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July 3rd, 2012
05:20 PM ET

Tom Cruise divorce raises question: What is Scientology, anyway?

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) - News of Tom Cruise's split with Katie Holmes and questions about any role that Cruise's status as a Scientologist may be playing in the divorce have a lot of people wondering: What is Scientology, anyway?

In a series of tweets on Sunday, News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch called the religion "a very weird cult" and said that Cruise is the "number two or three" man in the church's hierarchy.

Here are the basics about the religion. What other questions do you have?

What is Scientology?

Scientology describes itself as a religion that was founded in the 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard.

At the core of Scientology is a belief that each human has a reactive mind that responds to life’s traumas, clouding the analytic mind and keeping us from experiencing reality. Members of the religion submit to a process called auditing to find the sources of this trauma, reliving those experiences in an attempt to neutralize them and reassert the primacy of the analytic mind, working toward a spiritual state called "clear."

The process involves a device called E-meter, which Scientologists say measures the body’s electric flow as an auditor asks a series of questions they say reveals sources of trauma.

“Auditing uses processes - exact sets of questions asked or directions given by an auditor to help a person locate areas of spiritual distress, find out things about himself and improve his condition,” according to the Church of Scientology’s website.

The church goes on to to say, "Science is something one does, not something one believes in."

Auditing purports to identify spiritual distress from a person’s current life and from past lives. Scientologists believe each person is an immortal being, a force that believers call a thetan. “You move up the bridge to freedom by working toward being an ‘Operating Thetan,’ which at the highest level transcends material law,” says David Bromley, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “You occasionally come across people in Scientology who say they can change the material world with their mind.”

Bromley and other scholars say the church promotes the idea of an ancient intergalactic civilization in which millions of beings were destroyed and became what are known as “body thetans,” which continue to latch onto humans and cause more trauma. Advanced Scientologists confront body thetans through more auditing.

Bromley says the church discloses that cosmic history only to more advanced Scientologists. The church’s media affairs department did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

In a 2008 CNN interview, church spokesman Tommy Davis was asked whether the basic tenet of the Church of Scientology was to rid the body of space alien parasites. "Does that sound silly to you?" laughed Davis. "I mean, it's unrecognizable to me. ... People should really come to the church and find out for themselves what it is."

Who was L. Ron Hubbard?

L. Ron Hubbard was the founder of Scientology. Born in Nebraska in 1911, Hubbard was the son of a U.S. Navy officer who circled the globe with his family, according to Scientology expert J. Gordon Melton, a fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies in Religion who writes about Scientology on the religion website Patheos.

Hubbard attended the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., but left before graduating to launch a career as a fiction writer, gravitating toward science fiction.

After serving in World War II, Hubbard published a series of articles and then a book on a what he described as a new approach to mental health, which he called Dianetics. His book by the same name quickly became a best-seller.

The success provoked Hubbard to establish a foundation that began to train people in his auditing techniques. In 1954, the first Church of Scientology opened in Los Angeles, with other churches opening soon after. Hubbard died in 1986. The church is now led by David Miscavige.

Why is the church so controversial?

Many groups and individuals have challenged Scientology’s legitimacy as a religion.

Scientologists have faced opposition from the medical community over the religion's claims about mental health, from the scientific community over its claims about its E-meters and from other religious groups about its status as a religion.

“It’s part therapy, part religion, part UFO group,” says Bromley. “It’s a mix of things that’s unlike any other religious group out there.”

For a long time, the Internal Revenue Service denied the Scientologists’ attempts to be declared a church with tax-exempt status. But the IRS granted them that status in 1993.

Many members say the church is largely about self-improvement. “What I believe in my own life is that it's a search for how I can do things better, whether it's being a better man or a better father or finding ways for myself to improve,” Tom Cruise recently told Playboy magazine. “Individuals have to decide what is true and real for them.”

What does Scientology teach about psychiatry?

L. Ron Hubbard rejected psychiatry and psychiatric drugs because he said they interfered with the functioning of the rational mind. Scientologists continue to promote that idea.

