A charismatic young man comes out of nowhere to preach a gospel that is heretical and scandalous, according to the established doctrines of the day.
He asks his friends to give up all they have to follow him: home, family, worldly goods. For his sake, they endure privation, ridicule, even persecution.
Some ultimately die for refusing to renounce their beliefs.
Those words describe David Koresh-as well as the man whose reincarnation he sometimes claims to be, Jesus Christ.
The similarity of their experiences illustrates how hard it can be to separate the spiritual wheat from the chaff-a bona fide religious movement from what is popularly called a cult.
"It's not an easy issue," says Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford University psychologist. "There are no clear-cut edges."
It's often said that you can tell a cult by whether it exercises mind control over its adherents. But Dr. Zimbardo, who teaches a course on mind control, says even that is no litmus test.
"All religions want to control your mind," he says. "They all say:
"You have to believe our way."
To some scholars, such philosophical niceties merely ignore the practical reality that some-they would say many-people do suffer at the hands of what they call cults.
"Cults manipulate people in a special way," says Dr. Margaret Singer, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. "They court people to get them in, but once they're in, they're told that they are sinful and only the leader is pure."
Often, that theology is promoted expressly to create "an opportunity for the leader to exploit and abuse the members," says Dr. Richard Ofshe, a Berkeley sociologist and co-author of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning expose of the California therapy cult Synanon.
However, Dr. Zimbardo says that to fully understand what he calls "totalistic groups," you must consider what they promise to followers as well as what they take away.
Those benefits, not always readily available in the outside world, include status, a place and a function, security, friendship, acceptance and a leader who becomes a substitute parent.
It's a trade, Dr. Zimbardo says: "Freedom for security-and for lots of people that's a very attractive deal."
"A cult that didn't become corrupted would be very much like the ideal family-or, if it was larger, the ideal community," says the pyschologist, who calls himself "neither pro- nor anti-cult."
The appeal of cults has proved not only universal but also timeless.
Throughout the ages, new sects have coalesced around magnetic personalities and have rejected the culture that spawned them, says Dean Kelley, a semi-retired counselor on religious freedom for the National Council of Churches.
In many respects, he says, even the Branch Davidians are no different from thousands of fledgling religious movements all over the world.
"Their activities, their views, their willingness to make large sacrifices, even including the sacrifice of their lives, is typical," says Mr. Kelley.
And although few religious sects amass military-style arsenals, most view the outside world with trepidation if not hostility-a feeling that the world frequently reciprocates. Especially in the aftermath of events such as those at Mount Carmel, the public is likely to react with fascination and horror to anything that resembles a cult.
"Almost always, the unknown other strikes us as menacing," says Dr. Martin E. Marty, a professor of church history at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Consequently, Mr. Kelley says, many harmless groups are "victimized by widespread hysteria."
Cynthia Kisser, the network's executive director, acknowledges that "there is a lot of room for philosophical debate about the role of a group like ours," which collects and disseminates information about suspected cults.
But she says the Cult Awareness Network never criticizes a group merely for its beliefs, no matter how strange. For a group to qualify as a cult in the network's eyes, she says, there must be evidence that it is harming its members, either physically, mentally, emotionally or financially.
"When influence techniques are used with deceptive means, that becomes cultic," she says.
At the street level, where Ms. Kisser's group operates, much of the debate centers on the practice of "deprogramming," trying to extract members from so-called cults either through persuasion or, in extreme cases, coercion.
Critics of the practice tell horror stories of people kidnapped at the behest of their families, imprisoned, threatened and even physically abused until they renounce their former beliefs. And they lay the blame at the network's feet.
"The stories from survivors are awful," says Susan Taylor, a volunteer for the Deprogramming Survivors Network who is also a member of the Church of Scientology. "There are ways of resolving family problems (resulting from cult membership) without violence.
"We only object to illegal acts such as kidnapping or holding someone against their will."
