Thursday, February 01, 2007

Copyrights and Scientology

According to wikipedia, the version of the Xenu story from Scientology shown on South Park was slightly inaccurate, which may have been in order to avoid being sued for copyright infringement by the Church of Scientology.

For those unfamiliar, Scientology tells us that an evil galactic warlord named Xenu (or sometimes 'Xemu') sent a bunch of frozen people to Earth and blew them up with hydrogen bombs around 75 million years ago. The souls, or "thetans" of those people were trapped here on Earth and now cling to modern-day humans, causing physical and mental illness. But, for instance, in the South Park version of the story, the people were just thrown into volcanoes rather than being blown up by bombs. The changes aren't significant in the overall point of the story (kind of like if you changed Jesus' "water into wine" story into a "water into beer" story).

But this made me consider the fact that the Church of Scientology is allowed to copyright what are, in effect, their religious texts. This isn't so much true with most other religions I am familiar with. Heck, most religions seem only too happy to give their scriptures away for free, even leaving them in hotel rooms. (I'm looking at you, Mormons and Gideons). Though it does appear that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is copyrighted, but the Catechism is more of a commentary and practical interpretation of the scriptures than actual scripture itself, sort of like the Mishnah.

But I just have to wonder, by what right does the Church of Scientology get to control the distribution of stories they purport to be true accounts of actual history? By what right can the Truth be copyrighted? If I really am inhabited by thetans who were once citizens of the Galactic Confederacy who were obliterated by hydrogen bombs by the evil warlord Xenu, what right does the Church of Scientology have to keep that from me?

Here's what I think. In the US, religion has, legally, a privileged status, being expressly protected by the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution. This is, in part, why religious organizations and churches are tax exempt, because taxing them could, in effect, harm the right of free religious expression. People on the right like to say that, "Rights aren't free; rights come with responsibilities," or words to that effect. I agree. And I think that, along with the right not to be interfered with by government, religious organizations should have the responsibility to make the Truth (as they see it) freely available. I don't think they should be allowed to copyright their scriptures and essential beliefs.

For one thing, how can we know if an organization is genuinely "religious" or just a scam unless we can freely examine their product? And why should religions be allowed to have "trade secrets" as if they're competing businesses? They're not, after all, or else they should pay their taxes like everyone else. Their product is doctrine, dogma, the Truth as they see it, and all those things should compete equally in the marketplace of ideas. If Microsoft has to make Windows code available to its competitors, why should Scientology have to make its doctrines available to other churches as well?

Plus, I think government-enforced copyright of religious material is, itself, a violation of the 1st Amendment: "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." Consider this: there are already schisms in the Scientology movement. The rebel groups are collectively known as the "Free Zone." They can't call themselves Scientologists or their movements Scientology, or even, apparently, anything like "The New Reformed Church of Scientology," nor can they reprint or pass around or use Scientologist scripture in the things they do, because that stuff is copyrighted. Well, wait a minute! How, in this instance, is government-enforced copyright not interfering in the "free exercise" of religion by Free Zoners? The 1st Amendment, to my eyes, virtually forbids religious organizations copyrighting religious materials, because by definition the government's power cannot be used to limit the spread and dissemination of such materials, since that will limit the right of free exercise of religion.

Just a thought.


At 6:04 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

This is a good point ... though I guess it raises the semantic question of what, exactly, "freedom" of "religion" allows.

For example, the "FreeZoners" can still believe whatever they like, even if they can't name themselves something in particular. Moreover, I'm not sure whether you legally have the right to create a church and name it the "The Church of Mark's @$$" ... so I guess all churches have some restriction on their naming intrinsically, regardless of copyright issues.

Less trivially, certainly religions cannot practice any way they like (they can't perform ritual sacrifices, for instance ... they cannot actually perform acts of canabilism, though they can believe they are doing so [transubstantiation]). So, in that sense there is not total freedom.

More saliently to we non-theists, I've had the argument raised to me (by another non-theist, in earnestness) that the Bill of Rights does not speak to our freedom to disbelieve because non-theism is not a "religion". Of course, I don't even know what that means because one would be hard-pressed to generate an example of a "practice" of non-theism to be protected.

These all lead me to a peculiar place: If we assume that we cannot effectively legislate against beliefs/disbeliefs (because it is unenforceable), we are left with laws governing actions. Speech and assembly is protected, regardless of religion ... practice is certainly managed by law (again, no sacrafice, no cannibalism). So what does it even mean to have "Freedom of Religion"? Is the clause even meaningful?

But addressing the spirit of your post (I believe): I have always been perplexed by these relgions that seem to want to keep some sort of bizare internal secret. Despite the ubiquitousness of the Book of Mormon, I would count the LDS among such groups ... a lot of their rituals and such are kept intentionally very secret. I've even heard that the church can be pretty ruthless to ex-members who reveal such secrets (just as Scientology can be so).

I guess the appeal is that people feel "special" because they are privilidged by something not available to others. But the whole idea seems counterintuitive for evangelical religions.

For religions like Judaism, which are not proselytetic it is less perplexing.

Come to think of it, I don't know much about "The Church of Mark's @$$" ... what kinds of secrets are in there?(*)

(*) Yes, I left the "there" intentionally ambiguous. It was a joke, though, I really don't want to know.

At 9:34 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

Well, of course, the main "freedom of religion" the 1st Amendment allows is freedom not to be legally forced to participate in any particular religion. I think that was the primary "freedom" the 1st Amendment was meant to protect by forbidding the government from establishing a state Church. And, of course, though conservatives like to deny that "freedom of religion" means "freedom FROM religion," it absolutely must, or it has no meaning.

I'm pretty sure, actually, that you could name a church "The Church of Mark's Ass." I don't think you could use pictures of me or say it was my ass in particular (of all the Marks around).

I can see your point on the naming convention, but on the other hand, as long as you don't try to use exactly the same name as another church or sect, I don't see the problem. I don't see how a religion can be proprietary, and so while I can see not allowing another group to call themselves "The Church of Scientology," if they are practicing a splinter form of Scientology, I still think they should be allowed to call themselves something like "The New Reformed Church of Scientology." Lots of Christians don't think other Christian sects than their own are really "Christians," but they have to deal with it. So should the Scientologists and their various sects.

And, while it is true the "Free Zoners" can still believe what they want, but I would (and do) contend that not being able to use, access, or reproduce the Scientology "scripture" that is the basis of their religion is definitely a way of preventing them from "freely exercising" their religious beliefs. That would be like trying to have a Star Trek watching club but not being allowed to have any Star Trek DVDs. Yeah, you could do it, but it really wouldn't make much sense.

And, while it is true that the 1st Amdenment doesn't permit total freedom in the exercise of religion, in general such exercise is only limited when it would substantially harm others' rights. But, in this case, I don't see how the right of the Church of Scientology to profit from its intellectual material (which is, after all, what copyright is about), which isn't protected by the Bill of Rights, trumps the right of Free Zoners to exercise their religious beliefs.

At 11:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From what I understand, Scientology keeps the Xenu bag under wraps because most people give so much money trying to obtain OT (Operating Thetan) status and once they hear about the alien angle they naturally respond with "WTF?!" The Xenu biz is available only to the highest paid-in Scientologists. Hubbard stated that the truth would cause someone to go crazy if they were told before they were full OT's. Scientology is the only religion I know of that markets itself in such a way strictly because of the religious tax shelter laws in the US. Even Hubbard said that in order to succeed they would have to do this. While I don't believe in Scientology, the pay as you go religion model would have made Hubbard one hell of an Amway salesman.

The church of Mark's Ass, huh? Well we can go there, but you have to do something about the gas leak.


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