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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. carole somers

    Scientology is a cult. They only received their status as a religion because someone lobbied a politician and crossed their palm with silver. It is all about how much money you have. I know people who have worked with Tom cruise and the guy is a full fledged weirdo!

    May 5, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
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  4. BDC

    Scientology is a cult. No doubt about it. It is a dangerous group and we should be doing all we can to run them out of town.

    November 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • tripplebeam

      You mean a cult like Christianity or like the KKK?

      February 18, 2013 at 11:42 am |
  5. Aundria

    Any "religion" founded by a SCIENCE FICTION AUTHOR should be seriously questioned. What part of Scientology is legitimate? NONE...know how I know? Hubbard wrote SCIENCE FICTION!!!!!!!!!!! DUH!

    October 11, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  6. waitasec

    the "religious" community seem to forget that the difference between a cult and a religion is time and money.

    October 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Walter L Johnson

      This article certainly suggest Scientology should not qualify for any religious exemptions. What they are practicing to me seems like a mix of psychiatry and psychology mixed with a little criminology. We don't let self-improvement gurus convert their payments into donations instead of class or lecture fees after all.

      October 11, 2012 at 12:23 am |
  7. DWN

    Before Tom Cruise became a Scientologist he was in Catholic Seminary. He may be a phoney who is waiting to return to the Catholic Church when he gets his orders. Would not surprise me in the least. The catholic Church has a history of infiltrating other organizations. The Jesuit being the prime purpetrators.

    October 2, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • lisa

      Boy are you out in left field. There are allot of Catholics as there are allot of Jews in Scientology . The church of scientology has a huge history of infiltrating places, one of them is as a pastor for the la police as I witnessed when meeting a sea org member who was also acting as the la police minister employed with full uniform. They have a history of break-ins and theft. When I was a younger teen I ran into a guy on staff before it became a "religion" and was pushing towards that thinking. I asked about it and the response was they were going to the irs to win it so they could beat the IRS. I guess over time if you spout enough of the opinion then at some point it becomes real to some. Google OT VIII part 2 to see just how loopy the guy who founded this was and dark into satanism. All sort of rabbit trails this guy goes down and takes the believer of the koolaide cult with him.

      October 2, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  8. teresa

    Sci fi tology to me is the ultimate belief in self alone. There is almost no accountability to the world.... It is YOUR desires and your desires alone. That is actually the basis of satan. The belief that one is ones own god and therefore doesnt need to be accountable.

    Imagine the shame sci fi tologists feel having to hide in their closets to detox. What kind of adult hides in closet to cleanse their body from invisible things that supposedly try to destroy you?

    I am surprised at Nicole and Katie that neither one will come forward and say why they REALLY divorced Tom. The
    reason of course is Sci fi tology but they FEAR for some reason or another.... I wonder what that is??

    September 28, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • U

      "What kind of adult hides in closet to cleanse their body from invisible things that supposedly try to destroy you?"

      Err, hello catholic confession!

      April 7, 2013 at 10:33 am |
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  15. h

    am i the only thinking Katie Holmes is single WHOOOO

    September 9, 2012 at 2:27 am |
  16. Rachel

    Body thetans? Auditing? Wow. I personally think that sounds farfetched. And I doubt taking painkillers or antidepressents is as dangerous as drugs.

    September 3, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  17. Mark

    I'm afriad the folks caught up in scientology are being misled. Some have called it the cult of the rich. For it seems, the more money you have the more "revelation" is given to you. This is very sad to me. Corrupt "religious" hierarchies have been taking advantage of sincere followers for thousands of years. The truth my friend, is free. We don't have to pay for it. In fact, the price has been paid for us. We just need to accept what God is offering to us freely. God sent His own Son to pay for our sins, so that we wouldn't have to pay for them ourselves. If we receive His gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus as our Savior then we are forgiven of all our sins. If we reject Jesus as our Savior and try to earn God's favor through some other way, or by our own effrots, we will die in our sins. Receive Jesus as your Savior today, and you will know God's truth, and you will have peace with God. God bless

    August 18, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
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  20. lyla

    This Scientology thing is like McDonalds and burger king; a business targeting ignorant and poor minded. At least tom cruise is benefiting from it: He's allowed to do facial plastic surgeries to remain young. Nice!!

    August 6, 2012 at 12:54 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.