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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. hiphop

    Just another idiotic way for stupid people to lose all of their money.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Luke Maple

      YUP!!! I couldn't have said it better myself!!!!! They sould be throwing their money at Bernie M........ IDIOT's

      July 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  2. Duck

    Scientology isn't as wierd as say West Borrow Baptist folk.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  3. Tony29inDallas

    Another way of summarizing Scientology is this:

    "It's a scam developed by a science fiction writer in order to separate you from your wallet by preying on the stupid to brainwash them into thinking that they're possessed by angry aliens that are millions of years old."

    Crystal clear.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  4. Zaphod

    This article whitewashes Scientology. Some more fun things about them you can find about them with some research.

    Some of their earlier courses use techniques copied from military interrogation and brainwashing.

    They apparently bullied the IRS into granting them tax-free status.

    They rigidly enforce the copyright on their texts and devices, not only to secure their revenue stream, but to make sure that people are exposed to the earlier thought manipulation before exposing their full set of beliefs.

    They are suspected of a long list of criminal behavior, some of which was or is official policy.

    They ruthlessly attempt to suppress free speech that criticizes their organization.

    http://www.scientology-lies.com/whatswrong.html

    July 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  5. Boseph Heyden

    So we're just completely ignoring the fact that South Park had an entire episode on Scientology based on what they were told by an actual Scientologist...an episode that hit so close to home for Scientology that, rather than risk their secrets people had to pay to get to, Scientology moved right in for the lawsuit and said Scientologist, the late Isaac Hayes, left the show over feelings of betrayal. I know it's a comedy show and all, but there really shouldn't be any in-depth "What is Scientology?" articles that aren't transcripts of that episode.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  6. Reason

    Same as any other religion...

    July 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  7. Mark Yelka

    Scientologists came to my home and asked about all of my failures, doubts, and fears. I told them that I was successful, worry-free, and happy. They didn't like that answer! They are parasites of negativity!

    July 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  8. J-Pap

    This sounds no crazier than any other religion.

    All religions are no different than the scientologists. I'd love for the same author to write up about Christianity or Islam. It would sound just as far out as these guys.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  9. David

    ABOUT FOUR YEARS TOO LATE.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  10. Nodack

    All religions are man made cults. Scientology is just me of them.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  11. trex

    ...and when i told them my savings was more in the thousands.............well, they said there was a smaller machine that would tell me my temperature, and that was only $15K..........................

    July 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  12. 0rangeW3dge

    Somebody should tell Charlie Sheen...

    July 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  13. BOb the Prairie Dog

    Getting people to confess their sins is just a clever form of blackmail. L Ron just ripped off the Catholic Church's age old scam and gave it a modern twist.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  14. Elaine

    If Scientology is about self improvement, then Tom Cruise sucks at it cause he has blown 3 marriages. He needs to go back to Scientology Kindergarten!

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

      He has been in a gazzilion popular movies and probably made more money from his last movie than you made in your lifetime, so to say he isn't successfull is stretching it.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • ghostamongyou

      Because obviously, if a marriage fails, it's the husband's fault... right?

      July 3, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  15. Sam Barber

    What is Scientology? The biggest pseudo-religious fraud since "Mormonism." Thee two religions play on both people's deep insecurities and the need to be superior to others...redeemable by giving huge amounts of monies, natch.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Mr. Izz

      You obviously don't know anything about "Mormonism," since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints doesn't do such things. I can't speak for Scientology, since I really don't know enough about that religion, but I can talk about the LDS Church; and yes, you're way off base. Consequently, if you're as wrong about the LDS Church as you are about Scientology, then that's two strikes. One more, and they should take away your internet privileges for spreading false information based on your own "opinions."

      July 3, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Thinker

      Actually that pretty much defines Scientology.

      July 5, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • wrong side of the bed

      @MrIZZ..Mormonism was cooked up by a con-man,just like Scientology,and you know it.

      July 6, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  16. AlexPKeaton

    AMAZING how many christians are making fun of this, like their religion and origin story is any better. God made the world out of nothing, sent his son born from a virgin to die, came back to like, raining frogs, flood of the planet with 2 of every animal on it. LMAO. We don't know all the animals of the world 3million years into the start of our humanity, yet some dude got them all on a boat while a ticked-off god flooded the planet. And the arrogance of christians to think their religion is any better than the thousands on the planet and only their bible, written by hundreds of people over as many years, is somehow the truth and all others are crap. Here's a news flash, it's all a cult, it's all a scam, every single one of them. BTW, how many people have been killed in the name of christianity over ANY other religion? How many people have been killed in the name of scienwackology?

    July 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • J-Pap

      Well said. well said.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • netwallwarrior

      I have a simple question for you... Where did all this water on this planet come from? Or better yet, how do you explain the bio-diversity on this one planet? One more for ya... How do you explain this notion of morality, and this desire to search for God? Plants and animals plus man evolved from simple organisms? Right? Christianity isn't the problem it's humans need to control other's that's the problem. Throughout the centuries we've had immature people like right now trying to dictate to everyone else. Christianity isn't the problem. It's people's lack of understanding and knowledge that is. We lack true wisdom, and many won't stand still long enough for God to teach them. We act like teenagers, and think we have all the answers.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • Denverdriver

      The inventor of scienwackology tried to kill someone who disagreed with him by placing a rattlesnake in his mailbox. Any religion invented by a criminal like L. Ron is not a religion for me.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Thinker

      Netwallwarrior said
      "I have a simple question for you... Where did all this water on this planet come from? Or better yet, how do you explain the bio-diversity on this one planet? One more for ya... How do you explain this notion of morality, and this desire to search for God? Plants and animals plus man evolved from simple organisms? Right? Christianity isn't the problem it's humans need to control other's that's the problem. Throughout the centuries we've had immature people like right now trying to dictate to everyone else. Christianity isn't the problem. It's people's lack of understanding and knowledge that is. We lack true wisdom, and many won't stand still long enough for God to teach them. We act like teenagers, and think we have all the answers."

