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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. Ken

    This religion is more valid than say Christianity or that Muslim one. At least this one is based on science somewhat.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • JoJo

      Science Fiction...LRHubbard was a science fiction writer.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Upset Voter

      They threw out the science and only kept the fiction.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  2. Dave

    This religion is just as nutty as all religions. @666mental, you are dead right.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    July 3, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • LordXenu

      They must pray to me, the great prophet of the stoned pedophile L. Ron Hubbard.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Pichounette

      Prayer changes nothing.

      July 3, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • mikem

      I'm going to try this one more time. I'm going to go cook myself a pizza. You go pray for one. Let me know how yours tastes.

      July 3, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
  4. BlindAmbition

    My sister in law and her (former) husband were major scientologists. Were audited a number of times, attended all sorts of "classes" or whatever, whenever they fell off the scientology wagon, and landed up 10's of thousands of dollars in dept to their "religion". They are most definitely a cult, and rarely do anything for others less fortunate, or in need, unless of course you are a fellow scientologist. But then any assistance you need, comes at a very steep price.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      How can you become indebt to a religion? They were fools and deserve what happens to them.

      Amen

      July 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • SPA Knight

      HeavenSent – we can all be fooled and shouldn't be judged by the mistakes we make correct? I agree that if yourreligion puts you in debt, it sounds more like a pyramid business scheme than a faith organization. It's unfortunate that this couple became involved with this to the point of "paying" their way out. I hope they found a true faith.

      July 5, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  5. Gozmuz

    Is it true that scientology exists even after the eye -opening episode of south park in which they showed what this is all about ? Man.. this world is really a fool's paradise.. what more can I say ?

    July 3, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  6. jimzcarz

    Watch out for false Prophets...

    July 3, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  7. LordXenu

    BOW DOWN AND WORSHIP ME!

    I am Xenu almighty supreme lord of the galactic confederacy, ready my DC-8 so that I might fly to earth and sacrifice humans in the Hawaiian volcano!

    July 3, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  8. Upset Voter

    Tom Cruise is number 2 or 3. LOL .... that proves that is a church by nuts for nuts. I saw him dancing on Oprah's couch.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  9. Unrelated

    Religion is a meme, a virus that spread socially. We need an anti-religious meme killer. Pehaps Atheism and science will do it.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  10. Doug

    This is as weird as it can get.. This is like any religion, seek out the weak minded, take their money and live large... How terribly sad for the millions who fall for this scam..

    July 3, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  11. Notoriety

    What a farce. This article makes no mention of the various conspiracies and campaigns led by Scientology's Guardian's Office that are, to me, the most reprehensible thing about this cult. Google "Operation Freakout" and educate yourself.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  12. harvey

    Always thought L Ron Hubbard was part science fiction writer and part con man who's money making cult somehow survived him. Even so, if it works for the individual and he/she is not hurting anyone else; let them practice their faith in peace.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • ladyantistupid

      Problem is with the new leadership, people are not able to practice this "cult" in peace. People go bankrupt in paying for auditing/services and promises on a Bridge to Nowhere and then sell their souls. It's very hard for people to get out and if they do they will send "Squirrel Busters" after you to harrass and intimidate. Seriously, Google "Squirrel Busters Scientology". It will make you laught!

      July 5, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  13. matt houston

    Less to do with Scientology than it does with Tom Cruise being gay and using her as a beard.
    Also, Sandy...are you serious? Do you realize that aliens and space stories are more believable than talking snakes and burning bushes? Both teachings deserve equal skepticism.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  14. onthisday

    drug pushers don't like them,
    bible thumpers don't like them,
    i think i like them.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  15. jj

    He who owns the gold(USA) makes the rules. Paper money goes to intrinsic value zero

    July 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  16. southernsugar

    I'm "clear". This is a nutty cult!

    July 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  17. southernwonder

    reading this, so far scientology sounds a whole lot more interesting than this nuttiest import from 2000 yr jerusalem christianity. it has no bogeyman spinning around the earth and cussin at those who mind thier own business, ie the "nonblievers". i am sure no scientology ever_killed anybody for dissent, nor do they seem to make nutty demands or go berserk over condoms or get in our face during elections. but katy holms is to defend her kids against this imposition if that's what tom cruise tried to do altough most mothers don't seem to mind when christianity is so imposed on children.
    go thetan, whatever that is.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  18. mylife55

    Hey everybody! Only $$250000 more, and I will be "clear" . . . . of my bank account anyways.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  19. Sandy

    we need to pray for scientologists that they will find Jesus their savior soon.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Ran

      Jesus was a bit crazy too lady.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • PantyRaid

      What a stup1d comment you made.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • jim

      I am not sure what is worse. God spoke to me or I am going to make a religion based on my disagreement with science...he didn't like psychology.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • SelfAware

      Poor, clueless Sandy :-(

      July 3, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  20. Papa

    What it is is a way for a science fiction author to re-market his books to an entirely different gullible audience when those books are not selling on the mainstream publishing market

    July 3, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • BeaneyMan

      Just like the Bible, The Holy Quran, Torah, and the Book of Moran to name a few. Six of one, half a dozen of the other –its all made up crap. There's no quantifiable proof of any of it. But people have a right to believe whatever they want to believe in. No matter how insane.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:41 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.