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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. idlemorgue

    Please GOOGLE: Lisa McPherson, Maria Pia Gardini, Luis Garcia, Mark Headley, Jeffrey Hawkins, Tory Magoo, Jason Beghe.
    Read Janet Reitman's book: 'INSIDE SCIENTOLOGY'. This will give you information you need to know about WHAT SCIENTOLOGY REALLY IS AND WHAT IT DOES!

    July 7, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  2. Jesus the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

    1 Timothy4:1-"Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons."

    July 7, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Martha

      Christianity is just as much of a cult as Scientology. The fact the christians believe in the supernatural, such as talking snakes and donkeys proves it.

      July 7, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Buddist

      Making sandwichs, changing water to wine and walking on water are neat but other gods super powers are better....

      July 7, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • jwt

      i have never turned awaw from a true faith – whatever that is,

      July 7, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I love how some christians attach "fact" on their claims, as if that word magically makes it so. However, in this case, it may be partially correct. The concept of "Christ" certainly has been used to rationalize atrocities that have cost millions of lives, whether through direct action or collateral damage. Power does not equal good, however, and I think if a man named Jesus actually had existed, and if even half the words attributed to him are legitimate, he would be appalled at the things done in his name.

      July 7, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  3. Surprised, not!

    Hollywood is fake and promotes Godlessness.

    July 7, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • jwt

      holywood is more real than god.

      July 7, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Jesus the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

      @jwt. So the world we live in that was clearly created (clear due to the perfect engineering of our galaxy) is more real than it's Creator? A fool has more wisdom than you.

      July 7, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • jwt

      It's a simple matter – even simple enough for you to understand – there is no god – thus holywood – being at leasr real in the sense of it exists is more real than god. Understand now ?

      July 7, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  4. spoddney

    Sorry...last one

    Just skip to 18mins 30sec...the part where he explains that auditing revealed that he was in fact...Jesus's father...

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UcdKxoTJ9c&w=640&h=390]

    July 7, 2012 at 6:00 am |
  5. Ran Herti

    I have honestly gone up against Mossad in Jordan, crooked Detroit lawyers, PCP heads in Los Angeles, New Jersey gangsters, Flagstaf Bikers, etc etc, but I Will Not Cross Scientologists.

    July 7, 2012 at 5:01 am |
  6. spoddney

    Last video, I promise...you HAVE to watch this:

    http://www.youtube.com/user/ConspiracyCult

    July 7, 2012 at 4:58 am |
  7. spoddney

    Last video, I promise...you HAVE to watch this...

    http://www.youtube.com/user/ConspiracyCult

    July 7, 2012 at 4:57 am |
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    July 7, 2012 at 1:04 am |
  10. UK Dave & my scientific community

    - YOU CAN'T ARGUE WITH ME!
    So don't ever try it!

    July 6, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  11. dumb mother

    I know I deserve my punishments UK Dave! :( :( :(

    July 6, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
  12. mafia don

    I deserve my punishments UK Dave! :(

    July 6, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  13. UK Dave & my scientific community

    At least me & my scientific community escape punishment! :)
    What do you escape?

    July 6, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • mafia don

      Very sadly, we the corrupt cannot escape any punishment UK Dave! :(
      Very sadly, we the corrupt deserve our punishment UK Dave! :(

      July 6, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • UK Dave & my scientific community

      Recognising mafia don's comments;
      Do you deserve your punishments?

      July 6, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • dumb mother

      I deserve my punishments! :( :( :(

      July 6, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • mafia don

      I am very sad with my issues UK Dave! :(
      This is all I can say! :(

      July 6, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • mafia don

      My boys just confirmed it! :(
      We are very sad with our issues UK Dave :(
      We can't say any more about it UK Dave! :(
      Because it saddens us deeply! :(

      July 6, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  14. spoddney

    Scientology really needs to be shut down:

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjKIqxBB_kA&w=640&h=390]

    July 6, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  15. spoddney

    Joseph Goebbels is alive and well:

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYdpNpPDWMc&w=640&h=390]

    July 6, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  16. spoddney

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYdpNpPDWMc&w=640&h=390]

    July 6, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  17. MY MANY BRAVEHEARTS!

    - MY MANY BRAVEHEARTS WORK TIRELESSLY AGAINST YOU cowards!
    We use the databases of cowards against you cowards & we update them regularly!
    GOOGLE(database of cowards) to see if you are on the databases of cowards!
    MY MANY BRAVEHEARTS WILL ALWAYS CRUSH ALL cowards THIS WAY!
    MY MANY BRAVEHEARTS ALWAYS WIN FAIR MAIDENS THIS WAY!
    Wanna be a fair maiden?
    Add your local cowards to GOOGLE(database of cowards) please!

    July 6, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  18. skeptic

    L. Ron Hubbard was quoted as saying the fastest way to become a millionaire is to establish a religion and open a church. I guess anyone can make up their own b s and get rich.

    July 6, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  19. THE BEAST IS BAD MEMORY!

    If your bad memory can't be resolved, you'll be forced to carry THE MARK OF THE BEAST OF BAD MEMORY!
    Our reliable memory never lets us down.
    If you can't regain a reliable memory, you're throwing yourself onto a very beastly scrapheap!

    July 6, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  20. itsallbs

    1) ALL religion is man-made.
    2) There are so many people signing up because they want free pizza. :)

    July 6, 2012 at 7:00 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.