Central Authority In a Single, Charismatic Leader
The original founder, L. Ron Hubbard, is dead, and the current head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, is too removed from many members to be compared with the charismatic leaders of dangerous cults such as Jim Jones or David Koresh, who ruled their members in large part through a cult of personality. Miscavige is neither a prophet nor a god.
Control Over Life and DeathScientologists are generally not willing to kill for their religion, nor is the Church known for dictating who lives and who dies.
Commission of FeloniesNumerous legal accusations have been leveled at the Church of the years, and some have led to convictions, most notably in connection with Operation Snow White, which included theft of government documents. The most common accusations are fraud, extortion, and harassment, although other accusations such as kidnapping and negligent homicide have also been leveled.
Strict Control Over Lives of MembersScientology recommends a variety of practices considered strange to outsiders, and there are many rumors of members being forced to subject themselves to things such as silent birth techniques, although evidence is often lacking. The Church insists all of their practices are entirely voluntary. The reality may be too varied to be accurately generalized.
Separation From Contacts Outside The GroupScientologists may freely interact with non-Scientologists, with the exception of "suppressive persons" or SPs, which are people who have been deemed by the Church to impede the progress of Scientologists. Scientologists are highly encouraged to "disconnect" from SPs, and may be banned from Church activities if they continue contact. SPs may include friends and family. About 2.5% of the population is considered to be SPs.
Polarized WorldviewThe Church is highly aware of groups that are working against them, and they also tend to label groups with which they highly disagree (including the entire psychiatry profession) as working actively against the Church, Scientology, and even humanity in general. As such, they certainly do not consider all non-Scientologists to be hostile to them, but they consider themselves part of an epic battle against specific dark forces.
Living In Communal IsolationScientologists live in a variety of living arrangements. Many live normal lives in homes or apartments with their families. However, there are groups within Scientology (notably Sea-Org) that tend to have at least semi-communal arrangements in which families may be separated. There are many accusations from former members that such arrangements could be very isolating.
Large Required DonationsThe Church offers a wide variety of services that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Members are encouraged to make use of such services, since they are a primary way of achieving the goals of Scientology. There is a wide degree of debate as to how much actual pressure is applied to members to purchase these services, although there are multiple documented cases of Scientologists citing financial pressures as reasons for wanting to leave or for thoughts of suicide
Conformity: Subjection of Individual Desires and ThoughtsThe main goal of Scientology is to better your own individual soul, so the needs of individuals is very much a focus on Scientology practices. However, critics are quickly labeled as suppressive persons, which enforces conformity.
Punishment For Defection or CriticismAs previously discussed, defection and criticism can lead to one being labeled a suppressive person from whom other members should disconnect. SPs can become targets of harassments through the Church's "fair game" doctrine.
Group Is SmallIndependent estimates put current membership of the church at roughly 55,000 people, which is far larger than the traditional cult, which is limited to dozens or hundreds of members.
ConclusionScientology continues to be a difficult group to label. It lacks several of the most common hallmarks of a dangerous cult, such as a lack of an adored, living founder; small, easily controlled number of members; and a history of murders or suicides at the order of the leadership. On the other hand, there is significant concern about the amount of control wielded by the Church, and its history of legal trouble can be highly problematic