Stephen Mason Ph.D.

Look At It This Way

Combat That Cult

When a Loved One's Belief Overwhelms Their Reason

Posted Apr 03, 2010

A couple of columns ago, I wrote about the Bible and the fact that it's full of things that would probably surprise the average reader. For example, while eating ham or lobster is an abomination, a dish of locusts is just fine. Thank you, I think I'll pass. The good book also says that a bat is a bird. Sorry to say, this will not go over well in a biology class. The same applies to the idea that ideas happen in the heart. This is in Deuteronomy, Judges, Chronicles and half a dozen other places. As it happens, the brain is never mentioned. And you don't want to know what David paid King Saul for his first wife.

So then you have to wonder why as a witness you're supposed to swear on the same book that, if you did everything it said to do (like stoning your neighbor to death for working on the Sabbath) you'd be the defendant.

As you might imagine, that particular column lead to a lively Comments page with, at last count, more than fifty readers wanting to be heard. Some took a reasonable approach while others were more doctrinaire. One said that, although Jesus loves me, I'm going to spend an eternity in a fiery pit. I wonder what I'd be in for if he didn't like me? But since this forecast came from a woman who is worth only half as much as a man (Leviticus) I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.

Another thing that appeared on the Comments page was a mention of the Ross Institute. This is a place you contact if it seems that a friend or family member is in over their head with some sort of cult. I didn't know anything about the organization but figured - reading some of those comments - this is a group whose time has come. So I contacted the big boss over there and asked a few questions:

By way of introduction, who are you and what to you do?

** I'm Rick Ross, the founder and executive director of the Ross Institute in New Jersey, which is an online Internet archive (since 1996) that provides information on what might be considered suspect groups and cults. Since 1982, I've also been helping with intervention work for families, providing expert testimony in court cases and serving as a media analyst.

How do you decide when someone has gone too far...when his or her involvement with a group or a belief has crossed the line?

** I respond to complaints and concerns of undue influence involving a group, a specific leader or a general movement. Information is added to our files when a controversy results in news coverage and/or a court case. There are hundreds of subsections that contain thousands of documents in our archives along with over 70,000 individual posts on our public message board. Groups or leaders typically "cross the line" when they hurt families and/or individuals. Self-help guru James Arthur Ray, once promoted by Oprah Winfrey but now charged with manslaughter in three deaths, is one example. Clergy Abuse would be another. See and

Do you make any distinction between those caught up in a cult versus an established religion?

** Yes, I see a cult as a personality-driven group, dominated and defined by an absolute authoritarian leader who has little, if any, meaningful accountability. See On the other hand, elected leaders usually head religions. Most of the Protestant, Jewish denominations in the US are democratic. The leaders of these groups should be accountable to the members and there should be a reasonable level of financial transparency. This is not true of most cults, which will also tend to promote a kind of We versus Them mentality. In addition, cults will often remain isolated while avoiding ecumenical dialog and community involvement. Of course there are religions, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, with doctrinal admonitions regarding blood transfusions that have resulted in many deaths. Christian Science has also resisted modern medicine though the courts are increasingly finding that the denial of such care is not a religious right.

Would you say that the individuals who wind up in need of help have any mental/physical characteristics in common?

** No, anyone can be recruited but it may be easier to do so when the individual is experiencing difficulties in their lives, feeling lonely and emotionally needy. This will make them more vulnerable.

What might a typical course of intervention entail?

** The type of intervention I do is educational rather than therapeutic. It involves sharing information about cults, explaining how they work and how they manipulate people. It can also include information regarding the specific group and/or its leader. Any personal issues, such as what makes the individual vulnerable, are not the focus of intervention and are dealt with by professionals in later, follow-up sessions. See

What sort of cure rate do you see at your institute?

** About 75% of the people with whom I have worked have, at the conclusion of the intervention, left the group that caused the concern.

Do you have any advice for friends/family who feel a love one is in trouble?

** Stay calm. Avoid confrontation and arguments. Instead, research the group that has drawn your concern. It's possible that your fears may be unwarranted so learn the facts and then develop a thoughtful, strategic response if it proves necessary.