NEW YORK -- There's nothing unusual about celebrities promoting their faith -- Madonna and kabbalah, Richard Gere and Buddhism, Muhammad Ali and Islam. But the Church of Scientology's
It was no ordinary celebrity feud when Cruise criticized Brooke Shields for taking anti- depressants, 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 competing explanations of the source for mental problems and techniques to deal with them.
Scientology was created by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. In ''Dianetics" (1950), Hubbard said the ''thetan," or soul, suffers from negative ''engrams" implanted in this life and in innumerable past lives. (The church avoids the word ''reincarnation.")
Scientology ''auditors" help members work through problems using an ''e-meter," similar to a lie detector.
They seek a state called ''Clear," then advance through various levels of ''Operating Thetan."
The church argues 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 also considers reliance on psychotropic drugs as dangerous as past treatments such as electric shock or lobotomies.
The American Psychiatric Association's president recently said 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 doubters.
Over the decades, Scientology has been the target -- and initiator -- of a number of legal and rhetorical assaults. These have involved not only psychiatrists but also the church's disgruntled dropouts and government agencies.
In recent years, conflict with Germany's government has been particularly heated, although the church has reported recent court victories.
A struggle with the US Internal Revenue Service ran for 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 complexity 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 life questions ''beyond the limits of science that we need answers to." He says Scientology qualifies while, for example, Freemasonry or Werner Erhard's est training don't. Melton categorizes Scientology as a ''psychic new age" faith, akin to the Gnostic movement expelled by early Christianity.
He also says Gnostics see ''the soul trapped in the body and forgetting who it is," and offer tools for escape into ''divine status."
Scientology, Melton says, 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 hydrogen 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. Heber Jentzsch serves 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 says the payments are similar to what tithe-paying Christians contribute over a lifetime.
Another complaint is that the Scientologists harassed dropouts and critics, particularly through the secretive Guardian's Office. The church responds that the ''GO" has been abolished.
Miscavige said at a rally last August that Scientology is ''the only major new religion of the 20th century" and ''the fastest-growing religion on earth."
That may be debatable, but the church reports 4,228 local centers worldwide (426 of them in the United States), compared with 1,855 in 2000. An additional 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 of them are in the United States. Melton says that number is inflated.
But evangelism proceeds, aided by recruits like Cruise, and Jentzsch says the church is becoming less controversial as people learn about it and hostilities subside.
In the United States, he says, ''there are zero lawsuits."