If you grew up in Scientology like I did, or if you have OCD with word definitions you must have noticed that most people use words carelessly and usually incorrectly. Most of our modern English language is made up of words that don’t mean what they used to because people didn’t understand or care about the actual definition.
Now, I’m not necessarily one of those guys who has to have every semicolon in the right place and every word used exactly in the dictionary-correct way. I’m not. I do, however, tend to notice when they aren’t right, even if I don’t choose to care.
But sometimes words have very specific and very important definitions, particularly when you get into the territory of questions of legality and official documents. These are the times when the specific definitions of words are most important.
I’ve heard Scientology described as a religion by Scientologists and media outlets since I was a young child. But even as a child I knew something was different about Scientology that every other religion I had heard of. To be honest, actually there were a lot of things different about it but this one in particular is relevant to the topic of word definitions: Scientologists don’t worship anyone or anything.
Christians, depending on their branch, to one degree or another worship Jesus, God, Mother Mary and/or the Holy Trinity itself. They don’t just like or love Jesus, they worship him. Muslims don’t think Allah is great and that’s that, they worship him actively. Scientologists don’t worship anyone or anything. In fact, privately, worship itself is viewed in a similar way to how atheists might view it: a pointless exercise to an imaginary being.
I think we can all agree that whether Scientologists worship or not is probably not enough information to form a conclusion as to if it’s a real religion or not.
To do that we need to first re-discover what a religion is. Let’s take a look at some definitions.
- the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods
- a particular system of faith and worship:
“the world’s great religions”
So you can see that technically according to the Oxford Dictionary, Scientology actually isn’t a religion. How about another, less formal dictionary:
- the service and worship of God or the supernatural
- a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
Here we can see that the second definition is calling the word religious, which from the same dictionary means:
relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity
And now you see the wide open definition Merriam-Webster gives you:
a personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity
Under this definition, Scientology is a religion. None of the other definitions allow for Scientology to be considered a religion because there is no worship in Scientology. In this definition Scientology certainly is a religion.
But wait, what else is a religion in this definition?
An institutionalized (or personal) system of attitudes relating to faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality.
What is faithful? By the same dictionary:
steadfast in affection or allegiance
So according to Merriam-Webster, anything that can fit this description is a religion:
A system of attitudes relating to faithful (steadfast in affection or allegiance) devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality.
Now I’m no lawyer but I’m pretty sure any lawyer put in a position where the courts agree to this definition could argue virtually anything that is an institution with ideas about being devoted to any reality would likely fit this description.
If we accept this definition, let’s explore some of the areas of life that religion hasn’t yet been properly identified.
Science is an attitude relating to allegiance to an acknowledged ultimate reality: evidence predicts the state of things past, present and future.
Atheism is an attitude relating to allegiance to not believing in supernatural beings without sufficient evidence: that is to say, the acknowledged reality that these things likely don’t exist unless proven otherwise.
Abortion clinics are an institutionalized system comprised of people with an attitude related to the devotion to protecting and preferring the quality of life of the mother and/or fetus over the life of the fetus, dealing with life and death.
The United States Government is an institutionalized system which clearly demonstrates attitudes about devotion to freedom, liberty and even God. By the above definition, The United States Government itself is a religion.
Basically anything you can think of which has a system of important beliefs can be said to fit this description.
Without the word “worship” in the definition, the real meaning of religion is lost and nearly anything can be considered a religion.
I would argue that if we accept the widest definition available the word religion is, certainly for tax-exemption, religious protections and other legal purposes, meaningless. Oxford Dictionary has a more specific definition of religion that actually cuts out these unintended hop-ons and is the most appropriate legal definition.
Therefore I would conclude that we’re faced with two choices and paths:
Either Christianity and Islam are religions because they include actual worship in their practices and entities like Scientology aren’t because they don’t or nearly everything we can think of should be considered a religion and granted tax-exempt status and religious freedoms.