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. A Frayed Knot

    The search for how stuff works and to have some control over it is age-old for humans. It has served us well sometimes and sometimes not.

    I had a conversation with a woman yesterday who had just seen "What the Bleep Do We Know" and she was bowled over with the pseudoscience of it and fell right into the emotional glitz of the movie and the ideas. Mystical consciousness? Ramtha's School of Enlightenment? Controlling our environment and other people by thoughts? I felt like a wet blanket putting the kibosh on it for her, but we have to be careful what we fall for.

    There is so much that we don't know yet... let's keep searching, for sure, but we just have to be sure that this stuff is verified.

    July 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  2. Barry G.

    We who are Christians see Scientology for what it is, a demonic cult.

    We also know that there is nothing new under the sun, and we know that this is just another form of idolatry.

    We are confident that God will punish such wickedness, eternally.

    July 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Barry G.

      "We who are Christians see Scientology for what it is, a demonic cult.

      - We who are realists see it as a cult, with no basis in fact. There is no evidence for demons - anywhere.

      "We also know that there is nothing new under the sun, and we know that this is just another form of idolatry."

      –We realists know that there is much that we don't know. Agree on the idolatry - and that goes for all religions.

      "We are confident that God will punish such wickedness, eternally."

      - We realists see not a shred of verified evidence for any such thing.

      July 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • truedat

      So as a Christian you worship a figure that was birthed by a virgin, can walk on water, and rose from the dead, yet you find Scientology & other religions farfetched and cult-like?

      July 11, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  3. Elphaba


    July 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  4. tffl

    Not really sillier than any other religion, all of which depend on beliefs and activities that appear to be ridiculous to non-members. It just hasn't had the 1000+ years that the "major" religions have had to make the PR transition from "cult" to "religion" (Mormonism has only partially completed this transition). Check back in 1000 years – if Scientology still exists (and so do other religions), it will certainly be considered just as legitimate. (Or equivalently, other religions will be considered just as silly.)

    July 11, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  5. here

    You really make it seem really easy together with your presentation however I to find this topic to be really something which I think I might never understand. It seems too complicated and extremely vast for me. I am taking a look ahead in your next publish, I will try to get the grasp of it!

    July 11, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • r schier

      What ?

      July 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  6. justcause

    Scientology sounds like a case of Psychotherapy treatment .....there is nothing religious about Scientology..it is more like a philosophical argument that you can't debate since there is not right or wrong in philosophy which remain a theory

    July 11, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • justme

      But there is a religion behind it "worship thy self"

      July 11, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  7. daveinla

    I think Hubbard dropped too much acid in the 1960's.Also, why are two of this groups biggest names (Cruise and Travolta) closeted gays?

    July 11, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  8. truedat

    Who cares what people believe in as long as their beliefs make them a better person?

    July 11, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Evonix

      Define "better person".
      I don't think anyone who believes this sci-fi crap is a "better person".
      "Delusional" is a better term and delusional is rarely "better".

      July 11, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • truedat

      @Evonix, are you that cynical that you cant comprehend what it means to be a "better" person? Also, just because someone's beliefs are different or hard to fathom doesn't mean they are delusional. Try not to be so ignorant.

      July 11, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  9. HoppyGirl

    CNN: You seemed to have failed in your research. How is it that you don't know that L. Ron Hubbard used to write SCI-FI and stood up at a Sci Fi convention and told the entire room full of authors that they were "in the wrong business" and should be looking to religion. Seriously....

    July 11, 2012 at 7:10 am |
  10. whybs

    This was how Christianity started about 2000 years ago!

    July 11, 2012 at 6:41 am |
    • rob

      Omg, you failed in your rearch too!

      July 11, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Allen

      Christianity is really more of a combination of other ancient religions than an original idea.

      July 11, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  11. Homemade Hot Chocolate

    It is really a nice and useful piece of info. I am satisfied that you shared this useful info with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

    July 11, 2012 at 5:51 am |
  12. WhatWHat

    Alien spirits occupying your body? Doesn't sound any more weird than Islam, Christianity or Judaism.

    July 11, 2012 at 12:21 am |
  13. Tulane University student

    Some very interesting comments here regarding Scientology. These Scientologists seem emotionally attached to the e meter which has no validity with science. They should change to a biofeedback machine and hire educated psychiatrists who have a vision to adjust the goals to a much more efficient method of assisting the followers. Hubbard's obsession with science fiction infiltrated into a strange type of dogma which in addition has no validity and should be deleted from the overall structure. The idea of a religion that incorporates scientific method to achieve its goal to improve the life and well being of its members is actually a big plus. Yet, too many of these people join this Church and are mere followers with little or no vision – not to mention mediocre intelligence. Until the leadership becomes something more than keeping the obsessions of a would be visionary who in reality was simply a writer with an imagination that had no discipline with science; this so called religion will remain a island of mind control with no flowers or trees of inspiration. Yet, it might be too hopeful that several hundred years of this religion might initiate some improvement in its spiritual goals and adjustment of its dead end obsessions. Do these people really believe that the true leader is Xenu, a galactic warlord who has a mother ship somewhere?

