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. Christina

    Anyone ever see the Simpson's episode when the cult came to Springfield? Makes me think of all religion, but mostly Scientology. Everyone (to Batman theme) Leader, leader, leader!

    July 8, 2012 at 2:36 am |
    • GBfromOhio

      I like the line in the one espisode when Homer was anticipating his imminent demise (by a rhino while he was in a porta-potty) and he screamed "Jesus, Budda, Allah I love you all!" Covering a lot of the bases, still cracks me up and I use the line from time-to-time. All religions are silly, but Scientology may trump them all.

      July 8, 2012 at 3:13 am |
  2. Jataka

    I had a scientologist tell me that L. Ron Hubbard was the reincarnation of the Buddha. What an idiot.

    July 8, 2012 at 2:18 am |
    • txgrl3

      You have to be a few cards short of a full deck to fall for Scientology. Watching some of the videos of Tom Cruise lately, I see why Ms. Holmes is divorcing him. He seems extremely controlling and more than a little nuts. Katie Holmes grew up and Tom can't dominate her anymore, so it's over. Good for her and Suri.

      July 8, 2012 at 2:41 am |
  3. joseph

    The air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat, the wife you love, the husband you cherish, the son of your pride, the daughter of your joy, are all gifts from God that we shouldn't take for granted. How much more should we not trample on God's most precious gift of all – His Son.

    July 8, 2012 at 1:47 am |
  4. BeverlyNC

    Why is no one this concerned about Romney being a member of the Mormon cult? Evangelicals are ignoring the facts if the believe Romney is a Christian. Jesus is only ONE of their prophets in their "religion".

    July 8, 2012 at 1:23 am |
    • bryanbeus

      I'm a mormon, and we don't believe that Jesus was only a prophet. We believe He was the Son of God, redeemer of the world, and Savior of Mankind.

      July 8, 2012 at 2:30 am |
  5. blinky

    Many believers do not liken God to a personality, such as those from Norse, Greek, and Roman antiquity. Those are comparatively very "small," anthropomorphic ideas of God. Instead, God is regarded as a state of being–not any single being, but a type of being that is infinite, eternal and all-powerful. Like a lot of other intangibles that many people believe actually exist, like mathematical laws, freedom and love, it is not something that occupies space in the physical universe (for example, there isn't a signboard floating around between some galaxies that says 2 + 2 = 4). Whatever you think of this sort of conception of God, it is not an old man in the sky with a beard flapping in the wind, and if you think God does not exist it is not enough to say that you can't prove it by science since the same goes for the other intangibles.

    July 8, 2012 at 1:17 am |
  6. aj

    I have a couple of questions about Scientology:
    1. Is disease actually caused by medicine? And those spirits? If it's due to medicine, then I guess nobody got sick before the 1800s. And if it's because the inbalance of those sprits, then are all scientologists much healthier than the normal population?

    2. Where did those machines come from? How did people create machine to measre the spirits or the negative effects of the spirits? What background did the scientists who created the machines have?

    3. Were any of the themes in the Dianetics book part of any of the Science Fiction stories L.Ron wrote?

    4. How did Xenu become lord of the Galaxy? Was it just our galaxy? Wouldn't there have been lords of other Galaxy's too? Why would a super civilization come all the way to earth to harvest souls?

    Just wondering

    July 8, 2012 at 12:58 am |
  7. vidal808

    This video says it all....thanks for sharing....

    July 8, 2012 at 12:05 am |
  8. PhilG

    Eh.it does'nt raise any quaestions for me.

    I don't need someone in ANY church or school or cult to tell me.I'm o.k.

    I know I am.

    Katie simply proved she is smarter and more empowered then the Scientiology hacks who can't find their shoes without a map.

    But to prove that these guys are just as bad as every major religions members are worldwide,these Scientology guys will never leave Katie and her kids alone now.

    Not ever.

    The Scientology 'Church' will never let her have any peace and that's really just sad.

    And Tom will let them take his,his kids and Katie's money and lead him around like a puppy and let them harass her without saying a thing,like the little boy he is.

    Before this is over,they will destroy Katie.

    I hope not,I hope she gets away but I just don't see how she will.

    Tom,for once in your life,think about your kids being happy with their mother.

    They will kill her Tom and that blood will be on your hands.

