Religion can be a drug as dangerous and addictive as any banned substance, warns the Rev. Leo Booth, an Episcopalian priest and addiction counselor.

That’s the basis of the message Booth brings to Waco today for a workshop at Baylor University’s Kayser Auditorium in the Hankamer School of Business.

Workshop topics will include religious addiction and abuse, sexual abuse and eating disorders, with discussion starting at 1:30 p.m.

The question of religious abuse has been a topic of interest in Waco for much of the year since the 51-day standoff between members of the Branch Davidian cult and federal authorities.

The siege ended April 19 when the cult’s compound near Elk burned to the ground, and cult leader Vernon Howell and more than 80 of his followers died.

That’s why Baylor’s Student Outreach Program invited Booth to discuss the subject, said Don Arterburn, the program’s coordinator. Booth is a recovering alcoholic who has become well-known for his counseling efforts over the past 10 years.

“Religious addiction in our community is something a lot of people would be interested in,” Arterburn said. “How someone could come to the point where they couldn’t take responsibility for themselves is a question on people’s minds.”

The tragedy at Mount Carmel, the former Branch Davidian compound run by Howell, also known as David Koresh, is an issue Booth doesn’t shy away from in his counseling.

According to a press release issued by his office, “the authorities handling the Waco crisis did not understand the nature of religious addiction.”

“Consequently, nearly everything they did fed into Koresh’s addictive behavior — it was like handing a drug addict a bag of dope,” the release said.

Victims of religious addiction don’t always suffer at the hands of a cult leader or false prophet, though. A more common trap is the guilt they may feel every day on their own when they believe they have fallen short of the demands of the faith, Booth and other counselors believe.

The Rev. Dan Bagby, a counselor and pastor of Waco’s Seventh and James Baptist Church, said religious addiction is a common problem among people at odds with their beliefs.

“Some people can become so addicted to the feeling of guilt that they can’t start over because they are paralyzed by it and refuse any attempts to move beyond it,” Bagby said.

“It would really involve someone whose life is empty in terms of their needs for authority and a need for absolute clarity, if their faith does not allow for much mystery, instead requiring certainty.”

Booth cites Biblical scripture itself as a source of trouble for some Christians, pointing out that the concept of original sin sabotages self-esteem when worshipers interpret it as teaching them they “are born worthless and inherently base.”

Healthy spirituality is dependent on the individual refusing to embrace a notion of “powerlessness and self-victimization” and instead learning to see religion as a “companion, a co-creator,” Booth believes.

In today’s workshop, Booth will also discuss the link between religious addiction and other compulsive behaviors.

To ask questions, call the student outreach office at 755-3482.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.