The Church of Scientology’s website says that “the effects of medical and psychiatric drugs, whether painkillers, tranquilizers or 'antidepressants,' are as disastrous” as illicit drugs.

How many Scientologists are there?

That’s a matter of considerable dispute.

The Church of Scientology says it has 10,000 churches, missions and groups operating in 167 countries, with 4.4 million more people signing up every year.

Scholars say that, despite the global proliferation of church buildings, the membership numbers are much lower than the church claims, likely in the hundreds of thousands. Some of the church's followers are celebrities.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Scientology

soundoff (1,679 Responses)
  1. JohnRJohnson

    Put simply, Scientology was a money-making scheme developed by L. Ron Hubbard, a failed science fiction writer and real estate broker. He created an utterly preposterous origin story involving ancient aliens and then peppered it with bits and pieces of sciences about which he had meager understanding. The most important aspects of the belief system, if you can call it that, are the things which promote its growth and ability to amass money. Everything else is secondary, including the smattering of self-help philosophy that sprinkled atop the Church like so much powdered sugar. Today, the Church of Scientology is the most powerful cult in the world, having the support of numerous misguided celebrities and politicians. Negative stories, books or movies about the Church are quickly quashed under a mountain of litigation and intimidation. The characteristic which makes the Church of Scientology is its obsession with secrecy. Members aren't even allowed to talk about some of Hubbard's early writings. If you do not support the Church or speak out against it, you are a "suppressive personality". Personal anecdotes about how the Church has helped some people are irrelevant. The same thing could be said about any of the cults throughout history. If there is such as thing as "evil", it is embodied by the Church of Scientology.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Ginnie

      Looks like he finally hit the jackpot.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • jj

      the rich rule the poor and borrow is servant to the lender

      July 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • ladyantistupid

      Seriously. How can Scientology get away with being tax exempt when it charges outrageous fees for "auditing, Clearing and all the other BS it sucks people into.

      Other religions aren't so secretive and do not labor people from 7am to 11pm for only 50 bucks a week! It just seems like such a scam!

      Wonder how much money Cruise has given them over the years. Unless he breaks away from this cult, I will never see any of his movies again. Everytime, you pay to see his movies this cult gets a donation. No thanks.

      Sounds like Multi Level Marketing. The people selling it, don't talk to much about it and try to get you to a meeting so you can be brainwashed.

      July 5, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  2. iwillnotbeashamed

    The church of scientology is proof that the human being animal will believe in just about anything. It is also proof that one can be financially successful, yet completely mad. It is a dangerous cult, like so many others that were invented in the United States. Jehovah's witnesses, scientologists, mormons. They're all the same. While their tenets are different, they use the same tactics to ensnare the gullable and the easily led.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • jj

      Trusts control everything

      July 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Tim

      I am one of Jehovah's Witnesses. Thank you for mentioning Gd's name; often found in the Bible at Psalms 83:18, Isaiah 42:8, or Isaiah 43:10-13. Before I chose where to put my faith I considered the source. Jesus said that the truth would set us free. I invite you to read the Bible carefully with the intention of learning the truth about life and death. Peace :-)

      July 3, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
  3. Jame

    Scientology is not a cult it's an applied religion

    July 3, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      All religion falls under the definition of cult.
      cult:
      –A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.
      –A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister

      July 3, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • dpljlb

      Jame: Ask Lisa McPherson and her family if Scientology is "applied science". Oh that's right, you can't ask her. She was killed by her fellow Scientologist. I challenge anyone reading this post to "google" Lisa McPherson and see what a wonderful "religion" Scientology is-

      July 3, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • Dodney Rangerfield

      All butt in Canadians fall under the definition of ass hole

      July 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Oh snap Dodney is cappie! No one else is idiotic enough to use a phrase like "butt in". How's it going cappie, still unable to find anything meaningful to say or do with your life?

      July 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I thought you already knew that, HG!

      July 3, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • kierthos

      Cult – (n) A small, unpopular religion.
      Religion – (n) A large, popular cult.

