Scientology and Stupidity

The first bit of news that caught my eye this morning as I ate my toast was a local item about Councillor John Dixon of Cardiff City Council. I’m not a big fan of the Council, particularly their bizarre Highways Department which, on the one hand, is narrowing all the roads in the city centre causing ridiculous levels of traffic congestion and, on the other, has completed an appalling road into Bute Park for the purpose of promoting its use by heavy trucks and lorries. When I saw a councillor was in trouble and that the word “stupid” was involved, I assumed I knew what it would be about …

However, that turns out not to be true. The Councillor was on the receiving end of a complaint by the Church of Scientology because of something he posted on Twitter. The message was

I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.

The notoriously litigious “Church” complained to Cardiff City Council that this comment impinged on their right to religious freedom. The main point of the Scientologists’ argument was that offending tweet came from “CllrJohnDixon”, implying that he was acting in an official capacity. Indications are that Councillor Dixon has indeed transgressed the Council’s code of conduct and the case will be referred to their disciplinary committee.

This is an interesting situation that brought a number of questions to my mind. First is whether Councillor Dixon actually did anything wrong. I think it’s obvious that his comment wasn’t a criminal act. I doubt if it was actually defamatory either, so it’s unlikely to be involved in a civil case on that basis. However, he was identified as a Councillor and may well have acted contrary to the code of conduct that forms part of his terms of employment if the code of conduct says something about religious belief. That is a matter for the Council to decide and I don’t think it’s helpful to comment here, primarly because I don’t know what the Code of Conduct says.

The second question is whether one’s reaction to a quip that Scientologists are stupid should generate any different reaction to a similar remark about Christians. Or Muslims. Or any other religion. I’ve run into Scientologists myself and read a bit about their religion, which I regard as a hilarious  hotch-potch of laughable fantasies cobbled together by a tenth-rate Science Fiction author with the express purpose of duping the gullible and the vulnerable out of their cash. I believe that anyone caught up in it must indeed be a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but does that give me the right to say they’re “stupid” in public?

Actually, I think it does. And I think I should have the right to say such things about other religions too. For their part they also have the right to protest if they’re offended. But they do not or should not have the right for any form of legal redress simply because I expressed an opinion. I don’t have a problem with this, any more than I have a problem with lampooning people like Simon Jenkins for the stupid things they say.

I suspect there are atheists who think all religions and religious people are stupid, as well as religious people who think all religions are stupid other than the one they believe in. Then there are people, like me, who don’t follow any religion but also don’t think that all of them are totally silly. I think it’s a reasonable principle that the right to hold and to espouse religious beliefs should be respected, unless, of course, the religious beliefs in question contradict common law or basic morality. Should we consider racism or homophobia to be acceptable if motivated by religion but not if such views stem from an atheistic political philisophy?

Although I don’t have any particularly objective yardstick for judging how silly different religions are, and therefore find it quite difficult to be entirely even-handed in my attitudes to religions, I do find Scientology particularly ridiculous. But then looking at the Church of Scientology’s track-record I don’t feel the need to apologize for that.

Behind this is the whole issue of freedom of expression and the extent to which it should be limited, either by the law or by employment contracts. For a start, I know that nobody likes to be on the receiving end of abusive comments, but I can think of much worse examples than “stupid”. Abuse related to an individual’s beliefs also belong to a different category to those related to, for example, race, gender or sexual orientation. People choose their religion (as they do their political views) and while one must respect another’s right to have different opinions, that doesn’t mean those opinions should be immune from challenge or comment. That’s why I disagree with all laws, such as those relating to blasphemy, that put religious beliefs in some special category compared to other kinds of thought. I’m not so sure about laws relating to racist sexist or homophobic abuse. Part of me says that in a free society you have to put up with the freedom people have to be nasty. Another part says that people deserve legal protection from extreme forms of verbal abuse, especially when it becomes threatening to them or if they are in a vulnerable situation.

However, all this about laws is really irrelevant in this case (I think). Whatever the legal situation in the big wide world, employers have a right to decide on what sort of behaviour they will accept from their employees in their office. In many cases – especially, but by no means exclusively,  in the public sector – such things form part of the contract of employment. If an employee transgresses they should face disciplinary action. If that doesn’t happen, or it is done in a discriminatory way, then the whole system starts to look grossly hypocritical. Better surely not to have rules at all than to have them but use them only as window-dressing?

