Scientology is a body of beliefs and related practices created by L. Ron Hubbard (1911–1986), starting in 1952, as a successor to his earlier self-help system, Dianetics. Hubbard characterized Scientology as a religion, and in 1953 incorporated the Church of Scientology in Camden, New Jersey.
Scientology teaches that people are immortal beings who have forgotten their true nature. Its method of spiritual rehabilitation is a type of counselling known as auditing, in which practitioners aim to consciously re-experience painful or traumatic events in their past in order to free themselves of their limiting effects. Study materials and auditing courses are made available to members in return for specified donations. Scientology is legally recognized as a tax-exempt religion in the United States, Italy, South Africa, Australia, Sweden, New Zealand, Portugal and Spain; the Church of Scientology emphasizes this as proof that it is a bona fide religion. In other countries, notably Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, Scientology does not have comparable religious status.
A large number of organizations overseeing the application of Scientology have been established, the most notable of these being the Church of Scientology. Scientology sponsors a variety of social-service programs. These include the Narconon anti-drug program, the Criminon prison rehabilitation program, the Study Tech education methodology, the Volunteer Ministers, the World Institute of Scientology Enterprises, and a set of moral guidelines expressed in a booklet called The Way to Happiness.
The Church of Scientology is one of the most controversial new religious movements to have arisen in the 20th century. It has often been described as a cult that financially defrauds and abuses its members, charging exorbitant fees for its spiritual services. In response, Scientologists have argued that theirs is a genuine religious movement that has been misrepresented, maligned and persecuted. The Church of Scientology has consistently used litigation against its critics, and its aggressiveness in pursuing its foes has been condemned as harassment. Further controversy has focused on Scientology's belief that souls ("thetans") reincarnate and have lived on other planets before living on Earth, and that some of the related teachings are not revealed to practitioners until they have paid thousands of dollars to the Church of Scientology. Another controversial belief held by Scientologists is that the practice of psychiatry is destructive and abusive and must be abolished.