posted 14 August 2005

L Ron Hubbard publicly stated that people were such idiots that he bet he could invent a new religion and have it turning a profit within a year.

He won the bet. So people say scientology isn't a proper religion, that it's a money-making scam disguised as a religion.

The thing is, scientology is a proper religion: it exists to make the people at the top rich and powerful by duping others into giving them money, and it is fiercely viral, actively converting new recruits and rewarding members who convert more people, as well as constantly dangling new carrots to retain existing members if they just pray a little harder, give a little more money. Finally, it attacks anyone who questions or criticizes it.

People act as if these features make scientology some kind of vicious cult, preying on the weak and stupid. And that's true. But it's hardly unique to scientology: until recently, Christianity also matched the above description. In recent centuries, Christianity has relaxed (some would say slipped into decadence), laying off proselytizing and accepting the existence of other religions. The result has been a steady haemmorhaging of members to atheism, agnosticism, or more often more old-fashioned, "active" branches of the church, such as evangelical churches. Islam, which also has a strong tradition of proselytizing and firm rules about financially supporting clerics and the mosque, has also benefited from the decline of Christianity

In the ecosystem of religions, Christianity is old and fat, Islam is the current alpha male, and Scientology is the young buck, with bigger teeth and sharper claws than either of them. But don't get confused: they are definitely all the same type of animal.

I wish I could say I have a live and let live attitude to religion. And, all in all, I pretty much do. I don't round on people with religious beliefs -- some of my closest friends and even family are quite serious about their spirituality. But I avoid the subject. Talking about religion with someone who believes in that religion makes me distinctly uncomfortable, because my conviction not to persecute them for their beliefs* is sorely tested by my desire to question how they could possibly hold totally illogical beliefs and reconcile them with the everyday existence of the world.

So I won't hassle you about having religion, but it should be clear: it's not because I think it's harmless, and perfectly okay for you to be religious. I don't hassle alcoholics, smokers or drug addicts either, but I certainly don't think their activities are a fine and noble idea, even if, just like religion, they have been around for thousands of years. I think religion blinds people, traps people, wastes their time and their energy and their minds and their money. I think it's actively bad for you personally, and society as a whole. And I'm sorry if that makes you unhappy, but I'd be sorrier if I lied to you and told you I thought it was fine.

Bad for society? Oh yes. People point to the beautiful, towering cathedrals of Europe, the works of art, the humanitarian efforts of churches across the globe. But those cathedrals took hundreds of years to build, with thousands of workers spending their whole lives on the project, while the people in the city below lived in poverty and squalor. What if all that effort had been devoted to building schools, hospitals and sewer systems instead of an edifice that exists, in the end, only for the purpose of persuading the awestruck congregation to donate money to build the next one? And for every humanitarian effort saving lives (and picking up a few converts along the way), there are a dozen pointless conflicts inspired by religious disagreements in Israel and Palestine, Kashmir, Serbia and Darfur, resulting in thousands upon thousands of deaths. For every minute of joy on hearing a choir at Christmas, there is a decade of misery in a war-torn nation.

Religion is a strong idea. It defends itself and spreads itself and mutates to face new challenges. It's a fighter, a tiger of the memetic ecosystem. It has lasted thousands of years. It constantly finds new reasons to exist, and new justifications for its existence. But just because it is a strong idea doesn't mean it's a good idea. I think the Brights have the right idea: it's time to stop apologizing for my lack of religious belief, to stop in fact describing it as a lack of something, but instead as the positive possession of rationality. And time to start acknowledging my conviction that naturalistic rationality is not just an equally valid point of view to superstition, but a superior one.

* I do not deny that both science and religion rely, at their most basic level, on an untestable assumption. But science is supported by evidence I trust.