If Scientologists commit fraud, then let those individuals be convicted and punished. If that discredits a particularly loopy religion (in a hotly-contested field) then so be it. To ban the religion itself, however, would be a mistake. Religion thrives on oppression. When I first moved to Poland, church attendance was incredibly high. Throughout the Communist era, the church was the only public voice of opposition. Poles credited Pope John Paul II (with the help of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher) with the fall of Communism. By the time I left, 11 years later, attendances were falling to "normal" levels and (though Polish national identity is closely tied up with Catholicism) educated young people were becoming as anti-clerical as other modern Europeans.Scientology itself is no more a "fraud" than Catholicism. Indeed, by comparison to the immensely wealthy Catholic Church, Scientology is a raw beginner at the delicate art of parting the credulous from their cash. If there is no God, then asking believers for money to support the infrastructure of any church and to keep the priesthood in parasitic existence on the gullible is "fraud". I mention Catholicism in particular both because this story is about France and because it is a church with a long record of strong opposition to competitors. Banning an heretical sect is quite mild by Catholicism's historical standards.
When believers in old religions mock followers of the new ones, they remind me of smokers and drinkers decrying more modern drugs. Cigarettes and booze are the same thing; they are simply hallowed by age and convention. The first followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the Buddha and the Prophet Mohammed were probably regarded with just as much derision as those of L. Ron Hubbard today. Viewed dispassionately, the tenets of the old faiths are no more plausible - and certainly no more verifiable - than Scientology's ludicrous, lucrative tales of space aliens.
Indeed, it seems to be a feature, not a bug, of religions to test "faith" (i.e. the ability to believe without proof) with crazy stories. Having crossed the desert with a caravan of camels, and experienced the hallucinations typically brought on by thirst, starvation and heat, Lawrence of Arabia observed it was no coincidence that the Middle East was where so many religions were founded. Mr Hubbard may have raised the bar on the faith test, but not much.
Ban one religion and, logically, you should ban all. Ironically, since any religion requires that all others be seen as fraud, you would have the support of most religious people if you did it one by one. There would be no point however. If neither the Inquisition nor the KGB could suppress one or all modes of religious belief, then no milder force is likely to succeed. Religious believers simply see repression as yet another test of their faith.
People are entitled to believe, and to persuade others to believe, what they wish. They are entitled to solicit donations or charge fees for religious rites, just as others are entitled to refuse with a laugh or a curse. In the end, the problem with accusing entire religions of "fraud" is that, while some followers may know (or suspect) they are living a lie, most don't. While the cynical may say that all victims of fraud are betrayed by their desire to believe something too good to be true (consider Socialists, for example) it's important that the "victims" here are willing. They could, if we are honest, easily be any of us.France is making a mistake about Scientology. Her politicians and courts are in danger of accidentally playing the part of Pontius Pilate in converting a cult into a religion. No church that has Tom Cruise and John Travolta as respected "Elders" should be taken so seriously. It is below the dignity of the
nation of Voltaire and Diderot to do so.