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Religion, Cult, or Money-Making Enterprise?

2015-04-03

Speaking of religion, here is an outrageous fact: establishments of religion, and their ministers, are exempt from taxation in the United States, presumably based on the notion that religion is a public good that justifies the sheltering of its outposts and proselytes.  What is a public good of religion?  That is highly arguable.  Most atheists, and many agnostics, would deny that there is any “public good” to religion that could justify a tax exemption.

At least, the benevolent view of religion would say that it is a sort of social glue that holds society together; in many cases, there are also charitable activities such as caring for the poor.  However, there are “religions” that can be shown to provide no public good whatsoever, and in fact are organized for the express purpose of avoiding taxes.

One such “religion” was established by a well-known science fiction writer of the 1950’s.  In his writings, he mused on what the best way to earn a good living would be; he concluded that religion was best, since all earnings could be made (or argued to be) tax-exempt.  He had, in addition to a native intelligence, what is known in Ireland as “the gift of the gab” meaning he could keep listeners in a state of near-hypnosis while spinning tales for hours on end.

He himself felt emotions and mental states that distressed him, which he could not personally control at first.  He discovered the use of a simple electronic device which measured the electrical conductivity of the skin; this tracked quite closely to a person’s state of anxiety, partially based on subliminal sweating(which greatly improves the transmission of a tiny electrical current).  By experimenting with the device, he discovered the fact that repeated exposure to a stressful stimulus evokes a gradually decreasing anxiety reaction (the psychological principle of “extinction”)

On this basis, he established a religion which started with the use of a physical tool for observing anxiety, the measurement of relative skin conductance or resistance to electric current.  This device was used to probe the mental state of an individual in relation to thoughts that were elicited that might cause anxiety or distress.  The religious practitioner would ask the acolyte what things were causing her distress, and the acolyte would relate these items, which would then be written down.

With repeated exposure to these distressing items, the body’s drop in electrical resistance (partly caused by subliminal sweating) would be attenuated, and over time the reaction would be extinguished (eliminated.)  It was then said that the subject had eliminated these sources of distress from his psyche.  At that point, if the subject could be induced to undergo further sessions with the device, the practitioner would search for other sources of distress, perhaps incidents that occurred in the past.

The key money-making component of this religion was that each session was paid for ahead of time by the subject.  Usually, she would feel tremendous relief at discovering that certain incidents or situations were causing a reaction that could be observed and at the same time, felt as a source of distress; repeated exposure to the items would reduce the reaction and make the subject feel that the distress was being relieved.

People who were introduced to this procedure were usually those who already felt a kind of free-floating anxiety about matters of which they were not completely aware.  People who felt perfectly comfortable with themselves would look upon this procedure with considerable skepticism and were unlikely to get involved or pay good money.  Thus, people who were in distress were those most likely to seek out and try this “religion.”

These distressed people would pour out their troubles to the practitioner and then feel a great relief afterwards.  With conditioning, this relief became self-reinforcing and the money just rolled in.  At the same time, the practitioner was gaining a tremendous amount of information about things that were distressing to the subject and also likely to prove a source of embarrassment or shame if they were revealed publicly.

People who persisted with this series of procedures (and the series never ended, since once current worries were relieved, the practitioner would search further and further into the subject’s past for additional sources of distress) eventually became “cured”, except that a person could never really be completely cured, at least not permanently.  However, after investing a significant amount of money in the procedures and achieving a significant sense of improved well-being, the subject would be gradually introduced into the mythology behind the procedures.  If the subject became disillusioned on learning about this absurd back story, often she could be blackmailed into silence using the information gained previously.

At no time would it ever be revealed that, first, the measuring device simply detected skin resistance usually related to psychic distress elicited by the thoughts related to the questioning, and second, the relief that the subject felt was purely a function of the process of revealing things that were distressing to a fellow human being.  The same relief could be felt after confessing one’s sins to a priest, or consulting a psychoanalyst, or talking to one’s aunt over coffee.  These secrets (unknown even to the practitioner in most cases) formed the basis of a powerful mystique which rewarded the subject for paying money to have the procedures.

Once the science-fiction writer had developed this technique and this measuring device, he began to practice his religion and claimed to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that all his earnings (which he duly reported) were tax-exempt.  At first, the IRS denied his tax-exemption; over the years, this evolved into an all-out battle between him, his organization, and the IRS.  The stakes grew ever higher with every year that he failed to pay taxes, until the IRS claimed that he owed a billion dollars in back taxes, interest, and penalties.

At last, after he had developed a large and powerful organization with expensive lawyers, filed over two thousand lawsuits against that division of the federal government known as the Internal Revenue Service, and engaged in a well-funded public campaign to destroy the public’s trust in the institution of taxes, the IRS finally caved in.  In 1993, the IRS declared that it accepted the claim that the science fiction writer’s “religion” was in fact a tax-exempt organization.  By this time, the organization was enormous and had as many as 500 thousand disciples (according to adherents.com); however, since then, the membership has dwindled to possibly less than 50 thousand.  At the same time, the book value of the organization (primarily invested in prime real estate) has grown rapidly, and now exceeds $3 billion by conservative estimates.

There are many other aspects to this organization which are exceptionally disingenuous, blatantly fraudulent, or callous and brutal, but the basic procedure remains the same.  There is nothing religious about this procedure, and the mythology behind it makes it seem absurd, but at heart, it is a money making enterprise operated for the benefit of its higher-level disciples and certain celebrity acolytes.  It is obvious that the top 0.1% of them live like kings and the rest work like dogs.

I will not name this organization for obvious reasons, but anyone with a subscription to HBO can watch the movie recently released to discover just how brutal and disingenuous the people who run it are.  If anyone reading this can guess who these people are and wishes to discredit me, or even attack me, just ask yourself: is it worth your time and trouble to assault such an unimportant, little read writer?

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