The difference between legitimate spiritual fulfillment and a destructive cult experience can be summed up in one word - accountability, according to a professional deprogrammer who spoke Thursday at McCallie School.
Rick Ross, who since 1982 has been actively involved in consulting on Bible-based cults, spoke at chapel Thursday morning and to selected classes later.
He said he has deprogrammed about 300 people over the past 12 years, working mostly at the behest of family members. It is a difficult, emotionally exhausting job to reawaken critical thinking that has been all but destroyed by cult control techniques, he said.
"The way to tell when one of these groups becomes dangerous is when the focus becomes not God, or Scripture, but the person of the leader," Ross said during a hermeneutics class. Hermeneutics is the study of scriptural interpretation.
The only deprogrammer ever to work with members of the ill-fated Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, Ross said cult leader David Koresh was a textbook example of a leader-focus.
"It came down to you did what David said," he said. "He had an answer for everything."
Ross said he asked former followers of Koresh whether the cult leader tolerated disagreements with his interpretation of the Bible. Those he asked said Koresh would allow argument but would never admit he was wrong or mistaken in his interpretation.
Bible-based cults like Koresh's tend to be extremely authoritarian and legalistic, Ross said. As an example of legalism, he mentioned certain practices of the United Pentecostal Church, which prohibited women from cutting their hair, wearing jewelry or immodest clothing. Men must have conservative haircuts and shun jewelry.
People from all walks of life, socioeconomic classes and levels of intelligence may be targeted by cults, he said. "When someone is feeling lonely or isolated, they become vulnerable."
Today, especially among people ages 18 to 26, there is a desire to find someone to provide answers to life's questions, Ross said. "We live in a country with so many choices, and these groups can give a list of what is right, what is wrong, and give people a purpose."
The problem with cults, though, is that with the purpose can come financial, emotional, and sometimes physical abuse, he said.
"They promote a kind of 'scorched Earth' policy to separate these people from their former lives," he said.