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The Black and White of Justice
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Legal Arena
Fuel for Injustice
How does a hate campaign begin?  How do certain minorities come to be persecuted?  Top scholars analyze the role of apostates in spreading false information and creating hatred.  By Barrett Feinberg  R
eligion experts have recently issued reports condemning the credibility and motives of those who abandon their religious beliefs and then seek to destroy their former groups. The experts also provide insight into the tremendous damage such apostates can create.

As defined by one of the scholars, Lonnie D. Kliever, professor and chair of religious studies of Southern Methodist University, “The word ‘apostasy’ is a transliteration of the Greek apostasia, which originally denoted insurrection or secession. Its religious usage denotes the deliberate abandonment of one’s religion.”

Prejudice against religions is usually based on ignorance about the group and its true activities — and often can be traced to false information spread by such former members or apostates.

Bryan Ronald Wilson, Reader Emeritus in Sociology at the University of Oxford, has researched religious movements in Britain, the United States and other countries for more than 40 years. Recently he described the role of apostates in spreading hatred against Catholics in America:

“In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, at a time of crisis in Christian belief, there were some celebrated cases of apostasy from the Roman Catholic Church. They were represented as occurring in that church because of the rigour of its requirements of belief and practice; because of its resistance to modernism; and in particular because it encouraged the most devoted of its votaries to join monastic orders or congregations.

“Some of the lurid stories of monastic life, purportedly related by apostate monks and nuns—the celebrated case of Maria Monk was widely publicized—turned out to be largely fictional, but were much used by the anti-Catholic propagandist media of the day.”

In the years following publication of the poison contained in Maria Monk’s book, Roman Catholics in Philadelphia were hunted in the streets, shot, their homes and churches burned. In Maine, a priest was stripped, tarred, feathered and brutalized. Although the ringleaders were known and a grand jury was in session, there were no indictments or arrests.

Persecution created by the poisonous atmosphere extended even to the children. In Massachusetts, an 11-year-old Catholic boy, Tom Wall, was whipped continuously in school because he refused to recite a section of scriptures that conflicted with his beliefs. Each time he refused to do so, he was hit again. After 30 minutes of this torture, the boy could no longer stand the pain and gave in. Wall’s father had the teacher arrested on assault charges, but the teacher was released on the grounds that the punishment had not violated the boy’s constitutional rights.

Prone to Prejudice

In a destructive propaganda campaign, a thin thread of truth is sometimes woven among a tapestry of outrageous and extravagant falsehoods. This thin thread, which provides a veneer of legitimacy, is often furnished by a former member of the targeted group, in consort with a bundle of falsehoods. In effect, the apostate creates a controversy and then fuels it through lies and innuendo.

The communion service of Christian religions provides an example of how this works. Early Christians faced charges of cannibalism from Greeks and Romans, who believed that Christians literally ate flesh and drank blood. The thread of truth, of course, is that this symbolized the flesh and blood of Christ. Regardless of how thin this “thread” was, it worked.

Historically, courts of law have been shamefully prone to religious prejudice and persecution. Judas, the first apostate of Christianity, was exploited by government and courts of the day to betray Christ and, in turn, Judas used them to enrich himself through betrayal.

For centuries, courts condemned innocent people as “witches” and ordered them burned at the stake. Prominent religious leaders were likewise sentenced by courts to horrible ends that included strangulation, beheading or being burned alive. (See “Pattern of Prejudice”.)

Quakers in England were condemned to imprisonment and torture for their beliefs. In Massachusetts, they were sentenced to have ears sliced off, holes bored in their tongues with a red-hot iron, or simply hung.

Methodists in the 18th century were mobbed and their chapels burned, with the persecution sanctioned by local magistrates. A century later, members of the Salvation Army were indicted for deception and financial exploitation and imprisoned on trumped-up charges such as “obstructing the highway,” while Mormons were shot on sight.

In our own century, apostates and con men have exploited judicial ignorance of religions to paint graphic but completely fabricated pictures. The dreadful culmination of such propaganda against religions was instrumental in bringing about wholesale depopularizing of religious and ethnic groups in Europe under the Third Reich — a vicious dehumanization process which set the stage for the slaughter of millions.

In Need of Self-Justification

Professor Wilson stated, “The apostate is generally in need of self-justification. He seeks to reconstruct his own past, to excuse his former affiliations, and to blame those who were formerly his closest associates.

“Not uncommonly the apostate learns to rehearse an ‘atrocity story’ to explain how, by manipulation, trickery, coercion, or deceit, he was induced to join or remain within an organisation that he now forswears and condemns. Apostates, sensationalised by the press, have sometimes sought to make a profit from accounts of their experiences in stories sold to newspapers or produced as books.

“... Neither the objective sociological researcher nor the court of law can readily regard the apostate as a credible or reliable source of evidence. He must always be seen as one whose personal history predisposes him to bias with respect to both his previous religious commitment and to his former associates. If he is anxious to testify against his former allegiances and affiliations, the suspicion must arise that he acts from a personal motivation to vindicate himself and to regain his self-esteem, by showing himself to have been first a victim but subsequently to have become a redeemed crusader. As various instances have indicated, he is likely to be suggestible and ready to enlarge or embellish his grievances to satisfy that species of journalist whose interest is more in sensational copy than in an objective statement of the truth.”

Generating Judicial Bias

Although scholars have pointed out time and time again the notoriously unreliable character of testimony from former members of any religion, judicial bias has been successfully generated by alleging all manner of abuses, piling one on top of the other to build up a grotesque, repellant image of the religion that is utterly divorced from reality.

According to Professor Wilson, sociologists have long recognized “a particular constellation of motives” that prompt apostates in their actions against the religious group with which they were previously affiliated.

The inherent unreliability of apostate testimony was also described in an expertise earlier this year by Professor Lonnie Kliever of Southern Methodist University:

“There is no denying that these dedicated and diehard opponents of the new religions present a distorted view of the new religions to the public, the academy, and the courts by virtue of their ready availability and eagerness to testify against their former religious associations and activities.

“Such apostates always act out of a scenario that vindicates themselves by shifting responsibility for their actions to the religious group. Indeed the various brainwashing scenarios so often invoked against the new religious movements have been overwhelmingly repudiated by social scientists and religious scholars as nothing more than calculated efforts to discredit the beliefs and practices of unconventional religions in the eyes of governmental agencies and public opinion. Such apostates can hardly be regarded as reliable informants by responsible journalists, scholars, or jurists.”

Unfortunately, in the past, such apostates have been regarded as reliable. Hopefully, with authorities such as these casting new light on this phenomenon, religions will be judged on their own scriptures and activities, not by the stories of embittered apostates.

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