Katie Holmes has said nothing publicly about Tom Cruise's allegiance to the Church of Scientology or whether it's a factor in her seeking a divorce and full custody of their daughter, Suri. Yet the celebrity breakup raises interest in the religion, which has long been controversial.
It is decried as a cult by conservative evangelicals and also has been the subject of major investigations by media organizations including the St. Petersburg Times, The New York Times and The New Yorker.
Here's a quick primer, based on Scientology.org and interviews with J. Gordon Melton, professor of American Religious History at Baylor University, and David Bromley, professor of religious studies and sociology at Virginia Commonwealth. Scientology's press office did not return calls.
What is Scientology?
The religion, founded by the late author L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, is about finding self-knowledge. The focus is on "becoming your authentic self to reflect your true spiritual essence," Bromley says.
Scientology parallels many major Western religions in making a claim that it is the single best way to find truth. But it is more like Buddhism or Hinduism in that it does not rely on the Bible, God or Christ. Says Melton, "The basic idea is that you get yourself in order in this world and work toward an understanding of the larger world."
There is no holy scripture, although Scientologists rely on the insights in nearly two dozen books by Hubbard, primarily his best-selling book on a rational approach to mental health, Dianetics.
According to Scientology.org, human beings are neither body nor mind but immortal spiritual beings with unlimited capabilities, "even if not presently realized."
Unlike the Christian belief that mankind is born into sin, Scientology teaches that "Man" is "basically good, and his spiritual salvation depends upon himself and his fellows and his attainment of brotherhood with the universe."
That is accomplished through classes and a technologically based personality assessment called "auditing," designed to help each person overcome the effects of traumatic experiences, Bromley says.
Critics object to Scientology's goals that dismiss Christian and Jewish concepts of God, morality and the afterlife, as well as its secretive methods and ban on use of psychiatry and psychiatric drugs.
How big is the church?
The official website cites 10,000 churches, missions and groups in 167 countries.
Melton estimates there are about 100,000 adherents today, with about 10% clustered around St. Petersburg, Fla., near the church's world headquarters.
What are Scientology's rules on marriage, divorce and remarriage?
Most Western religions have specific rules and procedures for marriage or divorce. Scientology does not, and Hubbard himself was divorced.
The exception is for the highest level of the church administrators, known as Sea Org, which functions similar to a monastic order in Christianity and has strict conduct rules on marriage and divorce, Bromley says. To his knowledge, there are no celebrity Hollywood names in Sea Org.
Neither are there rules for remarriage, as in Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism. Nicole Kidman had her marriage to Cruise annulled by the Catholic Church as spiritually invalid.
What does Scientology say about rearing children?
Very little, Melton says. Because Scientology is a new religion, its members are chiefly adult converts.
Unlike an ethnic religion such as Judaism, a child of a Scientologist parent, such as Cruise's daughter, is not born into the religion, Melton says.
"There are some Scientology parochial schools, called Delphi Academies, where they apply Hubbard's educational ideas, but they are not all that different from other religions that teach their values to children in their private schools," Melton says.
(c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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