Scientology building on Hollywood Boulevard. Wikimedia / DoorFrameScientology has just lost a large financial backer. Kerry Packer's son and heir, billionaire James Packer, no longer calls Scientology home. He is still good friends with Tom Cruise, however, and the star of Mission Impossible was himself back in the headlines recently. Oprah Winfrey provided Cruise with an opportunity to show himself as a normal guy in the wake of his infamous and infantile episode of jumping up and down on the couch the last time she interviewed him. On the menu were questions about Nichole Kidman, Brooke Shields, current wife Katie Holmes and their child Suri and, of course, Scientology. Cruise is the best known parishioner of this religion that is tax exempt, does not worship God, but does charge for the counselling sessions that it runs. What is Scientology and why does it have so many celebrity connections? 

The brainchild of science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, Scientology claims to be the study of truth. Like the Gnostics of the second century, Scientology promises to lead its initiates to higher levels of spiritual enlightenment and power through faithful adoption of its practices and the reception of confidential information. As a movement of the 20th century, however, Scientology has also been able to cash in on the zeitgeist of teenagers’ disposable income and interest in reincarnation and aliens. Although the public face of the organisation is largely silent about claims that it believes in the Alien Lord Xenu, DC8 space planes and the genetic modification of our caveman ancestors, they do operate a video channel online with 82 videos of non-classified information for perusal. What can a prospective parishioner hope to find here free of charge? The following analysis of Scientology is offered to you on the basis of these short flicks and a few YouTube interviews with David Miscavige, their current chairman.

The questions go on and on but Scientology is not a home for
theoretical speculation, it is a technology, something that 'just helps
you, that's all'. Self help? Where would be the money in that?

Scientology's short clips have only slightly more content than a presidential political advertisement. The message they put out is of broad appeal: man is spiritual, mental health should not be divorced from a religious context, religion is not the preserve of the obsessive compulsive, don't do drugs, and so on. The mainly young adepts speak of the buzz of doing charity work and a marked improvement in their grades (though one youth's description of 9/11 as an example of a "natural disaster" is not a good advertisement for higher intelligence). Is there nothing more substantial for us to chew on from Old Mother Hubbard's Scientology cupboard than broad generalisations about religious and ethical insights? Apart from differences in terminology, the information that Scientology makes available is just a cut and paste of different philosophers.

Philosopher number one: Aristotle. There is more to Scientology parishioner John Travolta's boogying down in Staying Alive than you might have realised. Hubbard identifies eight dynamics or urges of a will to “survive!” that begins with the self and branches out in solidarity to the whole universe in a rather Aristotelian manner. Aristotle believed that good living requires a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honour and wealth fit together as a whole. Scientology argues that, as a person realizes that his life and influence extend far beyond himself, his understanding of the dynamics of family, group, environment, spirit — and the relationship of these one to another — increases "survival" on all of these dynamics. To signify this they erect an eight-pointed cross above their temples which looks kinda Christian but actually refers to these dynamics of existence. Following his survival instinct, man's way to happiness would seem to involve a good deal of Aristotelian virtues like etiquette, respect, responsibility and competence. Since these virtues are in keeping with Aristotle's holistic vision of man as soul and body, one would expect Hubbard's vision of man to be broadly similar. One would be wrong.

Enter philosopher number two: Plato. Actually, Hubbard focuses in on the Greek mystery cult side to Plato and delves into past lives and transmigration of the thetan (soul) from body to body. On that basis abortion is OK since only the thetan is the person, not the soul and the body together, and if the thetan takes up residence only a few days before birth … anything goes. The experience of past lives also opens up the way for any further claims a person may care to make about past knowledge gained in those past lives which we might unconsciously reproduce today. That would fit nicely with claims that Xenu brainwashed alien thetans with images of Christ and Buddha, or that DC8s and movie theatres have the appearance that they do (having been utilised by Xenu 75 million years ago). The thetan that is "us" is quite detached from the mind and from the body. As proof, the commentator on one of the video segments adduces the argument that having your appendix removed would not change your personality. Why the big deal, then, about psychiatric drugs messing with one's sanity? If having a part of your brain altered can affect the thetan, how does that square with the body only being an instrument that we use and not an integral part of our personhood?

Now come philosophers three and four: Descartes and Kant. The epistemology is different again and is best described as an antiquated form of representationalism: the thetan is presented with images of the outside world via the body and the mind in the same way that a man might be while watching his own home television set. Enough already!

Even this cursory survey of Scientology beliefs does not reveal any coherent meta-structure, and from the point of view of contemporary theory of the mind it is all quite bizarre. The questions go on and on but Scientology is not a home for theoretical speculation, it is a technology, something "that just helps you, that's all". Self help? Where would be the money in that?

Listening to people's experiences and registering electrical activity as they sweat is a practice they call "auditing" and it is the sort of thing Scientology would rather you didn't practice at home. These sweat register machines are known as "e-meters" and they are virtually impossible to purchase on eBay. “Auditing” takes training –but above all it takes money. Caveat emptor. Even though they claim that Hubbard's writings and pronouncements are to be regarded as "scripture" they also claim that no faith is required. You need only believe what you experience for yourself and can afford to buy and try. “Scientology works. Trust me," they say. "How will you know if you don't try?” The sort of people that would fall for such marketing techniques could really do with a lift in their grades. How many do fall for it? According to Scientology, "millions", but, like so much else they claim, we have no way of verifying that. What we do know is that a handful of Hollywood actors are quite outspoken in favour of Scientology.

Though not claiming to be a member himself, Men in Black alien protector Will Smith did do a bit of study with Tom Cruise and went on record as saying that Scientology is 98 per cent the same as the Bible, an academic commentary that ranks with Obama's claim that the Sermon on the Mount sanctions same sex unions. Other Hollywood promoters include Priscilla Presley and Kirstie Alley. What is the attraction? Using a bit of homespun Freudian analysis, I figure that the real pull of Scientology on actors and celebrities is its gnostic appeal; it aims to make you feel like an insider and someone special. Does Scientology no longer "work" for James Packer? It would seem that he is too much in the mould of his down to earth late father to be spending time gazing at the stars. 

Dr Richard Umbers is a Catholic priest. He lectures in philosophy in Sydney.