I just read an excellent post by Slacktivist on how Christianity and Scientology compare. Slacktivist is brutally honest about some of the awful and weird things in Christianity’s long and varied history, and Scientology still comes out looking like a cult full of kooks.

I was thinking about this the other day because, as a member of a tiny religious minority often considered very “fringe” by people who believe in mainstream religions, I have become much more sensitive to religious discrimination and badmouthing of non-mainstream religions. Most people accept that Buddhism is “normal,” for example, but Mormonism is still pretty weird. Lots of people can’t name more than four or five major world religions or faith traditions. And, most of all, if something is “old,” it is acceptable (Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Hinduism, etc.), but new religious movements (neo-Paganism, Wicca, Baha’i, possibly Mormonism, etc.), are inherently weird and can be laughed at or treated as not serious, not worth real consideration.

And now we come to things like Scientology, or Branch Davidian beliefs, or other cults. When I think about them, I start to have some of the same knee-jerk dismissive attitude that a lot of people have about Paganism and Wicca. My conscience kicks in and asks me whether I shouldn’t be just as respectful and kind and considerate about these people’s beliefs as I want Christians to be about mine. And I have a brief spasm of guilt before my rationality responds that yes, that’s a nice position to take at the outset, but there’s actually evidence of concrete, measurable harm done by those groups as part of their fundamental view of the world/way of life/beliefs, and that tolerance doesn’t mean disregarding the evidence.

Wrestling with this, and Slacktivist’s excellent discussion, brought to mind the Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame. Isaac Bonewits, a widely-known and well-respected figure in the neo-Pagan movement, designed this handy tool as a way to marshal the evidence about a religion or a group of religious practitioners without letting the weirdness of someone’s beliefs or the recent founding of a group have undue sway in the evaluation. As Slacktivist points out, most religions believe weird things: Christianity in a virgin birth and resurrection from the dead; Wicca in magic. But which one of those is weirder is very difficult to evaluate and really doesn’t tell you anything about whether or not it’s measurably, concretely dangerous to get involved in a religion or to get involved with this particular group of religious practitioners. The ABCDEF does. It’s a tool that every Pagan, every Wiccan, and heck, every seeker who explores the wide world of religion and belief ought to have in his or her back pocket.

Slacktivist compares Scientology and Christianity on six factors: secrecy, weird beliefs, systematic exploitation and abuse of children, promises of success, rule by a megalomaniacal hierarchy, and regard for power. The ABCDEF (yes, Bonewits tweaked his tool’s name to get the cool acronym), as I said, drops weird beliefs and promises of success, and breaks down megalomaniacal hierarchy and regard for power into several different categories that are aimed at particular categories of evidence. The ABCDEF doesn’t give explicit direction for converting that evidence into quantifiable ratings, so parts of it obviously remain subjective, but that issue becomes much simpler if you use it to compare groups. It’s pretty clear on even a brief survey that Scientology score at the very high end of nearly all those categories, especially in comparison to most of Christianity or Christian groups, and that Wicca, and most Wiccan groups, score pretty low.

Short version: I’m glad that I’ve learned to be more tolerant of non-mainstream beliefs and practices. But tolerance doesn’t mean ignoring the evidence. The ABCDEF is a great example of that. There’s enough evidence to say that the Church of Scientology is dangerous, and it’s okay for me to think and act on that basis. I have to be loving and tolerant towards individual members, and it’s still wrong to scorn their beliefs for being “weird” or not mainstream, but it’s right and good to speak out against a dangerous and manipulative organization. Tolerance and evidence can go hand-in-hand.

3 thoughts on “Tolerance and evidence

  1. Was just having this discussion last evening. We came to the conclusion we would defend anyone’s right to have weird beliefs but would not tolerate their actions if trying to impose them on ourselves or others who believed otherwise.

  2. The “sanctification” that time and ubiquity gives to existing religions/belief systems tends to gives cover to any “weirder” variations. I mentioned on slacktivist the other day hearing on a “christian” radio show the other day the presenter (who we were told is a pastor) discussing with his “expert” guest how the Egyptians of pharaonic used cloning techniques to create creatures with the heads of animals and the bodies of men and women.

    Presenter and guest also agreed that the pyramids were designed (crystals and something else were involved) so that when standing in specific places one could communicate with demons.

    The same was true, apparently, of at least some medieval cathedrals.

    Many of the same people who wholeheartedly mock Wiccans or Scientologists WILL make fun of people like the two on the radio but do not think their strangeness in any way undermines Christianity itself. They fail to make the connection if that there are branches and subgroups of Christianity that make claims that most Christians find just as ludicrous and laughable then finding some aspect of another belief system laughable should not be reason enough to dismiss everyone who believes any part of it.

    1. Great point, mmy. I’ll keep that in mind the next time I begin to despair at my co-religionists’ sillinesses. (Crystals? Pyramids? Sign those guys up, they’re New Agers whether they know it or not!)

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