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. Alfredo

    All religion, like Scientology is man made. Some create good, some bad. People should believe in themselves more and not rely on books of fiction....In theory religion should be a good thing but history has proven that more people have died in the name of religion than any good it created....

    July 3, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  2. Sam

    Someday, somebody, from beyond this planet, is going to arrive here…
    And prove to us once and for all, just how stupid we truly are…
    Either that or laugh so hard, they’ll just pick up and leave,

    July 3, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • garyM

      to come here for what? To mine our eternal stupidity? It seems to consume energy but I'm hard pressed to see any by-product from it.

      July 3, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
    • just sayin

      They already did. God bless

      July 3, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • Answer

      @just sayin

      So funny. And you're the witness.. lol

      July 3, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • The electric chair was invented by a dentist.

      When those beings from another world come here, they will truly recognize our great value. We are an excellent source of protein.

      July 3, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Nah, Answer. She/he/it is one of the aliens.

      July 3, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • Answer

      LOL @ Tom Tom

      So true.

      July 3, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You think I'm kidding? 😉

      July 3, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      I'll let you give Scientologists a hard time.

      July 3, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, dear. I'm really not up to it.

      I will leave it to the sanity of the masses. Such as it is.

      July 3, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 3, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If it did, you wouldn't need to post this ad nauseam.

      July 3, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • just sayin

      Two wonderful Truths that apparently some are still unwilling or not smart enough to accept. Post on ! God bless

      July 3, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
    • Answer

      Yep I don't mind that you keep on posting it.

      Keep on doing it til you die. I know your kind are that much more insecure than the average person. So keep it up to cheer yourself on.

      July 3, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      you should know better than to feed this troll-lol-lol-lol-la-lol-la-lol.

      July 3, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      But it's so much fun to watch it hoist itself on its own "retard"!

      You NEVER let me enjoy anything!!!

      July 3, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  4. tanthonys

    Just another tax fraud.

    July 3, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  5. Mike

    Scientology is a joke – like Christianity and all other organized religions.

    July 3, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • Gina

      I like you do not believe in organized religion. However, Christianity isn't a religion.

      July 3, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
  6. garyM

    Everything and everyone is just one breath away from fiction. Whatever you do, don't waste that breath.

    July 3, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  7. Jason

    Look up "Operation Snow White"........that will tell you everything you need to know about scientology. Just another front for criminal activities and people lining their pockets like the govt., & politicians in general and basically every other religion.

    July 3, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  8. servantofTHEWORD

    L.Ron Hubbard(founder of the Church of Scientology)was a pulp fiction(science fiction)writer...and a hypnotist(one who uses psycotherapy that facilitates suggestion or reeducation).

    July 3, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
  9. Jason

    How can you possibly have an article about scientology, which features a section on why the church is controversial, and not mention the Operation Snow White Scandal? I'm sorry but any religious organization involved in illegal activities of that magnitude loses all credibility in my eye's.......i don't care what there basic beliefs are.

    July 3, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  10. avlisk

    Does anyone know how many Thetans can dance on the head of a pin? Or, are there too many angels already there?

    July 3, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  11. Brian

    It's silly, but honestly not as crazy as the beliefs of christian and islamic fundamentalists.

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

      You are so right!

      July 3, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
  12. Mayor McCheese

    If you watch South Park, you should already know everything about Scientology.

    July 3, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  13. Bob

    It's creator said it was a made up religion to simply point out how stupid it is that religions get tax exempt status even though they are businesses. So L Ron. Hubbard made up a set of nonsense (although no less nonsense that in any "mainstream" religion) and got enough people to sign up so he could run his business empire and not pay taxes under the umbrella of religion freedom. He just wanted to show that "the Bible says" is just as stupid an argument as "The Flying Spaghetti Monster says" in that neither can be proved or disproven, so it is silly to base anything on "religious beliefs".

    July 3, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
  14. peter

    Scientology like Mormonism is a mental illness.

    July 3, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • peter

      mike–that too

      July 3, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • Babe

      I don't know about mentally ill, Peter, but I find them very frightening. I have dozens of relatives that are Mormons; have read several books by ex-Mormons, and there is no doubt in my mind that they are certainly a cult. They, of course, profoundly deny it, but still, they won't allow anyone but deserving Mormons in their temple-so what in the heck do they do in there that they want to keep secret???

      July 3, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Ryan in Miami

      Ignorance is the greatest and most common mental illness of all....and you are extremely ill.

      July 3, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  15. Mike H

    Con artists.

    July 3, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 3, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • mikem

      I'll take two hands working over one million locked in prayer any day.

      July 3, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • truth be told

      hands working without a plan are useless. Prayer always provides the plan. A good man prays, a great man acts on prayer

      July 3, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • mikem

      Sorry but hands praying are useless. Let's try an exercise right now. I'll go cook myself a pizza and you pray for one. Post here in one hour and tell me how your pizza tasted.

      July 3, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  17. Katie

    Look! The mother ship is coming! M0r0ns,

    July 3, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I know! My cats are acting weird!

      July 3, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
  18. Religion-Christian, Denomination-Mormon

    I'm sad that so many people are so quick to criticize Tom Cruise or his religion. I have a childhood friend who is a scientologist and from what I could tell when we were in highschool, his religion was based upon many of the universal truths that most religions are based on. Also, Tom Cruise is my favorite actor and I am sad for him having to fight for shared custody of his only biological child.

    July 3, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • peter

      You sir are not part of christendom anymore than scientology is

      July 3, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  19. charles

    same to mormon.

    July 3, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  20. Cheeses

    Adherents to any religion that doesn't follow [pick your beliefs] are deluded.

    July 3, 2012 at 8:30 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.