The following is is a guest post from Lib Dem councillor, John Dixon, who was recently the subject of a complaint to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales for calling Scientology 'stupid' in a Twitter post. The views expressed below are John's personal opinion, and are not expressed in his capacity as a councillor; nor are they the official views of the Lib Dem Humanists & Secularists.
I think I can safely say that I've come to the end of what has been the weirdest week of my life. During it, I've gone from confused, through embarrassed, to amazed. And now back to anonymous again.
For those of you who don't follow Twitter, or read a newspaper, or watch Newsnight, or listen to radio, perhaps I'd better introduce myself, once you've sat back from your loom, and slipped your clogs off. I'm John Dixon - aka JohnLDixon - aka CllrJohnDixon - and I'm facing a disciplinary hearing for a Twitter post dating back to May last year.
At the time I'd just bought my wedding rings from a shop in London, and my fiancée was doing a little light shopping, which left me some free time to head to the pub to relax and, essentially, not do shopping. On my way down Tottenham Court Road, I noticed an open door with a rather clinical-looking, empty room showing - a building that Scientologists use.
As I walked past, I grabbed my phone and Tweeted "I didn't know the Scientologists had a 'church' on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off." And then continued walking. I have to say that I did think about the post - I was careful with the wording, as I wanted it to be whimsical, rather than out and out offensive. I liked the idea of stupidity by osmosis.
A couple of people Tweeted back, and I thought that was the end of it.
A few days later, I noticed that among my followers (it was easy to spot them as I had fewer than a hundred) was the Church of Scientology, which led to a second tweet "Just realised the Scientologists are following me. Quick everyone, pretend you're out."
I must admit I did hesitate a bit before the second message. When I saw they were following me I had a moment's pause as I remembered that Scientology had a reputation for using litigation to silence critics. To be honest, at the time I didn't really have a strong opinion about them - I'd seen the odd TV programme and newspaper article, on which I'd formed my impressions but I'd done no real background research. That's changed.
Now, I don't think what I did was particularly brave or noteworthy. I'm not sure that I deserve to be called a hero - there are those who have suffered, and those who have been persecuted far worse, and at far greater cost. I didn't set out to expose anything - I just used my 140 characters to create an ephemeral comment on my way to a pub, and a resulting complaint and the Ombudsman's judgement have combined to create a lightning rod for two concerns - first, the freedom of speech - the freedom to criticise and even ridicule, and second, Scientology itself.
One of the issues that's arisen is whether it's right to criticise a religion, setting aside that that its status in the UK is debatable (it's not recognised by the Charities Commission, but it's been given VAT exemption as a non-profit organisation), and that I personally don't agree that Scientology is.
And I've been asked several times whether I would have been prompted to Tweet the same thing had I been passing a Christian Church, a Mosque or a Temple. I know I probably wouldn't but the question did prompt me to think why that was. What would stop me?
I think it's because I have a real problem with unquestioning and absolute certainty. Sounds strange I know. But when someone's point of view leaves no room for anyone else's I start feeling very uncomfortable. It doesn't really matter whether that's a religious or a political fundamentalism - I think that there has to be space for doubt.
I think doubt is good. Doubt drives me. I'm constantly questioning whether I'm doing the right thing, and whether there's something I could be doing to improve.
It's one of the reasons I love science, which is built on doubt. A scientific fact only holds true while there's evidence to support it, and has to be inherently falisfiable, so you can prove it's wrong. It separates cause from coincidence in looking at an effect, and cuts away personal prejudices and perspectives to reach an objective view.
Now, I personally might believe that pizza was calorie free, and that any food eaten standing up doesn't count, but the weight of evidence (and my evidence of weight) is against me. And I've still got the shirt I wore during the the Wales 2005 Grand Slam, which I still wear to every game - largely unsuccessfully (so it's obviously something else I'm wearing that's cancelling out the effect, which I'm gradually trying to eliminate by meticulously tinkering with the sock, pant and T-shirt variables).
Scientific method is blind to my feelings on these matters, no matter how certain I might be that I'm right. As a scientist, albeit not a practising one, I have to accept that if that's not where the evidence leads then I must doubt my position and change my mind. Certainty in the face of opposing evidence means I close myself off to understanding and progress, and there's little place for alternative perspectives, or opposing opinions if that's the case.
Religion is, obviously, a bit different. Faith doesn't demand evidence, and flourishes in its absence. But in their own way, most do still allow for doubt, and alternative perspectives.
The central message of most mainstream religions contains one of tolerance for others, and for different faiths. There are always some who twist these messages to justify their own purpose - there are many examples throughout history to the present day of individuals or sects so convinced by their own correctness that they feel the need to force others to their view, and eliminate those faces which don't fit, or who oppose them.
And mainstream religion has its problems, even endemic ones - the child abuses in the Roman Catholic Church springs to mind. But these too were down to the failings of groups of criminal individuals abusing a position of trust or actively suppressing investigation for fear of scandal.
And that's just it. It's their individual interpretation or failings rather than the underlying tenets of their scripture. This, I think, is the difference in my mind.
I quote from Mr Justice Latey from the High Court on 23 July 1984. He said in a section called "Is there a good side to Scientology?" that "I have searched and searched carefully for anything good, some redeeming feature, in Scientology. I can find nothing, unless it be such participation as there has been in the anti-drug abuse campaign."
He then concluded that "Scientology is both immoral and socially obnoxious. Mr. Kennedy [barrister for the petitioner] did not exaggerate when he termed it "pernicious". In my judgement it is corrupt, sinister and dangerous. It is corrupt because it is based on lies and deceit and has as its real objective money and power for Mr. Hubbard, his wife and those close to him at the top. It is sinister because it indulges in infamous practices both to its adherents who do not toe the line unquestioningly and to those outside who criticise or oppose it. It is dangerous because it is out to capture people, especially children and impressionable young people, and indoctrinate and brainwash them so that they become the unquestioning captives and tools of the cult, withdrawn from ordinary thought, living and relationships with others."
Note that he did not pass judgement on an individual, or a group of individuals who might have a separate interpretation of their teachings, but on the whole organisation, and did so having taken evidence for three weeks about its policies and practices.
Now, I can't think of a mainstream religion which could be described in this way. I can't imagine that a similar comment probably would even cross my mind as I hurried past a Church, Mosque or Temple.
And for me, that's the difference.
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