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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. Shorn

    VanHagar – It's still about power. I've met plenty of these 'pastors' who claim to be serving god. They are only seeking influence and attention. Most of those I've met behave as if their presence is some kind of gift. They claim a special relationship with god and stand up in front of the congregations spewing all sorts of ungodly opinion about what god does and does not approve of. Jesus was an answer to a too-rigid church. His life and example are proof that we don't need churches to have a relationship with the Father.

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

    I've done the e meter thing and it's actually quite interesting. The tester pinched my arm while I was holding the e meter and showed me a jump of energy on the meter. Then she told me to think of he pain (instead of actually pinching me). After just thinking about it I was able to make the machine jump. I did it over and over again until the e machine stopped reacting.

    This is the fundamental idea behind the audits. They make you come out with your most painful experiences and by talking about it over and over again, you eventually get rid of the pain on the e meter. I'm not a Scientologist at all. I just had first hand experience at the church using their devices and it was quite interesting to say the least. You have to admit that these rich people buying into this must be getting their money's worth somehow. When you become more clear they show you more alien truths... If someone showed me something magnificent I would probably pay to see more too.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • Shorn

      That's why it's not a church. It's a form of therapy. The only problem is that it can cost you ... everything.

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

      Yes I would say it's a form of therapy. The people at the church were really intense to say the least...

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

      Sounds interesting to me, actually. But once they start asking for money, I get cynical.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  3. WiseUp

    A quote from L Ron Hubbard:
    Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way to do it would be start his own religion.

    As quoted in the Los Angeles Times (27 August 1978)

    And he did.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Nooooo my secret! *melts into a puddle on the floor*

      July 3, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  4. LordXenu

    Non believers will be thrown into the volcano!

    July 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • Thinker

      DOn't forget the H-Bombs!

      July 5, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  5. Azrael

    $cientology a cult of rich, empty soul morons, that smartly do get tax credits for making donation to their *NPO pseudo-church*. It's about time the Fed's and the IRS takes care of them.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  6. POD

    It's a scam created by a third rate science fiction writer to seperate gullible people from their money

    July 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Nooooo *melts into a puddle on the floor*

      July 3, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • Brian Hartman

      I'm not sure I'd necessarily call L. Ron Hubbard "third rate" as a sci-fi author. Battlefield Earth (the book, not the movie) was actually well-received by critics.

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

      From the wiki on Hubbard (great source I know :P) it seems that the church would buy the books and then sell them back to the stores as new. I wonder how many of the 8 million sold were done that way.

      July 5, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  7. Brian Hartman

    Scientology is a scam and a morally bankrupt belief system that damages people by telling them they don't need their meds. It's Christian Science with flying saucers.

    Any questions?

    July 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  8. nadinesh

    Sounds like a lot more fun than those organizations that call themselves "religions,"! It's comical that other religions want to claim this is not a religion–I don't think they perceive how kooky churches and mosques seem to the outsider. And I don't think organized established religion, with all its tendencies to severe corruption and materialism, can ever be the arbiter of what people choose for their own spiritual hunt.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • Brian Hartman

      I don't have a lot of use for most organized religions, but at least most of them don't go around telling people not to take medications that will either a) keep them alive or b) keep them from harming themselves or others.

      Scientology is even more morally bankrupt than most religions. And that's saying something.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • don

      just another bunch of nuts

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

      Most don't,, Brian, but Christian Science does do just that. And Jehovah's Witnesses will not have blood transfusions. Yet there are few people on this board who would argue that this puts them outside the pale of "religion."

      July 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • nadinesh

      With respect, Don, I'm sure even more people say exactly the same thing about practicing Moslems in this country. "Nuttiness" is a very subjective thing - it's located in the eye of the beholder.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  9. Tom Cruise Likes Dudes

    Seriously? This split may seem to be about scientology on the surface, but I think that it is really about how deep in the closet he is. It must be terrible to be a woman married to a gay man.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • Thinker

      He can't be gay. Scientology fixes that. along with ulcers, arthritis, nearsightedness, the common cold...

      Remember its just $20 for your first audit! (though it gets loooots more expensive as we indoctrinate you!)

      July 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  10. The R.O.T.P.

    I heard they have a good lunch buffet in l.a. inexpensive, background check required.....