      I will endeavour to answer.

      1: Where did all this water on this planet come from? The components of water, hydrogen and oxygen, are fairly common elements. Particularly hydrogen. Creating water from burning hydrogen is not at all difficult and would occur naturally when oxygen and hydrogen are mixed in a heated environment. There is evidence of water (frozen) on Mars and several of the moons in the outer system, so water itself is not uncommon.

      2: how do you explain the bio-diversity on this one planet? Diverse biomes, enviornmental changes, evolution, and time (plus some mass extinctions that prevented stasis.) Really that is the best answer. You might understand how it works if you did some research on the subject.

      3. How do you explain this notion of morality, and this desire to search for God? I'll start with the search for god. One part of course is our desire to be part of something larger than ourselves which makes us work together for the benifit of all. We also have evolved the ability to try to understand what others feel. We do this by pretending (generally subconciously) that we are the other person or by having had similar experiences in the past. This tendancy to superimpose ourselves on others extends to other animals and even the inanimate. Have you ever gotten mad at your computer? Why? Your computer can't choose what it does or does not do. Yet you become angry at it precieving it has slighted you when it is only following its programming and the physical laws governing its circuits. You impose your own motives and desires onto the machine, even though you do know it is just a machiene. This happens with everything. Now, if you did not understand lightning and were asked what it was, how would you respond? It is destructive, but it does not consume so it must be angry because people can be destructive when they are angry. So since the lightning is frightening and dangerous you try to find a way to placate it lest it harm you or your family. Thus the birth of the thunder god. Of course a few years later someone in the tribe decides to spend his time preventing the wrath of the thunder god and seems successful (reality: the area is in a drought) so people look to him for his understanding of the thunder god and how to placate him. This new shaman relates his methods and is looked on with respect. They feed him so he make continue keeping the thunder away. Weeks later it storms again and the people accuse him of not doing what was expected of him. He says he has been doing what had worked before, so something must have changed. In fear for his life (and newfound ease of life). He tells them that the god must be angry with what the tribe is doing and (by human nature) picks an activity that he does not like and tells them to stop doing that. He dies later and his successor does the same and so on, untill someone who covets the easy life of the shaman becomes the next shaman. He of course will eventually want more power and to do that he needs fear and guilt. So he says the god (or by this time gods) do not like an activity that is common and will be difficult to stop, but the god may be placated through a ritual only he can perform. Thus is born the first religion. Morality as we see it rises from that cycle and from a concious effort to improve our lives. The universal morals (do not kill your fellows, do not steal from your fellows, etc.) are the basic requirements of civilization and group life. Now compare different sets of moral values. They all have the required values, but their other values are different. Those different valuse most likely had their roots in ancient customs designed either to placate or coerce the gods or as a rule to prevent conflict in scociety.

      Obviously noone knows if such a scenario is what actually happened, but it is a logical path to the present. A creator is also a possibility, but without logic behind it. Now you are correct that Cristianity itself is not really a problem. Nor is any other religion. The problem is those that use these religions for personal gain. When one person or a small group of people are allowed to decide what is best for all with no or very little limits on their power you have a problem. Namely that power tends to atract those that desire more power. A secular example is the way politicians are always trying to increase the power of their position and take power from others. They might have everyones' wellbeing in mind as they do it too, but what person do you know that never makes a mistake? Or that can speak for everyone? It is allowing others to convince you to follow them without question that is the bigest danger. It is just unfortunate that religion lends itself to that so easily.

      Oops I got way too into that. Time to climb down off my soap box and get back to work...

      July 5, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  17. Nighscout

    WOW so anyone who has a best-selling science fiction novel can make a religion out of it? Let me start writing a prophecy then.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  18. Elaine

    Well if Scientology is about self improvement, then Tom Cruise sucks at it. Let's face it...anyone who blows 3 marriages is one screwed up puppy!!!!!!

    July 3, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Luke Maple

      AMEN !!!!!

      July 3, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • ghostamongyou

      You're just taking cheap shots, which reflects on your own character–not anyone else's.

      July 3, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  19. LifeDream

    When I was in high school, i went in to a Scientology center. I took a personality test that talked about communication, affinity, and reality. Then when you get into it, you learn we are on earth due to us being "malcontents/artists/rebels". Thrown into a volcano and H bombs thrown on top of us by Xenu! It is the craziest &^&% on the planet. They started raising their "fees" or "donations" 5% each month! They have a "Guardian's Office" to deal with people who talk bad about them. Anything is "fair game" when you are labeled a "PTS" potential trouble source or "SP" suppressive person. I feel totally blessed to have been able to see the light. Many of my friends joined the SeaOrg...they still spout nonsense whenever I see them which is less and less. I feel sorry for the many people caught up in cults like this. Take away their tax free status!!!!

    July 3, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  20. elusively2

    Not for me.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:28 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.