I had never (knowingly) met a Scientologist before. The sum total of my knowledge of Scientology went something like: Tom Cruise, Brooke Shields, postpartum depression, and allegations of tax evasion.
So admittedly, I was little nervous about meeting with Eric Roux, a reverend of the Church of Scientology, in Paris. But I shouldn’t have been.
My conversation with Rev. Roux was one of the most interesting ones I’ve had during my last six months on the road. Rev. Roux is friendly, clean-cut, and intelligent. Nothing about him is scary or “cultish.” He is not some monster manipulator. He is simply a man of faith who wants the freedom to worship as he chooses. And he wants to ensure that you can do the same.
About Rev. Roux
When Rev. Roux was 20 years old, he read several books written by the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, at the recommendation of his girlfriend. At the time, he had been exploring his own spirituality and reading about other religious and spiritual traditions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Greek philosophy.
“Scientology appeared to be the one that completely resonated with my aspirations,” he says. “Seeing that Scientology worked and was helping people, I had to ask myself what level responsibility I wanted to have regarding my new religion.” Rev. Roux then decided to join the clergy of the Church so that he could help others benefit from Scientology.
Scientology in France
Even the children of Scientologists cannot escape the assault on their religion. Rev. Roux says that children have come home from school telling their parents other students claim that Scientologists eat children.
The French government targets so-called “sects” and “cults” by taking legal action against religious groups that “violate human rights, fundamental freedoms and other reprehensible behavior.” (3) The government had threatened to ban the Scientology in France after a number of legal skirmishes in 1997, 1999 and 2002 and has kept a close eye on it ever since. (4) In 2009, Scientology’s Celebrity Centre and bookshop in Paris were found guilty of coercing a woman into spending large sums of money on products sold by the Centre and was ordered to pay 600,000 euros in fines. (5) This marked the first time that the Church of Scientology as a whole, as opposed to individuals involved in an alleged crime, was prosecuted and convicted of a crime.
During these difficult times for Scientology, “I began to see, to be confronted, with prejudice towards my religion much more than before,” Rev. Roux says. Specifically, he noticed that there seemed to be a large gap between what his religion was and what others perceived it as. People seem quick to label faith groups as “cults” when they do not understand what the faith stands for. It is an easy way of throwing up a wall between ourselves and people who are different.
Rev. Roux found that the labeling of his religion as a “cult” was damaging and inaccurate. As he began to interact with people of other faiths, he was struck by how frequently the term is used to describe religious groups. In Spain he found someone who thought Scientology was not a cult, but Opus Dei was a cult. Other countries, however, believe that Opus Dei is part of the Catholic church and claim Scientology to be a cult. Rev. Roux met some Greeks who believed that Eastern Orthodox was not a cult, but that Catholics and Protestants were cults. He met Russians who thought that anyone who was not Eastern Orthodox was in a cult. Clearly, what some people called sects or cults were considered mainstream religions in some countries but not in others. He found that the definition of a “cult” was relative and was used to delegitimize the religious beliefs of others.
Fighting for Religious Freedom
However, the challenges of being a proud, practicing Scientologist in France did not relegate Rev. Roux to complacency; they motivated him to take action. After working as the Deputy Executive Director at the Scientology Celebrity Center in Paris, he worked with attorneys representing the Center in a fraud trial in 2009. He provided them with evidence for the case and an understanding of how the Church operates and communicated with the media throughout the duration of the trial. After the trial, Rev. Roux began to work in external affairs for the Church, which includes advocating for religious freedom for and better understanding of Scientologists.
But what is most inspiring about Rev. Roux is that he fights for religious freedom not just for Scientologists, but for all people of faith. Facing much prejudice and criticism for his beliefs opened his eyes to similar struggles of people of other faiths. “What I found out is of course we weren’t the only ones suffering from prejudice.”
A country that prides itself on secularism and the separation of church and state, France has witnessed a steady growth in religious diversity in the post-WWII era. In response, it has passed laws increasingly banning expression of religion in the public sphere, which I discuss in a previous article, Religious Freedom in France.
A core value of practicing Scientologists is actively improving the conditions of their own lives and the lives of others, which served as motivation for Rev. Roux to begin a career advocating for religious freedom. (6)
Rev. Roux chairs the Steering Committee of the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom (EIFRF). (7) Created in 2013, EIFRF is a group of Muslims, Sikhs, Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists and other people of faith who work together to promote freedom of belief, religious tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and knowledge of religions in Europe.
EIFRF lead regular roundtables, public lectures and conferences to discuss and take action related to international religious freedom. The organization also has a significant media presence and recruits experts to give opinions on legislation affecting religious freedom as well as sign letters sent to lobby governmental bodies and leaders.
EIFRF recently worked with members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to pass a resolution protecting the freedom of religion of parents and children belonging to minority religions.
The group has also continued to call attention to the disintegration of freedom of belief in Russia, whose government recently imposed a complete ban on practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country, by coordinating a written declaration in which 28 parliamentarians from 14 different European countries have called on Russia to end the persecution of religious minorities.
Rev. Roux, himself, travels all over the world both as a representative of the Church of Scientology as well as a fervent religious freedom fighter. This past year, he has engaged in dialogue with Israel's Druze community, King Bassar of northern Togo, and spoken at countless conferences on religion in Europe.
Appreciation and Belief
I am aware of the controversies related to the Church of Scientology. In fact, each person I’ve featured on my blog comes from a faith that has experienced its own fair share of controversies. My mission, however, is neither to promote nor condemn religious practices. My mission is to find people who are inspired by their religious beliefs to live altruistically and tell their stories.
And I firmly believe that when it comes to religion, belief is not a prerequisite for appreciation. If I believed in and supported the practices of Scientology, then I would be a Scientologist, not a Christian. But I need not be a Scientologist to appreciate the work that Rev. Roux is doing to promote freedom of belief. Likewise, he can appreciate the work I do with my blog knowing that I’m inspired by my Christian faith without sharing my beliefs. Reaching this realization has given me a profound sense of peace, allowing me to learn from and appreciate people with different religious beliefs while standing steadfast in my own.
This article is part of the Religious Freedom Collection.