Thursday, April 02, 2015

Clearly

I watched the HBO documentary on Scientology, Going Clear.  It told the story of the movement's mysterious founder, L. Ron Hubbard, as well as what's been going on since his death.  The picture it paints, as you may have heard, is not a pretty one.  As far as I could tell, the doc was well-researched.  Of course, it was almost all stuff from people who broke with Scientology since no one still associated with it wanted to talk.

If there was one part I had trouble with, it was the portion on the IRS.  Hubbard declared Scientology a religion, and thus exempt from taxes, but the IRS pursued him for the rest of his life.  The amount owed when Hubbard died in the 1980s, in fact, was considerably more than everything Scientology had.  The new leaders kept fighting until, in the 90s, the IRS declared it was indeed a religion.

The documentary treats this as a mistake or worse.  They claim Scientology harassed the agency with thousands of lawsuits until it relented just to make it all go away.  They also claim Scientology is not a regular religion, since so much of it is about fundraising, its own members don't really understand it, and it abuses its adherents while attacking anyone who questions it.

The real trouble, I think, is the IRS is in this situation where it has to determine what's a real religion and what isn't.  Generally, it's a tricky thing to question the authenticity of someone's religious convictions. I suppose the government can take action if they can show it's just a front, something made up to get out of paying taxes, but isn't it obvious Scientology is more than that?  This was and is a movement made up of thousands upon thousands of true believers--it's not a scam (or merely a scam), people take it seriously.

Some have accused Hubbard of making it all up out of the many science fiction ideas he had as a pulp writer, but, as is noted in Going Clear, if he were only in it for the money, he could have cashed out early and not gone through such hassles.  And even if it was started as a joke, it doesn't matter--all that matters is the adherents take it seriously. (Some might claim Joseph Smith was just a con man, but is there any doubt what he left behind is a religion under the First Amendment?) And it certainly doesn't matter if followers don't fully understand what it stands for--many religions have (or have had in the days before widespread literacy) leaders who know the sacred texts and followers who only understand the basics.

Is Scientology unconventional compared to mainstream religions?  Certainly, but that's no standard.  You can't even say it doesn't appeal to the supernatural, since some of its beliefs would be considered pretty out there by the average person.  Besides, some would say other religions, such as certain versions of Buddhism, do not rely on the supernatural.

Is there a lot of fundraising?  Yes.  Does Scientology own a lot of expensive properties?  Yes.  Does Scientology abuse its members?  The documentary certainly suggests it does.  But so what?  I could name other religious leaders who spend more time raising money than any other activity, and plenty of cults that appear to be abusive.  This is not to say that calling yourself a religion allows you to get away with anything, but, by American legal standards, even if we don't like it, Scientology should be considered a religion, and deserved tax exempt status all along.

7 Comments:

Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

I suppose so, but here's a really hard one: After "Killing Jesus," can we stop calling Bill O'Reilly a reporter?

3:35 AM, April 02, 2015  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the indictment of the practice of treating non-rational beliefs as a basis for not paying taxes.

3:59 AM, April 02, 2015  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I was very interested in this segment of the documentary as well. I found myself rooting for Scientology against the IRS, despite the slant taken by the film. The IRS seems to have been motivated by personal animus, and to have applied unequal standards in their approach to the organization's claim to be a religion.

I think given recent behavior of the IRS in granting tax exemption status, it is clear they should not be tasked with making compliicated, legal determinations of qualification. If the theory behind tax exemption for churches and other charities is that they do good things for society that gov't would do or wants to encourage, then that should be the measure by which 501(3)(c) status should be granted, without consideration of religious efficacy.

Taxation should be a mechanical application of clear rules and standards. Has it ever been that? From Nixon to Obama, at least, the IRS is used as a political tool. The mechanical measure for tax exemption should be a measure of how much of an organization's revenue (profits?) are directed at government recognized service to society (education, charity, etc.). The amount so directed should be more than the amount government would collect i fthe revenue (profits?) would be taxed.

6:01 AM, April 02, 2015  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actual recent behavior or that reported by one partisan tendency?

I don't think there is anything wrong with going after tax cheats and those who attempt to cloak political campaigning as "recognized service to society"

11:48 AM, April 02, 2015  
Blogger LAGuy said...

The IRS wasn't going after tax cheats. They simply had a clear record of going very slow, or not moving at all, on granting special tax status requested by groups that seemed to be conservative while allowing similar liberal groups to get the status as a matter of course. That's a scandal of historic proportions, since we're talking about a federal agency, legally required to be neutral, tampering with elections.

12:58 PM, April 02, 2015  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Anonymous, why don't you spend 50 cents on Amazon and see if you can identify yourself in "The Road to Serfdom"? You play a leading role.

7:30 AM, April 03, 2015  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

And Lois Lerner may have testimony about this behavior - whether it was a commonly accepted or even expected practice, but I guess we'll never know unless Congress decides to grant her immunity over whatever she would reveal under oath.

7:55 AM, April 03, 2015  

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