Justice Ginsburg Hates the Constitution! »« “Psychic” Sues British Newspaper

Scientology Fined in France

A French appeals court has upheld a lower court ruling that imposed a fine of almost $800,000 on the “Church” of Scientology for their central scam, charging members huge amounts of money for courses and treatments to get rid of those pesky “thetans” that don’t exist.

The case began with a legal complaint by a young woman who said she took out loans and spent the equivalent of $28,000 on books, courses and “purification packages” after being recruited in 1998. When she sought reimbursement and to leave the group, its leadership refused to allow either. She was among three eventual plaintiffs.

“It’s a severe defeat for the Church of Scientology, which is hit at the very heart of its organization in France,” Olivier Morice, a lawyer for the National Union of Associations Defending Family and Individual Victims of Sects, told reporters after the decision.

It’s essentially a fraud conviction. And Scientology is undoubtedly a fraud. But I have always had mixed feelings about cases like this. It is quite difficult to draw a coherent and consistent line between what is and is not a religion. Is Scientology any less fraudulent than any other religion? There are a few distinctions here, I think. No other religion keeps its doctrines secret and charges enormous amounts of money before they’ll reveal them. As Jim Lippard points out in the most recent issue of Skeptic, which he was kind enough to send me, Christian churches don’t reserve the doctrine of atonement from followers unless they pay thousands of dollars to take a course to become level three Operating Theologians.

But there is an inherent danger in having the government decide which religions deserve protection and which do not, which are “legitimate” and which are not, especially since all religions are ultimately illegitimate. On the other hand, it seems absolutely clear to me that Scientology was created for the sole purpose of being a swindle, a con, a way to make money. I don’t think that’s true of other religions, even if they all do have adherents who find a way to get rich from it. It’s a very tough issue for me.

Comments

  1. unbound says

    I’m not sure the mainstream religions are really all that different. The financial models may differ, but there are as many questionable thing in their religions as in scientology.

    I have in-laws that were not allowed to witness all of their son’s marriage ceremony (he converted to mormonism) since being non-believers (they are catholic) they were not allowed into the inner-sanctum. They would have had to become paying members (er, converted) to see the whole thing.

    You can’t (or at least not supposed) to eat the holy bread and drink the holy wine at a catholic church unless you are a paying member.

    The main difference is that the mainstream religions don’t require the payments instead relying on basic harassment for the fees.

  2. Chiroptera says

    To be convicted or held liable for fraud, doesn’t the defendent have to have knowingly conducted the scam?

    I don’t know about Scientologists, but I can easily believe that most Pentacostal exorcists sincerely believe that they are casting out real demons.

  3. Phillip IV says

    It is quite difficult to draw a coherent and consistent line between what is and is not a religion. Is Scientology any less fraudulent than any other religion?

    I don’t know what the French court based their distinction on, but I think the clearest case against Scientology can be made with historical arguments: After all, Scientology didn’t start out as a religion, Hubbard originally marketed it as a ‘scientific’ self-help program. Registering as a church only happened after several investigations for making fraudulent claims, and seems a clear attempt precisely at avoiding strict scrutiny of their claims.

  4. Sqrat says

    On the other hand, it seems absolutely clear to me that Scientology was created for the sole purpose of being a swindle, a con, a way to make money. I don’t think that’s true of other religions…

    Mormonism?

    Can one absolutely rule out “a swindle, a con” as an explanation of the origins even of Christianity itself?

  5. MikeMa says

    While I agree with Ed’s ‘fine line’ between the different scams, $cientology has some severely cultish attitudes. They market as well as any religion out there and better than most. They penalize those leaving but so does Islam in some cases. They build temples as do most religions. I look at this as a good first step on the road to fining all religions for their idiocy and illegal activities.

    The only thing $cientology does that others do not is the sale of material related to their theological platform. And as far as I know they do not sell it, only rent it. You cannot keep it when you leave. The pay to play and related e-boxes and other fakery is all hype to make the cult seem more worthy of all that cash.

    As $cientlogy is a modern cult, its founding is in recent time, you can still uncover tidbits which would indicate it was a scam from the start. LRon bragged about it as such. The sooner they are gone, the better.

  6. Chiroptera says

    To add to my comment #2, maybe that point is part of what makes Ed uneasy.

    Because it’s “traditional,” it’s easy to believe that a Pentacostal Christian is sincere in her beliefs.

    Because it’s so “clearly” wacky, it’s easy to believe that Scientologists must be knowingly running a scam.

  7. F says

    To be convicted or held liable for fraud, doesn’t the defendent have to have knowingly conducted the scam?

    They are dealing with the upper echelon of the CoS here, who know exactly that it is a scam.

    Plus, this is French law, which probably holds different standards of evidence, etc., and the CoS “pay us” structure is rather different than most other religions.

