Steven Poole is blogging at CiF about Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley’s comments at the opening of the “Church” of Scientology’s new London headquarters. According to the Guardian:

Mr Hurley said the scientologists were a “force for good” in London and were “raising the spiritual wealth of society”, to applause and cheering from the gathered crowd. He paid tribute to the work of hundreds of the Scientology members in the aftermath of the July 7 attacks last year.

Steven Poole’s conclusion isn’t particularly coherent, although I can see what he’s trying to say, and am broadly sympathetic to it:

The truth is that all religions, or sects, or cults, have idiosyncratic myths and signs that mark them off from unbelievers. We can either damn them all or accept them all with benign irony. But this kind of favouritism, hymning Scientology as a “force for good” while attacking Muslim women’s dress, is crass and inflammatory.

Poole has conflated the interventions of a wide range of public figures in the Great Veil Debate into a single narrative. The connection between a police officer’s praise of Scientology, and the various inappropriate pronouncements by politicians on Niqab-wearing to which we have been treated in the past few weeks is merely circumstantial. There is, of course, no policy of favouring Scientologists over Muslims.

I have three points to make about Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley’s participation in this event.

First, I am not wildly enthusiastic about politicians dispensing benediction upon particular religious or cultural communities. The appearance of politicians at faith events, where they almost invariably deliver some generic, upbeat message strikes me as tremendously patronising. Is there anything more depressing than the sight of a junior minister informing the devout or one faith or another that they have made a “wonderful contribution to our society”?

Secondly, although politicians might just be excused this sort of behaviour, why should a police officer be pronouncing on the social worth of a particular sect? Politicians at least have a representative function and are elected; police officers are not accountable in this manner. Politicians need to make vacuous statements to their constituents if they are to be elected. The police do not.

Thirdly, as Steven Poole points out Scientology is not a religion: at least for not “for the purposes of English charity law”, according to the Charity Commission. Rather, it is a money making enterprise, which has dressed itself up as a religion, for the purpose of avoiding public criticism and obtaining favourable tax treatment. Neither of these strategies have been particularly successful in the United Kingdom, and I am keen to do my bit to ensure that they never succeed.

Indeed, when this “religion” has been subjected to judicial scrutiny, it has been found to be obnoxious. Here are some quotations from English judgements involving Scientology, its practices and its teachings:

“Scientology is both immoral and socially obnoxious… It is corrupt sinister and dangerous. It is corrupt because it is based on lies and deceit and has its real objective money and power for Mr. Hubbard… It is sinister because it indulges in infamous practices both to its adherents who do not toe the line unquestionably and to those who criticize it or oppose it. It is dangerous because it is out to capture people and to indoctrinate and brainwash them so they become the unquestioning captives and tools of the cult, withdrawn from ordinary thought, living, and relationships with others”

Mr Justice Latey

“Pernicious nonsense… at best utterly absurd”

Mr Justice Goff (later Lord Goff)

…capable of such danger that the public interest demands that people should know what is going on …

Lord Denning

Steven Poole suggests that the only choice open to the “us”, with respect to religious practices, is to “damn them all or accept them all with benign irony”. That is a false dischotomy. We – as individuals – are capable of looking at beliefs and practices – whether they are described as religious or not – and deciding which of them are valuable, worthless, or harmful.

Indeed, many religious people treat their faith as a private matter, and share their beliefs only with their friends and family. They do not proselytise, or manifest their faith in an ostentatious manner. They are entitled to have that choice respected. To the extent that those individuals engage in public discourse about their beliefs, then they can expect the merits of those beliefs to be discussed and debated.

This is, in essence, the argument made by Oliver Kamm. Discussing the demand of a Danish Imam, who led the Jyllands-Posten protests, to “respect”, Kamm says:

He was, and is, entitled to no such thing. He is entitled in a democratic society to no more and no less than religious and political liberty. Whether he enjoys respect as well is entirely up to him; it is not up to our political and juridical system.

That is a good starting point, not only for religious beliefs and practices, but to all beliefs and practices, whether or not they involve supernatural claims. However, a corollary of religious and political liberty is that the State adopts a proper position of neutrality. As a public servant, it was absolutely wrong for Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley to attend this event in any capacity at all – except for the purposes of detecting and preventing crime – still less to speak at it.

As a matter of fact, I think that the views expressed by Kevin Hurley are wrong. However, I am more concerned that he came to be addressing a quasi-religious gathering at all.

I’d be interested to know how Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley came to participate in this Scientology event, and to be assured that procedures will be put in place to ensure that no public servant endorses this dishonest scam in future.