I think what I’m saying is that I think it’s at worst a bit impolite for a private individual to call Scientologists “stupid” but nothing more than that. It’s also perhaps a bit different for a Councillor to do so in their professional capacity than as a private individual. However, I myself would not say that the Church of Scientology itself is stupid. I think it’s much worse than that. I think it knows exactly what it’s doing.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens now in this case. I hope Councillor Dixon gets nothing more than a slap on the wrist. I fear, however, that the media spotlight will compel the Ethics committee to take more drastic measures. That would be a shame, especially when I can think of other examples where much worse and much more obvious  transgressions than this have gone completely unpunished by public bodies who have indeed also connived with the miscreant to conceal evidence of wrongdoing.

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34 Responses to “Scientology and Stupidity”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Totally agree Peter, free speech is vital on all subjects and if it causes offence then provided there is no implied threat you have the option of replying or forgiving or just walking away. I want no exemption for my own deepest beliefs.

    Underlying some of your comments is the issue of what defines a religion. I’d hate that one to be settled in the courts rather than the coffee houses.

    The best book on Scientology is, indirectly, Russell Hoban’s definitive and damning biography of its founder L Ron Hubbard, titled Bare Faced Messiah.

    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      Anton,

      Yes, I bottled out of asking the question what is a religion because I really don’t know the answer. I’m reminded of the quote about pornography – “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it”. Is atheism a religion? I really don’t know. That’s one reason I don’t think religions should have any special legal status.

      Peter

  2. I would be interested in whether you (or anyone else) would have any different feelings if he had walked by a Homeopathy clinic or Palm Reading/Astrology/Tarot shop and made the same “stupid” remark. Would this post be any different?

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t think I would have greatly different thoughts about somebody who believed in Homeopathy. I don’t think it would be helpful just to call them “stupid” however. I’d rather try to persuade them that they were wrong. If I could be bothered…

  3. Oh reading that back seem like I might be trying to catch someone out or trying to make a point. Really not. I would be genuinely interested. Not sure about these things myself. Is there anything I am allowed to call “stupid”?

    • telescoper Says:

      I think you are allowed to call anyone or anything stupid if that’s what you think. I mean in the sense that it shouldn’t be illegal, unless you say it while threatening them or in an excessively aggressive manner. However, most of the decisions we have to make about what to say are not based on whether they’re legal but on what is appropriate in the cicumstances.

      For example, if you ask me should a teacher ever call one of his or her students “stupid” in class I’d say the answer was a firm `no’. Should someone tell a colleague or a peer that they’re being stupid, possibly. It’s all about context.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Tibbetts, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: Scientology and Stupidity: http://wp.me/pko9D-1HW […]

  5. Sure. When it becomes really tricky it not whether you should say these things out loud (it’s probably always best to keep them to one’s self) but whether you should act on them or let them affect your actions in anyway.

    If you were interviewing a student for a place at university and they mentioned they were a Christian then if that affected their chances of a place you would probably lose your job. So I suppose that if they mentioned they were a Scientologist then it shouldn’t effect it either.

    But I now know that you would be thinking that the 2nd chap was “a few sandwiches short of a picnic” while you were interviewing him.

    But surely how many “sandwiches” he has is exactly what you are trying to ascertain during the interview.

    I don’t know, all very tricky stuff.

    • telescoper Says:

      If I were interviewing someone for a place at university, especially in a subject like physics, I would be trying to determine their suitability for the course so I’d talk to them primarily about physics. I wouldn’t bring up religion in the conversation at all. If a student said on their application form that they believed in scientology then I’d still keep the discussion on physics. I don’t rule out the possibility that someone could be good at physics but also have strange private beliefs.

    • If you were chosing which plumber to fix your drains, or which actor to star in your multi-million dollar movie production then it wouldn’t matter. There private beliefs don’t come into it.

      But that is why I mention university interview because I would have thought some indication of their ability to avaluate evidence, solve problems, think critically etc is just as important than there actual knowledge of A level physics.

      And taking it to the extreme, if they mentioned they thought the universe was 70 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years old because of their beliefs I think that would be relevant.

    • telescoper Says:

      I remember a research student when I was at Sussex who worked on stellar evolution, despite believing on religious grounds that the Universe was created only a few thousand years ago.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Peter: very strange! The Hebrew word YOM (as in Yom Kippur) can mean ‘era’ as well as ’24 hour period,’ just as ‘day’ can in English – ‘the day of steam power’. That is the sense in which I take it in the six YOM of creation in Genesis.
      Anton

  6. Magic fruit, talking snakes and virgin births. What part of the definition of stupid does these fail to meet? More to the point it is epistemological madness.

    Here in the US the law is in principle simple. Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion. There can be no law protecting them nor any legal sanction against them.

