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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. Jack

    Rupert Murdock in his big black pot, trying to call the Scientologists in their kettle, black. Both belong to two weird cults.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  2. Illini Guy

    A cult is an organization purporting to be a religion that does not make its texts or ceremonies public. Scientology = Cult.

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

      i thought tom c. had more brqins than that.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • cheryl

      if cruise is as hi up in this as said lets hope Katie doesnt end up like "Diana"

      July 3, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
  3. Jez

    "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"----
    I guess these guys have never had surgery... I think all religions are whacky, but this one takes the cake!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  4. Jack Deal

    do e-meters measure the golddigger factor?

    July 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  5. Sue

    This article blows. The person who wrote this did the bare minimum. I could have written this in 15 minutes. How do I get a job at CNN because clearly it does not take much.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Jez

      I love it! I'm looking for work – maybe I should apply at CNN...

      July 3, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • Gregg

      No, he did the bare minimum as to avoid having undue pressure put on CNN by the Church of Scientology to have the article retracted.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  6. ODIN

    XENU – I CHALLENGE THEE TO A DUEL

    July 3, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • THOR

      NO FATHER HE IS NOT WORTHY OF YOUR TIME

      July 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Loki

      Shit, I am out of here. Going back to Midgard for that drink.

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

      You must understand I cannot duel with ordinary humans, my jed... I mean OT powers would cause your body to explode!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • ODIN

      I AM THE ALMIGHTY ODIN, ALLFATHER, OF ASGARD! I WILL SMITE YOU BACK TO YOUR VOLCANO

      July 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Jez

      OK – you guys are the funniest posters that I've read yet! Hilarious!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Nooooo! *melts into a puddle on the floor*

      July 3, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • THOR

      FATHER WE WILL SMITE THE USUPER TOGETHER, I WITH MY MIGHTY MJOLNIR

      VICTORY WILL BE OURS

      July 3, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • Loki

      Seriously, not enough liquor on all of Midgard for this. Glad to know I'm adopted.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • Heimdall

      *approves

      July 3, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • ODIN

      HEIMDALL, OPEN THE BIFROST. I WILL FETCH SLEIPNIR AND RALLY FORTH TO BATTLE SCIENTOLOGY.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • Loki

      Great, he's riding around on my kid again like he has a right.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  7. Teri

    Religious organizations all have split in the past to the point one is no more right then the other. Religion, Politics and Media has people to the point of not thinking for themselves, then throw in the Pharmacutical Companies and Illegel Drugs and it is now a world of drama that is so out of control that people are not INDIVIDUAL THINKERS. Now for Cult, look at Religion, Politics, Media and Drugs in this country....I don't know much on Scientology, but one thing is clear, if scientologist believe an individual needs to clear their thoughts and energy of past and present trauma to become better at Thinking with clearity, I am all for it. If we turned off Politics, Media, Drugs, and Religion to be alone with "one Self " for a week....The country and the world just might be a little bit better for us. How many individuals actually takes a day to be ALONE? Do we really need media, do we really need all those pills from the doc? do we really need to read, hear and see Politicians daily making millions just on people throwing their money to them for a campaign? As adults do we really need a Preacher or church organization telling us how, when and where we should believe and act? I hope everyone decides to just turn it all off for their own peace of mind.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Shane

      Get off these boards, Tom.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  8. The Wink

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

    July 3, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
  9. SofGangsta

    LordXenu – you're one funny cat! Keep up the good work!!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Anything for my faithful believers!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  10. Shane

    Hey, the Mormons religion is just as weird.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      True, followers of both will be dead bones burning for eternity.

      Amen.

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

      Religion is a bit of a reach........part therapy, part religion, part UFO group is right on .......another cult with genuine all American nutballs. Probably all vote for Romney.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Delphi

      Not even close. And the Mormons don't charge you a whopping fee to "advance spiritually."

      July 3, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  11. UK Dave

    - Pitch all your questions@Facebook(THE WOMAN'S TOUCH)!
    – Stay girly@Facebook(THE WOMAN'S TOUCH)!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  12. LordXenu

    I just got my space ship tuned up, ill have to take tom cruise out to the galactic bar tonight to cheer him up.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  13. Kim

    It's a cult for stupid people.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  14. halfbakedlunatic

    Scientology is almost as idiotic as christianity. Almost.

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

      Pretty darn close, I'D SAY!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  15. Kelly25

    So do you have to have a narcissistic personality or can anyone join? Tom Cruise is a short little man, with short little man syndrome, on top of being a kook!

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

      I know plenty of short men who don't have "short man syndrome." Cruise is just an idiot.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • ToldUso

      Shane, don't denigrate Cruise. He is an exquisite idiot.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Kelly25

      I did mention that the atheists are this way too. All were eunuchs and that's why they hate the Lord.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  16. Hu Phart Ngau

    Just as nuts as most snake eaters...

    July 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  17. GetOffYourHighHorse

    A celebrity is divorcing another celebrity and now a culty religion is to blame and we all care deeply. That is why the terrorists hate us. And to answer your question about why I read the article and took the time to comment...I am bored and I think Katie Holmes is smokin hot!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  18. does it matter

    Katie Holmes saved herself and her child from this cult.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  19. Scott

    While far out there, is Scientology really any different of a fairytale then the major religions of the world in which were mostly created to make money and control the masses.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • GetOffYourHighHorse

      Ya, that's exactly why religions were created. It doesn't make you any less narrow minded just because you don't believe in a higher power.

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

      @GetOffYourHighHorse, narrowmided? I think putting faith in what is basically a fairlytale is being narrowmided. I put my faith in Science to understand the universe not religions. What has your religion and all mighty power God done for you lately? Prevented War, Famine, Poverty, unemployment etc?

      July 3, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  20. IceMan

    It is a cult. Like the NRA.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:13 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.