Marietta College (U-WIRE) MARIETTA, Ohio -- Although Jan 1, 2000, has passed uneventfully, it's too early to breathe a sigh of relief regarding potentially dangerous millennial cult activity, according to cult expert Rick Ross.
Ross, the only deprogrammer ever to work with members of the Branch Davidian cult, appeared on campus at Marietta College Wednesday night as part of the Esbenshade series.
"Our Western calendar is not actually accurate," Ross said - 2001 actually marks the next millennium, and "the clock keeps ticking. "Who will be the next Waco? We know they're out there, and all we can do is wait."
While the Bible says no one knows when the apocalypse will take place, members of religious groups have been guessing for a long time. "Since the beginning of the first millennium there has been constant speculation as to when the end would occur," Ross said. The latter part of the 20th century has been "a continuous, episodic cult nightmare," with one incident after another, according to Ross. The Manson Family, the abduction of Patty Hearst, the Jonestown Massacre, the Waco standoff and the Heaven's Gate suicide are only some of the noted examples of modern cult activity.
Ross says many people are unsure what features define a cult. "A destructive cult is a group that hurts people," he says. Several features distinguish harmful cults from other groups. For example, cults have authoritarian leaders with no real accountability. "The pope is elected," Ross notes. "David Koresh was self-appointed." In addition, the group's focus is squarely on the leader, who defines the group.
Cults are also marked by a fear of outsiders and a belief that "only the group has the answers," according to Ross.
When the target of harassment by a destructive cult seeks legal action, he says, the leader and members see it as an act of religious persecution. "But that would be like Billy Graham suing someone for spreading the Good News." Finally, a coercive persuasion process is often involved in recruiting and keeping members.
"Why do people stay in these groups?" Ross asks. "They stay in out of fear, a lot of them." He adds that many cult members are alienated from outside support such as family members, and lose that avenue of escape. A process commonly known as brainwashing also helps maintain a cult's membership.
Brainwashing techniques include tight control of environment, loaded language that stops people from thinking, an emphasis on doctrine over individual and the dismissing of people not in the group as "non-people." "Brainwashing is based also on deception," Ross adds. "No one says, 'Would you break me down? I'd really like that.'"
Those who join cults are not necessarily stupid or crazy, as many people would like to believe, according to Ross. "We'd like to think it's just in California," he said. "The majority come from very normal families."
Those most susceptible to cult activity, he says, are those who are in transition or feel lonely and depressed. But Ross emphasizes that we are all open to influence - or else there would be no television commercials - and cult leaders may be powerfully persuasive.
"It's like being imprisoned by [an unscrupulous] used car salesman."--[Ross likened cults to a continuous con or sales sham without end].
But while most new cult initiates are average people, "destructive cult leaders are not exactly poster boys for mental health." Ross notes that Koresh was known to be a pedophile.
In the United States, there are thousands of cults, with total [active current] membership numbers [often estimated at] about two million.
Destructive cults have been seen as a uniquely American problem, Ross notes. People from Europe and Japan "would always say, 'You crazy Americans!'" but realized their nations also had destructive cults.
Ross listed a number of American fringe groups, their leaders and their practices. A favorite of his Marietta college and community audience was one in Ohio headed by a man coincidentally named Larry Wilson [See Wake Up America Seminars, Bellbrook, Ohio].