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. VIolette

    An ex-Scientologist outed all their weird beliefs on Xenu.org. Also, if you leave the church these people actually hunt you down. It's crazy! Paul Haggis, who directed the movie "Crash" was in the cult and he said they harassed him and threatened to use personal info obtained in those auditing sessions to blackmail him. He turned the tables and went public. See this article http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_wright

    July 3, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  2. Phillykid75

    What ever happened to faith and living life for the good of mankind.
    There is no scientific proof of any gods and who is to say which religion is right?
    It amazes me how human minds work to get fed into any religion. Catholics teach us Jesus walked on water, extreme Muslims believe in a life filled with with virgins after martyrdom & now we have Scientology which teaches us that aliens latch on to us and defer the mind. Try being a good human being and believe in something greater then us for the good of all men and women. There is no denying science but no proof of what is right as all religions were created by man.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  3. Jack

    Hello. Everyone is cordially invited to visit – thestarofkaduri.com

    July 3, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  4. Name* texdaddy57

    yep.it is a cult...like the naacp and kkk...all 3 very dangerous to freedom

    July 3, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  5. Blindambition

    Heanvensent, keep going, you are getting there! Many good posts, keep 'em going! I especially like the one about TC being gay (there may have been more than one post related to that). I think he may be dating L Ron's brother, L "Rod" Hubbard.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  6. sneekas

    Crazy shiz...but nothing different than Christianity, Islam or Mormonism...or any other religion. So go on with your bad selves, oh scientologists!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  7. Fluttershy

    Wasnt there an episode on South Park about this?

    July 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Rev

      Absolutely Hilarious. Those guys are soooo funny.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  8. ks

    “You occasionally come across people in Scientology who say they can change the material world with their mind.”

    This fits the anthropological – as in used by anthropologists in their scientific studies – definition of magic. Just FYI.

    Therefore, scientologists use magic.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  9. ArizonaYankee

    What is scientology anyway !!!!! In a word, a CULT, and an Evil CULT at that......

    July 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  10. card51short

    This is America! How dare someone try to believe in their own religion! Everyone attack them! They don't believe what WE believe...they must be ridiculed!

    Either that or...just let them believe whatever they want...why does it affect you? Wow some people are losers.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • like_Im_going_to_give_my_real_name_to_some_freaky_cult

      I would agree, except for the fact that most religions don't destroy families, as evidenced by the MANY Internet blogs about Scientology. They push their followers for money so much that it literally bankrupts them! I honestly do not understand how they can still be considered a non-profit religion. This cult has almost single-handedly destroyed my faith in both our government and our legal system's ability to function properly. My guess is that someone high up was paid off in the 90s, in order to receive the tax-exempt status. In this government, money talks. I dare someone to prove me wrong...

      July 3, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  11. ryan

    It's a cult that makes almost everyone who lives in the Tampa metro area avoid downtown Clearwater.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  12. Arkhams Razor

    I just farted and it is a Monster! Bow down and worship my fart while you give me money so I can free you from that smell..oooh that smell..can you smell that smell... That is Scientology in a nutshell.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  13. Name Surname

    So how does Somone's devorce make one wonder about Scientology?

    Today was a hot day so I'm gonna read a book about how to grow tomatos.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  14. OrionStyles

    I suppose it is not really any more crazy then Mormon magic underwear...

    Religion has set us back at least 1000 years technologically speaking, because to question observations about reality was punishable if said observations didn't align with religious dogma.

    Religion comes from one place only, man.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • LordXenu

      I have always been jealious of the mormons magic underwear... don't remind me.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  15. TheDudeInSF

    And they thrive because "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." Believing there is a God has done exactly that.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • DUH

      Says you fewl

      July 3, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  16. Sandra

    Scientology was the brain child of mediocre (at best) SciFi author L. Ron Hubbard who publicly stated if you wanted to make millions, set yourself up as a religion. The 'e-meter' is nothing more than a half-assed lie detector that reads galvanic skin responses. Cruise claims Scientology 'cured' him of his dyslexia which helped him achieve stardom in Hollywood, but I'm quite sure that the 'auditors' didn't bother to tell him that many males out grow dyslexia once their brain fully matures, as that would have cut off them from his money and stopped from using him as their poster child as to how Scientology works.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  17. George

    I was a member of this organization for nearly 20 years, and some of the ideas, perceptions, and misconceptions posted here are very common, but only for those that are totally unfamiliar with the basic tenets of Scientology. I suggest you actually READ 'Dianetics' and then make your judgements. Some of these celebrities have made statements that have warped the pulic view in an unfavorable way. All I can say for sure is what I experienced on my own journey, and that I found extraordinary ways to free my mind and, yes...use the minds of others to help me reach my goals. I became very successful in real estate as well as farming and ranching, with little to no formal education or experience in these fields. I attribute the things I learned as a scholar of Scientology as the major source of my success. Laugh if you will, I don't care and it matters not...I just implore you to keep an open mind and compare YOUR religion to Scientology and see if, under close examination, its foundation is any less debateable than Scientology. You may be surprised.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • Sandra

      Why don't you tell them why Dianetics stayed on the top 10 reading list? I know why.... I had a flock of Scientologists over the period of a week come in and buy the book. At least 30 copies overall, each 'buyer' boasting how great it was, and how it helps. They really should have noticed and remembered the face behind the counter, because each and every one went to a different branch of that bookstore and turned them in for a refund. You see, book stores only count up sales of books for the publishers, the returns are just logged in as 'shop loss' or store credit.

      And I read it.. what a bunch of soggy brained, half baked psychology with holes big enough to drive a semi through.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • OrionStyles

      Scientology is an example of how Religions are formed, and even though it is an obvious fraud, it still manages to attract people to it.

      Hopefully it goes the way of Zeus.... like all Religions should.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Delphi

      Scientology taught you ranching?

      July 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • bandsneedfans

      Obvious Cylon is obvious. This is not a religion folks. It is a dangerous organization that has caused hundreds of split families, long term psychological issues, even one known death of a member at the hands of abusive auditors. Look up the suicide rate of high level Scientologists. Read a few books about their practices. No church ever encouraged me to get a large loan, or sell my house and car to receive it's sacraments. Find out what a Sec-Check is. Find out what "Fair Game" is. Find out how David Miscavige runs his org. The public's ignorance of it's practices is why this "church" even exists. The scary part is; that's by design.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  18. markishere

    “If you want to make a little money, write a book. If you want to make a lot of money, create a religion.” – L. Ron Hubbard

    July 3, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  19. lisabones

    Just a bunch of wacked out people. Simple as that.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • card51short

      yep...how DARE they think differently from you! Burn them at the stake!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
  20. Justin

    South Park explained it better.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
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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.