    But we do have some trouble living up to that idea.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    OK ppnl, supposing you are a physicist, did you not once have trouble believing that F=ma because it was ‘obvious’ that F=mv, since the harder you push a matchbox across a carpet, the faster it goes? And wasn’t it obvious that velocities sum linearly, whereas special relativity tells us otherwise?
    Anton

    • Anton,

      It isn’t clear what your point is. The fact that science is hard and gives unexpected and counter intuitive results isn’t a good argument for abandoning rationality and believing in magic.

      Science has to prove its intellectual and technological utility. Religion gets a free pass to respectability. Why is that?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      My point – with apologies for late reply – is that what seems at first crazy is not necessarily so upon deeper pondering.

      “Science has to prove its intellectual and technological utility. Religion gets a free pass to respectability. Why is that?”

      Science is constructed to do so, which is one reason why it is impressive. As for ‘religion’, I can speak only for my own faith, and I do not agree that they are all the same – there are many irreconcilabilities among the scriptures of the major religions. My own was not seen as respectable in the Roman Empire and is not seen today as respectable in many parts of the Middle East or in China.

      Anton

  8. telescoper Says:

    Just thought I’d note here that the Torygraph has now covered this story.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/twitter/7900962/Councillor-faces-suspension-for-calling-Scientology-stupid.html

    It says that Scientology is not “recognised” as a religion in the UK. I wonder what that means, legally speaking?

    • I don’t know about the UK, but in some countries, officially recognised religions have a certain tax-exempt status.

      It’s also not just Tom Cruise who is a Scientologist. He’s a loon, so critics probably think the more Tom Cruises in the ranks, the better for the rest of the world. I remember Chick Corea and Dustin Hoffman speaking out in favour of Scientology (I think Corea is a member; I’m not sure about Hoffman). In Germany, they are not an official religion, and there is a conflict with the government, since they were being observed as are other organisations suspected of non-constitutional activities (terrorism etc) and because of claims of “bogus therapy” similar to Simon Singh vs. the chiropractors. I remember a statement by Corea and Hoffman which compared this treatment of scientology to the treatment of Jews during the Nazi times. As someone said, you need religion to get good people to do bad things.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Phillip: no such thing as good people. One of the Jewish witnesses at Eichmann’s trial had a moment of realisation that he too was equally capable of what Eichmann had done and that their roles might equally well have been reversed.
      Anton

    • I believe that the UK definition of an ‘official’ religion is one having a benefit to the public. I suppose something such as Scientology, which demands money, isn’t much of a charitable organisation etc.

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: At a guess, this is reporting that has not been thought through, although perhaps it means that there has not been a court case in which the judge recognised Scientology as a religion (which would be strange since in 1968 the government banned overseas scientologists from entering Britain for missionary purposes). Again all this begs the question of what is a religion, for the purpose of our (iniquitous) religious hatred laws.

    To my knowledge the State formally recognises only the Church of England. (I am a Christian who is against an Established church, incidentally.)

    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      The article suggests that there is a list of “recognised” religions for legal purposes but I’m not sure who if anyone maintains such a list.

      In the 2001 census there was a list of well-known religions from which respondents were asked to pick but I don’t think that amounts to formal “recognition” and in any case respondents were allowed to write in anything else they wanted if they didn’t fit one of the main ones.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      In a recent census, 21,000 Canadian who thought that their faith was no business of the government wrote down that they were Jedi Knights. Politicians are invariably quick to say that religion is a private matter, so why do they demand to know?

    • telescoper Says:

      I seem to remember writing “none of your business” when I filled in that form…

    • In some cases, it is inappropriate or even illegal to ask about the sex of the person filling in the form. I know a woman who said “I put ‘F’ for ‘frequently'”. 🙂

  10. Rhodri Evans Says:

    What’s the difference between a religion and a cult?

  11. telescoper Says:

    After a bit of digging I managed to find the Council’s code of conduct. Amongst other things it says

    Members must carry out their duties and responsibilities with due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity for all people, regardless of their gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, age or religion, and show respect and consideration for others.

  12. Anton Garrett Says:

    One point of this story is that there are things people shouldn’t do that shouldn’t be illegal. Our controlling politicians are steadily moving us toward a society in which everything is compulsory or forbidden, with penalties for non-compliance and for actions respectively.

  13. […] speech should be bounded by law is a topic that has come up several times on this blog, including one very recent example and one rather older which has direct parallels with the Clare Balding complaint. I think it is […]

  14. […] the book The Scandal of Scientology, all of which is available online here. I also mentioned it in a post last […]

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