There's nothing unusual about celebrities promoting their faith think Madonna and kabbalah, Richard Gere and Buddhism, Muhammad Ali and Islam but the Church of Scientology's Celebrity Centers have been unusually adept at cultivating entertainers such as actor Tom Cruise.
It was no ordinary celebrity feud when Cruise criticized Brooke Shields for taking anti-depression drugs, then berated ''Today'' host Matt Lauer for suggesting that psychiatric treatment might help some patients.
This was, rather, the latest round in a long-running campaign against psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry by this expanding, Los Angeles-based religion, which has been immersed in controversies over its 51 years of existence.
Scientology and psychiatry offer directly competing explanations of the source for mental problems and techniques to deal with them.
Scientology was created by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. In ''Dianetics'' (1950), Hubbard said the ''thetan'' (soul) suffers from negative ''engrams'' implanted in this life and innumerable past lives the church avoids the word ''reincarnation.''
Scientology ''auditors'' help clients work through problems using an ''e-meter,'' similar to a lie detector. They seek a state called ''Clear'' and then advance through various levels of ''Operating Thetan.''
The church charges that psychiatry ''does not meet any known definition of a science, what with its hodgepodge of unproven theories that have never produced any result.'' It considers reliance on psychotropic drugs as dangerous as past treatments like electric shock or lobotomies.
The American Psychiatric Association's president said last week it was irresponsible for Cruise to ''deter people with mental illness from getting the care they need.'' The association said ''rigorous, published, peer-reviewed research clearly demonstrates'' that psychiatric treatment works.
Hubbard died in 1986, but his church has continued to find believers and court controversy.
Over the decades, Scientology has been the target of and initiator of an unusual number of legal and rhetorical assaults. These have involved not only psychiatrists but disgruntled dropouts and government agencies, first in the United States and then overseas as the church's missions expanded.
An epic struggle with America's Internal Revenue Service ran 39 years and ended with a 1993 grant of tax exemption. At issue was a basic question: What defines a religion anyway?
David Bromley, a Virginia Commonwealth University sociologist, says Scientology posed a complex problem because it didn't ''fit the standard religious model'' and ''had elements of religion, elements of a business, and started as Dianetics therapy.''
To J. Gordon Melton, editor of the ''Encyclopedia of American Religions,'' a religion deals with ultimate life questions ''beyond the limits of science that we need answers to'' and Scientology qualifies but not, for example, Freemasonry or Werner Erhard's est training.
Melton categorizes Scientology as a ''psychic New Age'' faith akin to the Gnostic heresy expelled by early Christianity. He says Gnostics see ''the soul trapped in the body and forgetting who it is,'' and offer tools for escape into ''divine status.''
Scientology is apparently also like Gnosticism in imparting secret knowledge to elites. Critics at www.xenu.net and elsewhere say advanced Scientologists are taught that 75 million years ago the cosmic ruler Xenu paralyzed billions of people in our galaxy, stacked them on Earth and destroyed their bodies with H-bombs, though the traumatized souls survived.
The church does not discuss these matters.
Scientology is led by David Miscavige, chairman of its Religious Technology Center, with church President Heber Jentzsch serving as administrator. Thousands of others serve in a religious order called the Sea Organization. Top-level training occurs aboard a Caribbean ship.
The religion conducts Sunday services and regards Hubbard's recorded lectures and 500,000 pages of writings as scriptural. His theology says man is basically good and what people call God or the Supreme Being ''is correctly defined as infinity'' and is not an object of worship.
The church does not report its income; critics have described it is a commercial enterprise, and charge that donations expected in return for auditing sessions and training are exorbitant. The church says donations run from $100 for introductory auditing to $2,000 for a more intensive course; it compares this with the cost of a college education. Melton thinks the payments are similar to what tithe-paying Christians give over a lifetime.
Another common complaint is that the Scientologists harassed dropouts and critics, particularly through the secretive Guardian's Office. The church responds that the ''GO'' has long since been abolished.
Miscavige told a rally last August that Scientology is ''the only major new religion of the 20th century'' and ''the fastest growing religion on earth.''
That's debatable, but the church reports 4,228 local centers worldwide (426 of them in the United States) compared with only 1,855 in 2000. Another 1,002 outlets work on literacy, drug rehabilitation or training of prison inmates. The church says there are 10 million active Scientologists worldwide with about a third in the United States; Melton, a friendly observer, thinks that number is inflated.
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