Who are Scientologists and what do they believe?

THE DIVORCE of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes has put the Church of Scientology back in the spotlight, especially now that Rupert Murdoch has described the cult as "creepy" and "weird". According to some reports from California, Cruise’s ardent belief in the religion played a central part in the marriage’s collapse, in particular over the role Scientology would play in his daughter Suri’s upbringing. Yet, despite existing for over half a century and counting some of Hollywood's biggest names among its followers, Scientology’s history and beliefs remain widely unknown.   WHO STARTED IT ALL? An American pulp sci-fi writer of the Thirties and Forties called Lafayette Ronald (L. Ron) Hubbard. He launched himself on a new career after declaring at a New Jersey science fiction convention: "Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man wanted to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion."

HOW DID HE GO ABOUT IT? The following year, in 1950, Hubbard published a quasi-scientific self-help book entitled Dianetics: A Modern Science of Mental Health, in which he argued that the origins of all illness can be traced to the psychic scars or "engrams" inflicted in early infancy or pre-birth. These engrams can be erased from the subconscious mind through "auditing" - a form of therapy which gets you to relive the incidents embedded in your past, and which rids you of illness, anxiety and aggressive impulses and enables you to acquire a prodigious intelligence.

HOW DID HE SPREAD THE WORD? In 1954, Hubbard established the first Church of Scientology in Los Angeles. From the outset Hubbard sought out "prime communicators" to spread the word. In 1955 he launched 'Project Celebrity', a campaign to recruit film and sport stars. It proved successful, years later netting such well-known Hollywood names as John Travolta, Kirstie Allen, Juliet Lewis and Tom Cruise.   SO, WHAT DO SCIENTOLOGISTS BELIEVE? That you must rid yourself of engrams and that this can only be done by pursuing a path of enlightenment known as 'The Bridge to Total Freedom'. It takes years to get rid of all your engrams and finally "go clear", says US author Janet Reitman, who spent months with members of the Church. Those enlightened beings who "get clear" - a group that supposedly includes Cruise - are called Operating Thetans (OTs) and constitute Scientology’s elite. OTs are said to be able to leave their bodies at will, communicate with animals and move inanimate objects. They are also supposed to be immortal: Hubbard "dropped" his own body in 1986 after a crippling stroke, but promised to return.   DO THEY BELIEVE IN GOD? The religion is flexible on this. "We have no dogma in Scientology," it says in The Scientology Catechism. "Each person attains his own certainty as to who God is and exactly what God means to him." But an unusual aspect of the religion is that it withholds key aspects of its theology from all but its most exalted followers.   HOW MANY SCIENTOLOGISTS ARE THERE? Latest data from bonafidescientology.org claims eight million members in 159 countries. Critics of the Church claim the true number is a fraction of that.

WHY IS THE CHURCH SO CONTROVERSIAL? Outsiders are most concerned by the cult-like behaviour of members and the auditing process. According to critics, the latter is a classic psychological warfare technique designed to create feelings of gratitude and dependency. "Find their ruin" - in other words, exploit their personal weakness – was allegedly Hubbard’s advice on how to recruit new members.

WHAT IS SEA ORG? The Church has dismissed media reports that the Holmes-Cruise divorce might have been prompted by fears that Suri was to be sent off to join Scientology’s elite Sea Organisation or Sea Org. According to TMZ.com, a lawyer for the Church has stated there is a minimum age requirement of 16 and that minors must have "consent of both parents and/or all legal guardians" in order to join – and "there are no exceptions to that policy". Sea Org is named after those who served with Hubbard in the late 1960s when he bought a small fleet and put to sea. Members of Sea Org are said to sign contracts pledging a billion years of service to the Church. · 

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