    July 7, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  9. Muhammed, the pedophile

    FK All Non-Christian religions

    July 7, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  10. natalierosen

    All religions are cults. Some are more cultish than others I suppose but if one fundamentally analyzes belief it stretches the imagination how a rational mind could consider the clearly impossible things true. It's just plain nuts!

    July 7, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • vidal808

      Yes, cults that distroy lifes and hurt people....

      July 7, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  11. whybs

    The more questions we raise about religions, the less relevant they become. BTW, they weren't relevant in the first place.

    July 7, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  12. UK Dave & my fellow scientists

    Take your meds since your so dumb America!
    Detox conquers all of your tox problems so dumb America!

    July 7, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • mafia don

      There's that word detox again! 🙁
      You churchies gorrit sussed already! 🙁

      July 7, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  13. Investment Tips

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    July 7, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  14. UK Dave & my fellow scientists

    USA 7/7/2012 AD
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    Did you think that Illuminati or Bilderberg were proactive enough to do this beastly branding?
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    Do you wish to persist in your memory loss techniques?
    If you wish to persist in your memory loss techniques – YOU WILL CARRY THE MARK OF BEASTLY BAD MEMORY!

    July 7, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • mafia don

      I know I've been doing memory loss techniques with my boys! 🙁
      The entire Mafia are heading for THE BEASTLY MARK OF BAD MEMORY! 🙁

      July 7, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  15. A Reasoner

    It's easy to understand why the tax exempt status, irrationality and predatory nature of scientology is being challenged. What is hard to understand is why every other religion is not. A "religion" is only a cult with more members. None of them deserve support.

    July 7, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • jwt

      Most religions don't do any harm – scientology does a lot of harm

      July 7, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  16. Daniel Nazzaro

    Not only did you fail to mention that L. Ron Hubbard published science fiction novels before he founded this church but you also failed to mention some highlights of this "religion"...
    -the fair game policy
    -oporation snow white
    -xenu(of course you won't have learned about this unless you've reached OCiii)
    -the thousands of people that lose EVERYTHING due to the costly courses
    Thank you for this poor job of ACTUALLY informing people of the dangerous side of scientology, but one of many examples of scientology being poorly covered by the american media.

    July 7, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  17. David

    That report on Scientology was the most milquetoast report I have ever heard on CNN. Really? Are you afraid to offend Scientology? I mean, have you read L Ron Hubburds book? The foolishness is mindboggling. I have heard nightmare stories over the years about how people have been harassed when they have tried to leave the cult. Shame on that report...it was BS

    July 7, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
  18. astral projection travel

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    July 7, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  19. John

    Why was this mornings series on Scientology cut short? (Saturday, July 7) Part 1 and 2 were shown but then when part 3 was to be shown you just repeated part 2 and the 3rd part on Scientology and money did not appear? CNN has had difficulty with Scientology in the past. After 9/11, CNN carried ads for counseling for people in stress. Only a phone number was shown. It was later revealed that the number went to a Scientology office. And about four years ago, ads appeared on CNN for the "National Consumer Council" regarding helping people get out of debt. It was a Scientology related organization and was eventually shut down by the Federal Trade Commission for fraud.

    I hope there is another reason for the abrupt suspension of todays series..

    July 7, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  20. idlemorgue

    Here is a man that did Scientology: WARNING: THIS IS REALLY SAD!


    Scientology is a very dangerous CULT! L Ron Hubbard used information from THELEMA and OTO.

    Compare the Scientology Cross to the ROSY cross – "crossing out the cross! L Ron Hubbard was good friends with Jack Parson's – who studied and practiced "black majic" and demon worshipping and followed the teachings of Aleistar Crowley.

    L Ron Hubbard was a tortured, demented soul who ended up in hiding in California the last 15 years of his life. This is what he looked like:



    Check out Lawrence Brennan's affidavit – he was the attorney working for the Organization that wrote "WHAT IS SCIENTOLOGY" and was used to make it look like a CHURCH – "religious cloaking" for tax exempt status. Go to one of their "churches" and ask them where GOD is. They will tell you that they do not get into "GOD". Hubbard does after you have invested $500,000 and 20 years of your life – he tells you all about XENU! The lord of the galaxy that threw people into volcanoes and blew them up and their souls are the PROBLEMS WE ALL HAVE NOW. We must spend $200,000 with the CULT to get them off of us!

    July 7, 2012 at 12:39 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.