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.