  8. abb3w says

    I suspect that intellectual property law might provide means to at least deal with modern mystery cults like Scientology.

    Basic facts about the universe may not be copyrighted or patented. Religions claim to have basic facts about the universe. Distribution of this knowledge for the betterment of mankind is religion’s fundamental mission, and the superficial reason justifying the privileged status under US law. (Leaving aside the practical reason that religions are more likely to start wars otherwise….) It would seem a valid exercise of the Copyright Clause to say that the best way “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” in the case of Religion is to eliminate the period of exclusivity. Ergo, include by statute that to maximize the betterment of mankind, no religious doctrine shall receive protection under copyright, patent, or trade secrets law.

    There would probably need to be some work on the phrasing, so that copyright would still apply to secondary works — apologetics, religious criticism, and so on. And of course, finding the political will to get this through Congress would be a challenge.

    Perhaps it’s merely a foolish notion.

  9. d cwilson says

    Can one absolutely rule out “a swindle, a con” as an explanation of the origins even of Christianity itself?

    No, but then, Christianity has the respectability that cults gain once they are old enough and big enough to be considered a “mainstream religion”.

    I think the main difference between the business practices of Scientology vs. Christianity is the hard sell vs. the soft sell. Neither puts a gun to people’s heads to make them donate, but Scientology could apparently teach used car salesmen how to squeeze every last dime out of a sucker while handing them a worthless lemon. Christian churches are more passive-aggressive in their approach. Their message is, “Well, you really don’t have to donate money, but if you don’t our church can’t spread the Gospel and save souls. You don’t want to be resposible for sending other people to Hell, do you?”

  10. plutosdad says

    I think it’s not that hard to figure out, in most cases we know which are cons / cults and extremely dangrous: the Boston-based Church of Christ (not to be confused with Church of Christ), Scientology, Maranatha, a few others.

    The only real grey areas come up with groups that are more traditionally accepted: Morons, Amish, Apostolic Christians, etc, all of which are dangerous for women, cultish, and oppressive.

    On one level all religions are cons or maybe even started out as cons, and their churches are bureaucracies more concerned with self-preservation than following their doctrines, but that is true of all bureaucracies: they eventually lose sight of their original mission. So I’m not sure that alone qualifies.

  11. says

    It’s an interesting bit of nuance to think about. One angle I’m looking at right now is that it could also be seen as a form of “alternative” medicine/psychology/self-help. Imagine if some Catholic priests went around offering expensive exorcisms as a way to deal with illness, psychological issues, or just self-improvement. If someone paid for a lot of exorcisms and saw no sign of improvement or recovery, I’d have a much easier time penalizing the priests. The religious nature of the “treatment” doesn’t seem to matter as much if we’re talking about efficacy.

    Of course, as has been said, the way Scientology handles itself brings up a lot of red flags that should warn people of the scam. Other religions have had similar features, but I’d say Scientology probably stands out for using such extreme and modern money angles of control. I suspect the downside to that strategy is that it might be easier for an ex-Scientologist to sue over readily quantifiable monetary damage for bogus treatments than it would be for a mainstream religion’s apostate to sue over psychological or social damage.

  12. plutosdad says

    @1 unbound: catholics don’t have to pay to become members. You can’t join in on communion if you are not Catholic, but you can go to their church and watch everything, and there is no payment to get to be a full-fledged catholic. So your point there is wrong.

    Sure, like any non-profit, they will ask for money and maybe even pressure people to pay each week, but the mormon church is the only mainstream one that actually has been accused of following up with people to make sure they are tithing. I am not sure how much it is true for everyone,

    the non profit I work at researches up on people as well, though only wealthy potential donors, not everyone.

  13. Sqrat says

    Christianity has the respectability that cults gain once they are old enough and big enough to be considered a “mainstream religion”. I think the main difference between the business practices of Scientology vs. Christianity is the hard sell vs. the soft sell. Neither puts a gun to people’s heads to make them donate….

    Christianity has changed since its earliest days. According to Acts 4:32, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” Turning over everything you had to the cult was the price of admission to the cult. If you didn’t, there was the minatory example related in the following chapter:

    Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

    Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

    When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

    About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

    “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

    Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

    At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

    You turned over everything you had to the cult or — you died.

  14. unbound says

    @12 plutosdad – Actually, that is why my last line was “The main difference is that the mainstream religions don’t require the payments instead relying on basic harassment for the fees.”

    You still have to be a member of the clubhouse to be eligible.

    And while the catholic church does not, by doctrine, require follow up with members that fail to pay dues, but it does indeed happen from time-to-time. I was raised in a catholic family (even have an uncle that is a pastor) that moved fairly frequently…there were some interesting encounters in 2 of the churches we attended briefly.

