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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. Dana

    My sister was five years into Scientology when I and our parents visited her at the Hollywood Centre. We had lunch at the nearby deli, where Scios regularly go. At the next table where four members we had just seen at the Centre. As I and my sister went to use the restroom, one of the four at the table–whom I now know as a "minder"– followed us into the bathroom ; she did not leave until my sister and I left. My sister conveyed in a later conversation that the "church" tells her whom she can communicate with and what to write and say in any communications. She was later instructed to "disconnect" from my mother, whom the church deemed a "suppressor." Since that day, my sister has been moved among several countries and states, where she does auditing; I last heard she was living in Clearwater, the church's main headquarters.
    The "beliefs" described above are not really that different or "crazier" than myths and rituals described in many mainstream religions. And Dyanetics was considered a "legitimate" psychological movement before L. Ron Hubbard, a third rate science fiction writer, turned the psychological movement into a giant pyramid scheme. Many devotees like my sister do not have the money–often thousands of dollars–to buy materials to move to the next level(s). So they are told to live ten or so to a run down apartment while they do mass "auditings" for paying customers and potential members. The more auditings done, the more advancement can happen.
    While may sister seems perfectly content having stressful decisions made for her, others who want to break away are not only "ex-communicated,' they are victims of post-break revenge. "I hear you want to hire Jane Smith? I feel I should inform you that she was convicted of dealing meth in the Los Angeles area in 2005." Most employers do not bother to double check; it's easier to move onto the next applicant.
    In the case of Katie and Tom, I as Suri's mother would do anything and everything to keep Suri from being robotocized in Scientology camp. You'll note that Tom has a great smile, but no sense of humor, and no ability to be spontaneous and sincere. It's not the belief system itself, but the controlling, paranoid, and greedy nature of this "church" that makes it so dangerous.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • sybaris

      How is this any different than the peer pressure and prejudice fostered by any other religion?

      July 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • blinky

      Great post. Thanks for sharing. I hope your sister can break free.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • JohnRJohnson

      What you've described here are the classic behaviors of a cult. Those think peer pressure among congregants in mainstream religions is equivalent to what goes on in the Church of Scientology are either being obtuse or they're just ignorant people. The things that the CoS does to ensure secrecy is downright sinister. This kind of stuff does NOT go on in most mainstream congregations. If "The Passion of the Christ" had been a movie about the Church of Scientology and what it believes, instead of having a few protestors and being boycotted, the production would have been crushed under a mountain of litigation and never seen the light of day. If you're in a religion or any kind of organization that has an obsession with secrecy, you're in a bad place.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  2. DJ

    They are a bunch of misguided souls that really need to find and follow Jesus Christ before it's too late...

    July 3, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • LordXenu

      No they need to find Xenu!

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

    {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."}................ It's all clear now, as with all "religions"...........clear as mud.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • JohnRJohnson

      The so-called "auditing" process is another borrowed methodology that the Church of Scientology has borrowed from various "self-help" disciplines. The fact is, all of these self-help programs will do some good for some people. But that's not the issue here. The issue is the lengths the Church of Scientology will go to in order to control its members and keep people from talking about the preposterous mythos that the "religion" was built on. I don't mind Scientologists talking about how much some of their programs have helped some people. What I do mind is the Church of Scientology being a tax-exempt religion. It is NOT a religion. If it's a religion, then it's a cult. What it is is a money-making scheme that helps members keep their secrets. Just ask Tom Cruise.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  4. SONYLEGEND

    Human beings are nothing but Biological robots that will be replaced by the real thing in due time..... http://www.sonylegend.com

    July 3, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  5. Freeman0331

    Sounds about as crazy as Christianity and all other religions.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  6. The Ayatollah of Rock N' Rolla

    Easy question. It's a wacky cult that believes in using fake science to deceive unscrupulous people.

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

      Aya - PERFECTLY well said ! ! !

      It is a gross perversion of the concept of science sown among the credulous ! ! !

      July 3, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • JohnRJohnson

      The only reason the Church of Scientology insists on being referred to as a religion is so that it can hold onto its tax-exempt status. It's truly outrageous.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • Thinker

      Don't forget, Hubbard only made it a religion to stop the FDA and the AMA from 'harrassing' it (ie claims of false advertising and unproven claims and the like.) The tax exempt thing was sort of a bonus.

      July 5, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  7. LordXenu

    If you don't pay scientology lots ca$h my evil thetans will haunt you forever!

