Scientology: The Marks of Religion

Frank K. Flinn, Ph.D.

Adjunct Professor

in Religious Studies

Washington University

Saint Louis, Missouri




     There is no hard-and-fast definition of worship which can be applied to all forms of religion with complete impartiality. At the end of section II above, on the marks of religion, I noted that every religion will have all three marks (a system of beliefs, religious practices, and religious community) in some way, but no two religions will have them in the precise same degree or in the same manner. These variations are what make religions unique. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and high Anglicanism place an enormous stress on elaborate rituals, including vestments, processions, candles, hymns, icons, holy water, incense, and so forth. On the other hand, in many strict Protestant denominations such as the Brethren, such ornate ceremonial forms are considered slightly superstitious if not outrightly idolatrous. In the branches of Christianity, worship is pared down to the preaching of the Word, maybe a few hymns, and prayer. Among the Religious Society of Friends – commonly known as the Quakers – the Meeting for Worship consists of no external acts at all but is a gathering in silence during which members may or may not share a brief word of inspiration. Likewise, the central act of worship in Buddhist monasteries is totally silent meditation for great periods of time centered not on revering a Supreme Deity but on the extinction of the self and release from the entanglements of existence.

     The impossibility of discovering any absolutely rigid and fixed definition of worship necessitates keeping a flexible notion for comparative study. Most dictionary definitions face this problem by including several ideas under the concept of worship. First, worship can include ideas of “rites” and “ceremonies.” Some scholars of religion see rites and rituals as being transformative. In the Christian rite of baptism, for example, an initiate is transformed from one state (sin) to another (grace). In primal societies, the rites of passage transform neophytes from childhood to adulthood. The Scientology auditing process of passing from the state of “preclear” to “Clear” would be transformative in this sense. Conversely, ceremonies are seen as confirmatory; that is, they affirm and confirm the status quo. Various forms of Sabbath and Sunday services are often ceremonies in this sense. Ceremonies confirm to the believing community its status as a worshipping body and its identity as a denomination. Often, but not necessarily always, accoutrements including vestments, rites and ceremonies are accompanied by elaborate dancing, music, sacred sprinklings and purifications, sacrifices of animals or food, gestures such as blessings, and so forth.

     Secondly, scholars of religion universally recognize that rites and ceremonies cannot be the end-all and be-all of worship. Hence, most definitions include further notions such as “practices,” “acts” and “observances.” These further notions are included in common definitions for good reasons. One person’s worship may be another’s superstition. And what may appear to be a meaningless act to one believer – for example, making the sign of the Cross, to a Protestant – may be an act of devotion to another. Thus scholars are compelled to see religious acts in the context of the specific religion as a whole, that is, in terms of the ultimate goals and intentions of the body of believers. The scholar does not have to believe what the believer believes, but if he or she is seriously attempting to understand religious phenomena, that scholar must take a step in the direction of believing as the believer believes. It is only from this stance that the scholar can determine which acts, practices and observances constitute worship in a given religious community.

     Under the broader definition of religious worship (acts, practices, observances) we can include such topics as the study of sacred texts, the training of others in the study and recitation of these texts, and various forms of religious instruction. Some religions even imbue these kinds of acts with sacred ceremony. In Japanese Zen monasteries, I have observed Zen novices ceremonially carrying copies of the Lotus Sutra and solemnly committing it to memory through ritualized chanting. The study of the Talmud in Jewish yeshivas takes on a similar ritual character.


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