Actress Katie Holmes' engagement to Scientologist Tom Cruise and her conversion to the Church of Scientology once again turned the media spotlight on this secretive group. To gain insight into Scientology's roots and its growth as an American religious movement, Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan spoke with Hugh B. Urban, professor of religious studies in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University. Prof. Urban, who studies secrecy in religion and contemporary new religious movements, is author most recently of 'Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religions.'

What are the central tenets of Scientology?

The tenets evolved over time. The movement started in 1950 as Dianetics, when [L. Ron] Hubbard published his book "Dianetics," originally in a science-fiction magazine, "Astounding Science Fiction."

Dianetics was originally more a self-help therapy, superficially pretty similar to psychoanalysis--basically an understanding of how the mind works and how to remove problematic memory traces from the mind.

Then by 1954, it had grown into a more recognizable religious movement as the Church of Scientology. And that's when Hubbard introduced more clearly religious kinds of beliefs, such as the idea of the Thetan, which is your spiritual self, or immortal soul-like entity. He introduced the idea of the Infinite, which is basically like God, and an idea of reincarnation because Thetans are reincarnated over and over again. But the basic principles of how the mind works stayed the same from Dianetics to Scientology.

And Hubbard's basic idea is that human beings have two kinds of mind: what he calls the analytic mind, which he describes as a flawless computer, and the reactive mind, which is sort of like Freud's model of the unconscious, even though Hubbard didn't like Freud much.

The reactive mind is the repository for what Hubbard calls "engrams," which are memory traces, specifically moments of pain that get sort of burned in the reactive mind and then cause us problems in the future, both physical problems and psychological problems. And the idea is that through a process called "auditing," you can go back and pinpoint where those engrams are and relive them and thereby clear them from your reactive mind.

The ultimate goal is to clear all of those problematic engrams. And that's the state called "clear," when you're completely free from all those negative memory experiences.

Dianetics really focused on dealing with the engrams of this particular life--going all the way back to childhood, even in the prenatal state. But in Scientology, Hubbard introduced the idea of reincarnation, so that you have engrams not just from this lifetime but previous lifetimes. And so Scientologists describe experiences like being killed in the Civil War or even more incredible sorts of things like being on other planets and experiences in previous lifetimes.

And the cosmology developed significantly between the introduction of Dianetics and its transformation into Scientology?

As Scientology developed, Hubbard introduced increasingly complicated levels of cosmology. Initially, in Dianetics, there were four levels leading up to the state of "clear." And then in Scientology, he introduced 15 higher levels that he called `Operating Thetan,' and they become increasingly complicated and also esoteric. So not that much is known about what is contained in these higher levels, but there have been some documents leaked. In them, you get pretty elaborate and, some might say, kind of odd cosmology about the pre-history of the universe and the earth and so forth.

Does Scientology have a code of morality or behavioral rules?

Hubbard wrote a book called "Introduction to Scientology Ethics." By my reading of it, it's more about loyalty to the Church of Scientology itself. From Hubbard's writings, I'd say there really isn't a kind of morality comparable to Judaism or Christianity. But since Hubbard's death, the church does emphasize the ethical virtues of Scientology--that Scientology makes you a better family member, a better citizen, a better employee, more successful.

So in Scientology goodness, or grace, is manifested through your material success, a kind of Calvinistic idea?

Hubbard never put it quite that way, but there's no contradiction between being materially successful and being spiritually developed in Scientology. In fact, your material prosperity, Hubbard would say, is sort of the logical outcome because if you're more spiritually developed, you're going to more successful in life. In fact, in several of his works, he describes life as a kind of game and Scientology makes you better at the game of life in all respects.

Is secrecy a part of the Scientology belief system and an inherent part of being a Scientologist?

I'd say it's both in the belief system and also in the way that the church operates. Hubbard modeled Scientology's structure on corporate structure, which is quite hierarchical, leading all the way up-in fact, it's been pointed out that he modeled it on Coca-Cola and AT&T.

The operating Thetan levels, as I said, are quite esoteric and [knowledge about them] is meant only for those who have gone through the proper training.

Is there secret knowledge that the higher-level operating Thetans have that other people can't attain?

Yes, that's right.

What is the initiation or learning process, and is it true that it is extremely costly?

Scientology does have open classes. Often, Sunday morning services [are held] at Scientology centers, and anyone can attend them. But auditing, the central practice of Scientology, does come with a price, and it becomes increasingly expensive as you go up in levels. [Operating Thetan] grades become increasingly expensive.

Do Scientologists regard Hubbard as a deity?

The way I've heard him described is as "friend;" that is, he's not a deity, not a divine incarnation but a being who figured out how the mind works and thereby understood how the universe itself works and gave us the tools to get to the same place that he did. So because he had a deep understanding of how the human mind works, he was able to achieve knowledge of basically how the universe itself works and then to pass that on.

Are there sacred beings in Scientology?

The closest thing is the concept of the Infinite, usually represented with the infinity loop. And Hubbard laid out what he called, "Eight Dynamics," which are [the] instinct to survive and continue existing, ranging from the level of our individual existence, progressively expanding outward to survival as a community, as a species, as all life, the cosmos, and the highest one-the eighth dynamic. Our urge to survive is the Infinite, which is ultimately the realization that our Thetan, our spiritual self is one with this Infinite. And that would be the highest state of operating Thetan, when you're completely free of the limitations of the material world and realize your unity with the Infinite.