    July 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      you know if your going to be an evil god,.. just hunting the person for ever isn't enough you should learn form the God of Abraham and threaten the future generation for eternity,... I'm telling you if any one want to be an evil god you need to learn from the best,.. the God of Abraham

      July 3, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  8. ELIZABETH DIETRICH

    I BELIEVE THAT IF IT IS SOMETHING YOU BELIVIEVE IN,THEN IT IS SOMETHING TO BE PROUD OF AND TALK TO AS MANY PEOPLE AS YOU CAN, WHEN OR IF THEY HAVE QUESTIONS. PEOPLE SHOULD BE PROUD OF WHO THEY ARE AND WHAT THEY BELIEVE, IN WHICH I THINK MANY PEOPLE FORGET BE PROUD OF WHO AND WHAT THEY HAVE BECOME AND WHO THEY ARE IN LIFE...

    July 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • allenwoll

      Prise goeth before the Fall ! ! !

      July 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • JohnRJohnson

      But that's the problem. The Church of Scientology doesn't want ANYBODY talking about its actual beliefs and origin. You can talk about auditing and suppressive personalities, which are all borrowed from various self-help systems, but you are NOT permitted to talk about Xenu or any of L. Ron Hubbard's writings. And, if you are caught doing so, you will be excommunicated from this faux church and any career you have will be sabotaged. The only term that can be applied to the Church's methods of maintaining secrecy is "sinister". I, for one, am furious that this group is a tax-empt church.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  9. HU

    Scientology is as crazy as any religion. However, Hubbard has a good point with rejecting psychiatry due to the drugs interfering with the rational mind. Anyway, this Tom Cruise scientology hoopla is perfect timing for the release of P.T. Anderson's, The Master in October.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • JohnRJohnson

      The only reason L. Ron Hubbard called his organization a church was so that it could obtain tax-exempt status.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  10. jimweaver

    Well, that was easy. Eat my dust, Heinlein.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  11. slickteigkcmo

    It's a cult, of foolish ideas, weird behavior, sorry but it's true, and it hasn't done him or Travoltas any good, now has it???!!!! Both sad losers, the men-- and the poor women, yikes, run Katie, run Kelly, maybe Tom and John can "get together and play dress up???!!!!" What a crock of poo!!!!!1

    July 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  12. mete

    Its just another religion. No more wierd than other religions.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  13. blinky

    Wouldn't it be funny if Tom Cruise turned out to be Number One Honcho at Scientology, the guy now pulling all the strings–except for the ones in his own head he can't get rid of from years of indoctrination on his way up the cult's ladder.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  14. JoeyCee

    The nicest people I met here in Hollywood are the Scientologists...they are happy well-adjusted people

    July 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  15. In Memory Of Frank Garrett

    All religions are cults, this one is pretty crazy though. They have modern day slave labor camps and a private military force called the sea org. Their "home base" in Hemet Ca has a fence around the poperty with razor sharp spikes facing inward so people cannot escape.

    Google and see for yourself, you won't believe it.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  16. Ryan

    Even though I think Scientology is completely false and unintelligible, I have to agree about what they say about psychiatry. I've been against psychiatry, and it's fraud.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Mindstorms1

      Well Ryan, if both you and The Church of Scientology think psychiatry is a fraud then it must be true...or not.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  17. Shawn

    Scientology is as much a religion as any other fairy tale.

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

      Dude you are spot on. I like how aliens are too much from them to take but the virgin mary and the red sea parting and a burning bush is totally acceptable. How about this people, use your adult brains and look around you. Religion is for scared group thinkers who have no belief in themselves

      July 3, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  18. dilberth

    Ah, you humans all alike. You still think that you were born with something wrong with you and that you must spend the rest of your life and all your money to cure yourself. HA!

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

      And what planet are you visiting from?

      July 3, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  19. Leonore H. Dvorkin

    If we taxed all churches, that would go a long way toward solving the nation's financial problems. It works in Germany. You only get out of the tax if you are an avowed atheist. Sounds great to this atheist! All religions are crazy cults.

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

      Sounds like a good idea, why should they get off the hook?

      July 3, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • T in Austin

      That would be tooo fair to the people of this country, and hurt the millionaires that call themselves preachers!

      July 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Alohawaii

      Even there was no religion on the Earth, mans corrupt, greedy, power hungry war mongers could not stop from being themselves. Yes, many religions have blood on their hands, but that does not make the Governments you put your faith in innocent...Your comment has been found to be entertaining, if somewhat uninformed.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  20. Randy

    Tom is one whacked out dude that scientology isnt nothing but a cult just like the one in waco texas

    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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.