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Hitting the Limit on the Freedom of Religion

Posted on November 16, 2009



An interesting story in the New York Times on Saturday made me think of a commercial I saw the other day on CNN.



The story was about new studies that make the case that societies that are religious-based survive better than societies that aren’t. Pointing to one particular research study, the New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade wrote: “This and other research is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world. Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.”



And it make sense that religious societies, ones that pray to a greater being, a God who is the ultimate “decider”, last longer than societies that have no compelling reason for people to act civilly to one another. After all, if the final judgment is rendered by a higher being, we all have a vested interest in behaving. If the law of the jungle prevails, a society is not likely to survive long. And ultimately, getting people to behave is the goal of a civilized society.



But can any religion suffice? Or does it have to be a religion that meets some basic standards of morality, honesty and reasonableness? And who is to judge?



Those thoughts came to my mind when I saw a commercial for Scientology on CNN. Several years ago, the IRS gave the Church of Scientology (if you can call it that) the same tax exemption that it gives to every major religion. Scientology, which has among it some big-name celebrity adherents like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, is a cult. It is based on the philosophy of L. Ron Hubbard, who popularized the term Dianetics. The key part of Hubbard’s religion/philosophy is the audit, where church goers pay for the opportunity to get examined by representatives of the Church, who then find ways to get initiated to give more of their money to the Church. The Church, for understandable reasons, has declared war on the field of psychiatry, because they are tired of psychiatrists calling their members crazy.



The U.S. government, because it is such a defender of the concept of freedom on religion, has condemned the German government, in one example, because Germany thinks that the Church of Scientology is a cult and has taken steps to ban Scientologists from its borders. But, what if the Germans are right and we are wrong?



And who decides what is a cult and what is not?



The Washington Times is owned by the Moonies. I like the Times, but it has always made me uncomfortable that it is owned by the Unification Church, and takes its orders from Sun Myung Moon. I mean, this guy believes he is the Second Coming of Christ. He performs Mass wedding of thousands of people at the same time. His church is clearly a cult. But he owns an influential newspaper and has gotten rich with his religion.



You can turn on the television and see television evangelists who preach the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel is a perversion of the old Calvinist concept of pre-destination. Basically, it works this way. You send the preacher money, and then he will pray that you get rich. It’s a scam. It is designed to prey on the desperate, the poor, the least-educated among us. But they all get the same tax-exemption, for basically running a scam.



Do these type of religions help societies to survive for the long-term? I don’t know. Are all religions equal? Who is to judge? Right now, it seems like the only judge we have is the IRS. And they seem to be pretty liberal in who they decide is an actual religion.



One of the reasons America to freest place on the planet is because we believe in the free market when it comes to religion. We have it in our constitution that we shall make no law that establishes or prohibits the free practice of religion. People are free to believe whatever they want to believe in this country. And they often do.



But the free market has its limits when it comes to religion. And we seem to be getting mighty close to exceeding those limits with some of these new religions that pop up all over the place.