    July 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  11. Justin

    All religions are stupid, so I see no reason to criticize this one any more than the rest.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Brian Hartman

      You need to read up more about it. It barely even has the veneer of being benign.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Thinker

      The Guardian's Office is like the Inquisition reborn. Oh, and Scientologists were (or maybe still are, I have no idea) required to inform the leadership on all other scientologists to keep out Suppressive Persons. HeII one of the questions that used to be asked in security checks was "Have you ever had bad thoughts about L. Ron Hubbard?"

      July 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  12. Joe

    GOOGLE: LISA MCPHERESON and see what scientology is about

    July 3, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  13. nadinesh

    Sounds like a lot more fun than those organizations that call themselves "religions," actually. It's comical that other religions want to claim this is not a religion–I don't think they perceive how kooky churches and mosques seem to the outsider. And I don't think organized established religion, with all its tendencies to severe corruption and materialism, can ever be the arbiter of what people choose for their own spiritual hunt.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Aaron

      Why is it when 1 person has an invisible friend, they are crazy. If a group has an invisible friend, they call it a religion. Um REALLY??

      July 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • nadinesh

      I'm not a member of any organized religion, but I actually sometimes don't call people with invisible friends "crazy." I believe there are some people who communicate with beings I can't see. So if that makes me "nutty," I'll have to accept that. But when you consider the many millions of people who believe in mediums, for example, and you add them to the many millions who believe in their vision of "God," what you have is a minority of "sane" people calling the rest of the world lunatics!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  14. Katie

    All religions are cults, this one is just a lot more weird than most. Burning bushes, talking lizards, ascending into heaven... seriously?

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

      No doubt about it. All religion is simply a creation from our own mind to keep up sleep better.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Brian Hartman

      It's the attack on psychiatry that makes Scientology more harmful than most. They encourage sick people to stay sick.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Katie

      The other atheists on this site made me say that ,,, driving me like a cow. They're all bulls that were castrated.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  15. richard

    On June 28, Hubbard ordered his crew to fire four shells from the ship's 3-inch gun and a number of rifle and pistol shots in the direction of the Coronado Islands, off which the ship anchored for the night. He did not realize that the islands belonged to Mexico, an ally, nor that he had taken the USS PC-815 into Mexican territorial waters.[49] The islands were garrisoned by Mexican Navy personnel during the war.[50] The Mexican government complained and two days later, Hubbard found himself before a naval Board of Investigation in San Diego. He was found to have disregarded orders by carrying out an unsanctioned gunnery practice and violating Mexican waters. He was reprimanded and removed from command, effective July 7.[49] Rear Admiral Frank A. Braisted commented, in a fitness report written shortly after the Coronado incident, that he "consider[ed] this officer lacking in the essential qualities of judgment, leadership and cooperation. He acts without forethought as to probable results. He is believed to have been sincere in his efforts to make his ship efficient and ready. Not considered qualified for command or promotion at this time. Recommend duty on a large vessel where he can be properly supervised."[51

    July 3, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  16. Charlotte

    LOL! Well, it sounds as legitimate as any other religion, in other words a bunch of bunk based on pseudo-science OR pseudo-history with a huge amount of speculation as to any basis in reality and 'spirituality.' So, it's just as valid as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Paganism or Mormonism. Meaning....not.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • T in Austin

      Buddhism is a belief but does not create a "God" for you to worship, it is simply a way to live to gain enlightenment.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  17. Say it ain't so

    Scientology is not a religion. Period, end of story.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Give up on your god and worship me, you know im just as real.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • nadinesh

      Sure it is. It's just as much a religion as a bunch of people sitting and staring at a main with his hands nailed to a stake and calling that spiritual. After all, what would YOU call a religion?

      July 3, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  18. Dave

    Scam, big time.

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

      Yeah, possibly. But how is that different from these bizarre televangelists? From the Catholic Church with it's protect pedophile priests? From a "religion" which condones murdering thousands of people with bombs? Goodness! What's the alternative?

      July 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  19. Marla

    Never thought I would see the day that I agreed with Murdoch on anything, but on this, I agree with him.

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

      The way I see, Murdoch is always running scared of something. Something's changing; something's threatening his web. So you may think this major kooky, but stop and think what he thinks is NOT a cult! Frankly, I suspect he just can't figure out a way to make a profit from it.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  20. LordXenu

    BOW DOWN AND WORSHIP MEEE!

    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 6:33 pm |
    • Gil Nodges

      Lord Xenu, we are at your command........long live Lord Xenu!

      July 3, 2012 at 6:39 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.