Tom Cruise's high-profile trashing of psychiatry should come as no shocker to anyone familiar with his religion. Scientology's position regarding most of psychiatry is comparable to official Catholic teachings about abortion.
Scientology says that all psychological ills are a result of a particular kind of psycho-spiritual wound, and that medications and other tools of modern psychiatry, notably electroshock therapy, are useless and harmful.
What kind of religion sets up a psychological theory as sacred doctrine? A thoroughly modern one. The Church of Scientology – no relation to Christian Science – is barely 50 years old. Founded in America, it stands as a particularly successful new religious movement.
Just how successful, however, is a matter of dispute. Scientologists count their worldwide numbers in the millions. Many religion sociologists say the real numbers are a tenth as large.
What can't be argued is that Scientology has some famous adherents: Mr. Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley among them. It's also clear that Mr. Cruise's plugging of War of the Worlds, (which opens Wednesday), not to mention his gushy wooing of actress Katie Holmes, has raised the level of public curiosity about the religion.
The following are some frequently asked questions and their answers:
Question: Where did Scientology come from?
Answer: It's the creation of one man: L. Ron. Hubbard. Best known in the 1940s as a science fiction author, he claimed to have discovered essential truths about human psychology, which he set forth in a 1950 book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. The book, which became the cornerstone of Scientology, was largely dismissed by psychologists.
Question: What did he say was his big discovery?
Answer: Mr. Hubbard said all psychological problems, and many physical ones, are caused by unresolved reactions to bad things that have happened to us. In an unconscious process, the "reactive mind" creates a permanent loop that ties up a bit of psychological energy.
These loops contain a perfect memory of the negative event and can be triggered by confronting seemingly irrelevant details associated with the original event. (If you get hit in the head by a baseball at a game, your reactive mind will also store the aroma of the ballpark hot dogs. Years later, the smell of a hot dog might give you a headache.)
Mr. Hubbard called those loops "engrams." He claimed that "clearing" the loops would improve psychological and physical health.
Question: Anything to it?
Answer: Mainstream psychology dismisses the concept of engrams. But the idea that past psychological stress can later affect health is now widely accepted.
Question: What was L. Ron Hubbard's background?
Answer: He wasn't a psychologist or psychiatrist. He was born in Tilden, Neb., in 1911 and served in the Navy during World War II. As a member of the New York Explorers Club, he was credited with participation in several scientific expeditions.
He was a friend of John Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, one of the best-known magazines of the pulp era. Mr. Campbell, who became an enthusiastic advocate for Dianetics, published some of Mr. Hubbard's work in Astounding.
Mr. Hubbard died in 1986, "having accomplished," according to his official biography, "all he set out to do." He left thousands of pages of writings and hundreds of hours of recorded statements, all of which are considered sacred text by Scientologists.
Question: What makes Scientology a religion?
Answer: Mr. Hubbard eventually claimed that engrams were not simply produced in this life, but that everyone carries the residue of billions of years of past lives. All people are said to have a "thetan," something like a soul in other religious traditions.
Scientology recognizes the existence of an impersonal supreme being, but one very different from the Judeo-Christian God believed to be actively involved in human affairs. Mr. Hubbard formally established the Church of Scientology in 1953.
The official Scientology Web site, in explaining the faith, says: "Man is an immortal spiritual being. His experience extends well beyond a single lifetime. His capabilities are unlimited, even if not presently realized. Scientology further holds man to be basically good, and that his spiritual salvation depends upon himself and his fellows and his attainment of brotherhood with the universe."
Question: Is there anything scientific about Scientology?
Answer: It is certainly "scientistic" – it uses jargon and gizmos that seem scientific.
For instance, there's the "e-meter," a sort of low-level lie detector. The person being examined – "audited" is the official term – holds two metal cans connected by a wire to the meter. Stress affects conductivity, so the auditor searches for words or situations that jiggle the needle. Scientologists believe that those jiggles are evidence of engrams.
Auditors focus on those areas, desensitizing the person through repetition, until the needle no longer jiggles. Scientologists believe that's evidence that the engram has been released. When they're all released, the person is considered "clear."
Scientologists pay to be audited and for many other classes and training sessions. Some news accounts estimate that Mr. Cruise, a Scientologist for decades, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his training.
Question: What's Scientology's beef with psychiatry?
Answer: Recall Scientology's origin – the claim of a perfect explanation for all psychological ailments. If all it takes to cure someone of these ills is a noninvasive procedure, then drugs and other tools of psychology, including electroshock therapy, just create needless suffering.
Question: What controversies has the Church of Scientology been involved in?
Answer: Some former members and others accuse the church of coercing people to join and punishing those who leave. Reporters who wrote critically about Scientology said they've been harassed with lawsuits and subjected to personal attacks.
There's no argument about the church's litigious history. Supporters say the many suits have been filed in self-defense.
Several governments have investigated the church on allegations of cult activities.Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Canada, among others, have taken official positions against Scientology. Some of those have been reversed, and the church is trying to overturn other critical rulings.
Question: Why are so many celebrities Scientologists?
Answer: It's an optical illusion. In truth, no more than a half-dozen or so celebrities have been publicly associated with Scientology. In addition to Mr. Cruise, Mr. Travolta and Ms. Alley, you have Kelly Preston (Mr. Travolta's wife), Isaac Hayes, Chick Corea, Greta Van Susteren.
We hear about celebrities following any religious movement because they're celebrities: Buddhism has Richard Gere, Phil Jackson and Tina Turner. Transcendental Meditation had the Beatles. Madonna, Britney Spears and Demi Moore are famously associated with Kabbalah.
Question: Where can I get more information?
Answer: The official Web site is www.scientology.org. Of the many sites critical of Scientology, one of the most popular is www.xenu.net.