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Scientology the 'it' religion
by Kathryn Masterson ("RedEye," June 15, 2005)

Hollywood, USA - Katie Holmes isn't just embracing Tom Cruise. She's embracing his religion too.

As the world knows from endless TV appearances and magazine interviews, Holmes and Cruise are seemingly inseparable in body and spirit.

Holmes, who grew up Catholic, says she's "really excited" to be learning about Scientology, the 20th Century religion her boyfriend promotes with a passion.

Cruise became a Scientologist in the mid-1980s and said the teaching techniques developed by Scientology's founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, helped him overcome dyslexia. Decades later, Cruise continues to talk up the faith, even putting a Scientology tent on the set of his upcoming movie, "War of the Worlds."

Now Holmes says she's eager to check it out for herself, starting lessons at the Church of Scientology. "I really like it, and I think it's really wonderful," she recently told "Access Hollywood." "I feel like I'm bettering myself."

In doing so, Holmes enters a crowded circle of Hollywood A-listers seeking spiritual enlightenment on a path laid down by Hubbard, who wrote "Dianetics" and other Scientology texts. Famous followers include John Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston, Jenna Elfman, Kirstie Alley, Lisa Marie Presley, Danny Masterson, Juliette Lewis and Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson.

Scientology, which followers describe as an applied religious philosophy useful for everyday life, focuses on the individual. Scientologists believe people are good spiritual beings who can work to improve themselves and others.

Members are encouraged to find the things in their life (or past lives) that cause pain or trouble and clear them away. Once all those bad experiences are gone, the person achieves a desired spiritual state, called "clear."

"It's primarily about achieving your own potential and taking control of your life," said Hugh Urban, a professor of religious studies at Ohio State University who has studied new religious movements, including Scientology.

Followers of Scientology say practicing the religion--which involves one-on-one counseling sessions called "auditing" with trained Scientologists called "auditors"--has helped them overcome grief, quit drugs, conquer pain or simply become better people.

Worldwide, Scientology has more than 8 million followers and more than 5,100 churches, missions and groups, said Ed Parkin, vice president of cultural affairs for the Church of Scientology International. At the Chicago church, located in a Lincoln Park storefront at 3011 N. Lincoln Ave., 20,000 people have taken a course, bought books or attended services, said Mary Anne Ahmad, the director of public affairs for the Church of Scientology in Chicago.

Despite its popularity, the religion has been controversial.

Critics target the amount of cash the church takes in. Auditing sessions can cost thousands of dollars, and followers also are encouraged to buy Hubbard's books to study. According to Ohio State's Urban, it can cost more than $120,000 to become "clear," and followers can spend up to $400,000 to achieve the highest levels of spiritual awareness.

"It's not a practice for the poor," Urban said.

The church denies it's out to make money. "It's false. It's completely untrue," Parkin said. "We're here to help people--that's our entire purpose. ... People find it works. They keep coming back and bring their friends with them."

Ahmad said auditing can be less expensive when done in pairs, costing $10,000 to achieve "clear" status. Like most religious organizations, the Church of Scientology relies mainly on donations from followers to support itself. Money also goes to outreach activities that are a big part of the Scientology practice, such as reading programs (like the one Cruise said helped him overcome dyslexia), volunteer acts and drug rehab programs.

For David Klarich, 18, of Elmwood Park, Scientology helped him deal with his father's death three and a half years ago. He now works at the church in Chicago, welcoming new people, participating in outreach at festivals, answering questions about Scientology and administering stress tests to the curious.

"I got a lot of help here with auditing, and it completely turned things around," Klarich said.

Celebrities may flock to Scientology for similar reasons.

Some religious experts think it helps stars deal with the pressure of being in the public eye. Others believe the individual focus appeals to their ego. Endorsements from other big-name celebs--like Cruise or Travolta--could be a draw too.

"It's not too different from Madonna practicing Kabbalah," Urban said. "It's chic, and celebrities like to be at the cutting edge of the latest trends."

Ahmad believes Scientology helps celebrities deal with the temptations that come with a fast-paced lifestyle.

Drugs, for example, are forbidden in Scientology, and some celebrities such as Alley, who was addicted to cocaine, credit the faith with helping them clean up.

"They find Scientology is a haven and gives them the tools to deal with pressures of their lives," Ahmad said.