Effects of Cult Membership and Activities


OPENING REMARKS OF DAVID RICHARDS: I am David Richards, a member of the faculty of this law school who teaches Criminal Law, Constitutional Law, and Jurisprudence. I will be the moderator of this afternoon’s panel on effects, and would like, first, to welcome you all to the law school and to the hopefully spirited exchange of views which this panel will involve.

This afternoon’s panel consists of people with widely divergent viewpoints on issues of concern to Americans committed to a reasonable accommodation of constitutional traditions of religious tolerance and other values. We come to this afternoon’s discussion in the shadow of the American commitment, in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights, to the free exercise and nonestablishment of religion in this country. Any student of the constitutional history of civil liberties and human rights knows that these concepts were brought into political thought and practice in the English civil liberties debates of the seventeenth century by radical religious sects (notably, Cromwell’s Puritans) which many conventional Englishmen, including one great political theorist, Thomas Hobbes, thought of as mad, insane, and bereft of reason and common sense. The human rights claims, fought for by these radical political sects in England and continued in the United States where many of these sects were driven, included religious liberty, a fundamental guarantee of the right to religious inwardness, to spiritual subjectivity-in short, a new vision of the person, as such, a vision from which other forms of civil rights flowed. Present debates over appropriate regulation of new religious cults inevitably must face this deep constitutional tradition; this is one of our objectives this afternoon.

In addition, we face the discussion of these matters in the light of empirical traditions unfamiliar to the founders of the republic, namely, the enormously influential modem reductionist theories of religion. I mean, of course, Marx and Freud. How are our constitutional traditions of religious tolerance to be interpreted in the light of psychotic or neurotic patterns of thought and behavior of cult members, or in light of Freud’s general view of religion as regressive, and possibly self-destructive, infantilism? How are we to take account of a Marxist’s view of the use of religion to oppress the poor and the ignorant, to bind them to realistic ways to ameliorate their class exploitation? Surely, the moral tragedy of Jonestown, for many of us, is that the aggression of these poor and racially exploited people was directed, at the last, not against society, but against themselves. Does our tolerance of such religions aggravate our moral implication in continuing injustices?

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