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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. Jim Terracino

    halfbakedlunatic do you believe what you are saying? Christianity is "almost as idiotic as Christianity". Idiotic like Stupid needs no comparisons. Idiotic stands on its own Merits for all to see.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Jesus, Muhammad, Santa Clause and me went partying last night. Don't knock it.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • WutAnon

      Lord Xenu what's up brah? How dat thetan count looking today?

      July 3, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • Something to ponder

      Atheists are satan's eunuchs on earth. There is nothing there.

      July 3, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  2. Unrelated

    Religion = No.1 fraud in this country. Why don't people get angry with hogwash? Why don't we have a revolutionary "spring" and dump this fraud once and for all? Because most people are cowards!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  3. annonymous

    Just sad. Tom is looking for a reason to be great and to dominate using his beliefs...Katie is looking for their daughter to thrive as a human being and for herself to survive. I bet Katie still loves Tom...but she sees what the Scientology rigors will do to Suri and can't accept it as the price of love. It's just sad...2 people who love each other, have a daughter, and are threatened enough by their individual beliefs that they can't be together. Suri will have a tough time, but with a Mother who has the foresight to see the handcuffs that Tom's religious beliefs carry, Suri will be fine in her Mother's arms which hold but do not confine. I'm religious but I do not hold my children to my beliefs, as adults, the choice is theirs' to make and not my place to judge their choices. Katie deserves applause for being strong enough to pull away from a man she probably loves for the greater good of her child. Looking to a future as a single Mother is not pleasant regardless of financial resources and I think she knows what she's in for as a single parent...and as an opponent to Tom's will. She has her family, her friends, and her inner strength to turn to...Tom has Scientology, films, and not much else. Katie's got the lead but she's got a tough path to securing Suri's safety. My message to Katie...trust your gut, protect Suri, and secure great attorneys.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • WutAnon

      change your name you're not worthy

      July 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Check Cruise's timing for his marriages

      Check the timing for all Tom's marriages. He bails out before his money get's taken.

      July 3, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  4. Lucifer

    This is NO religion. It's a SCAM.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Hey don't be knockin me.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • WutAnon

      Exactly right. And I miss the good old days raiding those degenerate scamming F's online and in person.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • Unrelated

      ...like all other religions. Hello! Get a brain!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • WutAnon

      LordXenu what's shakin' brah? How your thetin count looking today?

      July 3, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  5. ErnestoP

    E-meter? Sounds like a form of psychoanalysis/psychotherapy to me.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • WutAnon

      Yes it does, but it's actually little more than a pile of sht plugged into a socket.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  6. I sCream!!

    I would like to see a religious themed Ice Cream shop start up in the US much like Baskin Robins except they have a different flavor for each religion in the world. They would have hundreds of different flavors and you wouldnt be allowed to mix and match and they would all be full of nuts...

    July 3, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  7. bored already

    L.Ron Hubbard is a genius- making up a fantasy religion this ridiculous, and having millions of people follow it-Genius! E-meter my balls, you wackos.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • LordXenu

      I can measure your balls... I mean thetan levels!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • Mass Debater

      I'm pretty sure the character of Cartman from Southpark was based on L. Ron...

      July 3, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  8. Sceptic

    I'd hate to admit my belief system was created by a 3rd rate science fiction writer.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Lucifer

      3rd rate is being too kind. For proof, go rent Battlefield Earth.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • ErnestoP

      I hope you don't practice Mormonism. Because 'The Book of Mormon' started out as a fiction novel by one of Joseph Smith's acquaintances who was a Minister. Joseph Smith quickly seized on the idea of the novel and bases his religion on this quirky story. It also reads like a fiction novel. Jesus visited America after he rersurrected from the dead? The native americans are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel?? Yeah right!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Mass Debater

      What? Up to 3rd rate? Only a Twilight fan would rate his writing so highly...

      Are we sure L. Ron & Stephanie Meyers didn't mate and give birth to the script for Battlefield Earth...?

      July 3, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  9. OrionStyles

    As many have mentioned, South Park did a great satire on Scientology.

    The episode is called "Trapped in the closet" if you are looking for it.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  10. Scoobus

    Wow... this mini-article was a complete white-wash of the evils of Scientology. No mention of L Ron's fictional history, the brain washing or their horrible dirty tricks division who will try to destroy anyone who speaks out against them. And yes, they do believe we are reincarnated aliens.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  11. Heretic

    Scientology is nothing more then a social Fratclub for Celebrities and billionaires to spread and spend money around, Un-taxable under the guise of a "religion". There is no religion to it. It was simply someone who realized the Federal Government has a loop hole for Religious parties. The Celebs use Scientology as a way to avoid high taxes, gift tax and death tax. Along with sales tax by other members who stay "non-profitable"

    If anything there should be an investigation into fraud, but since politicians are also in the party, expect your multi millionaire celebs to keep blabbering about the 99%, while not paying their own tax.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • Frogz

      Xenu's got a mansion in Beverly Hills.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Damn right I do!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Lucifer

      Look up the Celebrity Center for Scientology. They recruit starving actors and give them a day job, roof over their head, and food...and of course FREE auditing sessions. They groom these wanna be actors in the hopes they make it, and when they do, they pay it back by their allegiance to the Church for life.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  12. caliostro

    OK, they keep blocking my comment over and over, please look at the flower shaped fabrick on the building and two peaces of fabrick hanging on the side, what does it look like???

    July 3, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
  13. Craig K.

    Problem with Scientology is that it is based on Dienetics, which was all a lie. Dienetics was based on the lie that L. Ron Hubbard was severely wounded in World War II and was taken "crippled and blinded" to a military hospital, where he healed himself by thought alone. Problem was he was never wounded in World War II and most of his military career is made up.

    Of course, the Church of Scientology rejects the official militrary record and insists that Hubbard had a second set of records that the U.S. Navy has concealed. Bull#$%^

    July 3, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • LordXenu

      If you become an OT9 you can move things with your mind and fly like superman.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • Mass Debater

      They turned him into a Newt!!!

      He got better...

      July 3, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  14. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 3, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • sir_ken_g

      LOL – send me money. Cash check or MO.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  15. biatch of son

    Religion = piggy banks!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Xenu needs your ca$h fork it over!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
  16. Grandma Hubbard

    Helloooo! C'mon and have some of Granny Hubards Huckleberry Pies which are freshly prepared using Tom Cruise's personal own Mark VII Super Quantum E-meter. Mmmm Tasty!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  17. TruthIsCatholic

    James 1:27

    27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Someone isn't getting any christmas presents from Xenu this year.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • Gerry

      I noticed all dead beat dads that rip off women by not paying child support run off to the state of Texas that doesn't reciprocate with other state court orders. I believe Florida is the same way.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  18. sir_ken_g

    "Cult" Of course all religions are cults – some just more nutty than others.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  19. NKB

    ANY "Religion" is what you "Choose" to believe......key word is "Choose"

    July 3, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • LordXenu

      I choose you pikachu!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  20. 0007

    Scientology..... a cult with tax exempt status that is right out of the X-files! The main reason followers hate psychiatry is fear of exposure.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • LordXenu

      No they have an just have an innate love for my manly alien body.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:37 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.