Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Churches, cults and paranoia

I didn't see John Sweeney's documentary about Scientology but my understanding of it is that the disagreement between him and the representatives of the Church of Scientology concerned the definition of what is and isn't a cult.

People usually use the word cult pejoratively to denote an organisation that uses manipulative psychological and social techniques - or 'brainwashing' - to gain and retain converts.

While there is a fair amount of disagreement within the discipline, the sociological definition is more neutral and usually denotes an organisation that is heterodox, highly exclusive and characterised by charismatic leadership.

Anyway you slice it, Scientology is a cult and their extreme hostility to being labelled in this way would tend to indicate that they desire the status of a denomination.

Yet because one of the characteristics of cults and sects is their high degree of tension with the rest of society, they tend to be rather paranoid and the behaviour of the Church of Scientology would indicate that, celebrity endorsements notwithstanding, they are very far from achieving the relative acceptability of denominations.

All this got me to thinking about two related points. Are some British Muslims more susceptible to radicalisation and the belief in outlandish conspiracy theories and so on because the gap between conventional Muslim piety and the membership of radical sects like Hizb ut-Tahrir is not as great as some people, including myself, have tended to assume?

Because there is no question that Islam is, sociologically speaking, an ecclesia; but in Britain, because of our Christian past and secular present, it shares more characteristics with a sect or cult. Among the possibilities this suggests is that the Blair regime's moves to give Islam the status of a denomination may not be as misguided as I had hitherto been accustomed to assuming.

However, there was another related thought prompted an article in the TES: are the religious intrinsically paranoid, even when they are members of denominations or ecclesias? Professor Haldane, for example, is worried about the future of Catholic education in Scotland:
"Catholic teachers must prepare for a battle against powerful forces that would "purge" the public sector of denominational schools, says a world-renowned philosopher.

John Haldane, professor of philosophy at St Andrew’s University, made his dramatic claim at the annual conference of the Catholic Headteachers’ Association of Scotland last week. He said an increasing emphasis on secularism among intellectuals would "trickle" through society over the next 15 years.

"Some of the most powerful forces are really quite hostile to Catholic education," he said.

Professor Haldane argued that there was already a "quite determined effort to purge the public space" of Catholic education, because it was "incompatible with a new ideal of public virtue".

He added: "I am by no means optimistic about the future of Catholic education. One may see the battle of Catholic education becoming very, very messy.""
I suppose you have to be a "world-renowned philosopher" to be that out of touch with reality. Who are these "powerful forces"? The idea that these are represented in anything that appears in the Green Party's manifesto, as Professor Haldane suggests, is laughable - as is the notion that what "intellectuals", secular or otherwise, think about anything has any bearing on how education policy is formed in Scotland.

It's both easy and worthwhile to mock Professor Haldane but the point is, I really don't think his views are at all unrepresentative. Now, given the deeply-entrenched position of the Catholic Church in the Scottish education system, and the pusillanimity of most of our political class, one wonders how it is possible to feel that defensive? Does membership of a salvation religion mean someone can never quite shake the feeling that the rest of the world is out to get you?

I'm not sure. And I may, of course, be completely wrong. Hitherto I had felt quite sure that while a completely secular education system was desirable, priests, mullahs, rabbis and various other experts in the supernatural would continue to have an influence on our education system and the running of our schools. I'd be delighted if this prognosis were to be proved to be false.

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