      May 9, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  4. Paul

    I don't think it is any more ridiculous than the half the cr@p other cults like Christianity believe.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • poe

      Nah uh, a jewish zombie rising from the dead, a woman turning into salt, a person collecting two of every known species of animals on this planet and then keeping them alive on an ark while god kills everything other living creature, is way more believable.

      July 3, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  5. cestlavie3

    If you want to see the consummate definition of scientology, go to you tube and type in Dana Carvey on scientology.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  6. Anne R

    All Churches SHOULD pay taxes!

    July 3, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  7. filthburger

    doesn't really seem any more insane than any other religion. go for it.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  8. Guest

    It's not a religion, it's a cult. There is NO belief in God, the trinity, nothing! It's a sick cult!

    July 3, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • another human

      You don't have to have God or the trinity to have a religion. But, as far as the rest goes, IT'S A CULT!

      July 3, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Limper

      Every religion is, by definition, a cult. Calling foul because they don't believe in the same supernatural things that you do isn't very fair.
      Now, using the negative connotation of cult and calling Scientology out on their heavy use of emotional, thought, and financial control to basically dominate their followers could lead to interesting discussion.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  9. maxine

    finally Katie Holmes is free!!!

    July 3, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • wayne

      She surely procastinaded a few years about this so the heat must have not lasted long. Anyone ever needed lots of money, it's here.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • wayne

      She surely procrastinated a few years about this so the heat must have not lasted long. Anyone ever needed lots of money, it's her.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • fly on the wall

      Probably had to wait because of a pre nup.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  10. mommazona

    Yuck, get these dead aliens being out of me now!!!!! What a buch of crap.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  11. MaryM

    Scientology is a CULT. Period. DO NOT trust anyone from that Cult

    July 3, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • filthburger

      oh, ok. i'll trust my Catholic priest. I'm sure he'll take care of me and my son.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  12. Madison man

    Scientology meaning short husband for tall wife..

    July 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Guest

      Excuse me?!!! I'm not a scientologist and I'm taller than my husband and know other's that are the same! Get a grip! Height has nothing to do with anything!

      July 3, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Bookenz

      She's been shopping for some new Jimmy Choos.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Madison man

      I mean to say that scientology has only two followers, tom and his wife. They only thing that unique about is tom being shorter than his wife. Nothing wrong about it but that could be the defination of scientology as it's so limited to those two followers...nevermind...he is rich..he can get away with anything he wants...good for him

      July 3, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  13. Reality

    And the con games continue. E-meters? Were they delivered by angels? They were not? How shocking!!!

    Some other religion cons and some victims of said cons:

    Joe Smith had his Moroni. (As does M. Romney)

    "Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah."

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this "tin-kerbell" got around).

    Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented. (As does BO and his family)

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other "no-namers" to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these "pretty wingie/horn-blowing thingies" to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

    July 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • tucsand

      I believe in life we are all after the same things, we may go about getting there a little differently but the goal is the same.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • JohnRJohnson

      Most members of Scientology know nothing about the actual mythos of the belief system itself, which reads like one of L. Ron Hubbard's really bad science fiction novels. The celebrities who speak openly about their love of Scientology refuse to discuss anything about that mythos because they know it will make them sound like complete dopes.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • JohnRJohnson

      There is really no comparison between Scientology and the major religions of the world. Most mainstream religions are anything but secretive about their origins and core beliefs. Laymen and Biblical scholars are free to examine them and take pro or con positions. Scientologists, on the other hand, are not permitted to talk about their bizarre backstory with ANYBODY. Not even among themselves.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  14. Answer

    "Why are they a cult?"

    Now just add this line following it.. –> "and why isn't mine a cult?"

    July 3, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • JohnRJohnson

      The answer is secrecy and control of members. Members of most mainstream religions speak very openly about their core beliefs and church origins. Scientologists aren't permitted to discuss any of the Church's backstory or origin. After "The Passion of the Christ" was released, we saw various Jewish and Christian groups boycotting or protesting that film. That was about it. If that movie had been about how L. Ron Hubbard created Scientology, OR what Scientology believes, the production of the movie would have been crushed under a mountain of litigation and never been made. That's what makes it a cult.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  15. Making up lies to "prove" you are right is not logical

    Atheists won't demand any evidence of any gods(s) except Christianity.

