Amid allegations that it's a mind-controlling cult that extorts money from its members, rips families apart, and brainwashes children, Scientology, the mysterious 12 million-strong religion founded by sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, has long relied on Tom Cruise and other celebrity members to maintain a veneer of respectability. Over the years, Scientology has tried to squelch negative press reports through costly lawsuits, and to play down its more bizarre aspects, such as the creation myth that Earth was founded by an intergalactic warlord named Xenu some 75 million years ago. However, Cruise's recent divorce from Katie Holmes, along with reports that Holmes feared Scientology's effect on their child Suri, has ramped up scrutiny of the church. Given new reports of abuse and mass defections, church watchers say the Cruise-Holmes split is a crippling public-relations blow to Scientology. Can it survive the end of TomKat?

Scientology's image is crumbling: Cruise and other celebrities have allowed Scientology to "gain mainstream acceptance," but "the bright light of celebrity can cut both ways," says Robert Marchant at New York's The Journal News. The Cruise-Holmes divorce has put the religion under klieg lights, and people who have left the church have become bolder in speaking out about its allegedly cruel abuses. Scientology's "cultivated public image — carefully crafted through websites, videos, discreet celebrity endorsements, and visitor centers around the country" — is facing its greatest challenge.
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Cruise has become Scientology's greatest threat: Scientology "is the central story line to the TomKat story," with Holmes cast as the naive princess "who falls in with dark forces, is held hostage in her gilded cage, and then, after carefully planning her escape, makes a break for freedom," says Richard Rushfield at New York. After the divorce and the airing of Holmes' concerns for Suri, "it will be a very long time before anyone on the outside sees Scientology as just another harmless fad celebrity preoccupation again." Ironically, Cruise, the loudest and proudest of Scientology's celebrity spokesmen, is now perceived as "either a brainwashed dope or a controlling Church henchman." Scientology's golden boy could end up "sinking its ship."
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But Scientology will always have its appeal: Scientology may be "effing crazy," but like any cult it will always appeal to certain people, says Alexis Rhiannon at Crushable. Scientology claims its teachings can "maximize your potential, increase your intelligence, streamline your talent, and most importantly — give you control of your life." It's no surprise Cruise fell for it: The pitch is perfect for Hollywood, where "people every day for years and years will tell you 'no,' and you have to continue to believe 'yes.'" And the message will continue to resonate for people in the future, too.
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