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The question

I've just discovered that someone I work with is a Scientologist. It's not something I've ever heard him talk about, but I asked him about it and he said yes, he was. He's pretty high in the organization, too, an "operating thetan," whatever that is. I actually like the guy, but I can't help it: Ever since I found out about his beliefs, it's coloured the way I look at him. It just seems like such a kooky group.

In the lunchroom last week, I got into a terrible argument about it with one of my colleagues, who told me that I shouldn't discriminate against Mr. Dianetics on the basis of his "religion." Anyway, I was heatedly trashing him and his "religion" when my colleague said, "He's right behind you." And there he was, standing in the doorway, listening. I tried to apologize but he doesn't want to talk about it. Now he's asked me to attend a disciplinary meeting, which will likely lead to sensitivity training. It's outrageous! Do we really have to respect and honour everyone's beliefs, no matter how offbeat?

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The answer

Certainly not! It's funny to me how everyone these days thinks we have to "respect and honour" other people's beliefs.

Not having to respect and honour other people's kooky beliefs is the cornerstone of a free society. It's the engine of history. Why we fight and die in wars. Why we vote for one person and not another. It's a big part of the beauty of being a modern person.

Thank God we don't live in the Middle Ages and anything you say against the one main belief system is heresy, punishable by torture and death.

I don't think Scientology is officially a religion, here in Canada. In the United States, Scientology-related businesses have tax-exempt status, which Scientologists use to validate their belief system as an "official" religion. Here it's considered a "religious non-profit organization," but has been refused charitable status.

(Australia, Ireland, Belgium and many other countries have taken a similar approach; in Germany it is considered a "commercial business association.") So technically, anyway, I think you're in the clear vis-à-vis discriminating against a person on the basis of religion.

Now, personally, I can't help but agree that the notion seems a little goofy: According to Scientology doctrine, aliens, led by "Xenu," ruler of the "Galactic Confederacy," came here 75 million years ago in spaceships resembling Douglas DC-8 airliners, which they then blew up with hydrogen bombs. It sounds to me more like the plot of a George Lucas movie - or the tormented fantasy of a broke, desperate 1950s pulp fiction sci-fi writer - than a religion.

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But hey, what do I know? It's good enough for John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Beck (!), and Tom Cruise. One of his bodyguards could bend my pinkie back until I screamed "uncle" in a girlish whinny and swore I would never, ever make any more cracks about His Royal Highness's celebrity belief system.

And it is what your colleague believes. Of course you have the right to speak out here, but I would say there's no need (especially in a workplace) to exercise that right, unless he's really in your face with his beliefs and somehow impinges on your rights.

Is it not possible in this case to separate the dancer from the dance? In other words, to find a way to understand what animates your colleague's belief in Scientology?

You say he won't accept your apology. Maybe that's because he thinks you are criticizing his beliefs from an ignorant point of view, and is there, perhaps, a little truth to that?

Why don't you invite him out for a drink and say, "Listen, you know what, I guess I don't really understand your beliefs. Let's talk about it." That way, he gets the chance to talk to you about his ideas (and Scientologists are supposed to go out and recruit people, so he'll probably want to do it). Then if he still hasn't persuaded you, if you still feel like mocking and rolling your eyeballs at his beliefs, at least you've shown that you have enough respect for him to hear him out.

After all, he probably is sincere in his belief. He probably wants to make the world a better place, through Scientology. At least he has beliefs, which is more than you can say for some. He surely has his reasons for believing as he does.

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If you can't respect his ideas, try at least to understand, and respect, the reasons he has them. Then maybe you can avoid arbitration and all the rest of it.

David Eddie is an author and screenwriter. He has published two books, Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad.

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