    July 3, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Tired of you

      Idiots name themselves shit like 'making up lies' and then post nonsense over and over. Fuck off, attention whore.

      July 3, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      And when was the last time you had someone ask if you've found the truth in the Greek gods? Or the Norse gods, or any of the other myriad of gods out there?
      Your False Dichotomy isn't going to fly.

      July 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Huebert

      That is a lie. Also Scientology does not have gods. It has undead alien souls that fly around and attach to people, thus causing mental problems. I don't believe in Scientology cr@p either.

      July 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      replace False Dichotomy (was thinking of another post) and replace with asinine assertion.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • sam

      Yeah, Scientology has...aliens...and, uh, a bad guy named Xenu...it's all equally insane.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Brad

      Happens when no other religion tries to shove it in their faces.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      That is a false statement.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • samantha

      It's ridiculous what atheists are doing to our country. Crawl back under that rock you slithered out from and tell your daddy our Lord is waiting for all you liars in the world that hate him.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • samantha's dad

      samantha, that is no way to behave. Get up to your room and undress. I'll be along shortly with the belt.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      samantha: Care to explain what you mean? I'm sorry you have not grown up yet little one but you have no evidence backing your claim and until you do, maybe it is you who should crawl back under the rock.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      Don't pay attention to me. I'm just an atheist that wants to rule the world. Oh, excuse me, my people and I already do. PASS THAT JOINT WE ROLLED FROM THE GOYA.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • Dodney Rangerfield

      Did you hear the one about the Canadian that minded its own F'n business?

      July 3, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Dodney Rangerfield

      You won't. The ass holes can't help themselves from butting into everyone else business !

      July 3, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  16. Intermission to divert your attention

    Does Tom care about us?

    July 3, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  17. Moby Schtick

    Like any religion, it seems weird to the people who aren't motivated to think otherwise. Like every religion, it's a scam. Like every scam, it's about a few people duping a lot of people for as much money and power as possible.

    July 3, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Common Sense

      Jesus never wanted anybody's money. Just repentance

      July 3, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • VanHagar

      If true, what is your response to the thousands and thousands of churches worldwide, not connected to a governing body (e.g. the Vatican), where the pastors receive a paltry pay check and do what they do simply because he/she actually believes they are serving God? Where is the money and power grab there?

      July 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Dennis

      Like you Moby?

      July 3, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • AlexK

      Jesus also never wanted Christianity. That was something created by people who claimed to be his followers centuries later.

      Its not like Jesus said "Thou shall worship me otherwise you go to hell"

      July 3, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • agreed

      Politicians would use anything to get them votes, religion is just one of the tools they use to get themselves power and wealth. Many people go into religion because of faith and good intentions, though not all can resist the temptation of blaming the "others" for reasons they don't fully understand.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  18. HeavenSent

    Tom will burn forever...dead bones. While fat and merry on earth he does his father's bidding..the father of lies.

    Amen.

    July 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • sam

      HS. That Jesus bobblehead does NOT go 'there', and you know it. That's carnal.

      July 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • jwt

      Why would Tom burn – I have never heard of that being a part of scientology, and I am sure he is a member in good standing anyway.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • mendacitysux

      Worth it to get to do Katie

      July 3, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • wayne

      If you have lots if money, why not believe you can buy good standing in the next life? It's sure easier than having to give of ones self.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Phony heavensent, sad you weren't getting ready to do something for the holidays ... so you stole my handle to post your nonsense.

      July 5, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  19. VanHagar

    Two words: South Park

    July 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • sam

      Yes. Good old South Park is an equal opportunity offender, and ripped pretty much everyone a new one in that ep.

      July 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • nml106

      Best episode EVER.

      Tom just needs to come out of the closet already.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  20. Huebert

    What is Scientology? A dangerous cult, they engage in terror, blackmail, and intimidation to fight "enemies of Scientology". The only reason that they are tax exempt is because they infiltrated the IRS, look up operation snow white for more details

    July 3, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.