    July 10, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Arvoasitis

      You're on to something and I hope you stay with it and apply your critical thinking skills to other areas as well. In philosophy, for example, Heracliitus of Ephesus shook the world by declaring that change is the only constant and all is flux. Philosophers rushed to save permanence and Plato seemed to save the day by declaring that the material world was merely a shadow or imperfect copy of a reality that exists only in the abstract world of ideas. (Or, in poet, Robert Frost's paraphrase of Plato, "The woman you have is an imperfect copy of some woman in heaven or in someone else's bed.") Plato was an exquisitely skilled writer but an incompetent bungler as a philosopher. Yet the subsequent Western philosophy has been famously called mere footnotes to Plato. You will also find something similar when it comes to science. As a university student, you would be well advised to read Arthur Koestler's "The Sleepwalkers," a very readable history of science and its relation to philosophy and religion. You would discover, for instance, that though Johannes Kepler discovered the three essential laws that made modern astronomy possible, he took little interest or pleasure in these laws but was obsessed with certain mystical relationships between the orbits of the planets that modern astronomers consider of no value whatsoever. And so it goes.

      July 10, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Frank

      I've had these Scientology crackpots try to give me a test with that stupid e-meter. What I have found is that NONE OF THEM WILL TEST THEMSELVES. I simply ask them for a baseline reading of someone who is obviously a "clear" Scientologist.

      Scientology is all about MAKING MONEY for the Church. Being a member is not cheap. "Audits" can cost as much as $25000 and up. But, they will gladly come to your house for that price. It appeals to celebrities who are just arrogant and kooky enough to to want to buy salvation and immortality.

      Scientology is a sham and a scam.

      July 10, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
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    July 10, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  15. ajoseph1234

    If today you hear His voice harden not your hearts. If you wait until the night, the offer may be rescinded.

    July 10, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  16. anonse towarzyskie

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    July 10, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  17. Jesusisalive

    A religion founded by a college drop out who writes science fiction? Anybody with a little resemblance of intelligence would know that it is just a cult and their members are brain washed to pay their money to their leaders. It does not matter what method they use, it is an aberration and only fools and ignorants would follow them.

    July 10, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      All religions start as cults...all

      July 10, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Open minded

      True... All religions ARE cults. Perception by others has given rise to cult being considered a "four letter word" – read the definition – your perception of Christianity may be that it's a good thing – it's still a cult.

      July 11, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  18. Michael S. Moore

    I thought the definition of "religion" included at least the NOTION of a deity ...

    July 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Jason

      No, not necessarily. Buddhism, for example, rejects the idea of a creating deity.

      July 10, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Mark Taylor

      But there is the question as to whether Buddhism is really a religion as opposed to a good psychological process.

      July 11, 2012 at 6:41 am |
    • Elphaba

      Actually, to be religious is to be wholly devoted to a practice. For instance I can be an athiest, but at the same time be religious about my workout regimen.

      July 11, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  19. Professor Hans Swensson

    The idea of a religion that assists its followers to release complexes by psychotherapy is actually much more consistent with modern science. Unfortunately, the methods of Scientology toward this end are quite questionable. The e meter has been contradicted by scientists, and yet this cult does not listen and insist that its methods sustain validity in the scientific community. Unquestionably, this religion in its present state actually lies publicly to name itself “Scientology” for its basis with science is short lived. A complete reformulation of Scientology by a new prophet or leader of this religion for it to be adjusted to be a real religion which exceeds or meets the goals of religion. Certainly this science fiction dogma should be an insult to the intelligence. That so many people have been conned by this hypnotic cult is quite surprising. As Scientology stands presently it is useless for any real improvement for humanity as a whole, and simply repeats the same errors of the older religions. Fortunately for the world so many cults exist that the world is in no danger from a take over by any of them. Imagine a world ruled by something so twisted as Scientology or as polytheistic (?) as the Lamp of the Invisible Light in Mexico started by Aleister Crowley. Good heavens!!

    July 10, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  20. JoeProfet

    It sounds like the "auditing" process measures electrical current throughout the body and where there is perceived impedence, they attempt to address it...somehow. Not much difference than accupuncture to address "blockage", etc. I have to agree with them at least on one thing and that is I don't believe in the psychological methods of using drugs as a good way to address isssues, it only masks them. But... on the other hand that can help someone get by for a short period of time...

    July 10, 2012 at 9:32 am |
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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.