GOING CLEAR: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief. By Lawrence Wright. Knopf. 448 pages. $28.95.

Tom Cruise ranting against psychiatry and pharmacology symbolizes the Church of Scientology for many observers.

The mercurial star seems to embody the increasingly negative image of the Los Angeles-based church. For many, Scientology means both off-kilter celebrities and a complicated mix of beliefs about human psychology, with a dash of science fiction and mind control thrown in.

Lawrence Wright, best-known as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning study of Al Qaida, “The Looming Tower,” has written the most important book so far about the history of this well-known and much derided religious movement.

Based on a mountain of primary source research and numerous interviews, Wright offers a thoughtful, thorough and relentlessly surprising study of this influential boutique religion that promises its followers both physical and mental wholeness, along with a vast, cosmic tale of space invaders and imprisoned souls.

Wright takes his title from the Scientologist belief that certain mental practices can lead to a new level of human consciousness, “going clear.” In this state, the devotee can live by the highest ethical standards, and their memory and mental capacities become post-human.

In essence, Scientology, like most religious ideologies, promises complete transcendence of the human condition.

A biography of L. Ron Hubbard consumes much of the first half of Wright’s book. The author rightly begins here given that almost all writing about Hubbard is essentially a literature of controversy.

Adherents of Scientology have, of course, presented him as the most important man who ever lived while the church’s many detractors have painted him as a simple charlatan.

Not surprisingly, the real story is more complex. At one time a gifted science fiction writer, Hubbard lived a strange and peripatetic life as a war hero, author and explorer. His vast and eclectic intelligence succumbed early on to delusions of grandeur. But his messianic complex did not prevent him (indeed it may have helped him) in creating a rich and intricate mythology for his followers.

The remainder of the book follows the trajectory of Scientology through the story of David Miscavige, Hubbard’s successor, who fully transformed the church’s public image into a church of celebrities.

But Wright also explores the church through the experience of several lower-level members. One of these, movie director Paul Haggis, eventually leaves the church while remaining committed to certain of its tenets.

How exactly did the church manage to become “the church of the stars?” Part of the answer has to do with a massive public relations campaign to portray itself as a “celebrity religion.”

Beginning in the 1970s, after Hubbard based the church in L.A., leaders in the movement made a concerted effort to attract young, aspiring actors, directors and others in the film industry. They promised that the methods of scientology would make them successful and hinted that, as Wright puts it, “a network of scientologists” existed “at the upper levels of the entertainment industry.”

Although Wright packs “Going Clear” with the Church of Scientology’s many oddities (such as its belief in ancient Galactic Confederacies and extraterrestrial gods), his epilogue makes several important points that help readers better conceptualize its attraction. Wright points out, for example, “Every religion features bizarre and irrational elements.”

Faith tends to operate in the realm of the unobservable and unprovable. Scientologists are not alone in this. They are simply the new kid on the block as faith claims go, not yet old enough to have its origins obscured by time.

In other words, claims of the human race being besieged by imprisoned “Thetans” cast to Earth by the galactic dictator, Xenu, are on balance not more irrational than claims of virgin births and bodily resurrections. One set of claims has been consecrated by time and broadly influential traditions and institutions. The other has not.

Wright also notes that a number of religions now considered mainstream, including Mormonism and Christian Science, have shadowy origins, a problematic founder and beliefs frequently at odds with mainstream notions of family, health and science.

These facts have not proven to be a barrier to the religious movements becoming integral to American life. In the case of Mormonism, the veracity of church founder Joseph Smith is controversial (even among Mormon historians). And yet, as Wright himself notes, a Mormon can be a serious candidate for president, and no one serious person would suggest the denial of his constitutional rights.

Readers will find many of the stereotypes about scientology confirmed here. The church has, for example, engaged in bizarre campaigns of retribution against its critics and former adherents. But readers also will find Wright a helpful guide to a better understanding as to why so many find the story Scientology tells so compelling. This is an intensely readable account of the origins and trajectory of one of America’s most fascinating homegrown religions.

Reviewer W. Scott Poole is a professor of history at the College of Charleston.