A war of words over the psyche

Scientology's followers take issue with psychiatry over cures and causes of mental disorders.

The Dallas Morning News
Sunday, July 3, 2005

DALLAS Tom Cruise's high-profile trashing of psychiatry should come as no shocker to anyone familiar with his religion. 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 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.

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: Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley among them. It's also clear that Cruise's plugging of "War of the Worlds" has raised the level of public curiosity about the religion.

The following are some frequently asked questions and their answers:

Q: Where did Scientology come from?

A: It's the creation of one man: L. Ron Hubbard. Best known in the 1940s as a science-fiction author, he said he had discovered essential truths about human psychology, which he set forth in a 1950 book, "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health." The book became the cornerstone of Scientology.

Q: What did he say was his big discovery?

A: 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.

Hubbard called those loops "engrams." He said that "clearing" the loops would improve psychological and physical health.

Q: Anything to it?

A: Mainstream psychology dismisses the concept of engrams. But the idea that past psychological stress can later affect health is widely accepted.

Q: What was L. Ron Hubbard's background?

A: He wasn't a psychologist or psychiatrist. He was born in Tilden, Neb., in 1911 and served in the Navy during World War II.

Hubbard died in 1986.

Q: What makes Scientology a religion?

A: Hubbard eventually asserted 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.

Q: Is there anything scientific about Scientology?

A: 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.

Q: What's Scientology's beef with psychiatry?

A: Recall Scientology's origin - the assertion 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.

Q: What controversies has the Church of Scientology been involved in?

A: 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.

Several governments have investigated the church on allegations of cult activities.

Q: Why are so many celebrities Scientologists?

A: 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 Cruise, Travolta and Alley, you have Kelly Preston (Travolta's wife), Isaac Hayes, Chick Corea, Greta Van Susteren.

Q: Where can I get more information?

A: The official Web site is Of the many sites critical of Scientology, one of the most popular is