    And having been a treasurer of a non-profit, I do appreciate the difference of asking for money via several different mechanisms versus the pressure (usually via guilt in the case of catholicism) that a church applies to its members. They don’t really compare that well since the non-religious non-profit isn’t preaching doom if you don’t contribute…

  15. laurentweppe says

    But I have always had mixed feelings about cases like this. It is quite difficult to draw a coherent and consistent line between what is and is not a religion

    That’s one of the reasons why french law was actually toned down: originally, the About-Picard anti-cult law would have allowed the complete dissolution of the church of scientology: some people started to fear that such a law could give too much power to extremist politicians or magistrates and be used too bully minorities.

  16. Ace of Sevens says

    It may be a fine line, but Scientology is nowhere near this line. Don’t let the fact that hard cases exist get in the way of judging the easy ones.

  17. says

    I’m starting to wonder: If Scientology lasts long enough, are they going to stop charging admission?

    I suppose they probably would. From my Bible reading, Acts included, Christianity’s early days certainly seemed like a standard exclusive apocalyptic cult to me. Once a cult gets political power, it probably has to moderate itself to keep society viable, or maybe to increase the rate of spread. It’s probably easier to convince large groups to tithe small amounts than it is to raise an equal amount of wealth by finding and recruiting people fanatical enough to give up everything they own.

  18. Sqrat says

    It’s probably easier to convince large groups to tithe small amounts than it is to raise an equal amount of wealth by finding and recruiting people fanatical enough to give up everything they own.

    *****

    A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

    “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”

    “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

    When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

    When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

    As noted, it’s apparently gotten much easier with the passage of time.

  19. d cwilson says

    You turned over everything you had to the cult

    Yep, and it’s a common practice in cults from early Christianity all the way to the Moonies, the Branch Davidians, and the Heaven’s Gate.

    The goal of any cult is to subordinate the individual to the group identity. Making them them wholly dependent on the cult for material support is one easy way to do it. It helps shield them from outside influences stemming from the greater community.

    Cults generally form in opposition to the mainstream culture, but every now and then, a cult grows large enough to overtake the mainstream and supplant it. Once it becomes the mainstream, there is no longer any need to keep its members isolated. Nor is it dependent on a small number of fanatics to keep the coffers filled. Once a cult transitions to a “mainstream religion”, it can now rely on normal societal pressures and tribalism to keep the donations flowing. Hence, modern Christianity’s ability to shift to a more “soft sell” approach.

    It’s important to note that Christian subsets that teach their followers that they are constantly under assault by the wicked forces of secularism, like evangelicals, take a harder approach to filling the collection plate than those that are more comfortable in the world. Still, none of them beat the Church of Scientology in haranguing its followers to cough up their last nickel.

  20. d cwilson says

    From my Bible reading, Acts included, Christianity’s early days certainly seemed like a standard exclusive apocalyptic cult to me. Once a cult gets political power, it probably has to moderate itself to keep society viable, or maybe to increase the rate of spread. It’s probably easier to convince large groups to tithe small amounts than it is to raise an equal amount of wealth by finding and recruiting people fanatical enough to give up everything they own.

    Exactly. And that’s entire the difference between a cult and a “mainstream” religion. Cults have to depend on a small collection of fanatics while religions can make do with a “mere” 10% of what everyone earns.

    Scientology will probably have to abandon its fee-for-service model pretty soon, as it’s one of the main factors blocking it from achieving mainstream acceptance. It won’t happen until there’s another turnover in leadership, though, as its current leader is committed to sucking its member’s pockets clean of everything down to the lint.

  21. says

    I agree that it’s a sticky issue. I would like to draw a nice bright line when it comes to offering “services” in exchange for money. At that point, you are effectively engaging in an economic transaction, and fraud charges become legitimate if you cannot deliver on the promises you are making. I don’t believe that the required tithing of most religions would violate this standard. Faith healers and prosperity gospel con-men just might though.

    Unfortunately, I doubt this bright line would work. The $cientologists would put their lawyers on the case and find a way around it. And there will almost certainly be cases where normal religious practices will run afoul of the standard. So I guess we’re doomed. Maybe we’ll just have to rely on Plan B, which is mocking religion ceaselessly until it goes away, which I’m sure will happen any day now.

  22. whheydt says

    I’ve thought for years that there is a relatively simple way to deal with the abuses of religions (including the Scientologists), and that is to treat all such organizations as *corporations* and then apply all applicable law.

    If *all* religious organizations were classed as corporations and treated the same it should fall within the Constitutional requirement for “equal treatment” and not foul of the establishment clause.

    It would allow the use of fraud statutes, FDA regulations and all the other means we have to protect people from false claims to be applied. And it would do so to *every* religion….equally.