Ms. Taylor, who has not herself undergone a deprogramming, describes the Deprogramming Survivors Network as an informal association of "a few dozen' people. One of the group's activities is to send out news releases castigating the Cult Awareness Network, described in one recent release as "a cult of low-level street thugs, kidnappers and mental rapists."
Ms. Kisser says her organization, which fielded more than 16,000 calls last year, employs no professional deprogrammers and does not "support or condone involuntary deprogramming."
She says people affiliated with the Cult Awareness Network do participate in voluntary meetings at which cult members are given information about the groups they have joined and about the type of mind-control techniques the network believes cult members are routinely subjected to.
The group sometimes provides referrals to professional deprogrammers, but Ms. Kisser says the network does not guarantee them or their methods.
But he says that in extreme, "life-and-death' situations, coercive deprogramming is acceptable to protect a cult member from himself or herself. As examples he cites a young man who was planning to bomb an abortion clinic and a young woman who was preparing to be sterilized at the behest of her church.
"Mind control eliminates the ability to make critical decisions," he says. "A cult member loses the ability to function as an autonomous person."
However, others say cries of "mind control' and "brainwashing' go up whenever a person joins a group his family or society disapproves of.
"The behavior of the members of groups like this is more simply explained by conversion rather than mind control," says Mr. Kelley.
"Many groups are psychologically intense but physically benign," says Dr. Marty.
Jennifer Jacobs, a computer consultant from the San Francisco area, says her parents hired deprogrammers to kidnap her after they were told lies about the Buddhist group she joined while in college.
She says the deprogrammers held her for 11 days in a seedy hotel, berating and humiliating her-to no avail. She still belongs to the Buddhist group, which her parents continue to denigrate.
"They can't accept that I'm an independent, healthy young woman, and I'm not doing what they want," she says.
The Branch Davidian standoff has provoked a new round of attacks on the Cult Awareness Network by its adversaries.
One group, the Friends of Freedom, has accused the Cult Awareness Network and Mr. Ross of instigating the mayhem at Mount Carmel.
"(T)he deaths and wounding of agents and sect members is the direct responsibility of the very experts that are now reaping admiration for their involvement," says a news release from the group, which is headed by Dr. George Robertson, described in the release as a "nationally known expert on religious freedom."
Despite repeated phone calls, Dr. Robertson could not be reached for comment. Published reports have linked him to a fundamentalist Christian sect that was ordered to return millions of dollars to a wealthy woman after a court determined that it had exerted undue influence over her.
Mr. Ross says he did give federal investigators information about Mr. Koresh's group. He says he gleaned that information, including knowledge about the sect's arsenal, from a Branch Davidian he deprogrammed last year.
But he says it's "preposterous' to think that his information alone caused the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to send scores of heavily armed agents against Mount Carmel.
Ms. Kisser is equally scornful. "They are claiming we have enough influence over the ATF to get them to launch a multimillion-dollar tactical operation," she says.
Despite widespread criticism of the way the raid was carried out, few are saying openly that the Branch Davidians should not be brought to account if they have broken the law.
The problem, many scholars say, is that in a free society, it is almost impossible to intervene to prevent such groups from committing crimes.
Some would disagree. Dr. Ofshe, for one, says dangerous groups usually send out signals long before they do serious harm.
Such groups usually go unchecked, he says, because authorities are reluctant to prosecute them for fear of being branded religious bigots.
Also, he says, "The willingness of mainstream religious groups to support claims of religious persecution protects these groups."
But other scholars say tragedies such as Mount Carmel may be a rare but inevitable consequence of our religious freedom.
"I don't know any way it's preventable," says Dr. Marty. "We know a crazy when we see one, but we don't know what we're seeing until it's too late.
"That sounds unsatisfying, but that's the price we pay."
After all, Dr. Marty says, Christ and every other major religious visionary have made people intensely uncomfortable during their lifetimes. Only the passage of 2,000 years has made Jesus seem conventional and safe.
Says Dr. Marty, "He's a lot easier to take once he's in stained glass."
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