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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. qwerty

    Scientology is extremely shady, look at Lisa McPherson. After getting into a car accident, she got "Special Medical Treatment" from a scientologist doctor that never even examined her. This lead to her death. Personally, cults are the scariest things I have ever seen.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  2. UK Dave & my fellow scientists

    .I give you ALL HOPE !!!! :)
    .Ever heard of PRODIGAL?
    .PRODIGAL = YOU ALL RETURN !!!! :)

    July 18, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  3. Alex Povolotski

    YouTube their practices and workouts to see what this is all about. I find their methods to be quite effective.

    July 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  4. JodyMezzo

    You all need to read up on L Ron Hubbard and the Scientology Church! The information provided in this article has been sanitized and is NOT the whole story. Read the book by Bent Corydon and then you'll understand why Katie had to escape it the way she did. She will probably still be hounded and required to sign legal agreements not to speak about Scientology during her lifetime. They are RUTHLESS! Beware!

    July 17, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Which God??

      Jody, I hope she didn't sign anything like that. To force one to do so is criminal, especially if it with the intent to reveal personal information about said person. Sheer blackmail if so. They are criminal in this regard. They should be dismantled as a church/organization, the assets sold and given to the states they are in.

      July 18, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  5. Barry G.

    Compare those who have distinguished themselves in the Christianity community with those of the cult of Scientology.

    Those who have distinguished themselves as faithful Christians include the likes of Mother Teresa, Francis of Assisi, and countless others who made great sacrifices and dedicated their lives to serving and helping the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised of the world.

    On the other hand we have those who have distinguished themselves in the cult of Scientology. Let’s see we have Tom Cruise, Kristie Alley, and….

    Not much of a comparison, is it?

    July 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Thinker

      Actually they distinguished themselves BEFORE becoming scientologists. They were activly recruited because they were famous. Big difference. As far as I know there haven't been any scientologists that have distinguished themselves after joining (aside from their leadership, which doesn't count.) Says alot about the organisation right there.

      July 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  6. Barry G.

    Once you disclose your personal secrets to the Scientology organization, do they use this to as leverage to extort you?

    How much mind control does this cult use?

    What would this cult do, if someone left their organization and disclosed what they really do?

    July 17, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  7. Barry G.

    How much money do the top people make in the "religion" of Scientology?

    July 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Thinker

      My understanding is that the top officials don't actually make all that much. They just have free access to at least one of the 'Church's' various accounts. This way they can show their leaders are not 'profiting' and thus maintain their tax exempt status. A similar trick is used by some televangelists and megachurch pastors.

      July 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  8. YeahItsMe72

    I like the part where it says 'Many groups and individuals have challenged Scientology’s legitimacy as a religion.'

    legitimate and religion are two words that really don't belong in a sentence together. Scientology sounds no worse than any of the other major religions.

    July 17, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • ModernMan

      That's merely your opinion, and your opinion is stupid.

      July 17, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • YeahItsMe72

      No invention of man has caused more suffering, justified more killings, or lead to more deeds of evil than religion.

      July 17, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Steve

      @ YeahItsMe72, "No invention of man has caused more suffering, justified more killings, or lead to more deeds of evil than religion."

      or vice-versa.

      July 17, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  9. ModernMan

    Any purported "church" that raises its money to build lavish buidlings and secret compounds by brainwashing people into believing they have to give up all their posessions and money is a cult.... hey.... Something to think about here.

    July 17, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • ModernMan

      I have to say I feel bad for Tom and Katie. Divorce sucks, regardless of your affiliation with some crackpot looney church. It just plain sucks.

      July 17, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  10. RAWoD

    Remember EST? Thought not. Time will come when someone will ask "Remember scientology?"

    July 17, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • ModernMan

      Please, what is EST? I do not remember

      July 17, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Thinker

      EST was Erhard Seminars Training. It was a weekend course (60 hours) that used the socratic method to try to help people stop trying and start doing. essentially. It was around for 13 years or so. It was not a cult and does not seem to have been any more of a scam than any other motivational group. Unfortunatly Scientology has been around since 1953 making it far older and it is still hanging on so unlike EST it will likely be rememberd for quite some time.

      July 17, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  11. Barry G.

    I have a friend who was sucked into the Scientology cult.

    He is never allowed out of the sight of his handlers, even when he comes home to visit.

    July 17, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • ModernMan

      I have a similar situation, only we call it "marriage".

      July 17, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  12. Barry G.

    Scientology is a false religion and a cult.

    Only Jesus Christ laid down his life and was crucified for our sins.

    Jesus warned that many would claim to be the messiah, and he warned not to be deceived by these wolves in sheep's clothing.

    July 17, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • An Agnostic

      All religions are false to agnostics.

      July 17, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      I think that says more about agnosticism than it does religion

      July 17, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  13. UK Dave & my fellow scientists

    .I'm perfectly happy!
    .What are you?

    July 16, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • dumm motha

      Lost! :( :( :( :( :(

      July 16, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • ModernMan

      Fat.

      July 17, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Pensive

      July 17, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  14. Dyrebutik

    It is in reality a nice and useful piece of info. I am satisfied that you just shared this useful information with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

    July 16, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • Thinker

      Alright I gotta ask: What in the world are these posts trying to accomplish and where are they coming from? You see them all over the forums and none of them seem to be saying anything at all. If CNN hired them to make 'good' comments about the authors they need to outsource a bit less. I doubt that they are CNN plants though. Anyone know what they are?

      July 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  15. dumm motha

    .Like many others, we've given up already! :(

    July 16, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
  16. UK Dave & my fellow scientists

    .YOU GOT MEAN AMERICA !!!!
    .BUT, CAN YOU GET LEAN AMERICA ????

    July 16, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • UK Dave & my fellow scientists

      Like many others, we've given up already! :(

      July 16, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • UK Dave & my fellow scientists

      SEE HOW EASY IT IS TO MANIPULATE CRIME !!!!

      July 16, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • UK Dave & my fellow scientists

      SIMPLICITY BEATS CRIME !!!!

      July 16, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • mafia don

      My boys have been fighting against simplicity! :(
      It never works! :(

      July 16, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  17. cinemaben

    Oh, and let's not forget about their delightful getaway hotel down in Florida:

    http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/53mPS9

    July 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  18. Dr. Hemlock

    The weak minded always herd together in one form or another. The term "sheeple" comes to mind.

    July 16, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Steve

      That's deep, man. Really deep.

      July 17, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  19. Nick

    Not a particularly insightful or revealing article, and I cringed at each time Scientology was referred to as a "church" or "religion", as if to legitimize it.

    Scientology is not a church; it is not a legitimate religion on par with other major world religions. It is a cult designed to extract money from its members and isolate them from other people who it perceives as a threat. It was created by a cynical science fiction writer in the 1960s who was known as a fraud, L Ron Hubbard. The whole thing is garbage. You can try to draw comparisons between the many abuses at Scientology and some of the scandals at actual religious organizations, such as Catholicism, but with legitimate religious organizations the scandals are not de rigeur as they are within Scientology.

    July 16, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  20. Tanker

    In the great battle between imaginary friends that is comparative religion, Scientology has to be the most aggressive, destructive, and expensive of the bunch.

    As for Tommy Boy, I've seen Vanilla Sky, Eyes Wide Shut, and Legend. I’m not taking Tom’s guidance on ANYTHING.

    July 16, 2012 at 12:23 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.