Can a Scam Become a Religion?

scam road sign

If the founder(s) and or contemporary leader(s) of a particular religion never actually believed in what they put forward as the core tenets of their religion, could their creation still be a religion? Does this matter in determining what should be considered a religion? Should it matter?

I'm thinking of this in the context of the Church of Scientology, something that strikes me as a scam that became a cult. I am aware that some people, including the Internal Revenue Service, do consider it to be a religion. Maybe it is. But what if L. Ron Hubbard never believed any of it. Would that matter? And what if David Miscavige recognizes today that he is presiding over an extremely lucrative scam and does not take any of it too seriously. Would that make Scientology less of a religion?

I am not claiming here that Hubbard or Miscavige did not and do not believe in the core tenets of Scientology. I have no idea what they believe or believed. I just find the question of whether it would matter in terms of whether Scientology should be considered a religion to be an interesting one.

Suppose we could establish with great certainty that Hubbard himself recognized that he was writing fiction and was attempting to start a personality cult because he thought it could bring him money and power. In other words, he was knowingly designing a scam with the hope that he could use it to exploit others to his own benefit. If that was the case, would it preclude Scientology from being a religion or would it not matter as long as other people took his writings seriously?

Even though I am thinking about this around Scientology, the same question could easily be asked about the Mormons. Joseph Smith did not have the most stellar reputation for honesty and character prior to his alleged discovery of the infamous tablets. If iron-clad evidence emerged today that he made the whole thing up for personal benefit, would that disqualify Mormonism from being considered a religion regardless of how many people had been suckered by his scam?

I don't have answers to this question; however, it seems to me that what the founder(s) and leader(s) believe or believed is relevant. Perhaps it is even so relevant that something designed as a scam should never be considered a religion no matter how influential it becomes. If Scientology, Mormonism, or whatever else started as a scam, should it matter whether they were both very successful scams? A really good con artist can fool lots of people, but we don't generally say that if he or she fools enough, we'll call the result a religion.

Who cares? Why am I blathering on about this? In the United States, religious organizations benefit from tax exempt status. Should a well-designed con receive tax-exempt status because it dupes large numbers of people? I can't help thinking that this is not what these tax laws were designed to accomplish.

H/T to The Silent Atheist for giving me the idea that turned into this post.