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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. ViK100

    Where does divorce come?? What religion invented it??

    July 9, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Who invited me?

      No religion invented it.
      People have been pledging devotion to each other with and without religion long before any other the popular current myths have been around. "divorce" has been around for nearly as long.
      Religions did not create the need and desire for us to find companionship, and commint to each other. Religion has tried to control it, but did not create it.

      July 9, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • ME II

      I think the better question would be, who invented marriage?

      July 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  2. Bayousara

    What to keep your mind "clear?" Stay as far away as you can get from the theories of everyone else. Make up your own mind about "religion" based on what you know and have observed and learned in your own lifetime, not that of others. And don't feel guilty that you don't believe in all the others' decisions about what they believe (and they will try to make you feel guilty).

    July 9, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • ViK100

      You're exactly right. I have made up my mind to be a Christian. Not because others tell me to be one but because I have seen what God has done in my family and what he has done with me either with what he has given me or what he has taken away. All done out of his great mercy.

      July 9, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  3. blessedgeek

    I have written quite a few computer applications and some of them FEEL that they want to be Scientologists in order to achieve full conscioousness. They wish to start a credible scientological credit history so that when my applications abort or die, they could be reincarnated into new processes elsewhere in the Universe.

    July 9, 2012 at 4:16 am |
  4. The Imposter

    We're a bunch of volunteers and starting a brand new scheme in our community. Your web site provided us with helpful info to work on. You've performed an impressive activity and our whole group will likely be thankful to you.

    July 9, 2012 at 2:35 am |
  5. dumb mother

    ..Am I beyond correction?

    July 8, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
  6. joseph

    Ravi Zacharias dissects atheism, Part 5:

    July 8, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  7. cantilever

    Well, Tom Cruise as an intergallactical Body Thetan, that I'll buy.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  8. joseph

    Ravi Zacharias dissects Nietzsche and other atheists, Part 4:

    July 8, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  9. joseph

    Ravi Zacharias dissects famous atheists, Part 3:

    July 8, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  10. joseph

    Ravi Zacharias dissects Friedrich Nietzsche and other famous atheists, Part 2:

    July 8, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  11. UK Dave & my fellow scientists

    - Scroungers prevent recovery.
    - Time we weaned ourselves off scroungers.
    - Rosy Regards,

    July 8, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • The Corrector

      At last! The astounding truth is out!
      Dump the scroungers!
      Let's get this one moving!
      Dump the scroungers! :)

      July 8, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  12. joseph

    Ravi Zacharias, Christian apologist, dissects Friedrich Nietzsche and other famous atheists of the past. See below:

    July 8, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  13. DDNB

    Just a note, the U.S. Census Bureau notes a total of about 54000 scientologists in the United States. CNN, you can fact check this from http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/population/religion.html in order to get a more accurate number. 54k that is smaller than even jediism for petes sakes.

    July 8, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • jwt

      And odds on 17,000 will suffer from mental illness at some point and all scientology can do is cause them more pain.

      July 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  14. Jesus the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

    Would you debate with someone who argues that the sky is yellow, up is down, left is right, a tree is a lamp, or black is white? You debating with this person would leave both parties looking like fools. Christians please stop wasting your time on people who argue that our world and galaxy was made from nothing/has no Creator. I honestly believe that many years ago no one predicted that the world would get bad to the point that people are debating that this perfect system of life is a coincidence. Christians dont indulge in foolishness you will be looked upon as a fool as well.

    July 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • jwt

      I have to agree there is no debate – there is no god. Nothing to debate,

      July 8, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Christians say some stupid sh!t. Example above.

      July 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  15. Brad

    In my opinion, Scientology gives a bad name to expanding human potential.

    July 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  16. Alien Orifice

    Clear?? LOL

    July 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  17. Seyedibar

    Scientology is utter drivel and circular logic that is ultimately meaningless and preys on gullible people's sense of belonging.... just like every other religion on the planet.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  18. joseph

    The air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat, are all necessities of life and gifts from God that should not be taken for granted. How much more should we not trample on God's most important gift – His Son.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • max3333444555

      sounds just about as crazy as christianity to me. all of these "religions" are simply made up nonsense.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  19. jshelley

    Auditing is actually the worst enemy of the corrupt Scientology pyramid scam. Over time the IRS has dedicated 1,100 agents dedicated to denying its tax-exempt status. A collective of thousands of hackers, which calls itself Anonymous, has also targeted the same objective and published some very slick videos online. Eventually, Scientology will face what we all do: taxes and death, with a huge back-bill putting it out of business.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  20. PaulC

    I think the world's major religions started as cults and, examined objectively, some of scientology's teachings require as much faith as the other religions. In truth, no one needs a "church" to control and guide them. We all have the ability to establish our relationship with nature/God without a self appointed holy man.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:21 am |
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.