The Fragmentation of Faith   Leave a comment


There seems to be growing discussion about what does – and what doesn’t – constitute religion.  Two groups of believers, who can be argued to be religious organisations, have been in the news recently: Scientology and Druidry (a form of Paganism).

Some people might be thinking: who cares whether an organisation is classified as a religion or not?  Well, it does matter because religions are entitled to certain rights, such as freedom from discrimination, and privileges, such as freedom from state interference in their practices.  I am not, however, saying that anyone should be allowed to discriminate against others for whatever reason, but I am saying that we should be allowed to openly condemn certain religious practices which are at odds with today’s legal and moral entitlements of all people.

Scientology has been in the media for two reasons over the past week.  Firstly, the Cardiff councillor John Dixon who tweeted a comment implying he thought only stupid people believed in Scientology was found to be not guilty of breaking the councillor code of conduct by a Welsh Standards and Ethics Committee Ombudsmen.  The case had hinged on the fact that he had posted the comment on an account which used the prefix “Cllr” and so it had been argued that Dixon was giving a professional statement, thus appearing to be condoning making fun of a religious group.  It has now been decided that Dixon had only intended the comment as a harmless joke and that they were meant as a personal opinion, not a professional viewpoint.

Secondly, the Church of Scientology was the subject of a BBC documentary called The Secrets of Scientology, which was a follow-up to a 2007 programme which became a YouTube sensation at the time.  It was journalist John Sweeney who became the unsuspecting ‘star’ through the power of the internet.  Sweeney had been trying to find out more about what is a very secretive and seemingly cult-like faith and, in the process of making this original documentary, had been continually monitored, followed and provoked into angry outbursts by top Scientology officials.  This eventually led to Sweeney’s breaking point being exposed and the ‘YouTube’ moment which saw him screaming his arguments at a smug-looking Scientologist.  The follow-up documentary sees Sweeney meeting up with several people who have ‘escaped’ from organised Scientology.  Interestingly, many of the people he meets have chosen to leave what sounds like an oppressive religious organisation, but are still happily believing in and practising the faith outside of the regimented system they have now left.  Sadly, some tell stories of intimidation and abuse from those who remained inside: one man had left his family because they didn’t want to leave and, a couple of years later, they appeared to verbally attack him (a phone call he made at the time records the audio of one woman shouting “you deserted your family!”).  Overnight figures stated that the programme attracted nearly 5 million viewers; that was around 20% of the TV audience.

I believe that any organisation – whether it is classified as religious, political, secular, or anything else – should be subject to undercover inspections to monitor their practices to ensure that no-one in that organisation is using bullying or other intimidatory techniques to prevent people from leaving or contacting and associating with people who are from outside the group.  It would be considered to be contravening human rights if someone used intimidation to force a person into doing something they didn’t really want to do in any other situation; why should religious groups be exempt?

The other faith group in the news recently is Druidry, a pagan practice, which has just been given official religion status by the Charity Commission.  Druidry is one of the traditional religions the Anglo-Saxon invaders brought to the population of Britain when they began migrating here in the 5th century CE.  It was rife until the Christianisation of Britain occurred during the 7th and 8th centuries.  During the late 20th century, it has enjoyed a comeback sometimes being labelled as “Neo-Paganism” and, in 2003, a BBC survey suggested that up to 10 thousand people in Britain now describe themselves as Druids.  The chair of the Druids Network, Phil Ryder, has said he is pleased with the Charity Commission’s decision because, “it does give recognition with local councils and people who provide premises and services to charities, who will only deal with registered charities.”

Also, taking into account the numbers of people who are embracing eastern spiritual practices such as yoga and meditation, and those who find no use for religion in their lives at all, faith is evolving into a more fluid concept which can be moulded to fit an individual’s needs.  The traditional importance of religion as a way to feel part of a community no longer seems to be top of the agenda; possibly because it is now easier to feel part of other communities (workplaces, hobby groups, online social networks, etc.).

My own personal feeling on this matter is that organised religion needs to be monitored more than it currently is because certain faith organisations, a good example being the Roman Catholic Church, are very powerful and this can be a bad thing if they are being treated more leniently than other groups.  However, I am pleased that today people feel able to take different aspects of various religions (or spiritualities) to create their own personal version of faith: this fragmentation of religion is not a bad thing.

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Posted 04/10/2010 by thinkmindy in belief, Religion

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