By his account, Tom Cruise owes his cool head, defeat of dyslexia and, in a way, his unstoppable stardom to Scientology.
But Scientology has much to thank Tom Cruise for as well. His glowing adherence to Scientology and the initiation of his bride-to-be, actress Katie Holmes, into the off-beat and oft-maligned system of beliefs has stirred a surge of interest.
The search engine company Lycos reported that “Scientology” had leaped into the top 50 search terms last week for the first time, hitting 37, marking a 260 percent increase in interest — a spike the company attributed to the Cruise-Holmes effect. In fact, said Lycos in a press release, Scientology was now the most-searched-for “ology,” acing out the likes of geology, technology and astrology.
It’s a reflection of how Hollywood’s rich and famous generate positive buzz for Scientology, recognized by the federal government as a religious organization but denounced by critics as a cult that extracts tens of thousands of dollars from its followers. Central to its adherents' beliefs: Earthlings were invaded millions of years ago by alien souls sent here from outer space. Scientology, in turn, has always had a special place for artists.
The power of celebrity testimonial
In founding Scientology in 1951, L. Ron Hubbard carved out a special place for artists, which led to the creation of lavish Scientology Celebrity Centres, which now make up 11 of 5,100 churches.
"A culture is only as great as its dreams, and its dreams are dreamed by artists," Hubbard said.
Cruise is the Scientologist poster boy of the moment for several reasons. He recently dismissed his long-time publicist Pat Kingsley, turning to his Scientologist sister, Lee Anne De Vette, instead. He famously brought Scientologist ministers onto the set of "War of the Worlds." And the bizarre parallel between the science-fiction flick and some of his religion's teachings has stirred the celebrity press.
But Cruise is in good company in Hollywood, where he touts Scientology and its related programs Narconon (for treating drug dependency), Criminon (for ending criminal behavior) and Applied Scholastics. Others on the roster include John Travolta, musicians Chick Corea, Lisa Marie Presley and Beck (who was reared as a Scientologist) as well as Kirstie Alley, who credits Narconon for ending her cocaine addiction. (Narconon is not related to Narcotics Anonymous, a 12-step program sometimes called NarcAnon.)
And observers say the lesser-known ranks of Hollywood — producers, acting coaches, writers and many an aspiring actor — are filled with Scientologists, attracted by both the spiritual prospects, as well as the networking possibilities.
Public relations boost
The church says the growth among Hollywood's luminati is simply testimony to their spiritual and personal growth through using the tools that Scientology gives them.
"If you ask any Scientologist, famous or not, why they talk about this religion to others, you will find that Scientologists tell others about the religion when they personally see that Scientology can help another," says Greg LaClaire, vice president of the Scientology Celebrity Centre. "It is simply word of mouth: You have had gains, so you want others to experience similar gains."
That is why, he says, the church has 8 million members, and is one of the fastest growing religions on Earth.
Most detractors estimate membership to be much lower, say 100,000 to 200,000, but argue that Scientology has strategically courted and cultivated star power for the public relations and membership boost.
"It promotes the organization in much the same way as a celebrity endorsement would in the popular media, whether it's Tiger Woods promoting Nike or Tom Cruise promoting Scientology … It lends credibility," says Rick Ross, a veteran cult watcher.
With Cruise hitting the road as hard as he has for Scientology, says Ross, the group may have gained new ground against another controversial, up-and-coming competitor for the Hollywood elite — Kabbalah.
Clearing out the thetans
At first blush, Scientology resembles other New Age spiritual practices. The initiate starts with a process of "auditing," which is cross between an interview and confession employing a rudimentary lie detector. The idea is to learn about, target, and shed negative forces — the reactive mind — said to blunt potential. For a regular person, the first step might be a free stress test administered at a public booth in a shopping mall or Grand Central Station.
A Scientologist who is in the beginning stages of auditing — the stage Katie Holmes is reportedly in at this point — would be considered a "pre-clear." If she persists through these lower levels, which address career and other earthly struggles, she will reach the state of “clear.”
Among the secrets revealed to adherents who reach the OT3 level is the incident that led to the current evils of the Earth. In leaked documents now posted on the Internet, this incident started with a galactic shake-up 75 million years ago, when an alien ruler sent billions of subjects to this planet to solve an overpopulation problem. These "thetan" souls dispersed and invaded humans. Scientology is the means through which one's Body Thetans (BTs) are purged.
Hubbard was a science-fiction writer and self-styled philosopher and scientist who died in 1986. Though he spent his later life lecturing and writing about what he called the "applied technology" of Scientology and Dianetics, he never won over the scientific community. Instead, in 1993, Scientology won status as a tax-exempt religious organization.
The means is troubling, not the end
But the controversy is not so much about the content as the means of teaching.
Among other things, Scientologists vehemently reject psychiatry and psychiatric drugs. Hence, Cruise's criticism of Brooke Shields — highly publicized in the celebrity press — for taking Paxil to cope with post-partum depression.
Another issue is the reported cost of enlightenment through Scientology, which has established a set of "suggested donations" for auditing sessions, drills and courses.
Experts say it can cost — in “suggested donations” — more than $100,000 to attain a level of OT3. While this is apparently not troubling for the Hollywood crowd, there are scores of tales of average people spending decades and bankrupting themselves in the pursuit.
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints