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If it seems Tom Cruise has acted more like a preacher than an actor lately, chalk it up to the influence of Scientology, a religion concocted by a 1950s science fiction writer. In 2005, Cruise made the jump from rank-and-file Scientologist to celebrity evangelist. Who's he preaching to? Anyone who'll listen, including young fans unaware that his faith is risky business.

Scientology is one of two trendy religious alternatives competing for attention. The other is a mystical expression of Judaism called Kabbalah. If Cruise is Scientology's celeb spokesman du jour, Madonna has been every bit Cruise's equal as a herald for Kabbalah.

One concerned mother wrote a letter to Madonna urging the star to consider how her choices influence people. It read, "Millions of fans … enjoy your music and admire you for your independence. Where you go, they will follow. … My elder daughter, Emily, admires you greatly. That may well be why, when she started out a few years ago on a pilgrimage through the world's religions, as many young people do, she decided to try out Kabbalah." After getting heavily involved, Emily walked away disillusioned because of the group's manipulative practices. Others, however, continue to explore.

A cursory examination of Scientology and Kabbalah might tempt us to dismiss them as flaky sects unlikely to seduce teens. But celebrities exert massive influence. And faith claims make people curious. During Cruise's War of the Worlds publicity tour, online queries for the word "Scientology" on Lycos soared 260 percent. Why are famous people drawn to such spurious spirituality? And what's the allure for young fans?

It Begins With a Galaxy of Stars
Celebrities who have joined Tom Cruise on the Scientology bandwagon include Kirstie Alley, John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Giovanni Ribisi, Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss, Juliette Lewis, Danny Masterson, Leah Remini, Jason Lee, Lisa Marie Presley and the late Patrick Swayze. Other high-profile Scientologists include Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren, as well as musicians such as Beck and Courtney Love.

Stars who have followed Madonna into Kabbalah are equally numerous. Sporting the sect's trademark Red String Bracelets (which supposedly ward off the "evil eye" of enemies) are Madonna's husband Guy Ritchie, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Roseanne Barr, Rob Lowe, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Winona Ryder, Jeff Goldblum, Dan Aykroyd, Mick Jagger, Sharon Osbourne, Paris Hilton and the late Paul Newman. Both Scientology and Kabbalah reflect the self-absorbed spirit of our age, promising to make followers wealthier, happier, sexier and more in control of their lives. How they do it demands a closer look.

The Science Fiction of Scientology
Scientology is the brainchild of author L. Ron Hubbard, whose book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health first espoused his ideas about the connections between mind, body and life. Dianetics introduced the concept of auditing, a combination of confession and psychotherapy in which a trained therapist helps someone address traumatic memories.

In 1953, Hubbard leaped from secular pop psychologist to founder of a full-blown religion, establishing the first Church of Scientology in Camden, N.J. He fleshed out psychotherapeutic theories by adding a spiritual dimension. Central to Scientology is the conviction that the spiritual nature within every person, called a thetan, is immortal and has been reincarnated through countless past lives. Not only do the traumas of this life need to be purged, but the residue from past lives as well.

Through the auditing process, which relies on a machine called an E-Meter (akin to a lie detector), people can be cleared of engrams, negative memories that keep them from reaching their full potential. Scientologists who progress through this expensive series of audits are recognized as OT's, or operational thetans. Then eight more rungs on Scientology's ladder await, purportedly granting power over matter, energy, space and time. Some Scientology experts claim that Cruise's at-times boisterous behavior (remember that couch-jumping episode on Oprah?) could be the result of his achieving the high level of OT VII, perhaps imbuing him with greater confidence and charisma.

Advanced thetans learn Hubbard's bizarre beliefs about the origins of the universe—including the story of a galactic tyrant named Xenu who murdered billions of people on earth 75 billion years ago by chaining them to volcanoes, then nuking them. Hubbard believed the microscopic remains of Xenu's victims have settled in our bodies and need to be purged through an elaborate physical and dietary regimen that Hubbard was still fine-tuning before his death in 1986.

Climbing the Scientology ladder isn't cheap. Critics—and they are legion—have estimated the total cost of progressing to the revered level of OT VIII at approximately $400,000. That might be chump change for Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, but it constitutes a sacrificial investment for those of more meager means. Scientology is not bashful about asking adherents to empty their pockets, bank accounts and retirement plans.

Kabbalah's Mystical Promises
Although different from Scientology, Kabbalah leads to a similar spiritual dead end. Based on two ancient texts, Kabbalah was first popularized by a 13th-century Spanish Jew named Moses de Leon. One of those texts is the 23-volume Zohar, which claims that secret, almost magical insights into reality can be unlocked in the Torah. They give the "true names" of everything, including angels, demons and even God. Like Scientology, Kabbalah promises a mastery over nature's elements.

Such knowledge, however, was traditionally reserved for Jewish men above the age of 40 who had undergone rigorous theological training. That changed in 1971 when Rabbi Philip Berg's second wife, Karen, suggested that Kabbalah's wisdom and power should be available to everyone regardless of age, sex or previous spiritual interest. Her initiative paved the way for many non-Jews to explore Kabbalah—and fill the Berg family coffers along the way.

Instead of encouraging people to study the Zohar's notoriously dense writings, Philip Berg's Kabbalah Centres worldwide simply peddle the multi-volume work (available for $415) as a kind of magical talisman. Merely moving one's eyes or fingers over its Hebrew text supposedly opens readers to a New-Agey connection with the Light. Add a belief in the healing power of Kabbalah Water (just $3 a bottle) and the ubiquitous Red String Bracelet ($26), and—presto!—you have a pricey new religion long on outlandish promises and short on theological substance.

How Could Anyone Believe Such Nonsense?
It's hard to imagine intelligent people giving themselves over to these dubious religions and flawed worldviews. So what's the draw?

Pragmatism - The primary appeal of both sects is pragmatic self-fulfillment. Tom Cruise says Scientology helped him cool his temper, overcome dyslexia and become an international superstar. His zeal has led him to demand space for Scientology tents on the sets of his movies and to confront Today show co-host Matt Lauer about the supposed dangers of antidepressants. (By positioning itself as a cure-all, Scientology has a deep antipathy for psychiatry and psychiatric medicine.)

Power - These alternative beliefs promise power to overcome lifelong problems. In Kabbalah, that power seems little different from magic. How can a red bracelet (made in China and allegedly blessed by rabbis in Israel) provide protection from one's enemies? It's superstition more akin to the Middle Ages than our supposedly enlightened times.

Coolness - Simply by being different these belief systems boast a coolness factor. Their chic image is enhanced when couples such as Cruise and wife Katie Holmes or Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher show up at religious events. From there, spiritual peer pressure kicks in. Just as high school students influence their friends toward certain brands and trends, so Hollywood's elite influence one another, not to mention fans.

Transcendence - Human beings are hungry for a taste of transcendence, a genuine encounter with their Creator. Scripture teaches that God made us to worship and enjoy relationship with Him (Genesis 1:27, Psalms 63:2-5, John 6:32-35). Thus it's no surprise that when people reject the God of the Bible, they are susceptible to replacing Him with almost anything that might generate a substitute sense of transcendence.

Secret Truths - Kabbalah and Scientology revisit an ancient but alluring heresy known as Gnosticism. Part of Gnosticism's appeal might be summed up in the phrase "I've got a secret." Both depend upon secret "truths." Celebrities who pride themselves on being in an exclusive social strata can be suckers for secrets that reinforce their special status.

Christianity, in stark contrast, presents Jesus' simple offer of forgiveness and salvation to all who believe. No hidden costs. No rungs to climb. What Jesus offers is freely given and freely received, the great equalizer that lets no one boast or claim superstar status. Rather, following Him humbles us. There are no favorites, just sinners and servants willing to put the Lord in the spotlight.

A Powerful Delusion
Pragmatism. Power. Coolness. Transcendence. Secret truths. It's not hard to see why these alternative beliefs might grab the attention of an impressionable young person, especially one unfamiliar with the absurd details. But Scientology and Kabbalah are mere counterfeits—dangerous ones that will cost followers far more than money. In the end, what looks innovative and fresh is really repackaged deception being pitched by celebrity endorsers to appeal to the feel-good self-centeredness of our postmodern culture.

For young people whose Christian faith is well established, however, it's easy to unravel the empty promises of Scientology and Kabbalah. In Christ, our identity and relationship with God are secure. He has promised to provide for our physical, spiritual and emotional needs. And He has given us a life of purpose as we follow Him.

Published July 2011

Plugged In Plus
In July of 2012, actress Katie Holmes filed for divorce from Tom Cruise. Many observers believe her primary motivation was to gain sole custody of their 6-year-old daughter, Suri, in order to keep her from being raised as a Scientologist. For some perspective on what a child of Scientologist endures, we turn to Jenna Miscavige Hill, who was indoctrinated as a child and left the organization in 2005. A niece of Scientology chairman David Miscavige, Hill told The Hollywood Reporter, "My experience growing up in Scientology is that it is both mentally and at times physically abusive. I was allowed to see my parents only once a week at best—sometimes not for years. We got a lousy education from unqualified teachers, forced labor, long hours, forced confessions, being held in rooms, not to mention the mental anguish of trying to figure out all of the conflicting information they force upon you as a young child. … As a mother myself, I offer my support to Katie and wish for her all the strength she will need to do what is best for her and her daughter."

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