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. ckd

    It's the more rational version of Mormonism.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  2. Jill Ortega

    L. Ron Hubbard stole $10,000 from Jack Parsons– ran away and used these funds for his Scientology project. Hubbard used his skills which he gained from Naval Intelligence and Jack Parsons, one of the most brilliant American rocket scientist was executed. Yet the esoteric knowledge that Hubbard used in in Scientology project was from Jack Parsons who was trained in sorcery by followers of Aleister Crowley. One of the most terrifying of all German wizards instructed Jack Parsons in the art of black magic whose name was Karl Germer. Some of this information was used by Hubbard who dabbled in the black art. For those who do not know of Karl Germer he was trained by Aleister Crowley himself over a forty year period. So Hubbard's Scientology is not only dangerous it is almost as dangerous a cult as the deadly Lamp of the Invisible Light which Crowley started in Mexico. Everyone is warned to stay away from evil Scientology which is geared to steal all your money and leave you without a soul.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  3. pop

    Church of Mathtology
    Church of Readingtology
    Church of Englishtogogy

    NEO CONS this is getting weird. ...

    July 3, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  4. jim

    i'm not religious, not a big fan of religion in general, but Scientology is not a religion. It is more like Tony Robbins or Warhammer. A product. A religion, be it catholic, baptist, mormen or islam do not require one to pay to receive the teachings. Scientology does, which in my mind means it is NOT a religion. It is about time they lose that status.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  5. UK Dave

    – Traffic dependin'! Amen!
    – Naturally, the Germans want some money! Amen!

    July 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  6. Shane

    "Best way to get rich is to start a church"
    L. Ron Hubbard during his sci-fi writing days

    July 3, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  7. Rayzor

    It's a religion, based on really bad science-fiction.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Nooo my secret! *melts into a puddle on the floor*

      July 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  8. sybaris

    "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"

    Religion itself blocks members from living in reality. Just go to The Creation Museum or visit Answers in Genesis if you want a sample.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  9. cyg

    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,” – yeah, if I had someone offering me multi million dollar movie deals every week, I'd be finding ways of improving too, don't need science or religion for that.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  10. Bruce Carter

    It is a mean, exploitive manipulative cult. My hats off to Katie for protecting her daughter from it. It is known for violence and intimidation techniques, has even been rumored to be behind "hits". They cheat people out of all their money. Their science is the worst kind of junk, their spirituality false – their "clear" is something every Christian has without a lot of mumbo jumbo. If offers no peace, no chance of meeting God, no salvation. It leads only to complete and total separation from God, your bank account, your peace of mind. It is one of the few religions on earth actually WORSE than radical Islam.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Prayer to me you mean!

      July 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • T in Austin

      Changes you from live to dead if you do not act!

      July 3, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • mendacitysux

      Nope, you're still here

      July 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • dude

      Indeed. Xenu changes things.

      July 3, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Your Dad

      For those who keep replying to this goofball, let me quote a favorite passage of mine:

      CNN 3:16. "Feed not the trolls that they might perish from the web."

      July 3, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  12. thes33k3r

    Scientology is, just like all religions, a manmade system of beliefs. It just seems stranger because it is newer. Talking snakes, 4-headed monsters, magic underwear, winged horses flying to heaven? The stuff of fiction?...yes...the religious type.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  13. Jc

    Religion itself is a way to give hope to those who struggle to grasp reality. Sickness, death, disease, etc. Scientology is no different. However, it's much easier to see that Scientology is a scam because it's founder has been quoted as stating "the best way to create recurring wealth is to create a religion.". He literally told the world his plan and people still bought into it. Christianity, Buddhism, hinduism, Islam, and African religions are based on ancient texts that are impossible to accurately dispel. Scientology is so easy to disprove, which is why it's far more dangerous. Glad to see that Holmes had the presence of mind to get her daughter out of there. I hope the church isn't successful in sabotaging her future.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  14. LordXenu

    Humans will only find salvation through Xenu and the galactic confederation!

    July 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • JohnRJohnson

      Xenu needs to be de-programmed by a roomful of Suppressive Personalities. 😉

      July 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  15. Scott LaRoque

    Jesus is a zombie. Anytime you die, stay dead for 3 days and come back to life, you're a zombie. Zombie's eat brains. This particular zombie has eaten millions of brains and is still at it. He's probably eating yours right now.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • T in Austin

      HAHAH, good one dude! I agree!

      July 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  16. NorCalMojo

    If it works for him, more power to him

    I'm pretty convinced a fair share of "believers" are just suspending disbelief for the benefits anyway. If you're going to fake it to make it, you might as well create a new religion customized for the modern world.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • JohnRJohnson

      And then keep the entire belief system a secret and forbid any members from discussing it publicly?

      July 3, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  17. Ken

    Just in time to make Mormonism look good. Bet Romney had something to do with Katie and Tom's breakup.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Bob Aussie

      that's good and funny!!!! from a mormon, who wonders about his own religion's curious ways to those of a hundred others...

      July 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Anvil of Reality

      If you know the history of Mormonism, you'll see that Scientology is just a more up-to-date sci-fi version.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  18. James Ogden

    Xenu, seriously? Just wiki it. This "church" is the greatest scam ever invented. It is less believable than the religion with Seer Stones. But they are what makes America great, anyone with an idea can become rich if they just find enough stupid people to buy into it.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • LordXenu

      Nooo im real I swear!

      July 3, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Jesus

      I am jesus I am here to collect my virgins, now pay me!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  19. Izoto

    A waste of time.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  20. ldean50

    There are a lot of similarities between Scientology and the Mormons; the belief in if your a man you will become a god and rule your own planet, secret ceremonies and teachings that only a few are allowed to know, the "auditor" are just like the stake presidents in the baptist that interview a mormon and determine if they are "good enough" to enter the temple and participate in secret ceremonies. Scientologists require children to sign a 1 billion year loyalty contract to the church, while Mormons are expected to swear their allegiance to the church and promise to obey church leaders... Why do we see Mormonism as a christian religion, but Scientologists get a pass?

    July 3, 2012 at 6:47 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.