The National Times, 04-09 Sep 1972, p15

Scientology: really it's just like another nickel prospect


Labor's Senate leader, Lionel Murphy, seems to have alarmed a few people in declaring that a Labor Government would recognise the Scientology Church of the New Faith. The alarm is unfounded, or at least no more founded than a similar scare would be if it were learned that Labor would recognise the Church of the Immaculate Whatever.

It is not simply that in these matters the Federal Government's writ extends only to Canberra and its environs and the Northern Territory. It is rather that we already have perfectly adequate laws to deal with fraudulent practices, and we can do without special laws against Scientology. Senator Murphy's remark is thus the most matter-of-fact commonsense.

Scientology's reappearance in Australia as a Chruch rather than as a scientific cult no doubt results from the fuss which surrounded it in the early 1960s, which led to the passage of laws against Scientology in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. Victoria's is called the Psychological Practices Act, South Australia's, most straightforwardly, the Scientology (Prohibition) Act.

Psycho-analysis and gimmickry

What is Scientology? I cannot speak from experience, but it appears to be a kind of psycho-analysis dressed up with some technical gimmickry and mumbo-jumbo. Its function, with respect to the "patient" - perhaps we should now say the "believer" - is to enable him to live with himself. This is done by "processing," and processing is a little pricy - about $15 an hour. Processing can go on, and on.

Devotees will no doubt say that I have misrepresented the cult, but that is beside the point: the same kind of things could be said about orthodox medicine, which has more than its fair ration of gimmickry, mumbo-jumbo and priestly behaviour.

Hands up all those who have repaired to their local sawbones only to be advices sagely that "There's a lot of it going around, I'm afraid." You paid over the $4.50, right? But you felt better already.

No, the important point about Scientology is that its special brand of hocus-pocus is no more reprehensible than anyone else's, so far as I know, and no more deserving of proscription. No doubt there are those who have blown their money on Scientology. It may be the case that the founder of the cult and his mates have made a pile out of the simple and the suckers. Perhaps there have been some family tragedies as a result.

But before the righteous indignation starts welling up, and we reach for the Statute-book in order to insert a new ban, let us consider what we are getting annoyed about.

Point one is that if Scientology is fraudulent within the meaning of the law then sufferers already have legal recourse: they can lay information and help to begin a prosecution.

Fraud is an ancient crime, and the wrath of the law has fallen as heavily on the short-weight baker of ancient Assyria as on the Australian mining crook who has this hole full of nickel he is just waiting to dig out. If Scientology fits in there then we don't need another law to deal with it.

If it does not - if its claims are misleading but of a different kind - then it falls into a very large class of enterprises indeed. The orthodox Christian Churches (and indeed the unorthodox ones) have been promising salvation or eternal life to believers and/or pure people for hundreds of years, in return for divers gifts and behaviours, without ever having been able to produce one person who has been saved or is currently enjoying eternal life. No matter, we regard that as acceptable.

Or consider, one more time, the medical practitioner. Confronted with a certain type of patient offering certain kinds of symptoms he will prescribe an anonymous pill or a bitter potion. In either case the midicine consists of a few simple ingredients that will neither harm the patient nor improve his health. But the patient goes away happy, and very often the symptoms quickly disappear. Has the doctor been fraudulent, or inspired?

Or take a plunge into the all-pervading world of advertising. A few pages of a women's magazine serves to make the point: a child who takes a certain brand of laxative will "be his giggly old self in the morning," a hair-colour offers "the look and feel of glorious health."

Skin creams, bust improvers, vitamins, detergents, disinfectants, soap, grog, carpets, curtains, clothes, foods of all kinds, diet preparations, insect-killers, motor cars, biscuits - all come with a message and a hint of a promise. The promises are alike in that they are not redeemable (too bad if you don't experience the "glow of youth" after using Fred's skin balm) but we don't normally regard such advertisements as fraudulent.

In all of this, in fact, we operate under another maxim, the old caveat emptor - "let the buyer beware." The man who, sight unseen, buys a beautiful beach-side estate and discovers that he owns some sandy scrub miles from anywhere gets little sympathy from anyone, because he has displayed not even the most elementary prudence.

If the law is to prevent people like this from falling into pits that they dig themselves it can only do so by so limiting autonomous behaviour that normal people will find life intolerable, or by being thoroughly arbitrary, as in the case of Scientology. And arbitrariness in law we ought to avoid like the plague.

Clinical and objective

The proper way to deal with Scientology, in my view, is to encourage the Australian Consumers' Association, or a like body, to give it a consumer test. ACA reports are properly clinical and objective, and they do set out consumer satisfaction.

If there are satisfied consumers then it is useful to know what they got (or think they got) for their money. If there are disgruntled ones it is helpful to know why they lost their gruntle.

To say this is not to imply that truth is mighty and shall prevail, but rather that some hard information is better than a lot of scary prejudice. It is probably true that even if ACA reports were very widely known there would still be mugs who took no notice. As Queen Victoria was fond of saying, there is one born every minute.

But Governments should stay out of it, intervening only when it can be shown that the practice is positively harmful to all those who take it up (like, I hear you say, cigarettes, motor cars, whisky, and other things).

Proscribing Scientology seemed to me at the time to be more than faintly silly. It was also a textbook example of that ancient Australian infantile political disease, banner's frenzy.

For much too long we have followed as national policy the motto, "If it's different ban it, if it's fun, close it down." We have to grow up sooner or later; now is not a bad time to start.