Thoughts on books, often interpreted through the high-brow prism of cartoon (read: Archer) references. Wait! I had something for this...
Quick and Dirty Analysis (I know I can get long-winded)
Good book, well-researched, that will tell you all you want to know (and possibly more) about the inner workings of Scientology.
"Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing." - Ken Kesey
I think a good litmus test for people, movements, groups etc., is their ability to laugh at themselves. Yes, some things in life are very serious, but almost anything, when taken to an extreme, becomes humorously absurd. Consequently, one of the reasons I love South Park, is its "nothing's sacred" approach to satire. Some of my favorite episodes lampoon aspects of myself (e.g. the thrill of Obama's victory, see About Last Night; driving a hybrid, Smug Alert...you get the idea).
So, while I'm sure there was some religious outcry about the likes of The Passion of the Jew, Red Hot Catholic Love, and All About Mormons, the level of outrage around the "Scientology episode," Trapped in the Closet, (including the decision by longtime cast member and Scientologist, Isaac Hayes, to leave the show) was, to me, a symptom of a dire case of an organization/group taking itself too f*cking seriously. (It's also what makes the ad taken out by Comedy Central congratulating South Park on its Emmy-nod for the episode so brilliant!)
What's the deal with Scientology?
Well, frankly, to answer that question property, you'd need to write a book (which, conveniently enough, Lawrence Wright did). It was founded by L. Ron Hubbard, shown below during his brief stint in the Navy, as a sort of self-help (well, guided self-help) treatment.
Without getting into it too much, the "treatment" (called auditing) involves going through past experiences while holding on to the tin can-like handles of an apparatus called an E-Meter.
So far, I'm fine with that. Therapy can come in many forms, and if people find that this helps them, then go for it. However, you start off with the auditing and then you're on a journey on The Bridge which, in addition to being kind of endless, is a pricey endeavor.
So, it's a lifetime commitment to solving your problems?
Well, yes and emphatically no. The Church of Scientology (and, should you read this, you'll get the ins and outs of their battle with the IRS) has a subgroup called the Sea Org which you can join at the ripe old age of eight (for the child's experience check out Beyond Belief) by signing a billion year contract. However (in addition to the abusive conditions that would have OSHA in a fit), should you want to bounce early, you'll have to pay them back for all that free auditing, which typically amounts to somewhere north of $500,000.
So is it, or is it not a cult?
Well, there are certainly some signs that would suggest so. For one, you've got your centralized leadership whose word is The Word. After L. Ron Hubbard's death decision to vacate his earthly body for a little while, the power (already tilted in this direction) was left in the hands of David Miscavige (referred to as C-O-B, chairman of the board), who (though not a prophet like L. Ron) was/is free to make unilateral decisions with harsh consequences.
There's basically a checklist of techniques that social psychologists have drawn up that, historically, groups (many of which have been called cults) have employed to elicit obedience and sacrifice from their members.* While a single technique is not itself all that powerful, the combination can be a perfect storm of destructive, blind obedience (e.g. Jonestown). Examples?
Tinsel-Town True Believers
Hollywood, the place where dreams are made (and also crushed, and probably resold on the streets as a hip new drug). You can google Scientology celebrities and, yes, the list is of decent length. In Eric Hoffer's 1951 book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, he reports a somewhat curious finding that it is often those with unlimited opportunities who become swept up in mass movements. However, Scientology has a history of courting celebrities as a way of bringing people in...hey, if I join I'll be BFFs with Tom Cruise! Right? The answer there is an emphatic no. But, by god (or Xenu or L. Ron or whatever) will they make him feel special while he's around.
* I learned about these in social psychology, but I'm pretty sure they're straight out of the textbook we used, which I believe was Social Psychology Alive