The discovery of dozens of dead bodies in ceremonial cloaks arrayed in a circle in a Swiss chalet reignites the controversy over how to understand secretive sects: Are they evil, mind-controlling "cults" or simply unorthodox "new religious movements"?

Despite the obscurity surrounding the secretive "Order of the Solar Temple," religious scholars and anti-cult activists alike are being called on to provide instant answers to that question. But the analysts themselves disagree vehemently: the scholars tend to view each new religious group as a fascinating movement worthy of study, while the family and friends of cult members -- and sometimes former cult members themselves -- focus on the damage such groups can inflict.

Religion scholars say there are thousands of "new religious movements," few of them dangerous or violent. They point out that history has seen many such sects, and that the early Christians seemed bizarre when they appeared on the scene.

"It's not true" that "as soon as people start espousing an unconventional ideology, they're heading toward the purple Kool-Aid ... ," said Susan Palmer, professor of religion at Dawson College in Montreal. "I've hung out with plenty of new religious movements. Any historian of religion will tell you the same thing: the boundaries between an orthodox group and a 'heretical' group are pretty arbitrary and always changing." But anti-cult organizations are quick to warn of the dangers of marginal cults led by persons who abuse and manipulate their members. They raise the specter of Jonestown, where more than 900 people drank poisoned Kool-Aid at the behest of the Rev. Jim Jones, and Waco, where 84 Branch Davidians perished in a fire with their leader, David Koresh. The mysterious deaths Wednesday in Switzerland and Canada are only the most recent of a disturbing trend, they say.

"It's really the logical conclusion of a situation where you have a person with absolute authority over people who submit totally," said Marcia Rudin, executive director of the International Cult Education Program of the American Family Foundation. "The leaders test their power over and over again and they keep raising the stakes; the ultimate being, would you die for me?"

The deaths of members of the Order of the Solar Temple appear on the surface to be another strong reason to heed warnings of the existence of nefarious cults.

Dozens of people, including children, lost their lives. Swiss authorities said yesterday they had not abandoned their theory of collective suicide, but have not ruled out the possibility that this was instead a mass "execution."

It may be days before definitive results of forensics tests are available, and the deepest secrets may never be discovered in the charred remains. And it is not clear whether the group's apparent leader, Luc Jouret, who promoted himself as a homeopathic healer and New Age spiritualist, was among the dead.

Most religious scholars maintain that people join such sects of their own free will because the teachings make sense to them. They see the participants as "motivated spiritual seekers," often educated and professional people, simply drawn to the group's beliefs or leaders. David Koresh counted among his Branch Davidian followers a Harvard-trained lawyer. Among those found dead in Switzerland were a mayor of a small town in Quebec, a journalist and a provincial bureaucrat. Many of the dead wore "beatific smiles," one Swiss fireman said, as if they went peacefully to their deaths.

"The vast majority of people in groups like this have made a choice, however strange that choice may seem to others," said Michael Barkun, a political scientist at Syracuse University who has studied millenial groups.

After the debacle in Waco, Tex., many religion scholars criticized the federal government for failing to understand that Koresh's actions were based on an inherently religious logic. Scholars took particular exception to the law enforcement approach of treating those inside Koresh's compound as "hostages."

In a report to the Justice and Treasury departments, Emory University scholar Nancy Ammerman wrote that "the notion of cult brainwashing has been thoroughly discredited in the academic community."

Yet the files of the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), based in Chicago, are full of cases of former cult members who have testified to having been isolated from family and friends, deprived of contact with the outside world and even followed to the bathroom by other group members. Those are precisely the tools used in brainwashing, CAN contends, and it can happen to anyone.

"If anyone's listening who says, 'I could never be seduced by a cult,' " said Steve Hassan, a former member of the Unification Church speaking Wednesday night on ABC-TV's "Nightline," "you are all vulnerable."

The trouble with this kind of approach, said J. Philip Arnold of the Houston-based Reunion Institute, who attempted to help negotiate with Koresh during the siege at Waco, is that "it makes it sound that anyone who has an intense commitment to a religious faith, and would separate themselves from mainstream American life, and who would look to a teacher, is ipso facto a cultist.

"But if that's true, what would the followers of Gandhi be, or the followers of Moses, or of the pope, or of the Hasidic Rabbi {Menachem Mendel} Schneerson? Are we going to reduce all of these millions of peoples' religious experiences to cults?" Arnold asked.

The religious scholar J. Gordon Melton, speaking at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion last year, accused CAN of inciting federal authorities to raid the Waco compound, referred to the network as a cult of its own, and called on the audience to "Kick the CAN." The network has insisted it played no such role in Waco.

Such talk incenses Rudin of the International Cult Education Program. She said some scholars were "cult apologists," adding: "There definitely are groups that are evil, and there are people who manipulate other people for their own power, for their own game, and this is something {those scholars} never deal with."

Eighty percent of the cults Rudin says she deals with are not religious at all, but are therapy groups, empowerment groups or business management groups that give seminars. "When scholars talk about 'new religious movements,' they are excluding the majority of cults," she said.

A rock band, a theater group or a university can swallow a person's attention and identity just as thoroughly as a religious group can, the scholars say. "Any time you participate in anything that demands intense commitment, and real personal sacrifice, you better investigate to make sure you're not making a mistake," Arnold said. "This includes joining the Army, or the police or a corporation. Your identity can be subsumed by what you are joining."