an ex-Scientologist mother, rather than to their father who remained within Scientology, a British High Court judge described Scientology in 1984 as ‘corrupt, sinister and dangerous’ and as a ‘cult’ (quoted in Beckford, 1985, p. 68). Since the 1950s Scientology has developed a global following. Popular Hollywood film stars (Tom Cruise and John Travolta) are known to be members of the Church of Scientology. In spite of the high profile of some of its members, as I write, Scientology continues to be regarded with deep suspicion by governments in Britain, France and Germany where it is held not to be an authentic expression of ‘religion’.

Under Australian law, however, Scientology has been registered as a ‘religion’. Two of the Australian justices who ruled on the status of Scientology identified two characteristics of ‘religion’ – belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle and a pattern of behaviour that expressed that belief. On this basis, because of its belief in thetans, reincarnation and its goal to release thetans, Scientology was judged to be a religion. A third judge asserted that there was no single characteristic that could be used in law to identify ‘religion’ but he too felt that a belief in the supernatural was an important indicator (Beckford, 1985, p. 133).

Take the case of TM again. In the United States a legal suit was filed against TM in 1976 to test whether it was, as it claimed, merely a meditation technique and not a religion. At stake was the question of whether, under the secular constitution of the United States, TM could be taught in public high schools and so receive grants of public money. The court's verdict was that TM was a religion, and it pointed to similarities between concepts used by TM and other religious, and specifically Hindu, concepts.

Before you seize on this judgement as a way to resolve the problem posed in the Exercise 3, look at the way the court justified its refusal of the defendants' request that the court define ‘religion’:

Owing to the variety of form and substance which religions may take, the courts have avoided the establishment of explicit criteria, the possession of which indelibly identifies an activity as religious.

(quoted in Baird, 1982, p. 404)

The differences in the responses to movements like TM and Scientology in Britain, Australia and the United States result in part from legal and constitutional differences between these countries. They also hint at the same underlying problems we encountered when reflecting on the characteristics of ‘religion’ in Section 3. It would seem that convention, custom and practice tell us what counts as ‘religion’. But what if new movements emerge that claim to be ‘religious’, or if the demands of social policy – as in the case of TM in the United States and Scientology in Britain – require that judgements be made about what is and what is not ‘religion’?

As we have seen, there are a number of compelling reasons why we should find out what we mean by religion. We can get to one of these by continuing with Eileen Barker's discussion of ‘new religious movements’.

Exercise 8

Please now read the extract from Eileen Barker's New Religious Movements and then answer the following three questions:

  1. Why does Barker think that we need consider the question ‘what do we mean by religion?’

  2. What problems does Barker meet when she tackles this question?

  3. In what ways, if any, does Barker help you to answer this question?

(Note: follow the main lines of Barker's argument; you are not expected to be familiar with or to memorise the details relating to the many groups referred to in the extract.)

A4: Barker, E. (1989) Appendix II, ‘New religious movements: definitions, variety and numbers’, pp.145–8, 149–150, © Crown Copyright. Reproduced with the permission of the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Reading A4: Eileen Barker,’New religious movements: definitions, variety and numbers’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]


  1. For Barker, it is the ‘wave of new religious movements’, which have taken shape in the post-war period, that causes her to reflect on the question ‘what do we mean by religion?’

  2. She points to difficulties in giving a ready answer to this question: some definitions are too narrow, some too broad, and some scholars who have listed characteristics of religion have admitted that not all these characteristics need to be evident for a movement to qualify as a religion. Barker also acknowledges that prejudice and vested interests often cloud the issue.

  3. As to whether Barker helps us to answer the question ‘what do we mean by religion?’, beyond pointing to problems in arriving at satisfactory answers, I personally doubt it. To state that most of the movements to which she refers ‘are religious in the sense that either they offer a religious or philosophical worldview’ hardly clarifies the underlying meaning of the term ‘religious’.

It is becoming evident that the question ‘what is religion?’ is fundamental to the study of religion. As we have seen, answers to this question can have significant practical implications for society. This does not mean that everybody who confronts this question will pursue it critically. Some individuals may go no further than their own religious beliefs for an answer, while some who dismiss religion as a waste of time, in effect, similarly base their very different response on their own beliefs. Creating the mental space in which to pause and to examine rationally and systematically that which we know as ‘religion’, in a way that does not merely reflect our own personal judgements on the truth and value of religion, is the beginning of the critical study of religion.


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