If you're like most people in the 21st century, the image you have of Scientology is probably Tom Cruise jumping up and down on a couch, while promoting War of the Worlds in 2005 on Oprah. His manic performance while waxing ecstatic over his love for Katie Holmes (wife #3) turned him into a punchline, and this was in the middle of his renewed advocacy for Scientology, a "religion" that is probably most famous for attracting so many Hollywood celebrities, most notably Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but the list is actually quite large.
Of course, this being the 21st century, everyone has access to the Internet and so if you've ever been the least bit interested in Scientology, you have probably also heard about Xenu and "Body Thetans" and all the other stuff Scientologists aren't supposed to learn about until they reach "OT3."
Tom Cruise himself, according to Janet Reitman's detailed history of the Church of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, said "What is this sci-fi bull****?" when the secrets of Galactic Overlord Xenu were finally revealed to him. And yet he went on to become Scientology's most public and effective advocate, and according to Inside Scientology, a one-man cash cow for the church, which has a habit of dramatically overstating its membership numbers.
L. Ron Hubbard himself, a science fiction author who knew all the big names back in the early days of pulp sci-fi, was a huckster, a con-man, and a relent self-promoting machine. You may consider his ethics and the made-up religion he created to be dodgy at best, but you cannot help but admire how he turned every adversity and setback into a win for himself. By the time he died, he was a Christ-like figure to his followers, who made him and his church incredibly rich.
Inside Scientology is not a sensationalistic hit-piece on Scientology. Reitman tries to be as even-handed as possible, but just reporting the plain facts about Scientology, without the church's PR spin or outright falsification, inevitably casts it in a negative light. There are people, even who have left the church, who to this day insist that the "tech" works and that Scientology helped them. Yet the stories of abuse, of milking members for every dime of their savings and then putting them to work in what amounts to voluntary indentured servitude when their money runs out, of distortions and deceptions, of massive, widespread campaigns of organized harassment and gaslighting and ruinous litigation for the sake of destroying the church's enemies, make one wonder how anyone could see the Church of Scientology in a clear light and not see it for what it is? And for that matter, how does anyone in the 21st century with an Internet connection actually join this "religion" (yes, I'm going to insist on putting that in scare quotes), after reading about Xenu?
Well, in short, according to Reitman, Scientology has indeed taken a big hit since the advent of the Internet and the ability of anyone to go on online and read all about their more esoteric/bizarre doctrines and their history. Most new Scientologists today are kids who were raised in the church, and the church does its best to keep its members in a bubble, told to avoid reading critical books or articles or websites and avoid "suppressive personalities" (i.e., people hostile to Scientology). Yet evidently, some are still drawn into it, and the church's "celebrity strategy," which famously netted Tom Cruise, is still keeping their Hollywood org jumping.
Reitman's history goes all the way back to L. Ron Hubbard's early days, and the evolution of "Dianetics" into a full-blown religion. The tactics of the church, which were belligerent and ruthless even in the early days, and led to them essentially bullying the IRS into granting them tax-exempt status in 1993. Reitman is especially critical of Scientology's current leader, David Miscavage, who took over the reins of the church from LRH and is, from Reitman's account, exactly the sort of insecure, micromanaging, thin-skinned egomaniac you never want to see in power.
This is all fascinating stuff, and rather heart-breaking when you see how much damage the "religion" has caused over its relatively brief history. And yet, people still embrace it, even some of its outcasts. Are they really so different from Catholics or Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons or Muslims? All religions have pretty lurid histories and it's easy to portray any of them as terrible, cult-like conspiracies.
I think after reading this book you will see plenty of differences that mark Scientology as... something else. Still, this book is written as a piece of journalism, not a critique, and the church itself was surprisingly cooperative with the author. So if you are interested in that wacky Hollywood religion with its arcane jargon, and don't just want to read a screed by an ex-Scientologist about how awful Scientology is, Inside Scientology is a very good place to start.