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Alternative Religions And Their Academic Supporters
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When Scholars Know Sin - Continued
Alternative Religions and Their Academic Supporters

by Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs

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Start of article   Previous page   Credits and Copyright   Bibliography   Rebuttals and Rejoinder   

Academics and Doctrinal 'Secrets'

In what may be the most remarkable example of academics forming alliances with religions in a manner that hinders basic social scientific research, J. Gordon Melton organized three sociologists and seven religious studies scholars and/or theologians in a November, 1994, amicus curiae submission supporting Scientology's efforts to keep secret its upper level teachings (Church of Scientology International v. Steven Fishman and Uwe Geertz, 1994). Defendants had submitted these teachings as evidence in a Scientology-initiated court case. These teachings were Scientology's "OT" (Operating Thetan) levels, which Scientologists read only after three years of doctrinal study, behavioral conformity, and (at least) tens of thousands of dollars (Beggar, 1991, 52-53). In attempts to justify Scientology's efforts to control the dissemination of these teachings, these scholars cited examples of secrecy within numerous religious and secular traditions -- early Christianity, Gnosticism, Mormonism, Kabbalistic Judaism, Tantrism, industry, government and the military, etc. None of them, however, acknowledged the critical issue about the propriety of academics involved in efforts to restrict information.

Researchers investigating social control within organizations, for example, require access to material that groups wish to restrict, simply because this material provides glimpses into behind-the-scenes activities that often escape the public eye. Nevertheless, the respected sociologists of religion, Bryan R. Wilson, argued for Scientology's right to restrict its upper level material. Over a decade earlier, however, Horowith -- in debate with Wilson and others -- presented the position that "[s]ocial research [must] open up to the public scrutiny and criticism the innermost secrets of religious organization. This is the inevitable ground upon which sociological and religious analysis must differ" (Horowitz, 1983, 181). Indeed, in arguing for Scientology's right to restrict access to doctrinal material, Wilson and his sociological colleagues seemed to have forgotten comments that a founding figure of their discipline offered nearly nine decades earlier. Georg Simmel spoke insightfully in his 1908 essay when he observed that "the secret is often ethically negative..." (Simmel, 1908, 331). Sociologists such as Wilson must realize that groups can use secrets to control, manipulate, and harm, which means that they and other researchers should be opposing rather than defending efforts to restrict access to information that becomes available in legal and ethically defensible circumstance.

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