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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. Dr.Fritz

    WHO WROTE THIS ARTICLE? A SCIENTOLOGY PUBLIC RELATIONS PERSON?

    July 3, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  2. Volsocal

    The average appearance rating of the female members of Scientology just went down a point.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • LordXenu

      You need only look at Xenu!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  3. JustAO

    This religion is a cult and it's weird...says the guy who prays to statues of a man on a cross and talks of burning bushes and snakes from wooden staffs and wine from water.

    Yes, I agree...it's ALL weird and cult-like.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  4. TheTruth

    Scientology started as a spin-off of a sci-fi short story. So much for legitmacy.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • isolate

      The origin of any religious belief doesn't matter. The Book of Mormon was written by a convicted swindler and treasure-hunter, and no one has ever found a trace of archaeological evidence for the people, cities and events mentioned in the Book of Mormon, but that doesn't even slow them down. Look at all the people taken in by end-of-the-world predictions. All it takes is faith. Proof need not apply.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  5. Brasil1958

    “You occasionally come across people in Scientology who say they can change the material world with their mind.”

    aka Quantum Consciousness......nothing new here.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • The Wink

      It's a Ponzi Scheme for Celebs who are too dumb to know.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • isolate

      You can do the same thing with Christianity:

      "And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you." ~ Matthew 17:20

      The trick with both Christianity and Scientology is that you must never ask for a demonstration....

      July 3, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  6. andrew

    I'd leap from the Skyway Bridge before I'd accept a single Scientology belief as reality. 'Science' is categorically absent from Scientology. Monies – collected via Ponzi pyramid – drives this cult of human freaks. Hubbard, a huge LSD abuser, had a Charles Manson and Jim Jones size ego. He sold this crap to the 'wondering disconnected' people as a viable alternative to joining organized religion. It WAS a bill of goods and still IS as useless and ineffective as a big pile of stinky horse manure.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • Shane

      As are ALL other "religions."

      July 3, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  7. Shane

    When someone talks to an imaginary person, we call it insane, when a group of people talk to an imaginary person, we call it religion.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • LordXenu

      You won't be getting any presents from Xenu this year!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  8. Keksi

    Well seems like Katie successfully removed one of those "body thetans" from her body.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  9. GnatB

    I'm just wondering how gullible you have to be to join a religion started by somebody who said that the best way to become rich and famous was to start a religion.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  10. LordXenu

    Join scientology today and become a jedi! ... Oops I mean an OT9!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  11. CT

    I have no idea what it is.
    I do know whatever it is will be under attack by the left.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • Steve

      Don't you mean the right? Scientology could be perceived as an assault on Christianity.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • CT

      Cause I'm a right wing nut job with a tinfoil hat, and I know these things.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  12. rumplestilskin

    Seriously? Scientology celeb gossip? We've got a Presidential candidate whose a Mormon but lets not go into detail about Mormonism. Celeb gossip is more important.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  13. JackLM

    It's not knowing or skillful, and it's not a theory or science.
    No, it's just another dopey religion/belief system (in this case, one popular with California flakes, and centered there), based on half-truths and nice sounding nonsense.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • Kana

      No, actualy Clearwater, Fl is the center of scientology

      July 3, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  14. JACK

    When I was young I wanted to start a religion after reading Dune and it looks like someone did and now all these freaks believe in it.

    Goes to show that religion is just another scam perpetuated by one group of people to control another group of people.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  15. TownC

    Scientology is almost as silly as believing life started in a big explosion that was caused by nothing, or believing that somehow all the chemicals needed for life spontaneously generated in a primeval soup and came together in just the right way to form life. It's also as crazy as believing that life started on the back of crystals. It is amazing what people will have faith in!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • isolate

      The difference between science and faith is that the first must be tested, proven, repeated, used as a basis for successful predictions, be falsifiable and stand up to constant challenges. Faith-based systems are simply accepted and asking for proof is considered blasphemy.

      "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." ~ Epistle to the Hebrews 11:1

      Science is precisely the opposite.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Lucifer

      Agreed, almost as crazy as believing that some old dude with a white beard created the universe in seven days.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Tom Ridell

      No – what's much funnier is the absolutely rediculous story outlined in the bible. Scientology comes close, but you've got to attain a special level of gullible / stupidity to fall for that nonsense.
      The word 'science' should be banned from use by scientologists.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  16. T in Austin

    I have been reading the posts on this, VERY amusing!
    I think the real shame of it all is Katy finely grows up and realizes a religion can effect you kids!
    Too bad my dear, you married a kook! In his defence you KNEW he was a kook!
    Now you don't want your daughter to be a kook, I agree, maybe try to choose better next time?
    I also agree with the people who have posted that all religion is a cult, or was at one time, and all seem more crazy than the last.
    If your sick of it and still have some spirituality that needs attending read some Buddhism.
    No God to contend with.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • Steve

      It's not just that her daughter could become a kook, it's that at age six she could sign her life away to Sea Org. That's possibly what Katie had to get her away from.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  17. edsr of Dallas

    Scientology is cult garbage!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  18. butterfly

    Does anyone understand a word in that article? What on earth makes any sense regarding scientology. Based on one mans idea of science fiction and lies. Good move Katie! Run as fast as you can!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • LordXenu

      If you become a OT9 you can use magic powers and move boulders with your mind! Before long you may even be able to fly! Join scientology today! Xenu needs your money!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • butterfly

      NANU NANU LORD XENU!! LOL!!!!!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  19. Reggie from LA

    News Corp is a strange cult too. They believe they should latch on to unfortunate people, traumatize them by "stealing" their conversations then make their way to media heaven$$...where Rupert is god. He ain't gettin' a capital "G" from me!!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  20. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Only prayer to Xenu does! And Xenu requires ca$h!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • gager

      Prayer changes nothing, it never has changed anything. Stating that prayer changes things is a self delusion.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • Lucifer

      And Catholicism and Mormonism is not so healthy for all the children who were abused by the members of those cults. And prayer changed nothing as all those abused childrens' prayers were not answered.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.