    –W. H. Heydt

    Old Used Programmer

  23. eoleen says

    OF COURSE scientology is a scam. After all, L. Ron Hubbard openly declared that “to make a fortune all you have to do is invent a religion”… And he did. His first attempt was called “Dianetics”, and it was written up (by L. Ron himself) and published in what was then Astounding Stories of Science Fiction, edited at the time by John W. Campbell. I well know: my childhood was (mis)spent reading the rag, along with others of like ilk. Scientology was the subject of at least two fanzines, to which I contributed. I had (lost,by now) a note from LRH himself thanking me for my contribution…

    Sorry, folks. My only excuses are (a) extreme youth at the time, and (b) I was far from the only contributor.

    Wish I’d been cut in on the profits… (no I don’t)

  24. Alverant says

    Not all payments are made in money. Joining a religion still costs you. It costs you time (spent at the house of worship), trust, and your ability to think logically.

  25. Sqrat says

    The goal of any cult is to subordinate the individual to the group identity. Making them them wholly dependent on the cult for material support is one easy way to do it. It helps shield them from outside influences stemming from the greater community.

    “‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’”

  26. jjgdenisrobert says

    1. Scientology is not and never was a religion. It took the mantle of religion strictly to avoid taxation. The nature of the evidence presented at the trial makes that quite explicit.

    2. It’s “Operating Thetan”, not “Operating Theologian”. And OTIII, although being famous for its “revelation” of the story of Emperor Xenu, is not the top level in Scientology. In fact, new levels are added periodically to make sure that the “Church” can siphon more money from its more fortunate adepts.

    I was a member for one day; I got suckered as a teenager with the promise of a job. On the desk they assigned me was a sign stating: “the first goal of the Church is to sell its products”. I think that says everything you need to know.

  27. Ichthyic says

    all I can say in response to the judgement is:

    Harrumble!

    about fucking time!

    I’m not sure the mainstream religions are really all that different.

    they aren’t, in the end.

    someday this will be the inevitable conclusion reached by the majority of humanity.

    I doubt I will live to see it though.

  28. d cwilson says

    Scientology is not and never was a religion.

    But that begs the question as to what makes a belief system a religion? Is it enough that millions of people believe that it is a religion? Is it the silly creation stories? Is it the belief in invisible faeries that can affect the real world? Is it the demand that people obey the decrees of authority figures without question?

    Scientology has all of that.

    If being a money-making operation disqualifies something from being a religion, then the Catholic Church and all of the evangelical Mega-Churches are disqualified.

  29. jerthebarbarian says

    Bronze Dog @17 -

    Once a cult gets political power, it probably has to moderate itself to keep society viable, or maybe to increase the rate of spread.

    You’ve likely got cause and effect backwards here. They moderate themselves to be able to attain political power and increase the rate of spread, not the other way around. Look at the Latter-Day Saints – over the decades they’ve backed down on a ton of their original “core beliefs” that were considered “weird” or otherwise out of line with mainstream society. They were forced at gunpoint to give up polygamy, they were forced by bad press to give up their beliefs on skin color. Now they’ve had a number of different Mormons in positions of political power, and they have one in spitting distance for the presidency.

    Give Scientology a century and, if the bloodsuckers currently in control don’t kill it completely, it probably will see a similar growth pattern. We could see Scientologist Senators before I’m dead, and my kids will probably see a serious bid for the Presidency by a practicing Scientologist.

  30. laurentweppe says

    It’s “Operating Thetan”, not “Operating Theologian”

    It’s Ed making a pun about Christianity

  31. dingojack says

    OT ALERT… OT ALERT… OT ALERT…

    Every week my junk mail box is graced by a missive from one Brannon Howse. In amongst the breathless articles about the coming financial crash/ Middle-East war/ cometary impact (all accompaned by vague cherry-picked biblical quotes, bent out of all recognition and plees for more money) was this:

    Should Christians believe conspiracy theories?

    The answer? Why yes, yes you should. But only if we tell you to, if not IT’S SATAN!!! (Send more money!).

    I had to laugh.

    Dingo

  32. Pseudonym says

    There’s an obvious category error going on in the comments here. Scientology is a religion. The Church of Scientology is an organisation. You can’t fine a religion, you can only fine an organisation.

    The Free Zone Association was completely unaffected by this court case. And, of course, if any Christian organisation behaved the same way as the CoS, they should be fined too.

  33. Pieter B, FCD says

    Whoa. The sidebar ads are for Carol Tuttle’s Chakra Test and to sign Rand Paul’s Life-Begins-At-Conception-Amendment petition. Not sure how they tie in to $camintology.

    Scientology is a tough issue for me, too. Giving the government the power to decide which religions are legitimate and which are not is filled with the possibility of abuse.

  34. says

    Too much unnecessary hand wringing here folks. No one is stopping anyone from believing the tenets of Scientology, or practicing any associated rituals. The charges against them are entirely separable from free practice of faith

Leave a Reply