The Independent Television Commission has lifted its ban on advertising from the Church of Scientology, under pressure from a judicial review of its ban. This ought to be an occasion for large reflections about balancing freedom of speech with the need to protect the larval minds of Superchannel viewers against the drivel that Scientologists peddle. But it is hard to rise to this opportunity for noble thought when one considers the contestants closely.
If an atheist had set out to invent a religion that would discredit other religions, in my view the result would be very close to Scientology. On the other hand, if the same atheist had set out to make religious advertising completely pointless, even when possible, the result would be very like the ITC's code of practice.
The code prohibits advertisers from "expounding religious doctrine". They must not appeal for funds. They may not claim to be the only or true faith. They may not promote faith healing or miracle working; and, as if this ban on benefits in the present life were not enough, religions are also forbidden to suggest that their practice might have any benefits after death either: "References to the alleged consequences of not being religious or not subscribing to a particular faith are not acceptable."
Religion, then, may be advertised providing it has no doctrine, no noticeable consequences, and does not pretend to be true. It is fairly clear where the makers of all those Silk Cut advertisements honed their skills.
Despite fulfilling all these considerations, the original Scientology advertisement managed to fall foul of another clause in the code: section five says that "no advertising is acceptable from bodies ... whose rites or other forms of collective observance are not normally directly accessible to the general public."
The Commission, however, has reconsidered and has now established that the weddings, naming ceremonies, and similar events held by Scientologists are publicly accessible, so they will be allowed to advertise again.
Yet, though the ceremonies of the Scientologists are publicly accessible, only a small portion of their doctrines are. While the "Church" has been fighting in the British courts for the right to advertise its beliefs, or whatever fraction thereof can be squeezed through the ITC guidelines, it has also been fighting in American courts to keep its deeper beliefs secret.
The point about Scientology is that it has concentric rings of belief. To qualify for each successive, deeper revelation of the profoundest truths about the universe, you have to have been qualified for all the previous ones.
The process is not free. In fact, it's not even cheap. By the time an initiate learns the Real Truth: that he is a reincarnated alien spirit, or operant Thetan, whose troubles are caused by evil spirits left over from previous incarnations and attached to him in the form of body hairs, he can have spent tens of thousands of dollars - which, of course, makes it clear that what he receives is a deep spiritual truth, whereas if you had paid only 40p for this revelation, you might be disposed to laugh.
Incidentally, I am not making any of this up. It was all made up in the early Fifties by L Ron Hubbard, the prolific writer of pulp science fiction who founded the "Church" and revealed its doctrines.
Further information is now accessible all over the Internet, and this is what the "Church" and its lawyers have been trying to stop.
Documents containing some of the group's innermost doctrines were deposited in a California court in the Eighties. Disaffected former members then posted them on to the Net. The group responded with a campaign of raids and seizures around the US, claiming that these documents were copyrighted trade secrets. Each time one of the dissidents was raided, sympathisers copied the documents more widely. At one stage, in a delightful irony, they were available from a computer in Peking, that citadel of free speech.
This story has a moral, as religious stories should. It has been a mistake to attempt to suppress the beliefs of Scientology. A far more effective brake on the progress of the group has been to disseminate its beliefs as widely as possible and let people (or aliens) make up their own minds.
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